Récits: Registration and Unwritten Expectations

Structurally, a French Classical Récit may not seem too difficult to improvise. Pull out a solo stop and a bourdon (maybe with a montre 8′ or flute 4′).  Play for a couple of minutes. Make sure you cadence in the same key you started, and you’re done. Easy, right?

Maybe so. Maybe not.

At first glance, Récits come with a variety of registrations: cornet, cromorne, trompette, nazard, tierce, hautbois, and even voix humaine. There are even movements that dialogue between two different solo registrations so that you don’t even have to limit your selection to one at a time! While many of these movements are in some form of 4/4 time, pieces with three beats per measure are not uncommon. Aside from an occasional suggestion of some snippet of a phrase from the chant, there is usually not a distinctive melodic motif or other form expected for the piece. With so many options, what makes it so difficult to be authentically French Classical?

Unwritten Expectations

About twenty years ago, I came across an article that delivered an a-ha moment for me about improvisation and also prepared me to study abroad. Unfortunately, I have no idea who the author was or where the article appeared. (Presumably the photocopy I made of it might be hiding in an unopened box from my recent move, but was likely misplaced many years ago.) The article compared improvising to learning the unwritten rules of a culture. Every culture has and teaches its members a certain set of behavior an knowledge. Most people do not realize the extent of this cultural formation until they encounter a radically different culture while traveling. 

While it is easy to accept and understand that each culture teaches its members its own set of knowledge and behavior, the revelation for me in this article was that the level of assumed knowledge varies from culture to culture. The author compared the cultures of Germany, France, the United States, and Japan. Germany demonstrated the lowest level of assumed knowledge. Germans will explain what you need to know to you clearly. If the information is important for your understanding, it will be included and explained by a German. 

Moving to a slightly higher level of presumed knowledge are the residents of the US. (I’ll call us Americans for brevity even though I recognize there are many others on this continent that can use that title and not be the group the author referred to.) As an American, I am likely to presume that my audience has some familiarity with the topic I am presenting. Ask questions, and I’ll fill in any details you need, but I’m not going to bore you with details that you may already know if I can make my point without them.

in France, a great deal more knowledge is presumed. Where an American might presume you’ve heard of an author before, the French will not only expect you to know who the author is but also when he lived, what he wrote, and something about his style or why he was influential. I was very thankful to have learned this before I went to study in France. In a practical example, if I hadn’t known there was a discounted train ticket price for students, I would have never been told or offered one by the sales agent. Presumed knowledge is not explained.

The culture with the highest level of presumed knowledge in the article was Japan. I have never traveled to Asia, so cannot verify how different this is from the other three cultures (which I have experienced). I do know there are many more cultural rules and behavioral expectations in Japan, so this hierarchy of assumed knowledge seems to make sense to me. Neither the author of the article nor I imply that any of these cultures is better than the other. They are simply descriptions that are useful to know, especially when moving from one culture to another.

From Culture to Music

Music is often called a language, so carries it’s own set of implied knowledge and structure. The French presume a certain level of knowledge that remains unstated. The title of a movement not only gives the registration, but so far has also implied a tempo and character. It’s no surprise then to discover that Récits have different characters and compositional styles based upon the solo voice chosen. If more than one option is given by the composer for the solo voice, then it is expected that the tempo and ornamentation of the piece will change with the registration. 

Here are some of the differences between the different solo stop pieces:

Récits de Cornet, Tierce and Nazard

The Récits de Cornet are the quickest of these solo movements. Ornamentation is very florid with irregular groupings of notes (5, 9, or even 10) very common. For example:



Slightly slower than the Récit de Cornet, but still generally a lively piece the Récit de Tierce often ends with two upper solo voices. The Récit de Nazard is the slowest of these three, generally marked Largo, Andante or Tendrement (Tenderly). Clérambault is the exception with a Récit de Nazard marked Gayment et gracieusement.

