When I created this blog I wanted to record some mini life “milestones” such as “first time I played a recital” or “first time I wrote a book” (hey, one day it will happen!). Today was the first time I was a professional pianist for a church congregation. AND, I got over a fear of playing for a large audience! Well, at least I got a start on conquering this fear.
I am currently learning about twenty different hymns for seven days of church services for a church pianist job.The sheer volume of hymns was a lot to learn, so I put together a binder of hymn copies in the order of each day, so I can play through them sequentially.
Before this, I haven’t had experience in learning hymns. What really helped with learning them is a solid year of sightreading. Reading music builds confidence in a musician. Without the ability to read music, learning all these hymns would take many weeks to months. Reading hymns can be difficult because there usually are four notes per beat. The layout is vertical:
This what a typical hymn looks like. It may look intimidating because 1. there is so much space between the two staffs, and 2. how do you keep track of all the notes?? haha. The good thing is, once you get used to the choral structure, and recognize the shapes/geography of the notes, the other songs are easier to learn! And at this point I can read the hymns pretty accurately the first time, which comes with (years?) of sightreading practice. I’m very thankful for those hours a day I spent playing through songs for fun.
Now, about today’s service.. . I got home at 9pm from Arkansas last night so I was late-night practicing, and kinda nervous. This morning I was reviewing everything, being a perfectionist to keep me from embarassing myself in front of an audience.
When I walked into the chapel I approached the beautiful baby grand piano to warm up. But I ended up talking with the welcoming service leader who was there, and we went through one of the comtemporary songs together. She asked me to add a fermata (a fancy pretty roll of a chord up the keyboard), and to repeat the last section. “Okay! Sure!” I said, thinking a pianist must be flexible. Then she asked me to play background music for 8 minutes for a meditative section of the service. People would come up to the altar, light, candles, and pray. The thing is, being an amateur pianist, I didn’t prepare anything. Yikes. When she asked for the background music I said “Okay! Sure!” (freaking out on the inside). I mentally got myself together, people were already coming in the chapel at this point, and I looked through the other hymns I’ve been practicing. I chose a few hymns I hadn’t practiced enough to feel completely comfortable to play. This is where reading music is my Jesus in the religion that is music.
Oh, one more thing every pianist should be prepared for…
Even though the service program may call for “enter in silence”, you should have a prelude prepared. A prelude is pretty music while people are entering the sanctuary. For this service, it said to “enter in silence” and I assumed that I wouldn’t play a prelude. So I didn’t prepare a prelude. Wrong thinking!! When she asked me to play music as people were coming in, I also freaked out a little on the inside. So I decided to play the songs I was more confident in in my trusty hymn binder. Remember, these songs are for next week and I just learned them a few days ago. I missed a couple of notes here and there. My focus was to make it sound good and get through the prelude alive. I think I narrowly succeeded.
For the 8 minutes of meditative background music, I played a hymn a few times over and over adding different dynamics, and played an octave higher. Then I played two other pretty hymns slowly over and over. I think it was good considering I had zero preparation, it was meditative, and it was actually fun!
Getting over the stage fright
I just realized something about this experience that helped me get over my stage fright. Worrying about being unprepared diverted my attention from being scared of playing in front of people. I was more scared that I didn’t have anything to play perfectly!! That’s a blessing in disguise. Most of the time I was unaware there were people in the congregation. I was focusing too much on playing as accurately as I could. My eyes were glued to the sheet music.
Overall, I think it was a success. I dodged a few potential failures with the ability to read music. And I learned that, as an amateur professional pianist, you need to have backup music prepared, even if the service program doesn’t say you need one. I learned to be flexible, keep calm if there are last minute changes, and remember that you are sharing your gift of music with many people to help them spiritually. That’s the best part about this job!