by Kari Miller Magg
Crossword, sudoku, jigsaw, jumble, cryptograph, word search, Bach, Messiaen – take your pick! Who can resist a good puzzle? Most of us find puzzle solving “fun,” unlike day-to-day problem solving, which seems like just so much hard work. It has been suggested that part of the appeal of puzzles comes from the fact that many of the problems (puzzles) we encounter in real life do not have clear-cut solutions, while even the most difficult crossword or sudoku does. We happily spend hours and hours on a puzzle, persevering with dogged determination in the face of repeated failure – all because we know with certainty that a solution is to be found. We become encouraged and excited as the solution takes shape piece by piece, clue by clue, and when that final bit is filled in, we experience a real thrill of accomplishment – the reward of the “aha” moment. The intensity of that “aha” moment is often directly correlated with the amount of time and energy that has gone into finding the solution.
We would do well to carry this playful but persistent attitude to our work on the organ bench, puzzling out musical mysteries. Some pieces, riddles in themselves, reward us with an “aha” moment just for playing the right notes at the right time. Anyone who has learned a Bach Trio Sonata knows what I am talking about. What a thrill when it all fits together and “clicks” for the first time!
Figuring out registrations for a complicated organ piece often feels quite like solving a puzzle; certain things have to be a certain way and each element is related to and has an effect on every other element. But as we choose our stops, assign our solos, juggle the manuals and set our pistons, we can be led down attractive dead-end paths; a desired “solution” might prove unworkable because of a single sticking point. Just as when we are solving a puzzle for pleasure, we sometimes need to scrap it all and start over. It is not always easy to preserve that lightness of heart which can find this entertaining. We may be pressured by time, stressed by the need to find the solution right now (or at least by tomorrow’s rehearsal), or we are weighed down with nagging doubts because we know that in music there is rarely a single right answer. We are denied the innocent joy of the “aha” moment and must find our pleasure in the process itself.
While “church organist” doesn’t usually appear on lists of “Jobs for People Who Love Puzzles” (yes, there are such lists) it probably could. According to Will Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times and Puzzlemaster at NPR, musicians might just have an edge when it comes to puzzle-solving abilities. Good puzzle solvers have the ability to quickly synthesize a lot of different information as well as an ability to easily recognize patterns. Those skills, Shortz says, “go along with math and music.”