Transposing Vierne

One of the skills every improviser needs to have in their toolbox is the ability to transpose. Any of the larger forms which include a development section require the repetition of material in different keys. While it is acceptable to modify the material in the development, the best preparation for that is to practice strict transposition.

There are three ways that can learn to transpose: by ear, by clef, or by analysis. Some experience with all three can be useful as improvisers.

Using Your Ear

The ear is a great asset in transposition. It will be how you check if the notes you play sound the same in the different keys. If you have learned a melody by ear, then it may be easy to transpose by ear. Harmonies, especially complex ones, can by much harder to transpose by ear. This can be the slowest way to practice your transposition, but the ear will always be how we judge if our transposition is correct.

Using a Clef

The simplest transpositions are those by a half-step. Depending upon how many accidentals are in the piece, it is relatively easy to move a piece from Ab major to A major by simply changing the key signature. Likewise, moving down from E major to Eb major requires only a change in key signature and some attention to the alterations.

It is also possible to change the clef and read the music in a key further away. Sadly, most musicians today are generally only fluent in reading treble and bass clef. Violists will know alto clef. Some trombone and cello players will know tenor clef, but unless you read from a lot of early music scores, you probably haven’t spent much time with the other C and F clefs. There are enough different clefs that any note on the staff can actually be any pitch. Here’s an example of the same space on a staff and how it appears with the different clefs:
The way I learned to read these clefs was with Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by by R.O. Morris and Howard Ferguson. (This is an Amazon affiliate link.) I spent one summer working through learning to read the various C-clefs and larger open scores. Being comfortable reading the different clefs makes it much easier to transpose pieces into more distant keys. I strongly encourage you to master as many clefs as you can.

Transposition by Analysis

Learning to read by clef reinforces reading by interval. One form of transposition would be to consider the interval that each voice moves. This can be very helpful when transposing a single melody or theme but also for complex harmonic structures. Recognizing that the alto moves a half-step down might be easier to see than reading the part in a new clef which shows a movement from F# to E#. In a tonal piece where you can analyze harmonic function, knowing that the original is a ii-V-I progression should make it easier to play the proper notes and progression in the new key.

One of the exercises I did daily for almost 6 months was to play a single Bach chorale in all twelve keys. Not only did this help me recognize standard chord progressions and voicings, I played everyday in keys that most people avoid, e.g. Eb minor, Bb minor, and F# major. I now read harmonic function almost as fast as I read the notes on the clef. The further I have to transpose a piece, the more likely I am to rely upon some form of analysis in addition to using a clef and my ear.


I still remember my amazement when one of my theory (and piano) teachers told me that Alfred Cortot suggested transposing Chopin etudes into different keys while keeping the same fingerings! I left my piano studies behind well before I ever played any Chopin etudes, however as an aid towards improvisation, I would recommend transposing repertoire. Let’s take something a little easier like the first of Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces en style libre, the Préambule. (Free score available through IMSLP.)

The simple texture of this piece makes it relatively easy to transpose by ear or clef. The harmonic passages on the Récit will require some analysis (harmonic or melodic) in order to master. For my own practice, I read through the piece quickly in several keys:

There are also complete performances of the original C Major, and transpositions to C# major, D Major and Eb Major.

Once you’ve transposed a piece like this, use it as a model for improvising. Follow the score, keeping the same registrations and rhythms, but change the notes. After playing the piece in several keys, I improvised an imitation Vierne piece in F Major and in G minor. There are some hesitations as I searched for similar interesting tonal gestures without following exactly what Vierne did, but that’s why we practice. I decided to make this exercise my prelude this weekend, so there are two more that follow the score less slavishly in A minor and D minor as well.


Transposition is a skill that everyone easily recognizes as something that must be practiced in order to be mastered. Improvisation requires practice as well. Whether you choose a piece by Vierne or another favorite composer, I hope you will spend some time practicing it transposed and then imitating it in improvisation.


Newsletter Issue 61 – 2016 10 03

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Small Structures

The Sierpinski triangle sierpinski-triangle is an equilateral triangle that is subdivided repeatedly into smaller and smaller equilateral triangles. It is one of many recursive designs that mathematicians call fractals. Whether you look at a small portion or the entire picture, the design appears the same.