Récits de Trompette, Cromorne, Hautbois and Voix Humaine

Sometimes called a Dessus de Trompette because the trompette is used in the upper voice (as opposed to a Basse de trompette), these are the most lively of the reed solo movements. The solo writing often imitates gestures played by a real trumpet, with lots of skips between notes of the same chord:


By contrast, the Récits de Cromorne are much slower and more melodic, imitating a singer:



The Hautbois being a later innovation to the French Classical organ, these récits are generally quicker and more active than a récit de cromorne. They are modeled more after writing for the violin than purely vocal styles. Finally, the Voix humaine is the slowest of the récits, played in a more legato, vocal style, reflecting the name of the stop.


The best way to speak a foreign language is to live in the country where you are completely immersed in the language and culture. Learning to improvise in French Classical style requires the same immersion with the native speakers. Just as there are accents and dialects in a spoken language, each composer will write a little differently than the next, but they will still speak the same language. Exposure and focused study will allow you to notice the unwritten expectations of the style like the differences in tempo and ornamentation between solo stops.

What musical elements have you learned through immersion? How long were you immersed before the knowledge appeared? How did you become immersed in a particular musical idiom? We have so many different musical styles available to us now, I believe it is more difficult to truly be immersed in a musical language, but I’d love to hear any immersion stories you might have.

Hoping your Récits sound truly French!


Newsletter Issue 46 – 2015 08 17

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The French Opening: Plein jeu

In the French Classical period, composers wrote suites of pieces that were used in alternation with the choir. The choir would sing a verse of chant and the organ would play a verse, trading with each other until the entire chant text had been proclaimed. Except for the Gloria during Mass, the organ would generally play the first movement in order to establish the mode and pitch for the choir. The first movement might also clearly cite the theme as a reminder for the choir of the melody that they were about to sing.


Gregorian chant was the primary source of liturgical music during this period and was considered to be in modes rather than our modern major and minor keys. There are eight chant modes commonly referred to as:

  1. Dorian (D-D)
  2. Hypodorian (A-A)
  3. Phrygian (E-E)
  4. Hypophrygian (B-B)
  5. Lydian (F-F)
  6. Hypolydian (C-C)
  7. Mixolydian (G-G)
  8. Hypomixolydian (D-D)

The easiest way to describe these tonalities is using the white notes of the keyboard for the ranges listed next to the names above. While this is a vast oversimplification of the use of modes in chant, it will give you a basic idea of how each mode has a different character. 

These modes could be transposed to other pitch centers to make it easier for the choir to sing the chants, so while you may not need to know how to play every mode starting on any pitch, in order to improvise in the French Classical style, you definitely need to know the modes. The links above and last fall’s newsletter on learning modes are places to start if you need more of an introduction.

Registration and Style

The classic plein jeu registration is:

  • G.O. (Great): Bourdon 16′, Bourdon 8′, Montre 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Cymbale, Fourniture
  • Pos (Choir): Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Fourniture, Petite Cymbale
  • Péd: Trompette 8′ (if used)
  • Keyboards coupled

The pedal trompette is quite a loud stop compared to the typical pedal trumpets on most American organs. Take advantage of all the videos on YouTube to listen to some of the historic instruments like Poitiers, St. Maximin, or even the restored Dom Bedos in Bordeaux if you haven’t gotten to hear these sounds live and in person.

Most often these opening movements are in cut time with two slow half note pulses per measure. The writing is often in four to six voices. If there is a chant theme, it could appear in the bass or tenor. According to Dom Bedos:

Le grand plein-jeu doit se traiter gravement et majestueusement, l’on doit y frapper de grands traits d’harmonie, entrelacés de syncope, d’accords dissonant, de suspensions et surprise d’harmonie frappantes.

The great plein-jeu must be treated gravely and majestically. There one must make broad strokes of harmony, entertwined with syncopations, dissonant chords, suspensions, and striking harmonic surprises.

