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.
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,
Earlier this summer, I taught an organ masterclass at the National Pastoral Musicians convention in Cincinnati. Participants were encouraged to bring repertoire or ask questions about improvisation. One of the objectives of improvising can be to create a piece that sounds like it might be written down, so when the student was interested, we looked for improvisation skills to learn from the repertoire that we covered. One of the pieces presented then seemed like a great piece to share here, so let’s take a look at Johannes Brahms’ chorale prelude on “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele.”
I recorded the video above earlier this spring at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. A basic harmonization of the chorale can be found in the Hymnal 1982 which was in the pews at Christ Church Cathedral where the masterclass was held. So with scores for the chorale and the prelude on the music rack, we pondered, how did Brahms get from one to the other?
Any time you start an improvisation, it is helpful to know the form you intend to create. You may choose or need to deviate in the form after you start, but if you haven’t chosen a form to begin with, it’s highly unlikely your improvisation will sound like a written piece….
The chorale in the hymnal is in four-part harmony. Brahms provides no introduction, and leaves the melody in the soprano virtually unaltered. In this way, the melodic presentation and form of the two scores stay the same. The differences appear in texture, harmony, and figuration.
Brahms reduces the texture from four voices down to three. Because one of them as the melody is given to us, this actually makes our job as improvisers a little simpler. We only have to create two different parts to accompany the tune. If this seems difficult, we could even consider simplifying further so that we are only playing with two voices. One of the joys of improvising is being able to customize the level of difficulty. Unlike repertoire where we work to play what the composer has indicated, in improvisation, we can adjust to what we are able to manage.
The standard harmonization of the chorale borrows from related keys only a small number of times. Brahms begins borrowing in the first full measure. The chorale only borrows from B major and F# minor. Brahms borrows from A major, C# minor, F# minor, and B major. He doesn’t just use secondary dominants for these keys. He even manages to include a D minor (sub-median, vi) for F# minor as he enriches the harmonic vocabulary. Brahms also occasionally fits two chords in the place of one from the chorale.
Finally, after the first two beats, Brahms manages to keep sixteenth note movement going throughout his chorale prelude. Neither the alto nor bass move consistently in sixteenth notes, but their combined movements provide continuous motion throughout the piece. He uses passing tones, arpeggios, neighbor notes, and suspensions all to help fill in this more active texture.
Sounds like Brahms
If we really want to sound like Brahms, we’ll need to look at more than just this one piece. However, as we compare the chorale to his chorale prelude, we can identify areas to study and develop in our improvisation tool box:
How do you harmonize a melody in only three voices?
What harmony can you imply with only two voices?
Where can you borrow from related keys to make the harmony more rich?
Where can you add additional harmonies to increase the frequency of changes?
Where can you add passing tones, neighbor notes, or suspensions to make more active figuration in the accompaniment?
What if you use triplets instead of eighth or sixteenth notes?
All of these are items that we can practice separately before combining them together. Work with them one at a time until you feel comfortable, then start combining them together. Brahms had a lifetime of experience before writing his chorale prelude. What will you be able to create if you continue practicing for the rest of your life?
If you serve a liturgical church, today is the day when we are halfway through Lent. Many people give up something for Lent. Common examples include caffeine, smoking, chocolate, or even all desserts. I know a lot of organists that give up certain stops on the organ for the season. No reeds, no mixture, and certainly no Trompette-en-chamade! What if instead of giving up stops, we gave up notes? What would happen to our improvisations if we used not just fewer stops, but fewer pitches?
Can you improvise a piece using only one note? Harmony completely disappears from consideration if we only use one pitch to create our piece. Can you build a melody by moving the note up and down to different octaves? Rhythm and tone color seem to be the primary musical options for us when we only have one note to work with. Drum solos can last several minutes, so it is definitely possible to keep someone’s attention using primarily rhythm. How long can you keep the listener engaged while using only one note? What does it do to your own sense and awareness of rhythm? I managed about 2.5 minutes…
And then there were two
Using only one note is pretty tough. What if we give ourselves permission to use two different notes? Which two would you choose? How far apart would they be? A fifth? A third? Only a half-step?
With two notes, we now have some melodic and harmonic elements to work with in addition to rhythm. Is it easier to make a longer piece now? How much longer can you go? What difference does the choice of interval between the notes have on your creative ability?
I managed an extra 10-15 seconds with 2 notes…
A few more
Before going running back to a full set of 7 or 12 pitches, try using only 4, 5, or 6. If you can play for 2 minutes using only 2 notes, can you improvise for 5-6 by creating a B-section with 2 other notes and then return to your original material and pitches for a rounded binary or ternary form? Imagine 6 minutes of music using only 4 notes? What might that sound like?
