By Small and Simple Things

I have a confession to make. One of my Guilty Secrets that I just need to confess publicly—I don’t do New Year resolutions. I don’t like them. I don’t make them. I stay as far away from them as possible.

There. I said it. I feel much better!

Maybe New Year resolutions inspire you to move forward and make something better of your life. But for me, they just inspire me to become an uncontrollable perfectionist that drives everyone crazy and sets myself up for failure. I don’t need a setup for failure. I can find it just fine without that sort of help.

But last week, as I contemplated the coming year, I received a message from my friend, Sheri Peterson, dean of the Utah Valley Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, that caught me off guard. Kind of like a sucker punch, I suppose. It felt so right to me that I almost made a New Year resolution. Fortunately, I stopped myself in time. (Whew! That was a close one.)

So be warned. Prepare yourself. Below is an excerpt from Sheri’s message. This is NOT intended to push you into making an sort of New Year resolution. Maybe you could think of it more like, uh…a New Year reminder:

I have been busy preparing for my senior recital in the spring. As part of this preparation, I’ve been trying to bring some pieces up to tempo. I’ve been doing a lot of metronome work and drilling with various rhythms. The last movement that I will play on my program is fast and furious. It is very exciting, and I can hardly wait to be able to play it up to tempo.

Overall, my tempo has increased on this piece, but I have been stuck because of one measure on the very first page. That one measure appears one more time later in the piece. I have drilled and drilled this one measure. I learned the notes, and I learned the lines. I could play them all. Yet, when I would stick this measure back into the whole piece and try to increase tempo, it would get all jumbled up and stick out like a sore thumb. Even though I’d been working hard, my ability to play this measure in context and up to tempo was not improving, until . . .

A couple days ago, as I was practicing this measure again, the light turned on, and I realized the missing piece of the puzzle. It was something so simple that I’m in awe that it made such a difference. I discovered that I wasn’t keeping my heels together when I played the pedal line in this measure. The very minute I practiced with my heels together my tempo, in context, vastly improved. This little technique freed me.

As I reflect on the past year, it IS the little things that have made the biggest difference, both in my music and in my life. As we begin a new year, I hope that we can all pay more attention to the little things.

. . .

By small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” Alma 37:6

. . .

Practice Makes Perfect Comfortable

While playing in sacrament meeting last Sunday I struggled a bit with the opening hymn. I’m not exactly sure what all happened, but I think the start of it was a missed foot substitution. Then because of that I quickly opted for an impromptu pedal point just to keep the bass support from dropping out completely. That change temporarily drew away an extra chunk of my mind power and the alto and tenor parts didn’t come out exactly the way they were written. Fortunately, my hymn playing instincts kicked in and I was able to keep the rhythm and tempo going in spite of the less than perfect note execution. If anyone in the congregation noticed at all, it probably sounded more like a second-rate improvisational attempt than a major train wreck. Well at least that’s what I tried to tell myself.

After the hymn concluded, I worked hard to generate a little positive self-talk. I don’t like making mistakes, but I am trying to be a little kinder to myself when I fall short of that elusive perfect performance. In my mind I heard a former music teacher telling me “We don’t practice over and over so we will be able to play perfectly every time. We practice so we’ll get to know the piece well enough that when the mistakes come we will be able to find our way through them.” And I had gotten through it all with minimal disruption.

It took a few more minutes of deliberately kind self-talk to stay out of my well traveled perfection path. But eventually my mind eased a bit as I reasoned that I really loved to play the organ. And if love covers a multitude of sins, maybe it could cover a few missed notes too. And besides that, I told myself,  perfection is really overrated…Right?

As a feeling of calm began to settle in my heart, the Spirit stepped in to teach me a desperately needed personal lesson. “It’s not all that different in life,” the gentle voice whispered to my mind. “We don’t go to church and read the scriptures and say our prayers so we won’t make any mistakes. We do all that stuff so that we know Christ well enough that when we make mistakes we can turn to him and find our way through the mistakes with minimal disruption.”

Wow, what a concept….I don’t have to be perfect!

I love being taught by God. He gives the best music lessons.

What’s Bach Trying to Tell Me?

Johann Sebastian Bach

Soli Deo gloria and the organ belong together. The most prolific composer of organ music, Johann Sebastian Bach, appended its initials—SDG—to the manuscripts of his musical works. The American Guild of Organists has followed his lead and has adopted Soli Deo gloria as their motto.

Soli Deo gloria is a Latin term for Glory to God alone. It is the teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone; that one should not exalt humans for their good works, but rather praise and give glory to God who is the author and sanctifier of all people and their good works.

As I have studied Bach’s works I have often wondered why he did this, and what Soli Deo gloria has to do with the things he wrote. To bring it to a more personal level I asked myself, “How does Soli Deo gloria apply to me and my music?” Here are some of the thoughts that have come to me:

What if someone plays music better than I do? Feeling intimidated can be a natural response. But I think that Soli Deo gloria suggests that feeling bad about myself is not necessary. Putting myself down is, in effect, exalting others. Every individual is one of God’s creations. Most people consider roses to be beautiful, but daisies brighten our world too. I can be grateful to God that I am privileged to associate with creative, capable and talented souls who share with me. I can be appreciative for my own body and spirit that allow me to enjoy their contribution to the world.

What if others tell me I performed well? Accepting compliments graciously may not always come easily. But I do not believe that God wants me to belittle or degrade anyone, including myself. With a simple “Thank you” I can show my appreciation for the kindness of another, for the mind and body God has given me, and for his strength and mercy which allow me to learn and grow and progress.

What if I don’t perform well? According to Navajo tradition, when a rug is created the weaver is to place an imperfection somewhere within the design. This is a way of showing respect to the gods; for, to create something that one believes to be perfect shows a true lack of regard for Deity. I also love the LDS doctrine that teaches that our weaknesses are part of God’s plan for us. Though it can be uncomfortable for my weaknesses to be made obvious to others, I can use these difficult experiences to draw closer to God, to rely more on him and to increase in charity and compassion towards others in their own moments of weakness.

As I have attempted to put these concepts into practice I have found them to be a wonderful guide in my quest for excellence both musically and spiritually. It is more than just a catchy phrase that some guy put on his music. Soli Deo gloria reminds me both who I am, and whose I am.