I have recently taken up playing the church organ again.  I studied it from the age of 13 (when my legs were long enough to reach the pedal keyboard), won an organ scholarship to Oxford, studied music for 3 years, and then went to work for a brewery.  Ahem.  I’ve been playing off and on ever since, but not for the last 8 years or so.  Having moved house recently and started to put down some roots, I have thrown my organ playing hat into the ring and am gently getting back into it (the ring).  I am relearning, and it’s giving me a real buzz.

This is Simon Preston, sitting at the Westminster Abbey organ.  He awarded me the scholarship.  Top man.

This is Simon Preston, sitting at the Westminster Abbey organ. He awarded me the scholarship. Top man.

On Saturday I tried out the organ at our parish church.  It has been recently restored (a mere £75,000 worth), and is a wonderful instrument,  All the power you could wish for, a beautiful sound, and an easy action (so your fingers don’t get worn out).  It inspired me to dig out some of the more challenging stuff I learnt years ago, and as I was hacking through it I started to notice something.

Each time I played a piece I hadn’t played for years, it was a sort of “for old times’ sake” rendition – fairly inaccurate and clumsy, albeit capturing the spirit of the piece.  Then when I played it again, maybe a tad slower and with more conscious effort on my part, it started to come together much better than I remember it doing so before, when I played it regularly.  I started to notice things that must have escaped me for years;  for instance, in Bach’s  Chorale Prelude BWV680 ‘Wir glauben all an einen Gott’ (‘Giant Fugue‘) he introduces a 5th part just before the final pedal entry, which adds to the sense of climax at the end.  How could I have not spotted that after playing it so many times years ago?

Here’s the point (“At last!”, I hear you say): I’ve got a funny feeling that if I put enough time into it, I might end up being able to play this stuff better than I used to, when I had youthfulness, flexible fingers and a pretty reasonable technique built out of practising for over an hour per day.  I certainly feel as if I am able to understand the music better now, and appreciate what is going on better than I used to.  Maybe it’s because I am thinking more slowly about it, and I realise the value of doing things well if it all.

Balliol Chapel organ

Balliol Chapel organ

I find that an exciting prospect.  Maybe some really fulfilling creativity is awaiting me, if I’m prepared to put the time in (which I am).  Some slightly creaky finger joints and one or two aches in the leg area should be no barrier to some half decent performances in the fullness of time.  I didn’t expect that.

So if I can relearn something from years ago (we are talking nearly 40 years since I was at my “peak”), and end up better at it, what else could I relearn that might offer similar rewards?  What about all those books I read at school and never really got to grips with?

What might this mean in the business world?  How many careers have developed in a particular direction because skills have lapsed?  Might the person who used to be a great team leader but has since moved into a individual contributor role have some great people management and coaching skills to revisit?  Could the creative flair in the marketing executive be rekindled in the Marketing Director some 20 years later?

I reckon at least 50% of the behavioural skills training I deliver is relearning.  People know this stuff, they have just lost sight of it.  If they’re prepared to put the effort in, and give it some time and an opportunity to practice, they can be, I would argue, way more effective when they apply these skills than when they first tried them.

So what skills have you allowed to slip away, and how about polishing them up again?

Footnote; when I learnt that I had won an organ scholarship I thought I had better build myself an organ repertoire, so started practising for between 3 and 4 hours per day.  This punishing regime had certain side effects:  my fingers used to literally ache by the end of a session, but also I developed what I suppose you might call “organist’s bottom”, from repeated movement up and down the wooden bench.  Just as John Lennon once famously complained of “blisters on my fingers”, I had developed “blisters on my arse”.   There is no known treatment for this other than to stop practising so hard.

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