The pentatonic scale only has five notes and has generated numerous folk melodies. How much time have you spent improvising with those five notes? Beginning keyboard students often have pieces that do not require moving the hands beyond the five notes that are directly below the fingers. What sort of music can you create in five-finger mode?
The whole-tone scale has six notes. Composers have made ample use of it to create impressionistic pieces and transitions. The traditional major and minor triads aren’t available in this set. How do you create harmonic tension or interest when all the notes are the same distance apart?
Giving up chocolate, alcohol, or caffeine for Lent might be difficult, but I believe the practice of restricting ourselves for a limited time makes us better in the long run. While it is not easy to improvise using only one or two notes, the practice makes us aware of other elements in music that we may not pay as much attention to normally. Even though Lent is now halfway over, I encourage you to spend at least a few minutes exploring how you can improvise using only a handful of notes.
If there is anything that will tempt me to buy an organ recording, it’s one with an improvisation! More than the instrument or even who the performer is, I am always interested in hearing what sort of music someone else has created on the spot. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not.
So, if improvisation is music made for the moment, should it be recorded?
While the capacity to record is much more available than it once was, we still don’t walk around recording all of our conversations. Our smartphones may record audio and video that we share through social media, but those are only excerpts of our day. Some moments, regardless of how wonderful they may be, just cannot be captured except in our memories.
As music made for the moment and for a specific audience, improvisations may not carry the same message or relevance to someone outside that initial performance. A movie may be a real thriller the first time we see it, but after we know the ending, it likely is not as exciting the second or third time through. What we thought was a fabulous improvisation, may not stand up to repeated hearings. It won’t be the same occasion. It won’t be the same audience. Philosophically, we can argue that improvisations are just moments of our musical life to enjoy while we can. Once they are over, they are gone.
For the study of improvisation, I believe it is extremely helpful to have recordings. Not only is it useful for us to hear other living masters that we may not be able to travel to hear live, the past masters such as Tournemire, Cochereau, and Dupré still live for us through their recordings. We spend hours analyzing written scores, considering the form, harmony, and counterpoint a composer put down on the page. How much time could we spend doing the same with improvisations? Any question we ask about a written composition can be posed for an organ improvisation recording.
If we wish to learn to improvise, recording ourselves and obtaining recordings of others can help us make progress. With the prominence of video recordings, we can see how people create the sounds that we hear. I remember buying a Messiaen piano score once just in order to discover how a certain sound I heard on a recording was made! With the multitude of tone colors available at the organ, seeing whether that solo is in the left hand or pedal may be a lot simpler than guessing from listening. While the musical affect may not be the same as when we first hear an improvisation, repeated listening give us the chance to learn vocabulary, grammar, and form. As children, I’m sure we all had a favorite book that our parents read to us over and over again. Through repetition, we absorbed words and an innate sense of language structure. The same can happen when we listen (or watch) an improvisation over and over.
Out of the Depths
Last night, I recorded my first CD. It is the program I played in Lent after I began here in 2015. On that program, I included an improvisation. Because I have gotten such joy from organ improvisation recordings, I am including one on the Out of the Depths CD.
The improvisation on the recording is not the one from the concert. I did choose to use the same theme: Wondrous Love. Now almost two years later, that is honestly about all I can remember from my original improvisation. If you ask me to improvise on that same melody two years from now, because of this recording, I will be able to do something similar. As the audience and occasion will be different, I probably would still do something different then. One theme lends itself to many different treatments, so even if we work with a them for a certain type of improvisation for some time, it never has to be the same way twice. How many different ways have you improvised on the same theme?
Recordings are useful and inspirational. Which improvisation recordings have you found most beneficial and why? How do you use recordings to further your studies? Some of the ones I know about are available through Amazon. Let me know if you have others I should add to my library!
I was planning a column for the Christmas season when they announced the appointment of two new auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Their ordination was scheduled for January 19, so the crazy Advent-Christmas scheduled for a couple of weeks longer. The ordination even provided an improvisation challenge: how can you stretch an entrance procession to cover 500 people walking into the building?
Maybe it was only 450, but everyone in the upper and lower sanctuary as well as all the people in white on the right entered in procession. We did two hymns with interludes after every verse. What’s the longest procession you’ve played for? What did you do to keep the music interesting?
