As a beginning organist, I would practice for hours every week, trying to learn the hymns for Sunday properly. Once I finally felt confident with my technique and tempo, there were too many times when I would be playing a hymn, only to have my fingers become lost. Mid-hymn, I would find myself at the site of a figurative train wreck.
I never understood what had happened. I knew the music. I had rehearsed it for hours and hours with the metronome, methodically increasing the tempo incrementally until I finally arrived at the desired metronome marking. Why were there random inexplicable times when my fingers just forgot everything I had worked so hard to teach them?
For a long, long time, I didn't understand what was happening. I didn't know how to prevent this random occurrence. Finally, it hit me: I never wrote in my fingerings. Most of the time when I played the hymn, I used the fingerings I had practiced. However, at times my fingers chose a different path, and that's when I got in trouble. When I began writing in my fingerings, this "anomaly" stopped happening.
So much of playing the organ is muscle memory. When I'm learning a new piece, I start at a painfully slow tempo, teaching my fingers where they need to go. I spend a lot of practice time at very slow tempos, with the metronome beating the eighth- or sixteenth-note, increasing the metronome one-quarter or one-half of a beat at a time. After numerous repetitions at this lower tempo, the muscle memory sets in, and I can then increase the tempo much more quickly.
There have been times when I wasn't given much notice to learn a piece. One time I chose to just try to practice it near tempo. While I was able to muddle through the performance, it wasn't well played. Another time, I decided to put in the requisite time at a slow tempo, taught my fingers the proper way to play, and although I didn't have time to slowly work it up to tempo, I was still able to play the piece at tempo much more cleanly that when I tried to skip this step.
As I progressed on the organ, I began playing without adding fingerings. I was getting much better, and felt that I no longer needed this step. I was able to play pieces well without this "crutch." Then I attended the BYU Organ Workshop in August, where Linda Margetts and Doug Bush (among others) both stressed the important need for writing in fingerings, even if it's just "skeletal" fingerings, and to erase and change them as needed. It gave me pause, and I thought a lot about what had been said. I started writing in fingerings again--at the very least I wrote in starting fingerings and fingerings in key phrases.
During the Christmas season, I pulled out a couple of pieces I played the year before, when I was meticulous about writing in fingerings. I quickly re-learned the pieces, as the fingerings were still retained, somewhat, in the muscle memory of my fingers and feet and I played them after just a few practice sessions.
Now that I'm preparing for Easter, I pulled out the pieces I played last year, when I "knew better" and they are immaculate. I didn't write in any fingerings or pedaling. As I try to play through them, I struggle because although my brain knows these pieces, my fingers and feet are lost. I don't know where my fingers were when I began them, how I fingered some difficult spots, and now I'm starting from scratch with them, which is immensely frustrating. It will take quite a bit of time to get them performance ready again.
If only I had written in the fingerings for this free accompaniment last year! Writing in fingerings is important for the first performance, but it's essential for subsequent performances after a lapse of time.