Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra – Bach and the Art of Improvisation

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra
Bach and the Art of Improvisation
Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press, 2011.

Johann Sebastian Bach is often hailed as the greatest composer of organ music and a fabulous improviser. To be able to improvise in the style of Bach is a significant accomplishment for any musician. This book (part one of two volumes) looks not simply at how a student might learn to improvise in the style of the great master, but also how the great master perhaps taught and/or learned keyboard technique including improvisation.

As with other improvisation method books (like Hancock and Brillhart), Ruiter-Feenstra begins with a philosophical discussion of why we should learn to improvise. In the preface and first chapter, she places improvisation in a historical context and demonstrates how it was a common expectation in Bach’s time that organists be accomplished improvisers. Extensive notes for historical references are provided for each chapter in the book making this a well documented and researched presentation. Chapter two continues the look at historical techniques by considering fingering and touch. Though there are “applications” given in each chapter, only once we arrive at chapter three and the study of thoroughbass, is there any opportunity (or need) for the student to actually improvise or otherwise be creative. Chapter four requires slightly more inventiveness of the student by finally expecting the student to harmonize a given melody.

Finally with the beginning of counterpoint studies in chapter five is the student expected to create, though many of the exercises are to be done with pencil and paper first. One of the more interesting items in the text for me is the chart of ways to fill in assorted intervals with figuration. Table 5.2 also provides lots of good instructions for how to insert figuration into the chorale harmonization. Chapter six turns to the Neumeister Collection of Bach chorales for improvisational models. Chapter seven looks at dance suites and how to apply dance forms and rhythms to create chorale variations.

This book attempts to serve two purposes at the same time: 1) providing historical documentation of improvisation practice and pedagogy and 2) providing instruction for a current student wishing to learn to improvise in tonal style. While I appreciate the historical information, I am much more interested in applying the information today. As such, the later chapters in the book are much more useful to me. While foundational for the material covered later in the book, the early chapters are weak in opportunities to master the concepts. Many other texts treat the topics of fingering, thoroughbass, harmonization and even counterpoint in a much more complete manner. While it is interesting to consider these topics through the lens of improvisation, attempting to serve two purposes limits the potential depth of coverage. A second volume is projected to cover more forms, and I presume, will follow a similar dual purpose format. I have to wonder if it might have been better to divide the material into two books according to purpose, providing one volume of historical documentation and reference with a second volume of practical application and exercises. The historical documentation, research, and analysis included in this book is thorough and very interesting, however I find the practical application side weak.

Improvisation is a skill that takes time to master with many areas to cover. A beginning improviser would be better served by Jan Overduin, Gerre Hancock, or even Jeffrey Brillhart. Even if Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra has provided us a window into historical improvisation, the book lacks enough material for it to be a true method book for today’s beginner.

Jan Overduin – Making Music: Improvisation for Organists

Jan Overduin
Making Music: Improvisation for Organists
The best summary of this book can be found in the opening quote and paragraph from the preface:

There is no mystique or magic to improvising, just consistent and conscientious practice.
Gerre Hancock

It has been said of Jean Langlais that he could teach stones to improvise, and it is true that his own example and his enthusiasm for the art of improvisation were inspiring and contagious. But miracles are as rare in improvisation as they are in any field, and after several decades of teaching improvisation, I have come to rely less on the miraculous and more on clearly laid out exercises and assignments. The aim of this book is to show the student that improvisation is within the grasp of everyone, even those with minimal keyboard skills. To some this might seem like a tiny miracle, but it is achieved by hard work and an encouraging teacher rather than by chance.

What an inspirational message for the beginning student!

Jan Overduin also explains in the preface his belief that “the traditional comes first, then the modern.” Thus, this book is primarily focused on common practice tonal language. He begins with melody alone, moves slowly through one or two chords, thirds and sixths before arriving at the pentatonic mode. Even though the harmonic language is simple, he introduces contrapuntal concepts early by having each voice play a different rhythmic species. Only in Chapter 29 on Toccata is there any sort of exercise that deviates from tonal harmony (when the right hand is to play white keys and the left hand black keys).