One of my favorite harmonic progressions from this period is where the bass makes a deceptive resolution from V to vi while the other voices resolve to a major tonic chord. For example, in A minor:


Especially in the earlier not so equal temperaments, this is definitely a striking chord progression!


Unless there is a theme present, many times these pieces simply seem to wander through chains of interesting harmonies in the tonic or closely related modes. Themes tend to be in half notes in the pedal, usually in the tenor, but occasionally  in the bass. Looking at a standard harmonized hymn and placing the melody in the tenor played by your feet requires practice. While not my best improvisation ever, I did manage to record a short plein jeu on Tallis’ Canon this week as a demonstration of the style and so you could hear the organ at the Cathedral. Feel free to share your own improvised plein jeu performances in the comments for this post.


Happy improvising!


Newsletter Issue 43 – 2015 07 28

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The French Suite

During the Baroque music period, French organists developed a style of playing and pieces that has become known as the French Classical School. Notable composers during this period include:

Before improvising in a style, it is always a good idea to play as many of the written pieces as possible. Scores from these and other composers from the era are available from IMSLP. While there will be differences in the pieces between composers, by playing through a large part of the repertoire, it becomes easier to identify the common characteristics of the style.

Movement types

Whether written for use with a hymn, movements of a mass, or for the Magnificat, French Classical composers created suites of pieces, often titled by the expected registration or texture of the movement. The most common movements include:

  • Plein jeu
  • Fugue
  • Duo
  • Trio
  • Récit
  • Grand jeu

While the order and number of interior movements varies, the suites almost always start with a Plein jeu and end with a Grand jeu. In the category of Récit, I am including movements that feature a solo stop and accompaniment such as Tierce en taille and Basse de trompette. Don’t worry if these titles don’t mean anything to you for now. I plan to spend the next few weeks explaining each one individually, offering comments on the style, registration, and steps we can take towards improvising these different pieces.

In the meantime, go find (or download) some scores to play through and enjoy this audio clip of one of the current French masters, Michel Chapuis, improvising in French Classical style for your inspiration:

MichelChapuis YouTube

Hoping you will find inspiration from the French Classics,


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Newsletter Issue 42 – 2015 07 20
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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.

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Forms and Styles:

Newsletter Issue 39 – 2015 06 12
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Solo Pedal Variations

Thank you to everyone who has completed the survey from the last newsletter about a workshop next summer in Baltimore! So far, it looks like July is the preferred month, but you can still make your voice heard here. I’m excited by the interest demonstrated in the responses and will keep you posted as the event takes shape.

Solo Pedal

A regular part of my early organ studies was devoted to pedal practice. Whether it was exercises by Stainer, Gleason or Nilson, a significant chunk of my practice time was spent acquiring the ability to find my way around the pedal board. The end goal however was always to combine the feet with the hands. Aside from a few cadenza passages, we rarely play with out feet alone after we master the basic technical exercises.

After creating the virtuoso pedal variation on Salzburg, I realized how easy it would be to progress to solo pedal variations. Where we made the virtuoso pedal part by playing the bass and ornamenting the tenor, we could play the soprano ornament the bass, perhaps something like this:

Sometimes it might be easier (or sound better) to use the alto as a harmony part rather than the bass. When there is a half note in the melody, we can choose to find some way to fill in order to keep the motion going (I added passing notes above), or we could slow the motion down to eighth notes or even have a quarter note if we need a break in our virtuosity!

Ornamented Melody

As Salzburg has several large skips in the melody, we could create another simpler variation by using choosing to only ornament the melody with neighbor tones:

And of course, one of the most impressive pedal techniques is to play notes with both feet at the same time, adding in three- or four-note chords for the biggest splash:
While these solo pedal variation techniques might better be suited to concert use than liturgical use, they are still useful tools for our improvisational toolbox. If we need to practice our pedal technique, we might as well practice our improvisation skills at the same time. Besides, wouldn’t a flashy pedal cadenza be a great touch to add to the end a toccata?

