Thierry Mechler in Baltimore

The Baltimore AGO Chapter recently sponsored a concert and improvisation masterclass by Thierry Mechler. The program included works by Rameau, Fauré, Ravel, Debussy, and Poulenc. Virtually all the pieces were transcriptions of works for piano or harpsichord. Mr. Mechler did a brilliant job of adapting them to the organ. By using the full range of resources available to him at the Cathedral organ, he turned the pieces into orchestral works. He used a multitude of solo and ensemble colors and progressed smoothly from soft whispers to furious fortes. He concluded the program with improvisations on themes by Debussy in honor of the centenary of Debussy’s death.

Improvisation Masterclass

The day after the concert, Mechler offered a masterclass on improvisation at Peabody. He worked with students at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced level. Because of my background, I was asked to serve as the advanced student:

For beginning improvisation, he stressed simplicity and freedom so that the student can be inspired and develop a positive attitude towards improvising. As a student acquires more skill, more specific tasks and more complicated forms can be tackled. Even as an improvisation teacher and the advanced student for the class, I came away with items to practice. You can hear his ideas and how I did as a student in the two YouTube videos of my time on the bench: Part 1 and Part 2

Next Steps

It was inspiring for me to be back on the bench as a student again. It is my belief that we are never too old to learn new things. After almost a year of silence here, I plan to resume sending out regular newsletters with helpful resources about improvisation. One of my dreams has been to organize a 3-4 day improvisation workshop. The time I spent with Thierry Mechler reminded me of how important it is to be a student. Perhaps I can finally make that dream a reality in 2019.

Hoping you are inspired to improvise more!
Glenn

Winchester New

WinchesterNew

This Long Meter tune is often ascribed to Bartholomäus Crasselius. He did publish several hymn texts but there is no evidence that he wrote any hymn tunes. The melody is an altered version of ‘Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten.’ Common English texts sung to the tune include the Advent lyrics ‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry’ and the Palm Sunday text ‘Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!’

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Videos:
Liam Dekker – Improvisation ‘The Spirit, Sent From Heaven Above’

The Last Verse

As 2017 comes to a close, this question about ending a hymn seemed quite timely:

I’m looking for ways to creating a good last verse extravaganza of any hymn. I normally do the re-harmonization techniques. Apart from that, what other techniques can you suggest for me.

With Christmas services approaching quickly, I couldn’t help but look to two of my favorite last verses for inspiration. David Willcocks provides fabulous final verses for O Come All Ye Faithful and The First Nowell. What does he do in these two settings that we could apply to other tunes for a thrilling ending?

Start in Unison

In the final verses by David Willcocks, he starts with the melody in octaves:

If you have a congregation that sings in harmony, this gives everyone an auditory signal to sing the melody. Unison singing is also typically louder than singing in parts. With a strong organ registration and strong unison singing from the congregation, this gets our final verse a solid start.

Pedal Point

In The First Nowell, David Willcocks moves quickly to using a pedal point after the unison beginning:

Pedal points build tension and anticipation by the changing harmonies above the anchor note. The best pedal points tend to be the dominant of the key. In The First Nowell, this is the A held through the entire second phrase of the hymn. For O Come All Ye Faithful, the pedal point doesn’t arrive until the refrain. The D (dominant of G) is held through the first two phrases of the refrain with a little rhythm to energize it when the melody phrases.

Descant

While it is possible to create some extravagant final verses through re-harmonization, there are virtually no accidentals in The First Nowell. While my first idea was to suggest using diminished seventh chords as in O Come All Ye Faithful, when I started comparing the two, I realized it was the descant above the melody that makes the final verse soar. Until the refrain of The First Nowell, there is no one singing a descant, but the organ abandons the melody and moves higher many times throughout the verse. The organ acquires its’ own melody which is quite singable. Here then is where our real improvisation practice begins. How many other melodies can you create while using the same harmonies as a given hymn tune? If you can do this while changing the harmony as well, you will be in good shape to create a true extravaganza for the last verse.