As I was catching up on my reading after the holidays, I discovered that the American Guild of Organists has scheduled their next pedagogy conference, and its focus is improvisation! Organ and Improvisation Study in the French Conservatoire System will be held October 18 – 21, 2017 at The University of Kansas. I promptly signed up to attend. The lineup includes Olivier Latry, Michel Bouvard, Vincent DuBois and Philippe Lefebvre. More information is available at: http://agopedagogyconference.music.ku.edu/
Please let me know if you plan to be there.
At least in the US, virtually no one will recognize this as a Christmas tune, but the structure of the piece is simple enough that I thought it could be easily applied to Christmas tunes that people do know. The soprano is a straightforward presentation of the tune on a solo stop. The bass is a very simple harmonic bass with occasional passing tones. The interest of the piece comes from the treatment of the alto and tenor. The tenor has a dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern while the alto fills in between the two tenor notes with either two thirty-second notes or a sixteenth note before finishing the beat with an eighth note.
In other news, I have been asked to lead an organ masterclass at the National Pastoral Musicians Conference this summer in Cincinnati. The masterclass will cover repertoire or improvisation according to what the student wishes to work on. If you’d like to participate, please check out the convention brochure.
I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and that 2017 is off to a fabulous beginning for you.
One of the skills every improviser needs to have in their toolbox is the ability to transpose. Any of the larger forms which include a development section require the repetition of material in different keys. While it is acceptable to modify the material in the development, the best preparation for that is to practice strict transposition.
There are three ways that can learn to transpose: by ear, by clef, or by analysis. Some experience with all three can be useful as improvisers.
Using Your Ear
The ear is a great asset in transposition. It will be how you check if the notes you play sound the same in the different keys. If you have learned a melody by ear, then it may be easy to transpose by ear. Harmonies, especially complex ones, can by much harder to transpose by ear. This can be the slowest way to practice your transposition, but the ear will always be how we judge if our transposition is correct.
Using a Clef
The simplest transpositions are those by a half-step. Depending upon how many accidentals are in the piece, it is relatively easy to move a piece from Ab major to A major by simply changing the key signature. Likewise, moving down from E major to Eb major requires only a change in key signature and some attention to the alterations.
It is also possible to change the clef and read the music in a key further away. Sadly, most musicians today are generally only fluent in reading treble and bass clef. Violists will know alto clef. Some trombone and cello players will know tenor clef, but unless you read from a lot of early music scores, you probably haven’t spent much time with the other C and F clefs. There are enough different clefs that any note on the staff can actually be any pitch. Here’s an example of the same space on a staff and how it appears with the different clefs:
The way I learned to read these clefs was with Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by by R.O. Morris and Howard Ferguson. (This is an Amazon affiliate link.) I spent one summer working through learning to read the various C-clefs and larger open scores. Being comfortable reading the different clefs makes it much easier to transpose pieces into more distant keys. I strongly encourage you to master as many clefs as you can.
Transposition by Analysis
Learning to read by clef reinforces reading by interval. One form of transposition would be to consider the interval that each voice moves. This can be very helpful when transposing a single melody or theme but also for complex harmonic structures. Recognizing that the alto moves a half-step down might be easier to see than reading the part in a new clef which shows a movement from F# to E#. In a tonal piece where you can analyze harmonic function, knowing that the original is a ii-V-I progression should make it easier to play the proper notes and progression in the new key.
One of the exercises I did daily for almost 6 months was to play a single Bach chorale in all twelve keys. Not only did this help me recognize standard chord progressions and voicings, I played everyday in keys that most people avoid, e.g. Eb minor, Bb minor, and F# major. I now read harmonic function almost as fast as I read the notes on the clef. The further I have to transpose a piece, the more likely I am to rely upon some form of analysis in addition to using a clef and my ear.
I still remember my amazement when one of my theory (and piano) teachers told me that Alfred Cortot suggested transposing Chopin etudes into different keys while keeping the same fingerings! I left my piano studies behind well before I ever played any Chopin etudes, however as an aid towards improvisation, I would recommend transposing repertoire. Let’s take something a little easier like the first of Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces en style libre, the Préambule. (Free score available through IMSLP.)
The simple texture of this piece makes it relatively easy to transpose by ear or clef. The harmonic passages on the Récit will require some analysis (harmonic or melodic) in order to master. For my own practice, I read through the piece quickly in several keys:
Once you’ve transposed a piece like this, use it as a model for improvising. Follow the score, keeping the same registrations and rhythms, but change the notes. After playing the piece in several keys, I improvised an imitation Vierne piece in F Major and in G minor. There are some hesitations as I searched for similar interesting tonal gestures without following exactly what Vierne did, but that’s why we practice. I decided to make this exercise my prelude this weekend, so there are two more that follow the score less slavishly in A minor and D minor as well.