Each chapter begins with an explanation of the material to be covered and then provides assignments with examples for further clarification and/or completion. Most chapters have 5-7 assignments, though the chapter on ostinato has 12 and rondo only has one. While each assignment usually grows out of the material that appeared previously, occasionally there are a few larger leaps that might benefit from some teacher guidance or further demonstrations. The examples and assignments are clear enough that they seem quite easy and approachable. A student can most likely follow this book without the guidance of a teacher, but should be careful not to skip over the assignments that seem too easy. While the explanations seem simple, I know that integrating the skills to be able to accomplish the given tasks will take time and practice.

In comparison to other methods reviewed so far, this may be one of the best places to start, especially if one wishes to improvise in any common practice harmonic style. Also published by Oxford University Press, Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock, while offering similar clear assignments for each chapter topic, would really work best as a follow up volume to this one, allowing review of the material covered here and advancement into larger forms. Creative Hymn Playing by Michael Burkhardt covers some of the same material as Jan Overduin, but is more limited in what it offers. Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart would also make an excellent second or companion volume to this one depending upon the interests and aptitudes of the student. Many of the assignments in form and structure in this book could be used with the harmonic instruction of Breaking Free.

Michael Burkhardt – Creative Hymn Playing

Michael Burkhardt
Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire

Michael Burkhardt is well known for his inspiring hymn playing and hymn arrangements. This book provides a guide to some of his techniques and can best be summarized by a quote from the end of the instruction portion of the book:

Develop one facet of improvisation at a time. Create a plan of attack, experiment, and modify.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part – Leading Congregational Song – offers some philosophical background and covers general performance practice for accompanying hymns. He gives specific and concise advice concerning tempo, registration and phrasing:

Slower tempi may be needed for rhythmically complex and intricate hymns….
Consider using as few stops as possible….
Generally speaking, a pulse of silence is needed for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins on the beat, and half a pulse of silence for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins with an anacrusis.

Part Two moves on to using the hymnal and becoming comfortable playing and using the material provided on the printed page. A series of very simple steps is outlined and illustrated using the tune Winchester Old.

Part three outlines a process for beginning hymn-based improvisations and then works through examples using the tunes O Filii et Filiae, Erhalt Uns, Herr, and Holy Manna. The last portion of part three is a set of variations on O Filii et Filiae with all the techniques of part three explained and labeled. Like part two, these steps are very simple and seem like they would be easily managed by a student with minimal music theory instruction.

The final part, providing almost half of the page count for the book, is filled with examples of hymn treatments with the forms and techniques identified in a box at the top of the piece. In addition to providing repertoire that the student could play, these examples show how simple the application of the techniques outlined in this book can be.

In general, I find this to be an entry level book. The material covered is very simple, but not so simple that it can be skipped by the student beginning to study improvisation. There is almost no discussion of harmonic language in this book. If the organist is to use these techniques to introduce, accompany, or provide an interlude for a hymn, it makes sense that harmonic vocabulary would be similar to what is printed on the page, so not a lot of discussion is necessary. Burkhardt does indicate that “further harmonizing possibilities are beyond the scope of this resource.” It would be nice to see a second volume address harmonic vocabulary in the same concise way Burkhardt has addressed form and melody here. (Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart addresses harmonic language brilliantly but might be a little advanced by comparison to this book.)

Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire gives clear and concise instructions with many examples on how to transform and create pieces based upon hymns. While the material is simple, it provides a solid foundation for further studies. It would be a great volume to work through before tackling Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock.

Jeffrey Brillhart – Breaking Free

Jeffrey Brillhart
Breaking Free: Finding a Personal Voice for Improvisation through 20th Century French Improvisation Techniques. Published by Wayne Leupold Editions.

One of the great difficulties I see in the teaching of improvisation is choosing where to begin and how to cover the wealth of material that a well-trained improviser needs to know. Whereas Gerre Hancock focuses almost entirely on form throughout his book Improvising: How to Master the Art, the bulk of the material in Breaking Free concerns harmonic language.

Jeffrey Brillhart attacks the challenge of what to cover and where to begin by narrowing the focus to “finding a personal language for organ improvisation through 20th century French Improvisation techniques,” the subtitle of the book. In the Introduction, Brillhart acknowledges that each student’s route to mastery is different:

There is no “one size fits all,” in learning to improvise or in teaching someone to improvise. What may work for one student may completely stymie another student.

