A New Year – A New Method

Starting a new year often involves setting goals and renewed energy to work on projects that may have fallen by the wayside. My plan for 2019 is to send out at least two emails a month with resources or ideas to help you become a better improviser. to get us started, I want to take a look at a new resource that could provide us with a whole year of work, if not more!

Breaking Free

In 2011, Jeffrey Brillhart gave us Breaking Free. It is a very thorough and progressive resource for developing a personal musical language drawing inspiration from many of the 20th-century French masters. In my review of the book, I lamented the lack of specific tasks for the student. While useful for a teacher of improvisation, I wasn’t sure the uninitiated student would know what to do with all the wonderful material presented there. Just before Christmas, I received a new book by Jeffrey Brillhart that clearly addresses that concern.

A World of Possibilities

Subtitled “Master Lessons in Organ Improvisation,” A World of Possibilities contains 32 units. Each unit provides an exposition of material to cover and specific assignments for the student to improvise in order to master the material. Even in the first eight units where tonal language is the primary material, a form is given for the assignment. The result is that one is almost always improvising a complete piece that might be performed in front of an audience or used in worship!

Composition Models

In Breaking Free, form is reserved for the last few chapters and discussed very broadly. In this new book, he gives us concrete analysis of two major works for organ: Charles Tournemire’s L’orgue Mystique, Opus 55, no. 7 (Epiphania Domini) and Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude, adagio et chorale varié sur le theme du ‘Veni Creator,’ op.4. The Tournemire takes two units and the Duruflé three units. Brillhart breaks down the structure of each of the pieces and identifies elements for students to include in their own improvisations.

Sandwiched between Tournemire and Duruflé are five units on the language of Messiaen. Other middle units cover versets, the acoustic scale, shifting modes, improvising on emotional states, visual images, text and variations. After the Duruflé units are four on symphony and a final one on silent film accompanying.

Teaching improvisation

Organists seem to be a rare breed these days. Those who improvise in public are even rarer. Those who understand improvisation well enough to teach it well seem to be the rarest of the rare. Jeffrey Brillhart demonstrates with A World of Possibilities that he is indeed a master teacher of improvisation. The book deserves its subtitle: “Master Lessons in Organ Improvisation.” No matter what skill level the student begins with, each assignment provides a challenge, and no matter how hard the challenge may seem, it seems only a short distance away from the previous assignment.

The material is dense, and you will need a copy of Breaking Free in order to take full advantage of A World of Possibilities.  A simple assignment instruction, perhaps only one sentence, might take a week of practice to explore and master. The organization and structure of the book however make sure that if you spend the time, you will become a better improviser and be prepared to tackle the next assignment.

If you are looking for a way to track your progress and improvise better in 2019, I can think of no better way than to pick up the two books by Jeffrey Brillhart and get to work.

Happy improvising,
Glenn Osborne

Free Books

Listed below are titles concerning the study and practice of improvisation that are available for free from assorted different on-line resources.


C. Roy Carter
Theatre Organist’s Secrets

Arthur Clifton, 1784-1832
P.A. Corri’s original system of preluding:
Comprehending instructions on that branch of piano forte playing with upwards of two hundred progressive preludes, in every key & mode and in different styles, so calculated that variety may be formed at pleasure

Carl Czerny, 1791-1857
The art of preluding, as applied to the piano forte: consisting of 120 examples of modulations, cadences, & fantasias, in every style: op. 300

André Ernest Modeste Grétry
Méthode simple pour apprendre à préluder en peu de temps, avec toutes les ressources de l’harmonie

James Lyon, 1872-1949
Exercises in figured bass and melody harmonisation

Henry William Richards, 1865-1956
The organ accompaniment of the church services: a practical guide for the student

Hamilton Crawford Macdougall
First Lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ

Alfred Madeley Richardson, 1868-1949
Extempore playing: forty lessons in the art of keyboard composing

Frank Joseph Sawyer, 1857-1908

Hennie Schouten, 1900-1970
Improvisation on the Organ

George Tootell
How to play the cinema organ … a practical book by a practical player

George Elbridge Whiting, 1840-1923
Organ Accompaniment and Extempore Playing

T. Carl Whitmer, 1873-1959
The Art of Improvisation


Expertise in Musical Improvisation and Creativity: The Mediation of Idea Evaluation.
An article from the Public Library of Science by
Oded M. Kleinmintz, Pavel Goldstein, Naama Mayseless, Donna Abecasis, and Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory.