Updates


Earlier this month, I released my second recording from the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen: A Child Is Born. In addition to compositions for Advent and Christmas, it includes several improvisations. You can find it on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

If you have been a long time subscriber, you may recall a short series of articles on modeling Tournemire. The Advent Suite included on the recording is a result of those newsletter issues. If you missed them, check out Issue 50, Issue 51, and Issue 52.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 70 – 2017 12 23

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St. Stephen


Composed by William Jones (1726-1800), this tune in Common Meter has been published with numerous texts. One of the most common is “The King shall come when morning dawns” for the season of Advent. The tune is also known as NEWINGTON and first appeared in Jones’ Church Piec­es for the Or­gan with Four An­thems in Score published in 1789.

See a list of other popular hymn and chorale themes here.

Videos:Wm. Glenn Osborne – Improvised Toccata on St. Stephen – Cathedral of Mary Our Queen

Venez, Divin Messie


A 16th Century French Noël, commonly sung in English as “O Come, Divine Messiah.” The tune is also used in the Messe de Minuit pour Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier to set the lyrics “Laissez paître vos bestes.”

See a list of other hymn and chorale themes here.

Videos:
Pierre Cochereau (David Briggs) – Variations sur ‘Venez Divin Messie’
Eric Dalest – Improvisation on Venez Divine Messie – Aubagne, France
Jean-Jacques Grünenwald – Improvisation on Venez Divine Messie – Nimes
Laurent Chalaux – Improvisation on Venez Divine Messie – Sylvanès
Duncan Middleton – Variation on ‘Venez Divin Messie’ – Notre Dame de France

Harmonie

What a fabulous conference at the University of Kansas! While Philippe Lefebvre’s completely improvised recital was one of my highlights of the conference, the opening concert was a unique experience that will inspire me for years to come. Five organists played a Mass in alternation with a chant schola. Michel Bouvard and Shin-Young Lee played movements from François Couperin’s Messe pour les Paroisses, while the three organists from Notre Dame, Philippe Lefebvre, Olivier Latry, and Vincent Dubois improvised. Here was truly a program in alternatim. No player played twice in a row, and improvisations alternated with repertoire. In between the movements, the chant schola from Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, under the direction of Nicholas Lemme provided exquisite chant. I have heard that the AGO intends to release videos from the conference over the next year. I certainly hope they include this unique concert soon. This was apparently the first time all three organists from Notre Dame have played on the same program outside of Paris ever. Bravo to the University of Kansas and AGO for organizing such a great event!

From left to right: Vincent Dubois, Olivier Latry, Shin-Young Lee, Philippe Lefebvre, Michel Bouvard

In an opening presentation to the conference, Michael Bauer asked what makes French pedagogy different. Is there anything specific or unique to the French system of training organists that carries across styles, time periods, and even teachers that sets it apart from the way organists are trained in the US, Germany, or other countries? There were panel discussions probing the French organists on their teachers and their own teaching methods, as well as presentations on the approach of Marie-Claire Alain and the conservatory system in France.

Because of the time I spent studying organ in both the United States and in France, I believe I came up with an answer by the end of the week.

Harmonie

Every music student in France is required to have multiple years of solfège. After a few years of learning to read music notation and sight-sing, students begin the disciplines of Écriture. This includes multiple years of harmony, counterpoint, and eventually the possibility of composition. To complete a college degree in music in the US, students generally have two years of music theory classes. In these two years, students cover basic notation, sight-singing, harmony, counterpoint, and analysis for all periods of music history from early to the most recent. Some students or schools may continue into a third year of required studies.

When I went to France, I had completed my Master’s Degree. I had composition lessons and had breezed through the theory classes I had taken in the US. When I took a placement test in France, I ended up in first year harmony! Now, I found it very easy and probably could have placed into second year with a little coaching, but harmonizing melodies in four-part open score (with C-clefs!) without the use of a keyboard was something I had never done in the US. Even the basic level of harmonie instruction in France requires skills that simply aren’t taught in this country.