Improvisation is a mystery. We do not fully understand what happens within the mind of the improviser while improvising. Improvisation is a search. It is a search for a personal musical language. It is a search for musical coherence. It is a search for personal self-expression. It is a search for beauty.

Breaking Free is a book filled with ideas for the student to explore. The first part (chapters 1-5) provides a philosophical grounding of improvisation and establishes the importance of the theme. Many example themes are given and chapter 4 is a catalog of development techniques. Any advice or examples provided are always accompanied by the encouragement of the student to find his or her own solution for how to treat the theme.

Part II (chapters 6-15) move into harmonic language and provides a framework not of scales, but intervals. Each chapter is devoted to a different interval (fifths, fourths, thirds, seconds, and so forth) and the harmonic colors that can be generated while using that specific interval to either harmonize or accompany the given theme. The pentatonic mode is also introduced and the student is urged to explore canons in this mode because of the harmonic simplicity the mode offers. Triads and seventh chords are also given their own chapters in this part, and while there may be references to key centers in the text, the student is encouraged to explore the textures without the restriction that a scale or specific mode would require.

Part III (chapters 16-20) begins with a look at Charles Tournemire. This chapter combines the techniques already covered with the structure and style of a specific composer, and provides a bridge into a harmonic language built upon modes. The next three chapters explain and explore the modes of Gregorian chant, a common theme source for much of French music. The final chapter of this part looks at the Bartok mode and serves as a bridge into Part IV which covers the more complex modes of Olivier Messiaen.

Only in Part V (chapters 25-35) does Brillhart finally begin to address large scale forms. Forms covered in this part include Passacaglia, Song From, Scherzo, Sonata Allegro, the structures of Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau, free improvisation and finally improvising on a literary text. The last two chapters (Part VI) provide examples of the language of Debussy and Ravel for the student to explore. Finally, for the student still searching at the end of this book there is a wonderful two-page bibliography of high quality resources for further exploration either of improvisation or other specific musical topics such as harmony or counterpoint.

Having spent the majority of my formal instruction in improvisation learning from French teachers, I am delighted that Jeff Brillhart has created this volume. While it may not be exactly what I experienced in France, he provides a codified and logical progression for something that I saw many French teachers address in a very haphazard way. By choosing to focus on a specific style, he actually helps the student develop many tools that can be applied in other areas. The greatest difficulty with this book may come from the lack of specific challenges for the student. Each chapter of Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock concludes with specific activities for the student to complete before moving on. While each chapter in Breaking Free has numerous examples and may offer ways for the student to apply the materials in the chapter, there is no task given where the student (or teacher) can clearly know if they have understood and can apply the material presented. If the student is creative, then this is probably not much of a problem, but for a beginning improviser who has trouble generating ideas, this may make it difficult to use this book without the aid of a teacher. Perhaps unintended, but a likely benefit of a student working through this book will not only be a breaking free of harmonic language, but also a strengthening of the creative muscle.

It takes a lot of varied skills to master the art of improvisation. Breaking Free by Jeff Brillhart is an excellent resource for adding tools to the improviser’s toolbox. Using this book, not only will the student break free harmonically, but he or she will also break free from the reliance on a teacher and discover his or her own creative potential. For anyone interested in improvising in a modern style (whether French or not), I highly recommend this book.

Gerre Hancock – Improvising: How to Master the Art

Gerre Hancock
Improvising: How to Master the Art
Oxford University Press

As one of the most highly regarded American improvisers of the late twentieth century, Gerre Hancock has left us a wonderful treasure in his book Improvising: How to Master the Art. I remember as an undergraduate student anticipating its release, anxiously waiting to see what this master would put down on paper as the way to learn American improvisation. While there were some smaller volumes (by Jan Bender and Michele Johns), the referential text for improvisation when I was a student was still the Cours Complet D’improvisation a l’orgue by Marcel Dupré. While offering lots of guidance, the Dupré was written for French students who normally have many years of harmony and counterpoint studies either already under their belt or in parallel process which typical American students lack. This makes the Dupré a very challenging place to start for most Americans. Gerre Hancock provides a wonderful bridge for those aspiring to follow the Dupré method but without the advanced theoretical background.