Building Out

While Sierpinski divided the basic triangle to create smaller triangles, Helge von Koch added triangles to each side:
Like the Sierpinski triangle, the Koch snowflake can be continued infinitely. More and more details arise, but they are all triangles. The most common structure in music is the 4-bar phrase. Sierpinski and Koch used triangles for their forms. We will look at form through the lens of the 4-bar phrase.

Léon Boëllmann

Though he died at the age of 35, Léon Boëllmann is one of the well-known French organist-composers thanks to his Suite Gothique. While he wrote numerous pieces for organ, piano, and even orchestra, the “Toccata” from Suite Gothique is a staple of the organ repertoire and his best-known work. Rather than look at the “Toccata,” I’d like to look at the second movement from the suite, the “Menuet gothique.” If you do not have a score for the Suite Gothique, you can download one at IMSLP. You can also hear me play it as a postlude on YouTube.


The Menuet is built virtually entirely with 4-bar phrases. The overall form is ABA. Only towards the end of the B section is the 4-measure structure even slightly ambiguous. The return of the A section is abbreviated in that the repetitions on different manuals are omitted. The piece is constructed entirely through the use of repetition and contrast in 4-bar phrases. The first improvisation lesson from this piece is to be sure you can play what you just played, even five minutes later after doing something different!

The first section of the piece is 48 measures long. The first eight measures (two 4-bar phrases) is played on the swell and then repeated on the great. The next sixteen measures (4 4-bar phrases) on the swell takes us a little further away from the home key before returning to end on the tonic. This is repeated on the great and brings the first A-section to a close.


Whereas the A-section began softly with the repetition being louder, the B-section reverses those and begins loudly with softer repeats. The A-section was also more connected with longer notes and step-wise motion (especially the descending bass line). The B-section is filled with staccato notes, arpeggios, and rests creating a marked contrast with what came before.

Following the same format as the A-section, the first eight measures of the B-section (two 4-bar phrases) played on the great are repeated on the swell. After another two 4-bar phrases on the great, we get another break with the repetition when the softer material is not a repeat. This new figuration gets a four measure extension which brings back the original A-section material which will now alternate with the louder B-section material for another page until we modulate back to the original home key and arrive at the recapitulation of the original A-section.


Because I believe anyone can improvise a 4-bar phrase, I believe it is possible to use the “Menuet gothique” as an improvisation model to build much longer pieces. I’ve created a PDF map of the form which is available for download here. The key centers are indicated so that you could use this to create a similar piece with different thematic material. It also could be interesting to change the tonal plan but use the same thematic material from Boëllmann.

While Sierpinski and Koch used triangles to create and break down forms, as musicians, we can use 4-bar phrases and work with a surprisingly small amount of material to build larger works.

Hoping Boëllman’s “Menuet gothique” inspires you to improvise!

Newsletter Issue 60 – 2016 08 15

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Graduating to the Metronome

Westminster_shieldEarlier this month, I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater Westminster Choir College for reunion activities and graduation. Westminster is a special place of world-class music making, and I was delighted to see and hear that the standards had not diminished in the 20+ years since I finished my degree.

Graduation at Westminster is almost more of a concert as it is loaded with choral and organ music. The Princeton University Chapel is filled with virtually the entire student body, alumni, and family and friends so the hymn singing is absolutely glorious. There are many pieces that are a traditional part of the Westminster graduation, including the Processional by Warren Martin. With 300+ students and faculty in procession, even with some coming three abreast down the aisle, it takes quite a while to get everyone in.

The first year I was in that procession, I was surprised to discover as we approached the organ console to hear a metronome clicking away. Everyone always talks about practicing with a metronome, but here was one being used in performance! Only those in the choir closest to the organ console could here it, so it was not a distraction to most of the people present and listening.

At the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, we host 10-12 high school graduations every spring. I’m not sure if our aisle is longer or shorter than the Princeton University Chapel aisle, but when you have to play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march for 34 minutes to get 300+ people down the aisle (as I did yesterday), there is a certain usefulness to the metronome. Mine flashes so no one hears it, but I was thankful to have it turned on as I lost track of how many times I played the 32 measures.

Improvising in tempo

One of the most obvious ways to know that an organist is improvising is when there is a rhythmic hesitation. Metronomes are designed to help us remove rhythmic inconsistencies. It seems like all improvisers should practice improvising with a metronome, but I would guess that almost no one ever does that. We practice repertoire with a metronome in order to work through technical difficulties or make sure our tempo is stable. Have you ever tried to improvise while following a metronome?