Troisième cycle

The French Conservatory system has a system of three cycles for each discipline. The first cycle is a beginner; second level is intermediate; third level is advanced. Each cycle generally takes 2-3 years to master. During my time in France, I was able to complete the first cycle of harmonie. Even now, I wish I could complete the final levels of harmony and counterpoint from the French system.

Most of the organists in France also earned prizes or diplomas in harmony, counterpoint, and/or écriture (according to how the formation was grouped at the time). Many of them completed their studies in these disciplines before they earned their organ or improvisation prizes. If you had six or seven years of harmony and counterpoint classes, how much better would you be as an improvisor? Even for playing repertoire, how much more insight could you have on the construction of a piece if you had to write similar passages while studying harmony and counterpoint?

Pen and paper exercises develop not just the knowledge of music theory, but also the inner ear. I believe it is the extended study of these disciplines that sets the French organists apart. They have in depth study not just of the instrument, but also the disciplines of music construction. If you haven’t done so before, it may be time to sit at a desk and work on your musical écriture.

Music as Language

At the beginning of the month, I gave a presentation to the Baltimore AGO chapter. You can now view my opening remarks here. I truly believe that if we treat music as a language and invest the time into practicing it, we can become as fluent speaking music as we are in our native tongue. The French insist upon longer more detailed studies, and we can see the results there.

Before I ramble on too much longer, today is Halloween in the United States. Somehow, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor has become linked with the celebration. (With my American mentality, it was quite a shock when a couple I met with in France requested the piece as the entrance music for their wedding!) ORGANPromotion assembled two recordings of improvisations on the piece. You can hear them both on Spotify (Disc 1 and Disc 2). Rather than frighten you, I hope these recordings inspire you to improvise more often.

Happy Halloween!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 69 – 2017 10 31

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Improvisations on Spotify

In the nineteenth century, organs were exhibits at the World’s Fair (Exposition universelle), not just for their cultural relevance, but for their technology. Mechanical action instruments were growing larger and needed new technologies, such as the Barker lever to keep the instrument playable. While technology has continued to advance for the pipe organ (see how my iPhone can play the organ), organists and organ builders can be a little slow at times to embrace new technology.

Spotify officially launched in October of 2008. I might have looked at it sometime in the past nine years, but only recently have truly started diving into the playlists and artists hiding out there. Improvisation recordings have historically been hard to find. Anytime I spot a CD with an improvisation on it, I’ve tended to pick up the recording right then. For a while, I even restricted my CD purchases to recordings with improvisations on them. No improvisation = no purchase. Now, Spotify makes the recordings available for free! No need to wait for a recording to arrive in the mail. You can listen to some fabulous playing as soon as you register with them.

Here are a few of the improvisers I’ve found there:

I even discovered a couple of improvisers I didn’t know on Spotify:

There are even some interesting compilation albums like The Britannic Organ, Vol. 11: Historic Improvisations by British & German Organists which includes improvisations by Edwin Henry Lemare, Alfred Hollins, William Wolstenholme, and Kurt Grosse.

YouTube has been a great resource. The videos of organ improvisations there are too numerous to catalogue. (Even so, I’m trying to keep a master list of all the ones included on organimprovisation.com here.) I’m delighted to see that Spotify is another great resource to help immerse ourselves in the realm of improvisation.

Workshops

As mentioned last week, I made a presentation on improvisation to the local Baltimore AGO chapter. For those who asked, I have video from there that I hope to post soon. I also was able to attend a workshop by Bálint Karosi on Friday evening that he gave for the Lancaster AGO chapter. Any time I discover someone else teaching improvisation, I’m always interested in hearing what they have to say. I was delighted to hear Bálint start drawing parallels between music and language!

This week I’ll be attending the AGO Pedagogy conference in Lawrence, Kansas. I look forward to being renewed and inspired this week through all the presentations and interactions. I already know there is a contingent from Baltimore. I hope to see many more of you there!