Hoping your feet will soon be flying across the pedalboard,


Newsletter Issue 38 – 2015 05 26
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Virtuoso Pedal Variation

Fast feet

Most people are amazed when they discover that an organist uses his or her feet to play notes (and has to do so without looking). And the more notes an organist plays on the pedals, the more impressed they tend to be. Variations for pedal solo, pedal cadenzas, and any other piece with a very active pedal part are crowd-pleasers and generate a lot of enthusiasm for the performer.

Inspiration strikes

Recently I had the opportunity to hear an organ concert where the performer played the ‘Concert Variations on Old Hundredth‘ by John Knowles Paine. I may or may not have ever heard the piece before, but towards the end, there was a rousing variation with a very flashy pedal line that reminded me of the Charles Ives ‘Variations on America‘ (which was the model for the newsletter series on creating holiday variations). Probably because I sang Old 100th every week at the Presbyterian church where I grew up, I knew the harmonization well and was struck with how easy it would be to create a virtuoso pedal improvisation very similar to what Paine had taken the time to write down.

Work from the harmony

Since we are now in the Easter season, let’s take the tune Salzburg for an example today. (We will sing it this week with the text ‘At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing.’) Starting from the tune as harmonized by J.S. Bach (available as a PDF here), we can create a pedal line of sixteenth notes by ornamenting the tenor with lower neighbor notes. So the first two measures could become something like this:


Other fills

The first note of each beat is the traditional bass note of the harmony and the tenor follows with a lower neighbor in order to fill out the rest of the beat. When the chord stays the same for two beats, you could borrow a note from the chord in order to keep from playing the same pattern twice. The second beat of the second measure in my example uses the C# from the alto and where there is a unison D for beats three and four, I fill out the harmony, keeping the pattern, but using different notes from the D major chord.

When there are half notes or eight notes in the bass, you’ll need to find a different figuration in order to fill the time. Here are some options for portions of the third line of the hymn:



Finally to finish off our virtuoso pedal variation, we need something for the hands to do. My recollection of the Paine variation is that both hands played the standard harmonization in short staccato chords an octave higher than normal. Ives gives the right hand the harmonized melody to play in full quarter notes and suggests the left hand should hold onto the bench! Try both and figure out which is easier for you. The great joy of this idea is that it is easily repeated and can be practiced almost like you would practice a written piece. I wrote out a complete example for the tune that you can download here. While I doubt it will become a classic in the organ literature, it will serve nicely as my postlude for this weekend!

May all your improvisations be fun and impressive!


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Newsletter Issue 36 – 2015 04 16
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Call me old-fashioned

One of the great things about my new home town of Baltimore is the numerous concert offerings. The Baltimore Symphony has a fabulous line up of programs, and the Peabody Institute seems to offer some sort of concert almost every day! Add in a few other concert series at local churches and other institutions and there is a true wealth of cultural opportunities to explore here. Oh, and should you happen to not find anything to your liking in Baltimore, Washington DC and Philadelphia are just a short drive away!

New and Different

Perhaps it’s my interests in improvisation and composition, but I’m always interested in hearing works that are new or lesser known. I might have also inherited part of this attitude from one of my organ teachers as well who always encouraged students to play pieces that everyone else wasn’t playing. Whatever the reason, I was led to attend a concert last week that included some twentieth-century works by well-known composers but which are seldom done. While not absolutely new, these works were certainly different. Presenting some different instrumental ensembles and technically very demanding, the works have been rarely performed since they were written. While we can lament the great masterworks that lay hidden and unplayed for many years, I suspect the selections I heard will remain largely unknown for the foreseeable future.