Transposition is a skill that everyone easily recognizes as something that must be practiced in order to be mastered. Improvisation requires practice as well. Whether you choose a piece by Vierne or another favorite composer, I hope you will spend some time practicing it transposed and then imitating it in improvisation.
The Sierpinski triangle is an equilateral triangle that is subdivided repeatedly into smaller and smaller equilateral triangles. It is one of many recursive designs that mathematicians call fractals. Whether you look at a small portion or the entire picture, the design appears the same.
While Sierpinski divided the basic triangle to create smaller triangles, Helge von Koch added triangles to each side:
Like the Sierpinski triangle, the Koch snowflake can be continued infinitely. More and more details arise, but they are all triangles. The most common structure in music is the 4-bar phrase. Sierpinski and Koch used triangles for their forms. We will look at form through the lens of the 4-bar phrase.
Though he died at the age of 35, Léon Boëllmann is one of the well-known French organist-composers thanks to his Suite Gothique. While he wrote numerous pieces for organ, piano, and even orchestra, the “Toccata” from Suite Gothique is a staple of the organ repertoire and his best-known work. Rather than look at the “Toccata,” I’d like to look at the second movement from the suite, the “Menuet gothique.” If you do not have a score for the Suite Gothique, you can download one at IMSLP. You can also hear me play it as a postlude on YouTube.
The Menuet is built virtually entirely with 4-bar phrases. The overall form is ABA. Only towards the end of the B section is the 4-measure structure even slightly ambiguous. The return of the A section is abbreviated in that the repetitions on different manuals are omitted. The piece is constructed entirely through the use of repetition and contrast in 4-bar phrases. The first improvisation lesson from this piece is to be sure you can play what you just played, even five minutes later after doing something different!
The first section of the piece is 48 measures long. The first eight measures (two 4-bar phrases) is played on the swell and then repeated on the great. The next sixteen measures (4 4-bar phrases) on the swell takes us a little further away from the home key before returning to end on the tonic. This is repeated on the great and brings the first A-section to a close.
Whereas the A-section began softly with the repetition being louder, the B-section reverses those and begins loudly with softer repeats. The A-section was also more connected with longer notes and step-wise motion (especially the descending bass line). The B-section is filled with staccato notes, arpeggios, and rests creating a marked contrast with what came before.
Following the same format as the A-section, the first eight measures of the B-section (two 4-bar phrases) played on the great are repeated on the swell. After another two 4-bar phrases on the great, we get another break with the repetition when the softer material is not a repeat. This new figuration gets a four measure extension which brings back the original A-section material which will now alternate with the louder B-section material for another page until we modulate back to the original home key and arrive at the recapitulation of the original A-section.
Because I believe anyone can improvise a 4-bar phrase, I believe it is possible to use the “Menuet gothique” as an improvisation model to build much longer pieces. I’ve created a PDF map of the form which is available for download here. The key centers are indicated so that you could use this to create a similar piece with different thematic material. It also could be interesting to change the tonal plan but use the same thematic material from Boëllmann.
While Sierpinski and Koch used triangles to create and break down forms, as musicians, we can use 4-bar phrases and work with a surprisingly small amount of material to build larger works.
Hoping Boëllman’s “Menuet gothique” inspires you to improvise!
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater Westminster Choir College for reunion activities and graduation. Westminster is a special place of world-class music making, and I was delighted to see and hear that the standards had not diminished in the 20+ years since I finished my degree.
Graduation at Westminster is almost more of a concert as it is loaded with choral and organ music. The Princeton University Chapel is filled with virtually the entire student body, alumni, and family and friends so the hymn singing is absolutely glorious. There are many pieces that are a traditional part of the Westminster graduation, including the Processional by Warren Martin. With 300+ students and faculty in procession, even with some coming three abreast down the aisle, it takes quite a while to get everyone in.
The first year I was in that procession, I was surprised to discover as we approached the organ console to hear a metronome clicking away. Everyone always talks about practicing with a metronome, but here was one being used in performance! Only those in the choir closest to the organ console could here it, so it was not a distraction to most of the people present and listening.
At the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, we host 10-12 high school graduations every spring. I’m not sure if our aisle is longer or shorter than the Princeton University Chapel aisle, but when you have to play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march for 34 minutes to get 300+ people down the aisle (as I did yesterday), there is a certain usefulness to the metronome. Mine flashes so no one hears it, but I was thankful to have it turned on as I lost track of how many times I played the 32 measures.