Michael Callahan
Techniques of keyboard improvisation in the German Baroque and their implications for today’s pedagogy

Practice with focus

First I’d like to offer an update on information from the last newsletter. Last week I offered a review of an almost free edition of First Lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ by Hamilton Crawford Macdougall. Thanks to a couple of readers, I discovered the complete edition of the book is available for free here. No need to suffer through the incomplete version I had found on Forgotten Books. If any one knows of any other free improvisation method books that are available on-line, please let me know and I’ll pass them along as well.

Maurice Clerc

I spent most of this week attending the Church Music Institute of Shenandoah Conservatory where Maurice Clerc taught improvisation. My primary take away for the week was that I need to spend more time in focused practice. As we get better as improvisers, it is still important to spend time practicing with focus, and perhaps even challenging ourselves to master a particular element in a particular setting.

One note at a time

One of the focus areas for the week was harmony. After a brief review of traditional cadences, Maurice Clerc focused on creating harmonic progressions by changing one note at a time. The example he eventually wrote out for us was as follows:

Rather than following traditional harmonic progressions, these chords change by moving notes to neighboring tones. I’ve heard a very similar lesson from several French organists, so I believe this is one of the hallmarks of the French style of improvisation.


We first worked with this progression playing the chords on the celestes with the left hand and a melody on the harmonic flute with the right. (Think of ‘Clair de lune’ from Louis Vierne’s Pièces de fantasie.) Another suggested option was for a solo on the clarinet in the tenor range or even a 4′ in the pedal! The new registration I heard from Maurice Clerc this week was to use all the 8′ foundations. Can you play an active texture with lots of movement in different voices (not just tremolos) and still follow a progression of harmonies where basically one note changes at a time?


If you practice the progression above in several different keys and with several different registration arrangements, it becomes very easy to create a lengthy 7-9 minute piece simply by modulating once or twice and changing the disposition of the material. Choose a tonic key for the opening and concluding sections with one registration. Add a contrasting middle section in one or two other keys and with a different registration, and suddenly you are on your way to improvising the slow movement of a symphony!


As we made the progression from simple harmonies to a symphonic form, each step required us to focus on some quality of the improvisation. For the students who mastered the harmony quickly, Maurice Clerc focused on the quality of the melody, critiquing the range, rhythm, and shape. If the melody was ok, could there be more movement in the accompaniment? Any problems that arose required a step backwards in the process and simplification. When it was time to work on the form, the different sections were mapped out in advance, making it easy to work on each section individually. Though some people might think we are taking the spontaneity out of the improvisation by working each section over and over, I prefer to consider it as exploring for better options. If you find something that works, were you focused enough to be able to do it again? Is there an even better option that you might discover (especially if you didn’t like the one you chose last time)?

Encouraging you to be focused in your explorations,

Newsletter Issue 40 – 2015 06 22
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Macdougall – First Lessons

Hamilton Crawford Macdougall
First lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ

Forgotten Books offers an almost complete free download available here. There are a few missing pages in the download, but still plenty of useful and useable content. To get the entire book, you need to purchase a subscription, or you can order it from Amazon.

Sometimes, older books can be out of date and contain little relevant information. I knew there would be solid information in this book however as soon as I started reading the preface and the author recommended daily practice:

Natural aptitude alone will not enable one either to play the organ well or to extemporize on it acceptably; one must practice extemporizing regularly, day by day, over and over again, just as one practices the pieces in one’s organ repertoire. A seventeenth-century writer (Francis Quarles) puts it somewhat inelegantly, but squarely, when he writes: ‘I see no virtues where I smell no sweat.’

Improvisation requires consistent practice and focused effort. The very first lesson in the first section on fundamental principles is something I try to emphasize to any student of improvisation or even hymn playing:

Do not stop the flow of the music for reflection;one must keep going.

Near the end of the book, the author suggests writing as a way to hone one’s improvisational skills. While I’ve heard many authors and teachers suggest this, the key suggestion from Macdougall is that it should be done in nearly the same conditions as improvising:

Writing must also be absolutely without erasures to be preparatory to extemporization; Further, it must be at a fairly regular speed. It is nonsense to expect writing to be done in tempo, but it can be done with a fair amount of steadiness; the quick decisions that must be made in effective extemporizing may be practiced just as effectively in writing, provided no erasures are allowed.

Even as much composing as I’ve done, that would be a new experience for me!
The instruction throughout the book is clear and precise. Whether you need to extend a hymn or provide a stand alone piece, the guidance provided in this book will give you a firm foundation.

