While I’m a fanatic about Baroque music, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not, and have never really been, an excellent performer. ‘Amateur’ is the word which properly fits the description of my passion and talents, although some would say I’m growing in terms of performance skills.
My great love for the pipe organ comes from, oddly enough, a film having nothing to do with Bach, the Baroque era, or anything of the sort. I was captured and and transformed into an insane music-lover through Hans Zimmer’s music in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Everything about the scene–the visual aspect of the storm, the eerie gloom of the cabin of the Flying Dutchman where Davy Jones played his organ with his tentacles, and of course the music itself–was enough turn a shy, average teenager like me into a madman overnight.
Well, not really overnight. It was maybe a year or so between seeing the film, having it stuck in my head, and plucking out the notes on a Casio keyboard my father found at the dump (still in great condition! Thank you, whoever decided you didn’t want it; your donation has been appreciated a thousandfold) to actually getting organ lessons. But starting those organ lessons was such a new thing; after all, what did I know about music?
Not much. I thought that playing by ear was all you needed; I’d had some lessons on saxophone and guitar in middle school, but I couldn’t read music! Music is as much internal as external–and this is a lesson I’m still trying to learn. I’m not sure if this is an important point, but I can still play by ear, but it’s more important to know how to read music fluently.
My first teacher, Sean Fleming, was a wonderfully patient and kind human being. I however may have not been the best student; I wanted to skip ‘the boring material’ (like necessary building-blocks; scales, for example) and I only wanted to play the music I loved: Bach’s great organ works. And who knows? Maybe if I’d applied some self-discipline and had the knowledge which I do now about learning music, I’d have learned all the music I desired by now.
I did not know how to read music, and I also didn’t know how to perform music. My advice is this: you cannot rely on muscle-memory for performances–you must know how to read music, and to think on the spot! This particular skill is useful though may be frightening to apply. Knowing how to properly play and read music is an invaluable and priceless skill!
So, onto the performances–what few there are which have been recorded. My first and earliest obsession with the music of Bach was great fugue in E minor, BWV 548, the ‘Wedge.’ It was, to me, the pinnacle–the alpha and omega–of music. not just Bach’s music, and not just Baroque music (what little I knew of it), but all music. Sighing internally at these memories of obsession, I realize now what a delusional fellow I was.
So, I tried to learn the fugue. It was all that consumed my mental energy as a junior in high school. Who needs friends and hobbies when your mind is already concerned with learning a fugue? I did learn it, eventually; on my keyboard at home, I would record the pedal-part (and learning to count the measures before the part entered again was a challenge) while I performed the manual-part myself.
Any yet, could I play this piece on a real pipe organ? In front of an audience? No, because my nerves got in the way and because I wasn’t as good of a performer as I thought myself to be. The Pipe Organ Encounter in 2013 was a great learning experience for me in more ways than one. Being around students who were my age or younger and better performers than myself could have lead to jealousy but instead I admired them greatly. The final concert of the week was held at St. Luke’s Cathedrral in Portland, Maine, where I played an early prelude and fugue to the best of my abilities…and the Wedge fugue was a sorry attempt–no mincing of words here.
And what was to blame for such a performance? My shoes? It was my first time learning to perform in organ shoes. Was it the audience? Or was it the fact that my nerves got in the way and I had no proper experience for public performance as well as not knowing the music as well as I thought I should? When it comes to poor performances, it is humbling to admit that, unless in extreme circumstances, it just might be your fault. Not in a malicious way, of course—as much as I’ve learned to be hard on myself as a musician, and to challenge myself, it is more important to learn how to be kind and forgiving to yourself as a musician. We’re not perfect; strive for perfection, by all means, and do your best to achieve it…but accept when things are not perfect.
During college, I had to give up playing the organ (with the exception of Sunday services, where I’d travel two hours to my home county on multiple weekends for many years) and instead focused on learning the harpsichord and focusing on composition. I am glad that I chose to study harpsichord over organ, however, despite my love for both instruments.
More videos, of course, have been managed in the past years. A gigue from an early keyboard suite, an attempt at one of Bach’s most lovely chorale preludes (later re-recorded recently), a recording of a Pachelbel prelude over a lovely, well-known melody, and of course just a simple demonstration with miscellaneous music. I do love the pipe organ very much, but its repertoire is greater and more difficult than that of the harpsichord; one of my earliest, fanatical dreams was to record all of Bach’s organ music.
Nevertheless, I’ve stuck with recording and learning music on the organ to the best o my abilities. A small prelude; Bach’s chorale ‘Liebster Jesu, Wir Sind Hier’–a favorite of mine, and quite recommended to organists who are just starting out! And yes, I’ve recorded this one again as well.
With more difficulty, instead of just learning organ music, why not try writing it? Granted, writing any music for your primary instrument is a necessary skill, and highly-recommended activity. It doesn’t have to be great or fantastic stuff–don’t pressure yourself! This performance is just an excerpt of my f minor keyboard suite; and this small piece is just a solo for keyboard.
In this more recent video I share some (hopefully?) wise words regarding learning and performing music. Granted, some terms and conditions may apply to other instruments or music in general!
And finally I’ll share this video, a performance of a well-known work by Buxtehude, an instructor of J.S. Bach. I had a good deal of fun learning this passacaglia, and it was a challenge–but then end crowns the work!