Improvising in tempo
One of the most obvious ways to know that an organist is improvising is when there is a rhythmic hesitation. Metronomes are designed to help us remove rhythmic inconsistencies. It seems like all improvisers should practice improvising with a metronome, but I would guess that almost no one ever does that. We practice repertoire with a metronome in order to work through technical difficulties or make sure our tempo is stable. Have you ever tried to improvise while following a metronome?
With these graduation processions on my mind, I’d like to suggest improvising a processional with the metronome. Choose a comfortable (slow) tempo and perhaps a simple form following four-bar phrases. Can you play (or change) something on every beat of the metronome to convey the processional nature of the piece? If this is challenging, choose a slower harmonic rhythm so you have more time to consider what chord will come next. As you become comfortable improvising with the metronome, increase the speed. Choose a different meter. What other forms or styles could you improvise with the metronome? What repertoire do you practice with a metronome? Could you improvise in the same style with the metronome?
Metronomes are a practice tool. They keep us at a steady beat, can urge us on to the next note, and help us play slow enough to not make mistakes. We recognize their utility for learning repertoire and playing long entrance processions, so it seems to me we should also have them in our improvisation tool box. What does the metronome inspire you to improvise?
The Summer is a popular time for conferences and special courses. Here’s a list of opportunities to study improvisation at the organ this summer. If you know of others, please email me or share them in the comments so that I can add them to the website.
This summer is also the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists. It will take place in Houston July 19-23. Typically there is an improvisation competition and several workshop presentations on improvisation during the convention. I only spotted one improvisation workshop: Adagio Lost and Adagio Regained: A Study of the Lost Art of Improvising in the Adagio Genre, with Emphasis on Handel’s Organ Concertos presented by HyeHyun Sung. The NCOI competition was restructured for this year with the preliminary round taking place last summer. (See my critique here.) No information about the competition is currently on the Houston website…
I am still considering offering a couple of days of improvisation instruction here. If you would be interested in coming to study with me at the Cathedral July 28-30, 2016, please let me know. Space for active participants will be limited. If there is sufficient interest, I’ll share more details soon.
Hoping you take some time this summer to improvise better,
Our modern ears have become so accustomed to advanced tonal languages that dissonance has become a relative concept. Just a few short centuries ago, composers would not include a third in the final chord of a piece because it was considered dissonant. In the 20th-century, Olivier Messiaen crafted pieces that end peacefully on a dominant seventh chord (as in Le banquet celeste). Context allows us to walk away from this final chord without demanding a traditional harmonic resolution.
I don’t necessarily remember where I got the idea, but one of the foundational ideas of the instruction I received in improvisation was that there are no wrong notes when improvising. Why then do some notes sound wrong? Why do the pieces I end on a dominant seventh chord usually sound unfinished (unlike Messiaen)?
I believe the simple answer is that these wrong notes make a change in the level of dissonance.
This works both ways. If you are playing in an early tonal language and your melody lands on the minor third while the accompaniment has a major third (F natural above a D-major triad for example), it will certainly sound like a wrong note and a mistake. Likewise, if you are playing in an advanced language with lots of seconds, sevenths and clusters, the appearance of a major triad can sound quite jarring. The sounds are perfectly acceptable by themselves. It is the context that makes them seem wrong.
The study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a very systematic and controlled way. First species allows no dissonance. In the language of Palestrina, this limits us to thirds, fifths and sixths using notes within the mode. If we wish to develop a more modern sound, what if we did first species using only seconds, fourths, and sevenths? For example:
Another alternative might be to keep the intervals restricted to thirds and sixths, but move one hand into another key:
Second species counterpoint where there are two notes against each note of the cantus firmus allows more options for introducing dissonance. Like first species, it can be done without any dissonance (only seconds, fourths and sevenths here):
Or passing and neighbor notes can be included:
With its carefully graded level of difficulty, the traditional path to the study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a careful and controlled manner. Even if we wish to use a more modern language, we can still apply those same concepts for the introduction of dissonance. Choose which intervals will be consonant for your exercise. As you move into the second and third species, introduce categories of dissonant notes one by one: passing tones, neighbor notes, chromatic passing and neighbor notes, appoggiaturas, and accented passing tones. How do these categories change or alter your dissonance level?
In my first days as a student, I spent an entire year (or two) on two voice counterpoint working slowly through the levels of dissonance and species. Mastery of counterpoint takes time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and boring. Change the rules and keep exploring!