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:


Forms and Styles:

Newsletter Issue 39 – 2015 06 12
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Film accompaniment

For many years the pipe organ was used to provide accompaniment for films. The American Theatre Organ Society exists to help preserve and perpetuate the musical theatre pipe organ heritage that began in the early 20th century. Because the number of theatre organs has been greatly reduced, classically trained improvisers have started to accompany films on traditional church organs as one way to preserve and continue the art form. While film accompaniment may not require the contrapuntal skills to create a fugue, it poses other challenging demands for the improviser. Depending upon the movie, there can be long tension builds, sudden shifts of mood, and even the need to create a few sound effects. As an effort to catalog or discuss film accompaniment on the organ could be the focus of a whole other website, I have chosen to list below those organists already included here that also accompany silent films on a regular basis along with examples where available.

David Briggs
Scenes from The Phantom of the Opera

Thierry Escaich
Final Scene from ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Piano)
Freder’s Nightmare from Metropolis by Fritz Lang
Final Scene of Metropolis by Fritz Lang

Peter Krasinski
How Peter Krasinski Approaches Accompaniment

Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard
20.000 lieues sous les mers (Georges Méliès)
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

Dorothy Papadakos
often accompanies the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton & Harold Lloyd.

Pierre Pincemaille
Pierre Pincemaille – the film FAUST of MURNAU – Saint-Ouen de Rouen

Mathias Rehfeldt
Nosferatu (1922) – Full Movie

Timothy Tikker

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)
Timothy Tikker provides organ accompaniment for the 1931 version of the film included in this DVD.

Todd Wilson
Chandelier Falls from Phantom of the Opera

Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures
A Practical Manual for Pianists and Organists, and an Exposition of the Principles Underlying the Musical Interpretation of Moving Pictures
by Edith Lang and George West
Available through Forgotten Books or Amazon.

The Silent Film Sound & Music Archive also offers a free download of the above title as well as several other instruction books for movie accompaniment.

The Haarlem Essays


The Haarlem Essays
Edited by Paul Peeters
published by J. Butz Verlag (Bonn)
ISBN 978-3-928412-15-5
Available through OHS.

Published to celebrate fifty international organ festivals held in Haarlem, this book is a treasure trove of information about the Haarlem competition, the organs, and the themes. With over 400 pages of interviews, articles and reflections by such luminaries as Peter Planyavsky, Hans Haselböck, André Isoir, Jan Jongepier, Piet Kee, Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, Jos van der Kooy, Zsigmond Szathmáry, and Anton Heiller (to name only some), I look forward to spending many months exploring the valuable content provided here.

One of the unique features of the Haarlem competition is the possibility for a winner to enter again. Most competitions bar the winner from entering again, but Haarlem actually has given out special prizes to those who were able to win the competition three times: Piet Kee, Hans Haselböck, André Isoir, Jan Jongepier, Jan Raas. Included with the book is a CD that includes some of the prize winning performances of these five threefold winners. Also included on the CD are performances from the 2010 winners Sebastian Bartmann and Samuel Liégeon.

While not a method book, I believe there is plenty of material here for the student of improvisation to consider and practice. Many of the essays concern not only the philosophical considerations of how to improvise, but also issues of style, form, language and determining how to evaluate an improvisation. With just a quick glance through the text, the difference between improvising and fantasizing is highlighted numerous times. How many of us understand and practice that distinction?

As the Haarlem competition has always been centered on more contemporary musical language, one of the greatest assets for the student in this book is the compilation of themes. The theme for every final round of the competition from 1951 to 2012 is included. Spending a week exploring the possibilities of each theme would provide a year’s worth of practice material. While there is the occasional hymn or chant, many of the themes were written specifically for the competition. For anyone desiring to enter the competition in the future or simply wishing to improve their “contemporary style” improvisations, this collection of themes alone is an invaluable resource.

I look forward to exploring this tome further and practicing with the themes.

Peter Ewers – Just play!

Peter Ewers
Just play! An invitation to improvisation

With a copyright date of 2013, this is the newest improvisation method book that I have seen. I just received my copy this week and very quickly began exploring the contents. Because the book is a hardcover (and includes a ribbon book mark!), my first impression was that rather than a method book, this might be a theoretical tome rather than an instruction manual, but the book does live up to its subtitle: An invitation to improvise.

The book is comprised of short sections of text that read almost like blog posts. While some of the sections are more philosophical in nature, they read easily and definitely are not technical academic writing. One of the earliest “philosophical” points Ewers makes by drawing a parallel with a physics experiment:

When a physics experiment is conducted, one tries to set as many parameters as possible to a fixed value in order to observe remaining parameters, ideally a single one, more precisely. In a vibrant improvisation, all aspects mix up constantly. Nevertheless, in the course of this book, the focus will be on a small number of parameters in order to lift the veil which has been drawn over improvisation.