With these graduation processions on my mind, I’d like to suggest improvising a processional with the metronome. Choose a comfortable (slow) tempo and perhaps a simple form following four-bar phrases. Can you play (or change) something on every beat of the metronome to convey the processional nature of the piece? If this is challenging, choose a slower harmonic rhythm so you have more time to consider what chord will come next. As you become comfortable improvising with the metronome, increase the speed. Choose a different meter. What other forms or styles could you improvise with the metronome? What repertoire do you practice with a metronome? Could you improvise in the same style with the metronome?

Metronomes are a practice tool. They keep us at a steady beat, can urge us on to the next note, and help us play slow enough to not make mistakes. We recognize their utility for learning repertoire and playing long entrance processions, so it seems to me we should also have them in our improvisation tool box. What does the metronome inspire you to improvise?


Newsletter Issue 59 – 2016 05 27

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Summer Improv Courses 2016

The Summer is a popular time for conferences and special courses. Here’s a list of opportunities to study improvisation at the organ this summer. If you know of others, please email me or share them in the comments so that I can add them to the website.

This summer is also the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists. It will take place in Houston July 19-23. Typically there is an improvisation competition and several workshop presentations on improvisation during the convention. I only spotted one improvisation workshop: Adagio Lost and Adagio Regained:
A Study of the Lost Art of Improvising in the Adagio Genre, with Emphasis on Handel’s Organ Concertos presented by HyeHyun Sung. The NCOI competition was restructured for this year with the preliminary round taking place last summer. (See my critique here.) No information about the competition is currently on the Houston website…

I am still considering offering a couple of days of improvisation instruction here. If you would be interested in coming to study with me at the Cathedral July 28-30, 2016, please let me know. Space for active participants will be limited. If there is sufficient interest, I’ll share more details soon.

Hoping you take some time this summer to improvise better,


Newsletter Issue 58 – 2016 04 21

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Introducing Dissonance

Our modern ears have become so accustomed to advanced tonal languages that dissonance has become a relative concept. Just a few short centuries ago, composers would not include a third in the final chord of a piece because it was considered dissonant. In the 20th-century, Olivier Messiaen crafted pieces that end peacefully on a dominant seventh chord (as in Le banquet celeste). Context allows us to walk away from this final chord without demanding a traditional harmonic resolution.

Wrong notes

I don’t necessarily remember where I got the idea, but one of the foundational ideas of the instruction I received in improvisation was that there are no wrong notes when improvising. Why then do some notes sound wrong? Why do the pieces I end on a dominant seventh chord usually sound unfinished (unlike Messiaen)?

I believe the simple answer is that these wrong notes make a change in the level of dissonance.

This works both ways. If you are playing in an early tonal language and your melody lands on the minor third while the accompaniment has a major third (F natural above a D-major triad for example), it will certainly sound like a wrong note and a mistake. Likewise, if you are playing in an advanced language with lots of seconds, sevenths and clusters, the appearance of a major triad can sound quite jarring. The sounds are perfectly acceptable by themselves. It is the context that makes them seem wrong.

New Rules

The study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a very systematic and controlled way. First species allows no dissonance. In the language of Palestrina, this limits us to thirds, fifths and sixths using notes within the mode. If we wish to develop a more modern sound, what if we did first species using only seconds, fourths, and sevenths? For example:

Another alternative might be to keep the intervals restricted to thirds and sixths, but move one hand into another key:

Second species counterpoint where there are two notes against each note of the cantus firmus allows more options for introducing dissonance. Like first species, it can be done without any dissonance (only seconds, fourths and sevenths here):

Or passing and neighbor notes can be included:

With its carefully graded level of difficulty, the traditional path to the study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a careful and controlled manner. Even if we wish to use a more modern language, we can still apply those same concepts for the introduction of dissonance. Choose which intervals will be consonant for your exercise. As you move into the second and third species, introduce categories of dissonant notes one by one: passing tones, neighbor notes, chromatic passing and neighbor notes, appoggiaturas, and accented passing tones. How do these categories change or alter your dissonance level?

In my first days as a student, I spent an entire year (or two) on two voice counterpoint working slowly through the levels of dissonance and species. Mastery of counterpoint takes time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and boring. Change the rules and keep exploring!

Happy counterpointing!