If you can’t be there, listen to some French improvisations on Spotify. Immerse yourself and be inspired!

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 68 – 2017 10 17

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Music as Language

Music is a language. Through it we express joys and sorrows beyond words. Composers across the centuries have given us pieces crafted in the language of music that we perform repeatedly. We trust in their skills and creativity to create the atmosphere or transmit our feelings to others.

In our spoken language however, we do not rely upon great writers to express ourselves. Imagine trying to have a conversation where you could only quote Shakespeare. While we may not be great writers or even great orators like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., we are all capable of putting words together and conveying our thoughts to another person in a coherent manner.

For me, improvisation becomes the ability to converse in the language of music. When we enter the world of music, why do we suddenly lose faith in our own ability to communicate? Everyone learns his or her native language, and perhaps a few others. All musicians should learn not just to recite the music others have provided but to create their own expressions in music. Complex sentences and large structures are not required in our everyday conversations. Why should we consider a good improviser only someone who can make complex music? To improvise well should be as easy as speaking a well-constructed sentence.

Daily Practice

We learn our native tongue through constant use. We are surrounded and encouraged daily as a child to make sounds and put words together, even if they don’t follow correct grammar! To master the language of music, we need that same daily practice, encouragement, and immersion. A child doesn’t learn to say “mama” and “papa” in the same day. How many times did the parents say those words to the child before he or she uttered something close to those sounds? Find a sound or progression you would like to make part of your improvisation vocabulary and practice it daily. Do you have a keyboard at home? Play your chosen sounds every time you walk by it! We learned the grammar of our spoken language not because we learned the rules but because we heard them applied every day. A three-hour session on Saturday afternoon will not have the same lasting result as a few minutes everyday. Sure, we can make progress in a long session, but we learned our language through daily practice. We should do the same to master the language of music.

Workshops

This Saturday, I will present a workshop to the local Baltimore AGO on improvisation. If you are in the area, feel free to drop in. We’ll be at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen from 9:30 to 12:30 on October 14. After an opening presentation on looking at improvisation as conversing in the language of music, there will be time for questions and willing volunteers to sit on the bench and apply the ideas.

I will also be attending the AGO Pedagogy conference next week at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. With a focus on organ and improvisation study in the French conservatory system, I hope several of you are planning to attend. Please say hello if you see me there!

Hoping you speak music daily!
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 67 – 2017 10 11

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Video Improvisation Lessons

Back in 2014, I wrote a list of twenty ways to improvise on a hymn. Many of these are more like exercises than specific ways to create pieces. Following a request for clarification, I thought I’d do a few video lessons to demonstrate the topics.

More and more often I turn to the metaphor of music as a language. When we were young and learning our native tongue, we spent time learning vocabulary lists. Friday was often the day for spelling tests when I was in elementary school. While these exercises may seem simple – the written instructions are often only one or two lines – I believe they are the vocabulary lists for our improvisation studies. When we have chords and keys in our ears and in our hands, we can more easily say what we wish to say when we speak in the language of music.

For these demonstrations, I work with the tune St. Anne, commonly sung with the words “O God, Our Help In Ages Past.” So far, there are a total of three videos that cover the first nine items of the original 20 on the list. Here’s part one:

Because music is so difficult to capture on the written page, I have always found it helpful to have recordings or videos of examples or demonstrations. Especially with the organ, it can be instructive to see how a sound is being created. Is that solo being played by the pedal or the left hand? I remember after listening even to a piano piece by Olivier Messiaen, I had to go buy the score so I could find out how certain sounds were created.

if there are any other past lessons that you would like me to demonstrate, please let me know, and I’ll add them to my to do list.

Livestream

We have recently installed cameras at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. In the near future, you should be able to tune in live to hear me play. I am hopeful that I will be able to share more of the pieces I improvise with you when this new camera system is fully functional. Please let me know if you tune in to one of the broadcasts!

Hoping all your improvisations speak to your audience,
Glenn