This paragraph was a light bulb moment for me, and let me know that Ewers has a pedagogical approach to improvisation that makes sense to me. Each of the first chapters chooses a parameter as the focal point (meter and rhythm, harmony, tone colour, dynamics, melodics) before he moves into material that combines multiple elements (Storytelling, the school of Sainte-Clotilde, Pierre Cochereau, and “Be consciously unconcious!”). Within each chapter, the material is delivered in bite-size chunks – i.e. “the blog post” – with a single idea for the student to ponder or to explore at the keyboard.

Another novel idea for me is the graphic notation system for form outlined in the “Storytelling” section. By relating form to plot and a graphic scheme, the student has much more flexibility with the potential realization of the scheme and can quickly develop a form without being so concerned about the details (such as Dupré provides in his Cours Complet D’improvisation). Several compositions are analyzed using this notation, and I think this could be an excellent way to guide group improvisations.

In my quick evaluation of the book, while I have found much to recommend it, there are a few weaknesses that I want to point out. First, this book is a translation from German. While most of the phrases and instructions are clear, there are the occasional phrases that seem a little odd, and a few which simply don’t make sense. One of the other issues is a production/editorial decision to fully justify the text. While this looks beautiful on the page, it created many hyphenated words that are either divided in the wrong place or would not have been divided by a native English speaker. Finally, while the table of contents only identifies areas (not specified as chapters), it would be helpful when flipping through the other pages of the book to actually know which chapter I was in and what topic actually constitutes a major subject area change verses a new sub-topic in the same subject area. While it may be a bit of a pain to layout and proofread for these sorts of issues, a few extra hours spent pre-production could have remedied these problems. The content is good, I just wish I didn’t have these obstacles to my encounter with the content.

Just play! An invitation to improvisation by Peter Ewers provides a wonderful guide for an organist to explore the world of improvisation. It provides steps that are accessible and easily managed by the most reluctant improviser. While covering solid material, it does so in a way that is fun for the reader and student so that the contents aptly fit the title: Just play!

Lionel Rogg – Improvisation Course for Organists

Lionel Rogg
Improvisation Course for organists
Cours d’improvisation pour les organistes
Editions Musicales de la Schola Cantorum

While there are two volumes mentioned for this course, I only presently have the first volume that I can review. The topics for volume one are practical harmony, ornamental counterpoint and chorale. Volume two is supposed to cover modal and free style improvisation.

While many of the method books I have examined are full of text and sometimes lacking in exercises, this improvisation method book is virtually 100 percent exercise material. Rogg begins with simple chord voicings, giving students a chance to train their fingers with different positions and resolutions. It is real easy for this to be a bilingual book because the amount of written instruction is very minimalistic. While the instructions may be sparse, the time a student will need to complete the exercises will be quite lengthy. Many of the exercises are the beginning of sequences that the student is expected to continue until the sequence makes a complete circle. There is then an instruction to transpose the exercise into multiple keys (preferably all keys), so three of four measures on the page if practiced as instructed, could becomes an hour or more at the keyboard!!!

Many of these exercises also include the instruction for the student to invent or improvise other ones of the same kind, so even though the exercises may seem very basic, Rogg expects the student to be creative with the given material from the very beginning. Rogg may give several harmonic schemes for the student to practice, but will then also give several ways to vary the texture (usually with only a few notes to indicate an idea to the student), so it really becomes the student’s task to take the material provided and combine it together in a musical way. There are times when I almost wish Rogg provided more instruction for how to work with the material he provides. While sometimes the ornamentation style is clear, at times a few words to explain the intended ornamentation would greatly clarify the goal.

While I did spot a parallel fifth in one of the examples, this book focuses on common practice harmony. Counterpoint is learned through ornamenting different voices in standard harmonic progressions. The chorale melody is the primary thematic material for the book once Rogg moves beyond basic chords and harmonic sequences. Numerous chorales are given throughout the book, sometimes with bass (figured or not), sometimes only the melody. The last fifteen pages of the book are devoted to themes for the student to practice. Nine of those pages are chorale melodies, followed by one page each of psalm melodies, Gregorian chants, other tunes, passacaglias, and finally two pages of fugue subjects. I expect the second volume would contain material about other musical languages and forms not related to counterpoint or variation. (I hope I will be able to find a copy of vol.2 soon.)

