The King of Instruments

Next week, I will play my last service as a substitute organist at Beautiful Savior/Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. For almost exactly two years, it has been a privilege to help lead worship.

Tonight I played my first service as resident organist at Advent Lutheran Church, where I will play regularly until at least April of next year. Due to a scheduling change, I stepped in on short notice for the Thanksgiving evening service.

For some readers, this may come as a bit of a surprise. I talk a lot about musicals and choral music here, and playing piano. But organ is not a regular topic. So here’s some backstory.


First Interest

My most adventurous year of college (academically) was 2012, spring of my sophomore year and fall of junior. That was the year I joined a few new choirs, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity, and explored the idea of organ lessons.

My first semester of organ was actually spring of 2013, with Dr. Joyce Jones. Dr. Jones was the retiring professor of organ at Baylor, after about 40 years there. I was incredibly lucky to work with her for a semester, and I learned a ton. I spent more time practicing the organ than any other instrument for that semester, and I was able to play a Bach prelude and fugue (my first!), and a great chorale prelude by Pachelbel.

That fall, after Dr. Jones retired, I returned to organ lessons with Dr. Isabelle Demers. We focused more on manual technique, and I played some more colorful pieces under her instruction, including my own transcription of the overture from The Phantom of the Opera in full costume for the Baylor Organ Studio Halloween Concert.

I took a break from the organ after that. My course requirements were heavier, and I didn’t feel like I had the time to focus on it. Besides, it wasn’t something I would have much opportunity to do.


Revival

Jump forward to spring of 2015 as I was finishing out the year at Pasadena High School, and looking for my next step. Through a family friend, I found out that Judy Kutach, at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Montgomery, TX needed a substitute for a service over the summer. We met up, and I became a regular substitute for her (a few times per year).

The following spring, she recommended me to Lee Roeder, who played at Beautiful Savior/Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, who asked me to come in and substitute for her. She has employed me about once per month on average since then, sometimes on consecutive weeks.

I’ve also substituted for Dave Englert, who is organist at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Spring. Dave has also become a source of knowledge for me, and I hope to take some lessons with him in the spring of 2019.


Professionalism

Things really started stepping up during the summer of this year. On the recommendation of a friend, I went into an interview to take over organ duties at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, which is a major church in my neighborhood. However, I cordially withdrew after discovering it was a full-time position. As exciting as that opportunity would be, I couldn’t make that change in direction.

In the fall, Lee approached me about taking over for her, as she is preparing to retire. Since this is a smaller church, I was excited for the opportunity. The church was willing to keep considering me, even though I may move for grad school. But they moved slowly with the interview/review process.

Out of the blue, Scott McAdow at Advent Lutheran sent me an e-mail. He heard me accompany band students at their UIL Solo & Ensemble competition back in February. He approached me about taking over for their organist, mostly because he knew my piano skills. He actually didn’t know any of my organ background.

I met with Scott and played some of my typical substitute pieces, plus showing that my piano skills are as good or better than what he remembered me. (Actually, my audition for him was the same day as my first rehearsal for the production of [Title of Show] that I wrote about recently.)

He moved more quickly than Beautiful Savior/Our Redeemer and offered me the position pretty much on the spot. After conferring with Lee, I withdrew from consideration for her position and have already begun duties at ALC.

This week, at Dave Englert’s advice, I joined the American Guild of Organists, and I have watched many of their “Lessons for the New Organist” YouTube series. I’ve been reading through back editions of The American Organist, their monthly magazine. Dave has advised me to look at some of their certifications, as it will build my skills. I think it will also be useful to lend me some legitimacy, in the event that I am looking for an organ position while in grad school.

I will spend some of my thanksgiving break working on building up my weaker skills (pedals) and I will start lessons with Dave in the spring. I’m excited to take on this new challenge!

Paying My Dues

One thing that regularly gnaws at me is envy. I'm sure this is not unusual, but it's the topic of what I want to write today.

I know I'm not the only person who sees other people's lives or accomplishments or celebrations on Facebook (weddings, awards, graduations, etc.) and feels a little inadequate. "Why don't I have anything like that going on?"

It's all well and good to be reminded that social media isn't real life but it is a kind of real life. Most people don't completely make stuff up on social media. What we do on social media is selectively reveal what we want to. For example, I've had a policy for years of only posting when I had something positive to say.

But I wanted to take a moment to complain to remind myself of common sense.

The thing that all of my successful friends have in common is that they put in work. When someone builds a successful business, it's because she put in hours behind the scenes. Someone who receives a great professional honor has worked hard to achieve that. We don't see the time and hours behind the scenes, unless we're looking carefully. But I know enough about these people to know that they deserve their success.

Me? Well, I'm sitting on my couch typing this up instead. I spent more time playing with Google Drawings yesterday morning than I did practicing piano all last week.


No lasting success comes without work. I realize this in some parts of my life. I get that if my choir is going to be successful in April, we have to start working toward it in August. I get that if The Woodlands Chamber Music Project is going to grow, it will take work to reach out to the audience and to maintain correct records, etc. I know the singing on a musical I'm working on will take teaching and reteaching to be solid.

Where I can't seem to get it through my head is in the realm of personal development. I have lots of things I'd like to improve about myself, whether it's developing positive habits, learning new skills, or improving existing ones. I'd love to be a highly accomplished pianist, a master conductor, in shape, and with a consistent social life and professional reputation.