Melody (or lack thereof)

Many times on this blog, I have stressed the importance of color. Usually, this comes through increasing harmonic complexity. While a theorist may have delighted at the study of the scores from the concert I heard, as a listener, even with some of the techniques explained in the program, I found myself floating in a sea of sound that had no coherence (another favorite topic of mine!). I completely understood the development of aleatoric (chance) music at this concert because there was no melody for me to follow. There was no pulse to prompt me to tap my foot. It just seemed random. Why waste the time working out complicated structures when the listener simply cannot hear them? That’s when I decided you could call my old-fashioned: I like a good melody that I can remember, follow, and perhaps even sing.

Good Melody

What makes a good melody? What should we think about as we try to improvise a melody? Since I proposed the Four C’s of Improvisation, I’d now like to propose the Four R’s of a Remarkable Melody:

  1. Rhythm – Is the melody monorhythmic (like many hymns) or does it have a variety of rhythmic patterns?
  2. Range – Is the melody within a tight or wide range?
  3. Relaxation – Does the melody offer a sense of tension and release?
  4. Rotundity (I think I made this one up to fit my list.) – What shape does the melody have? Are there lots of skips or is it mostly stepwise?

I’m not sure that there are absolutely right answers for these questions, but I propose that a remarkable melody probably has something interesting about the rhythm (even if it is that it is all the same), a high point and a low point (preferably only one of each), builds and releases tension with a shape that can be recognized by the ear. All of these can apply regardless of the complexity of the harmonic language.

Evaluation and Application

At the next concert you attend, evaluate the melodies of the pieces on the programs? What makes them remarkable? Consider what qualities the next melody you improvise has. Does it move primarily in one direction? Could you create a longer piece simply by changing one of these four R’s at a time? A short four-bar melody could easily become a 24-measure piece just by stating the melody (4m), adjusting each of the criteria (4×4=16m), and then stating the original theme again (4m). Exploring these ideas will also give you the tools to produce development sections in larger sonata and symphonic forms. Even when you aren’t pleased with the results (as I wasn’t happy with the concert I attended), be brave enough to experience the new and different!

May all your melodies be remarkable!


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Newsletter Issue 33 – 2015 02 23
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Models and Anchors

Composers create music for many different reasons. Occasionally, they write pieces to demonstrate techniques for their students, either as examples of instrumental technique or compositional practices to master. The Orgelbüchlein of Johann Sebastian Bach is a fabulous place to look for simple chorale treatment ideas. L’Orgue Mystique by Charles Tournemire offers a wealth of ideas for how to work with chants. As improvisers (and composers) we need to spend some of our time studying the masters that came before us and learning to use the material (notes, harmonies, and sound colors) that we have available to us.

Paul Manz

One of the great American composers and hymn players of the twentieth century was Paul Manz. He produced countless volumes of pieces based upon familiar hymn tunes. Published with the title of Improvisations, many of these pieces could be models for us to follow, suggesting ideas and techniques for us to learn and apply to other melodies. One of his collections that I’ve had in my library for many years is his Improvisations for the Christmas Season, Set 1. It includes settings of the chorales Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, Veni Emmanuel, and Wachet Auf along with a few others. Though the volume is labeled for the Christmas season, these are Advent chorales, so I typically will use them in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (That is, if I remember to take my score out of the file cabinet and bring it to church!)

Veni Emmanuel

One of the settings in the collection that fascinated me was a very simple setting of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It is a short one page piece. The pedal part consists entirely of a single note, the tonic E. The melody is presented on a solo stop and the chordal accompaniment on a softer registration. I found a performance on YouTube that you may hear by following the link here. What fascinates me about this composition is how Manz begins and ends with cluster harmonies and triads from within the mode, but then ventures quite far afield in the middle, using chromaticism might otherwise be out of place in a modal piece.

When evaluating an improvisation (or composition), I like to fall back on the four C’s that I outlined in the first newsletter issues: competent, convincing, coherent, and colorful. The mixture of chromatic and modal harmonic language could make this Manz piece incoherent and perhaps not very competent either, yet our ears accept the chromaticism. Why?