Overall, I find the material in this volume to be very useful and presented in a logical order. It may present some challenges for a student pursuing independent study, but I feel like this book may be a compilation of the materials Rogg covered and distributed to his improvisation students during what I suspect might be a first year course in improvisation. (Volume 2 would be the second and final year before earning a certificate or prix from the conservatoire. Just my guess. I’d love to hear from anyone who could confirm my suspicions.) If you want to learn to make a chorale partita, this is an excellent method to study.

Naji Hakim – The Improvisation Companion


I would dare to say that I owned the first copy of this book imported to the USA by Theodore Presser. I forget now exactly how I discovered it was in preparation, but I do remember contacting Naji Hakim directly in order to find out the publication schedule and how to order one. Improvisation method books were (and still are) such a rarity that I was very anxious to see what this modern day master would include in his text.

The Improvisation Companion is intended as a reference book for all musicians looking for a form of personal artistic expression on their instrument. While the organ is mentioned, the material is more generally related to aspects of composition (theme, development and forms) than to specific application at the organ. The two appendices cover the basic principles of harmonization and give a repertoire of themes. The title provides a very fitting description of the contents: there are no lessons or assignments here for the student to master. This is a catalog of ideas to explore and implement as the student explores the world of improvisation.

One of the most useful sections of this book is the second appendix containing themes. Hakim provides 15 themes for each of six different categories: Traditional songs, chorales, Gregorian chants, free themes, fugues, passacaglias, and literary texts. Another bonus included with the book is a CD of Hakim improvising live in concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. The recording includes a choral partita, Gregorian paraphrase, passacaglia, symphony, and a fantasy on a folkloric tune.

Anyone attempting to learn to improvise from this volume would likely find it to be a very difficult art to learn without the aid of a teacher or second text. However, for a student working through another text on improvisation, this proves to be a great resource of ideas and themes. Stuck on how to develop the theme? Try one of Hakim’s suggestions in Part III. Need a theme to work on for your exercise? Look in Appendix II. The Improvisation Companion makes a great secondary volume for a student’s course of study.

Jan Bender – Organ Improvisation for Beginners

Jan Bender
Organ Improvisation for Beginners: A Book of Self-Instruction for Church Musicians : Op. 59
Concordia Publishing House

For many years while I was a student, there were only three method books available for improvisation study: Hymn Improvisation by Michele Johns, the two-volume Cours Complet d’improvisation a L’orgue by Marcel Dupré, and this title by Jan Bender. The Bender has been on my shelf for many years, but received little attention as my teachers have been primarily from the French school, relying upon their own material or the Dupré.

The immediate distinction between this method and the others reviewed so far is the jump into counterpoint from the second chapter of the book. Chapter one gives the student the assignment to choose and memorize two hymn tunes, practicing them each hand alone, feet alone, and in octaves in different combinations. These melodies are to be memorized and practiced not only at the keyboard but through a visualization process where the student imagines a keyboard (or pedalboard). While I have used these techniques for repertoire, I found it very novel to apply them to improvisation. Haw many of us are studious enough in our improvisation practice and conscious enough of what we are improvising that we could sit at a chair and visualize it away from the keyboard?

Chapter two begins by introducing a pedal point and simple counterpoint. After giving one example and explaining the hierarchy of intervals, Bender offers another insight:

Treating the second hymn like the first would not be a new assignment, and yet we should be sure that solving only one problem is like doing nothing. Practice the given form … on 100 hymn tunes, and you will discover and learn a lot of important and interesting things.So the third assignment will be appropriate and new only insofar as the differences in melodies offer different possibilities of “fitting” a suitable counterpoint to them.

How often as improvisers do we do something once and then move on?

After increasing the activity of the two-voice improvisations to primarily note against note, the next chapters add non-chord tones and other embellishments. Chapter six allows for the inclusion of an alto part, creating a three voice texture. This is as complicated as Bender wishes to advance in a book designed for beginners. The second part gives instructions for applying these techniques to the four-part texture of the standard hymn harmonization in order to create introductions. The final part suggests ways to work through the same material covered in the first part but using original material (i.e. not chorales).

Though each chapter is filled with assignments for the student to complete, the end of the book offers an appendix of exercises. Considering one of the first exercises here is to play the C major scale in the left hand while playing an E major scale with the right, I think there are definitely some challenges presented here that we could all practice.

While this is a small volume, it provides solid instruction in the material covered. It presents several ideas that I have not seen elsewhere and encourages the mental training side of improvisation in a way that I think everyone could utilize more often whether a beginning improviser or someone who has improvised for many years.