Newsletter Issue 57 – 2016 04 11

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A season of resurrection

EasterIIHappy Easter! I hope all of you who had extra and important services over the last weeks are now recovered and ready to continue with your improvisation study. During this season with liturgical churches focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it seemed fitting that I should resurrect the newsletter and take up the task once again of encouraging people to improvise at the organ. The message of Christianity has not spread far and wide because it was only practiced by a few people, but because those who practiced it told others about it. We must do the same for improvisation. If you have colleagues that do not improvise, teach them something simple as a way to get started (or send them to explore the previous newsletters).

Gradus Ad Parnassum

Aloysius– But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna.

My area of focus for 2016 is counterpoint. I was fortunate as an undergraduate student that my composition teacher included counterpoint exercises as part of every lesson. Most undergraduate theory programs include some study of harmony and counterpoint, but usually spend more time analyzing them than actually creating them. For me, this is the equivalent of learning to read, but never learning to write or speak. As improvisers, we need to learn to speak music, and thus have embarked upon the lifetime of learning Johann Joseph Fux mentions in the quote above.

Gradus Ad Parnassum is one of the classic texts for the study of counterpoint. Written in 1725 by Johann Joseph Fux, it was held in high esteem and used by such composers as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and even Strauss. It is written as a dialogue between a student, Josephus, and the teacher, Aloysius, identified in the Foreward as Palestrina. The dialogue is a fictional creation of Fux therefore, but is meant to present the rules of counterpoint (indeed all musical composition) as practiced by Palestrina.

Species Counterpoint

One of the advantages of learning composition through the study of counterpoint is the very easily identified and graded levels. Beginning with only two voices, the student progresses through five species before adding another voice:

  1. First Species – note against note
  2. Second Species – two notes against one
  3. Third Species – four notes against one
  4. Fourth Species – syncopation
  5. Fifth Species – florid counterpoint

When creating counterpoint, one of the voices is identified as the cantus firmus. This is the given melody for the exercise that may not be changed. The other voice(s) must be written to follow the rules and fit correctly with the cantus firmus. Here is the first theme Fux provides:

All notes in first species counterpoint must be consonant intervals: 3rds, 5ths, 6ths, or octaves. There are many more rules regulating the movement between the voices, but before we get there, let’s consider some practice ideas we can take away from what we’ve covered so far.

  • All rhythms are equal in first species. What happens to a melody or theme if we strip the rhythm away from it? Some hymns are almost all quarter notes, so won’t change much. Others have a variety of rhythms and will sound quite different when equalized.
  • Counterpoint can appear either above or below the cantus firmus. Here is a chance to practice our dexterity at the organ. Each of your hands, as well as your feet could be the cantus firmus, while one of the others plays the counterpoint. For an added challenge, play the theme in the bass register with the right hand while your feet play an added melody above on a 4′ (or 2′) stop!
  • Fux (and Palestrina) make use of the church modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. If these modes are not part of your improvisational vocabulary, spend some time becoming more familiar with them. Ideas for practicing them can be found here and here. Counterpoint is not required in order to learn a mode.
  • Themes are written in whole notes. Practice slowly. Whether it is counterpoint, or some other improvisation technique, take your time. Especially as we move into more complicated counterpoint, never play faster than you can think.

Spread the Word

Improvisation is not an easy task to master. It takes time and practice, but there are ways to start and make it accessible to everyone. In this Easter season when Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the Good News, I hope you will practice your improvisations and share with others the joy and delight you find in creating music in the moment.

Wishing you all the best,

Newsletter Issue 56 – 2016 04 04

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Using my iPhone to play the organ

In January, just as I sent out the last newsletter issue, I left to attend the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians in Hartford, CT. A collegial gathering of usually around 60 music directors and organists from across the country, I had not been able to attend for several years, so was really looking forward to catching up with the group this year.


Pipe organs have been around for many centuries. Technology has led to advances in the ways sound is created and the way it is controlled. While trying to avoid the pipe versus digital debate, the fact that this debate exists I believe has left pipe organs woefully behind in the technological advances of how we can control a pipe organ.

MIDI has been around for over thirty years and is perhaps the only piece of recent technology that might be included on a pipe organ. I suspect many organists that have MIDI never use the capacity because it is primarily seen as a way to add in other sounds to the organ. The organ at the Cathedral has MIDI ports, so when one of my cathedral colleagues told me that I could get a MIDI-to-lightning cable and connect my iPhone to the organ, I became very interested in what I might be able to do.