After an introduction where he offers two axioms of the art of improvising – 1)Never stop and 2)Salvation is never more than half a step away – Hancock begins with scales. Beginning with one voice, the student is encourage to make an interesting melody out of an ascending and descending scale. Slowly the texture is increased up to four voices. Numerous examples are given in a multitude of styles, however there is always one voice that is the scale. Whereas Dupré expects a student to practice proper voice leading and keep a strict even rhythm to the scales, Hancock encourages variety. This does not mean rhythmic instability as one of the recommendations at the end of the first chapter is for the student to count the time signature aloud while playing.

Chapter two moves on into phrases, starting again with only one voice and building up to a four voice texture. Having mastered scales and phrases, the student begins work on transitions in chapter three (“The Interlude”). Chapter four lays the foundation for variations as Hancock leads the student through re-voicing and re-harmonizing hymns. Chapter five (“The Ornamented Hymn”) begins to move the student away from strict statements of the hymn tune, preparing for “The Hymn Prelude” of chapter six where the student is given several forms to combine and apply the work of the previous chapters on phrases, interludes and ornamentation.

Beginning at chapter seven, Hancock moves the student from a given melody to forms that can be used with freer themes, beginning with Song Form, moving through Sonata Form (chapter 8) to Toccata (chapter 9). At chapter 10, he begins to introduce contrapuntal ideas through study of the canon. More complicated imitative structures are studied in chapter 11 (“The Duo and the Trio”) before arriving at the ultimate improvisational achievement- the fugue (chapter 12).

Overall, I find this book to be very logical in the progression through the material covered. While tonal language is implied throughout the course of study, the primary instruction in this book is in coherence through form and thematic development. It can be followed using a very simple or very complex harmonic language, i.e. in whatever language the student is most comfortable. If you are looking for instruction in harmony or a specific style, this is not the place to go, but if you wish to develop your improvisational form, this is an excellent workbook. Each chapter is filled with concrete recommendations for practice. It begins simply enough that anyone with basic music theory knowledge can follow, but it provides enough substance that even those with several years of harmony and counterpoint studies can still follow and learn.

Gerre Hancock was not only a master improviser, but also a master teacher. Improvising: How to Master the Art is indeed a masterwork of improvisation pedagogy and should be in any serious student’s library.

Charles Tournemire

Tournemire2Charles Arnould Tournemire (1870 – 1939) was a French composer, organist, and accomplished improviser. His compositions include eight symphonies (one of them choral), four operas, twelve chamber works and eighteen piano solos. Today he is almost exclusively remembered for his organ music, especially L’Orgue Mystique, a set of 51 suites of pieces for the liturgical year based upon the chants of the day.

He studied organ with César Franck. From 1898 to 1939, Tournemire served as the organiste titulaire at Franck’s old church, the Basilique Ste-Clotilde in Paris. He was also professor of Chamber Music at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1931 he published a biography of Franck. A year before the biography appeared, Tournemire recorded five organ improvisations, which were later transcribed by Maurice Duruflé from the phonograph recordings. These recordings and most all of his improvisations were often rooted in the music of Gregorian chant.


In 1936, Éditions Max Eschig published Précis d’éxecution de registration et d’improvisation à l’orgue by Charles Tournemire. Of the 117 pages, only the last 16 are devoted explicitly to the art of improvisation. Much of the text is devoted to philosophy, references to examples in repertoire, with some explanation of forms. Tournemire writes that the most profitable study that one could do is to read each day a sonata of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, and then to take the same elements and try to develop them oneself.


Charles Tournemire: Complete Recordings

*original audio recorded by Tournemire with slide show of pictures for videos

Charles Tournemire – Te Deum – Ste. Clotilde, Paris, France
Charles Tournemire – Fantasie on ‘Ave Maris Stella’ – Ste. Clotilde, Paris, France

I couldn’t find a video or audio online of Tournemire himself playing the other improvisations, but am including performances by other organists below because these have been such influential and well-known improvisations:
Charles Tournemire (Philippe Lefebvre plays) – Victimae paschali laudes – Chartres Cathedral, France