Cumbrian Society of Organists

Review : Study Day with Roger Fisher : 19 January 2008

This event was a result of discussions in committee about increasing the amount of skill training in our programme along the lines of our courses conducted by Colin Marston.

It was decided to ask Roger Fisher, who has developed structured learning processes designed to produce good performances in the shortest possible time, to conduct the event. Roger's principles are common to all skill learning techniques, the most important being programming the brain with a series of easily understood and remembered tasks avoiding the tensions that result in too much data being generated at the same time.

The day was in two parts. In the morning volunteers were taken through the sequences of practice tasks using unseen pieces provided at four levels of demand. Roger used the concept of the score as a map in the sense that its study takes us to the required destination. The first task therefore was to study the score and identify its various features including sections that are repeated, key changes (as indicated by accidentals), climax points, solo sections and related phrases forming a musical conversation. This task need not take place at the organ but Roger's view is that the more information we gather about a piece at the outset the easier are the tasks at the console. The next stage is not to start playing the whole score but only certain components in turn, commencing by playing the pedal part on a manual with one finger. This results in a strong knowledge about the bass without at the same time attempting to digest information about fingering and pedalling. The use of one finger prevents random rogue information about fingering being transmitted to the brain only to cause problems later in the learning process. The same procedure should be used for the manual parts. An advance on these tasks could be playing two parts - say top and alto - again with one finger in each hand but to break up the task of doing two things at once by playing one note following by the other. As far as chords are concerned, their recognition as major or minor tonic, dominant, dominant seventh and ninths or diminished sevenths helps because storing such information assists in the learning process. Other chords should at first be played arpeggio-wise from the bass upwards recognising result intervals as second, thirds, etc. Recognition of accidentals as either indicating modulation or as decorative passing notes also helps the initial learning process. Eventually of course every note must be allocated a 'permanent' foot or finger without all notes necessarily being marked in the score.

Absolute accuracy is vital, recognising that all mistakes are stored in the brain where maliciously inclined neurons will bide their time waiting for an opportunity, (e.g. the voluntary at an important service, David Sanger's playing day, attempting to impress colleagues during organ visits, etc.), for unexpected mistakes to reduce performances to chaos.

Other general recommendations included the benefits of singing (not moaning or grunting!) the music while practising (not performing!) to enable the player to engage in the emotional appeal of the music and its character through phrasing as a 'bed-time' story. This is a vital experience to transmit the music to the listener. As a result the technical problems are more easily overcome. Also vital is the determination to take time to achieve the end result by avoiding tension which inhibits progress. As a result the audience will be able to share these experiences with the performer. By taking time we achieve perfection quicker.

So ended the first part, players learning as much as possible in about 20 minutes under Roger's guidance to enable them to perform an unseen piece at their own level after some half hour notice. At the end of their session players clearly performed better than their first attempts.

The second part consisted of players performing prepared pieces at one of four levels of attainment based on AB grades 1-8. This part was more a standard master class with the players not previously having had the benefit of Roger's advice given in the first part. Nevertheless they coped well in a 'spot-light' scenario. I am very conscious on these occasions how good performances have to be to enable listeners to experience relaxed enjoyment.

The success of the event was due to Roger's unstinting giving of his time, (there was a two hour over-run), and to the colossal work done by Adrian Self in the negotiations with Roger, the selection and production of the two books of unseen and prepared pieces and the publicity and paperwork involved. Also involved were the members of the CSO Working Party, Jeremy Suter, Anne Emmett and Colin Rae. We are also especially grateful to Hugh Davies and the PCC for the free use of Kendal Parish Church. Because of the excellent response there was a modest profit.