This improvisation gives our ears two anchors to hold on to: the pedal point and the melody. Being a familiar tune, the melody (as the loudest voice) clearly has the strongest pull for our ears. The pedal point also orients us just as the north pole orients a compass. Regardless of which way we may turn, the pedal will enable us to gain our bearings and return home again. The chromaticism also has a direction to it – the chords continue moving up – giving our ear an expected resolution to the dissonance as well. All these together combine to create the color of the piece, enabling it to be coherent, competent, and convincing, in spite of the rather simple and perhaps uninteresting ideas that are combined to make the composition.

Try it for yourself

How can this piece serve as a model for us? What can we practice following this example?

While normally, pedal points can be boring and would often be discouraged, they can be useful in times of very chromatic movement. What sort of harmonic tension can you create over a pedal point? How long can you keep a listener’s attention with only one note in the pedal? Explore chromatic harmonies by changing one note at a time in the accompaniment. Does this work better with the melody in the soprano or tenor range? What difference does it make if the theme is in a major mode? What if the chromatic lines move down instead of up? Here’s a technical challenge for you: play the pedal point with the left (or right!) hand and the melody in the pedal. Choose different themes and try out all the different combinations of pedal point, melody and accompaniment that you can imagine!

May all your improvisations be competent, convincing, coherent and colorful!


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Newsletter Issue 30 – 2014 12 01
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Thank You

This week in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving. While it has become a commercialized holiday that at one point marked the start of the Christmas shopping season (which now begins before Halloween), I believe it is very useful for everyone to spend a few moments from time to time to express gratitude to others. Today, I’d like to thank you for visiting organimprovisation.com. If you enjoy the content, would you thank me by sharing it with your friends and colleagues and asking them to subscribe? Every time I see a new subscriber or get a note from someone, I feel encouraged because I believe in some small way I’ve been able to help someone become a better organist. Thank you for your confidence in my abilities to offer you useful information. Please feel free to email me with your ideas for topics or lessons that would be most helpful to you.

Now Thank We All Our God

One of the most popular hymns sung at Thanksgiving is the German chorale Nun danket alle Gott, and one of the most popular settings of the chorale for organ is the Virgil Fox transcription of a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata no. 79. (Here Virgil Fox play it on YouTube here or the original Bach Cantata movement with orchestra here.) I’d like to use this piece as our model to imitate this week. How can we break this piece down and use the pieces to build something like it with a different choral?

Language and Form

Being composed by J.S. Bach, the musical language is very tonal. Secondary dominant seventh (or ninth) chords are about as adventuresome as we get harmonically. If you wish to treat another tune in this style, make sure the tonal language of the theme is consistent with the style.

For form, the piece basically alternates what I will call concerto material with phrases of the chorale. The second half of the chorale is also repeated, creating additional length for the piece. The chorale theme always appears in the left hand on a solo stop and is also given a half-note pulse. This allows time for the right hand to provide concerto material for each note of the theme, but the harmonic rhythm does not move any faster than the theme itself. In some other forms, doubling the length of time a melody note is played gives the composer the opportunity to fit more chords in the harmony, but this is not the case here. Bach keeps it simple.

Getting Started

The opening concerto material is actually the same material that is used to accompany the first phrase of the chorale. Rather than play the chorale, the left hand just played a rhythmic idea to keep the piece in motion:


Perhaps a first step to try if you wish to do this with another chorale is to simply use the left hand accompaniment figure to above to play through the harmonies of your new chorale theme. For example, here’s the opening of All Glory, Laud and Honor (Valet will ich dir geben):


After this, it’s time to experiment to find a motif or idea that you can play with the right hand. Bach uses both rising and descending thirds as well as neighbor notes to create his concerto material. Try using similar material for your harmonic progression, but keep the idea simple so that you can remember it and use it or reference it again and again in between each of the phrases of your chorale theme.

