"O Holy Still Stinks"
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
“O Holy Still Stinks” is the title she chose.
Covid brought creative adaptations to our studio. We’ve had piano parties for years but decided to try something new in 2020. Students recorded their party pieces at home and we compiled the audio recordings so they could listen to one another’s music from home. The galleries were such a hit that we stuck with them, and now we have both galleries and parties.
In the course of things, we discovered that recording pieces really assisted students in listening closely to their own playing and as a result, playing improved significantly overall. I think most everyone agrees recording is also more difficult than playing “live.” It’s fair to say more than a few students in the past just wanted to get through their performance pieces with minimal mistakes, but didn’t necessarily focus on the quality of their playing.
If you are a self-learner, I suggest you try recording yourself. Listen as a teacher would. Does your music flow in time, without pauses, interruptions or a sense of starting/stopping? Is the tempo at a snail’s pace when it really should be more upbeat? Are you going backwards in time – backing up and correcting mistakes? Is your music singing expressively (variations in louder/softer)? Is your pedaling clear? Is the tempo consistent or do you have faster vs slower sections? Can you play each section equally well or do certain sections still need more practice? Are you being so careful to avoid mistakes that your playing sounds stilted or guarded? That’s really not music, you know.
At our studio, we don’t “polish” all our pieces to performance standards, but we do polish our party pieces. A couple of weeks before submissions are due for the gallery, I ask students to start the recording process whether they feel they’re ready or not. Readiness is an elusive notion– perhaps they’ll never feel they’re truly ready. It’s best just to get the ball rolling, in my opinion. This is less stressful than feeling a deadline approaching and not having started. Besides, the process of recording is also a skill that can be developed and also requires practice. I suggest students go about their practice routine first, something I write into their weekly practice plans. The student will simply go through the practice task list, and for the most part avoid playing the piece through at performance tempo. After the practice session is complete, I advise the pianist to have a cup of tea or perhaps a short walk or brief period of quiet rest. Then – back to the piano to record! No more practicing and no worries if things don’t go smoothly, but record the piece through in its entirety at the most comfortable performance tempo they can manage. No starting over, no correcting mistakes, and also a limit on the number of recordings at the sitting: two times max. If things haven’t gone well the first two go-rounds, today is probably not the magical day. Wait until tomorrow and try, try (but only twice) again. After two weeks of this approach, we usually have at least one recording that is superb, or at least respectable.
In order to keep the recordings straight, I suggest students grade their own playing on a scale of 1-10 and add this number to the title of the recording. For instance, O Holy Night - 5, or O Holy Night - 8.
Gretchen chose her own way of grading. “O Holy Night - Really Stinks” and “O Holy Night Still Stinks” are the two titles I remember. She had multiple recordings so I’m not sure if all the titles included the word “stinks” but the one she said was best was “O Holy Night Still Stinks.”
Gretchen and Sue fit in the “I Am So Sick and Tired of Recording That I Can’t Stand to Play This Anymore” club. Sue was so exasperated with her recordings for the Fall Gallery that she literally called in sick to her lesson the day after she completed it. She wasn’t a happy camper. I felt bad, but I was pretty sure she would recover. And guess what? She’s recording again for the Holiday Gallery. Do you know how happy this makes me?
Gretchen sent me her “O Holy Still Stinks” recording while we were at the lesson. I thought it was lovely, and I had hoped to use it for the production. However, before the lesson was over, Gretchen – who had already announced she would never record it again when she came through the door – changed her mind. She said she wanted to try again to see if she could do better. There’s something about having a few recordings under your belt that gives you a little motivation to perhaps try/try again.
Do you want to know what I think this motivation is? I think it’s the spirit of the music itself. It has something to sing, and we want to share it as best we can. It’s what motivates us to practice, to share, to simply be with the beauty of music. It’s truly magical.