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.
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,