Pulling It All Together

One of the other details I noticed about the Bach cantata movement is that each full phrase of the chorale is interrupted at the halfway point by a short phrase of concerto material. At the end of a phrase of the chorale, there is a longer section of concerto material before the chorale returns. This makes it easier to modulate to the dominant where the second half of the chorale begins and is an easy way to create a longer piece if you have more time that you need to fill. To shorten the piece, leave out the additional concerto material that interrupts the theme at the midpoint of each phrase.

Thank you again for visiting organimprovisation.com. I hope you find these tips helpful and that your improvisations fill those around you with gratitude for the musical gifts that you have been given!

Happy Thanksgiving,

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Newsletter Issue 29 – 2014 11 24
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Thriving through Severe Limitations

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. -Igor Stravinsky

I have always felt that one of the biggest obstacles for the beginning improviser is the fear of the unknown. When there are no longer notes on the page giving instructions to the fingers and feet, how do we choose what to play? Will we start with a bang or quietly? Do we use our feet from the beginning or let the hands start first? How about a pedal solo to begin? Are we in major, minor, or some other mode? What form shall we try to follow? What meter will we use? Are we going to play fast or slow? Will the rhythm be simple quarter notes or will we use syncopation. triplets, or other more complicated rhythms?

Even if we make it past the fear of creating music on the spot, we may be overwhelmed by the choices.


A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. -Lao-Tsu

By making a first decision about any aspect of the improvisation, we have begun the journey. Even something as generic as choosing an emotion we wish to convey through the improvisation can guide our selection of key, tempo and dynamics. Each decision after the first becomes easier and comes quicker. If we wish to create a happy piece, perhaps we choose a major key and play faster than if we are sad. By making a decision about one aspect of the piece, we have narrowed our field of choice and further reduced the stress of getting started. As improvisers, we can remain open to the possibilities we might discover while creating a piece that might send us down new paths, but in order to start the journey, we must make at least one decision. How much do you decide before you begin to improvise?


When I began my composition studies, my first assignment was to write a piece for clarinet using only the intervals of a minor second, major second, perfect fourth or tritone. My memory may be slightly faulty on the exact list of intervals, but there were certainly no more than four options, and I’m sure that no third was included, major or minor. Can you improvise a melody using only those intervals as you move from note to note?

By being assigned to write for a specific instrument, a first decision was made for us. While an advanced clarinetist might be able to create multiphonics, the instrument basically produces one note at a time, so any sense of pitch center or key would have to be established by the melody without any harmonic support. By restricting us to only moving by certain intervals, our tonal language was restricted, even if it wasn’t restricted in the same way as identifying a key would have limited us. Even as constraining as these requirements might seem, they still left tempo, dynamics and rhythm all completely open ended. The variety that the class brought back and developed as we continue to work on this project was amazing.


When we complained about how difficult this first assignment seemed, I remember by teacher telling a story about Igor Stravinsky. At some point, someone asked the great composer if he would write a piece of music for them. Stravinsky responded with the seemingly absurd answer that he didn’t know how to write a piece of music, but then explained that if you asked him to write a piece for X,Y, and Z (insert the strangest combination of three instruments you can imagine, such as accordion, tuba, and xylophone), he would happily accept the request. While the story may be apocryphal, I believe the quote at the top of this newsletter supports that idea that Stravinsky thrived under restrictions.

Try your hand at improvising a single melody following the rules for the clarinet assignment above. How many different moods can you convey with those same restrictions? Can you create an ABA form lasting more than two minutes with the same limitation?

If you are having difficulty improvising, try making it more difficult to improvise. Create more restrictions for yourself before you start. Describe your improvisation as completely as you can before playing the first note. While it may actually be more difficult to improvise under these restrictions, you will also know exactly how you did not meet them, and that will make it easier to learn from your mistake(s). Being clear in your intentions will enable you to be precise in your execution.

Hoping constraints lead you to creativity,

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:


Newsletter Issue 28 – 2014 11 10
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