But when the time comes to work on those things, I balk. Rather than stepping forward into the challenge, I back off. Not from fear, but from lack of discipline. I want to be good, but I don't want to put in the work to get there. I'd rather skim Facebook for the dozenth time today than read a real book. I'd rather watch TV than go to the gym. I'd rather wander into my bedroom and read until I pass out at night than prepare myself for the next day. I'd rather sit on my couch and text friends than go out and try to meet new people.

If I want success, it's a matter of actually doing the thing. Regardless of whether I pick the best place to start, something is better than nothing, and that's where I am right now.

So now that I've talked myself into this, it's time to get some work done. I don't want to go to bed tonight with nothing to show for the day. And that should be true of every day.

Artistic Standards

Tonight I went to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. My original plan was to write about the experience of their exhibit Big Bambú: This Thing Called Life. After all, that was my original reason for going down there. But take a look at my Instagram for that. It was a very cool experience, but it's not what stuck with me as a topic for this post.

Instead, I found something in a nearby gallery that caught my eye. Really I could have written about just about any work, but what got me thinking is something in the Art of the Islamic Worlds gallery. It was the painting "Dancing Girl" by Muhammad Baquir.

Click on the image to go to the MFAH collection info.

Click on the image to go to the MFAH collection info.

Detail Matters

Next to the painting was a lengthy wall plaque describing the restoration process. Apparently the original painting was sealed with a substance that yellowed with age. A modern removal of the coating, and replacement with a modern coating allowed it to be viewed in its vibrant glory.

The plaque made a particular point of the detail. In particular, the pearls along the girl's waistband (which are not particularly visible in this photo) were painted with "a single flick of the wrist" and a slight shading of grey for dimension.

The precision and detail needed to pull off the hundreds of pearls is really staggering. Even up close, they are virtually identical and perfectly in line. This really incredible craftsmanship got me thinking about my work and the precision and detail that's needed.

Detail in the Performing Arts

There's an argument to be made that there's only so much precision you can have as a performing artist. When the goal is to create and recreate a work every time, the variations are part of the charm. No performance is perfect, and even "perfect" recordings are usually patched together from the best parts of a few takes.

But that has never been the realm in which I operate. For years now, my work has been subpar even for someone expecting the occasional flaw. I know for sure that one of my weaknesses are a performer is a lack of attention to detail and consistency. I play more wrong notes than a competent accompanist should because frankly I don't practice enough.

That's been a challenge as I've been working with my new piano teacher. It takes time and study to develop not just accuracy, but an artistic approach to a piece. In the summer I have plenty of time to do that, and when I'm working on just a few pieces for a long time, that's the goal.

But when I have to put together a show (200+ pages of music) in ten weeks, the simple fact is that I can't work every detail to the kind of precision that would be artistically ideal. And written accompaniments can be weak or downright unplayable, as any accompanist will attest to. 

Realizing Piano Accompaniments

So how do I deal with that? It's one thing when I'm playing Chopin, but playing a Sondheim piano reduction is another matter. What kind of detail should I be expected to realize from that? In Beethoven I can shape little miniature phrases, in Bach I can bring out individual melodies. But how much of that is important in the realm of playing a reduction for rehearsal?

I think most pianists I could interview would say "The more of that you can play, the better. An artistic accompanist is always better than a merely accurate one." So does that mean that as long as I'm a part-time accompanist, my piano skills are never going to be as good? How can I possibly catch up as long as I'm earning a living doing other things?

Where to start?

Those last questions are big ones. And honestly, I suspect the answer to the first is "Yes" and to the second is "I can't." But if I was going to make any progress at all, I need some kind of guidance. How do you grow as a collaborative pianist when you don't have many opportunities to collaborate because you're not a particularly good collaborator in the first place, and don't have the leisure to take on other commitments?

In the meantime, I think the best things I can do for myself are to continue to improve my piano skills overall, and to raise my personal standards for accuracy and artistry as a musician. "Accurate" and "competent" can no longer cut it. I have to find better adjectives.

The Search for Meaning

I've finally reached the point in the summer where I feel like I've totally unwound from school and my summer plans, so I'm looking ahead to what I want to do going forward.

Among the many things on my mind today is the idea of continuing to learn piano repertoire. As I've been learning solo music for my collegiate auditions, I have also become more interested in the breadth of standard piano repertoire that I never explored.

When I say "standard" I mostly mean the small-to-medium length Romantic works by composers like Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt. When I was in college, I wouldn't give them the time of day, and in fact, until fairly recently I remained uninterested. But since digging into a Chopin nocturne, I have come to understand how he is creating his effects, and I'm more receptive to them as a result.

Today, I have the day mostly off, other than a recital this evening, so I have spent much of today listening and playing through piano repertoire. For example, this morning I listened through about half of the collection "The Library of Modern Piano Music" with mixed results. Most notably: I have no interest in playing anything by Ludovico Einaudi, a rather trendy new-age style composer.

In the afternoon, I listened through a few works by Tobias Picker, and I have been playing through my books of Christmas arrangements. As I go, I make notes on whether I am interested in learning, preparing, or perfecting the piece, or whether it holds no interest at this time.

Now that I have seen how my taste evolves, I'm not writing anything off totally, but I'm trying to find some direction for myself as the fall approaches.


Before I pick up anything new, though, I have a concert tonight! I'm performing with The Woodlands Chamber Music Project, a group I helped found along with my friend John Paddie. I'm playing a piece by Kevin Olson, and a movement from Francis Poulenc's sonata for Flute and Piano. I hope to be able to do more collaborative work in the future.