MIDICableSquareThe Cable

I ordered the cable once I came home from the conference and anxiously waited for its arrival. With a recorder app on my phone (MIDI Tool Box), my first thought was that I could now record my improvisations and then take the files to the computer and transcribe them! Some people have spent hours upon hours listening to Pierre Cochereau‘s improvisations to transcribe them. Now with my iPhone, I would be able to have at least a rough transcription with a few mouse clicks!

The Trial and Demo

In addition to capturing the notes I played, the recorder app would also capture the registration and swell pedal movements! Even when studying repertoire, I was encouraged to record myself so that I could coach my own performances. Imagine being able to hear your improvisation again simply as a listener. That fabulous harmonic progression you stumbled into by mistake can now be transcribed, studied, and repeated! Check out the video below for a demonstration of how it works.

Beyond its usefulness for studying improvisation, this set up enables me to transfer pistons between consoles and opens some new possibilities for accompanying.


Pipe organs rely on very reliable technology from centuries past in order to produce sounds, but we don’t have to miss out on other technologies from the 21st century. (Bluetooth even opens the door to wireless connections!) MIDI is a great way to capture improvisations, and I encourage you to take advantage of it if you have it on the organ you play regularly.

Happy improvising,

Newsletter Issue 55 – 2016 03 09

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Two Keys at One Time?

One of my tasks during my undergraduate studies was to memorize the C major Prelude from Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier (Book 1). My theory teacher for harmony, Dr. Stefan Young, wanted us to play the piece in block chords and sing the bass line with the harmonic analysis as our lyrics. When I had Dr. Young for counterpoint the next semester and he again assigned the same piece, I was given the additional complicating task of playing the piece not just in any key, but in any two keys at the same time. Dr. Young wanted me to play the right hand in one key while playing the left hand in another. It’s a real mind-bending experiment to try, even if it doesn’t always sound so great…

When I pulled out the hymnal yesterday to practice, I stumbled upon “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The melody basically is a G major chord, so I thought what if I harmonize it in F major instead. There are a few other key shifts here, but the harmonic rhythm remains slow so that you have time to consider the unexpected colors.

Counterpoint and Fugue

new-years-eve-clipart-2016Happy New Year!

Usually as the New Year begins, may people set goals that they would like to achieve in the upcoming months. Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks, these usually fall by the wayside and go unfinished. How often have you set the same goals on New Years that you set for the last year?

A Word Instead of a Goal

The new trend is to choose a word for the year rather than set specific goals. I like this in that it can be more flexible and can help keep you focused without making you feel guilty about missing a deadline or not keeping up with a routine. One of the reasons goals often go by the wayside is the need to restart after we miss a workout, eat too much, or otherwise miss a step on our plan. Once we miss a step on our goal journey, it is often easier to quit than to figure out what to do next.

As improvisers, we should be well acquainted with missteps and the need for recovery after mistakes. We have to keep going until the end. Any public improvisation requires us to continue regardless of how far we might stray from our intended path. Choosing a word for the year is a way to maintain our focus. We might wander into some foreign keys, use a few chords from outside our tonal language, but if we can reclaim our focus, we should be able to bring our improvisation to a successful conclusion.


My word and area of focus in improvisation for 2016 is counterpoint. My goal for 2016 is to be able to comfortably improvise a fugue in four parts on a hymn or chant. There was a time when I felt competent to at least try a fugal exposition, but after many years of neglect, whatever of those skills I had has fallen out of practice. As the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Such has been my contrapuntal improvisational skills, and my aim in 2016 is to remedy that.

As we journey through 2016, I intend to share my progress and the resources I discover and use here so that 1)I am publicly accountable for my focus and goal, 2)other readers and organists may benefit from my discoveries, and 3) others may offer their own feedback and suggestions to help my progress. Please feel free to drop me an email or comment if you have suggestions or resources that you have found particularly helpful in your own study of counterpoint.


To get us all started, here are the books on counterpoint in my library that I intend to review this week as I sort out the best way to improve my skills:

Each of the above links are to Any purchases made through the links will go towards the support of this website. As I was looking for the books on Amazon, I noticed a few other books on counterpoint that looked interesting, but since these five are already in my library, I thought they would be the best place to start. I’d love to hear about your experiences with these or any other books on counterpoint for this journey through 2016.

My word for improvisation is counterpoint. What is yours?

Wishing you all the best for 2016!

Newsletter Issue 54 – 2016 01 04

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