Kansas Here I Come!

Hello 2017!

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?

Kansas

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.

Simple Christmas Music

So the idea I wanted to get out for Christmas was based on one of the Orgelbüchlein chorales: Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich, BWV 605. The score (with a little alto clef for fun) starts like this:

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.

The rhythmic pattern simplifies into or can be derived from a standard 4-part chorale harmonization very easily. I opened the hymnal at random and applied it to a few Christmas tunes: While Shepherds Watched (WINCHESTER OLD), How Brightly Shines (WIE SCHÖN LEUCHTET), and Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (IN DULCI JUBILO). While Christmas is over, you could certainly do the same with tunes from other seasons.

NPM

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.

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 62 – 2017 01 30

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Thoughts on NCOI 2016

The Update

The rules for the next American Guild of Organists National Competition in Organ Improvisation have been released and are available here. While the competition has not been without changes in the past, this set of rules is a significant departure from previous versions. Even if I thought changes in the rules were warranted, I’d like to make some observations about the new rule set that seem to run counter to the spirit of an improvisation competition.

Time lag

Most competitions begin with a recorded round, leading to a selection of semi-finalists who will compete live in person. A smaller number of finalists is then selected to compete in one last performance evaluation. When there are only 5-6 semi-finalists, most competitions hold the semi-finals and finals a few days apart from each other. For the 2016 edition of NCOI, the semi-finals will be held at the regional convention almost a full year before the finals. For a competition focusing on creating music with minimal preparation, having a year between rounds might as well be having two different competitions.

Repertoire

The 2016 NCOI adds a repertoire requirement. To win the competition, not only will one need to improvise, four substantial pieces of repertoire must be learned. To ask an improviser to demonstrate technical ability and mastery of the instrument by playing a piece of repertoire seems reasonable. I know there are other improvisation competitions that demand repertoire, but in no other case does the time for repertoire become more substantial than the time required for improvisation. In the NCOI semifinal round, it could take a competitor longer to play the repertoire requirement than to meet the improvisation requirement!

Hymns

The other new requirements for the 2016 edition are hymns and figured bass. While competitors have been provided hymn tunes as themes for many past competitions, it is now a requirement for a competitor to actually play a hymn with people singing. Recognizing that creating hymn introductions and varied accompaniments is a skill that at least some organists practice every week, this seems to be a more reasonable new territory for NCOI to include. However, as there was a separate hymn-playing competition held in Boston, it seems much preferable to me to continue holding a distinct hymn-playing competition rather than folding this skill into the improvisation competition. While related skills are involved, I would still consider improvising to accompany a congregation as a small subset of the skills necessary to win an improvisation prize.

Figured Bass

While hymn playing may be the bread and butter of most organists’ playing duties, realizing a figured bass seems completely foreign to what most organists must do even occasionally. While improvisers may (should) learn to realize figured bass, it seems to me like asking the entrants in NYACOP to play scales and arpeggios for their assigned repertoire. Who would go to a performance competition to listen to scales and arpeggios or Hanon exercises? While I may be exaggerating slightly to make my point, if a candidate doesn’t know how to realize a figured bass, I feel pretty confident that they won’t be able to improvise variations on a given theme. I say don’t waste time asking for a figured bass, let’s hear the variations!

Preparation

While the rules for the timing of the preliminary round need some further clarification (Does the competitor get three 30 minute preparations or only one?), the significant change in preparation time is the availability to use the organ and the material that is provided more than thirty minutes in advance. Granting access to an instrument during preparation time makes it easier for candidates to verify or practice ideas before performing, but is still a minor change compared to the release of themes days or months in advance. For the preliminary round, the competitor is to improvise five contrasting variations on Vom Himmel hoch. The theme is already known, so there is plenty of time for an enterprising composer to actually write a set of variations, memorize them, and then perform them for the recording. With a few months of preparation, I am sure that the quality of variations heard by the judges will be better than in previous years, but I have no confidence that they will be able to select the best improviser from an exercise with this much preparation time.

Likewise where the themes are given three days in advance for the semifinal and final rounds, I become less assured that what we hear will be an improvisation. Having written a Prelude and Fugue (albeit short) in less than a week and even some compositions in a few hours, I certainly could plan out very carefully if not outright compose my entry. Anyone with sufficient skills to win the competition could certainly posses the skills to compose a piece that fast and either memorize it or bring rough sketches to the competition.

To counteract these potential composition practices, there are very particular rules about what a competitor may write on a piece of paper and bring to the console for the competition. Certainly as long as themes are given out days in advance, what sort of papers one can bring to the competition should be restricted, but what does it mean to compose full harmonies? Would writing out figures over a bass line or using guitar/jazz chord notations be a rule violation? If the goal of all these changes is to raise the level of performances, why couldn’t the competitor take part of the thirty minutes of preparation time to write out harmonies in whatever format he or she chooses? Restricting the paper brought to the competition seems to be a much cleaner rule than trying to tell someone what can or cannot be written down.

Adjudication

Sadly, too few organists practice improvisation at the level where they could consider entering NCOI. It is a difficult skill to master, and even more difficult to teach. With only a handful of master improvisation teachers in this country, in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest where teachers judge their own students, many times the best improvisers are left out of the judges pool. Having a problem finding qualified judges however is not solved by adding more people to the panel. I propose following the model of St. Alban’s, Concours André Marchal, Chartres, and Haarlem where the jury is announced in advance. Competitors are hidden from the judges during all rounds of the competition and are free to study however often they can beforehand with the jury members. Having well-qualified jurors seems much preferable to me than having more people on the jury (especially if they cannot improvise).

Final Round

The AGO has a long tradition of offering certification to its membership. Perhaps unknowingly, the AGO has just set up three levels of improvisation certification corresponding to the preliminary, semifinal and final rounds of the NCOI. When viewed through the lens of certification, each of the requests at the different levels seems appropriately graded and a reasonable way to verify that someone has a well-rounded skill set. Just as a math teacher would ask a student to show his or her work to get to the final answer, it seems perfectly reasonable in a certification process to verify that a candidate can cover all the required bases. At a competition however, repeatedly asking a candidate to do the musical equivalent of reciting a multiplication table is redundant and distracting from the primary topic of improvisation.

Coda

I understand that there was an age limit proposed initially in the 2016 rules for NCOI. A competitor in the 2014 NCOI succeeded in getting that removed by appealing to the AGO’s purpose of professional development and the lack of entrants selected for the competition above that age limit. While I hope the committee will consider my viewpoint for further revisions to the 2016 rules, I have no expectations that any further changes will be implemented for this year. The best suggestion I can make for this rule set would be to expedite the process and hold the final round in Charlotte in 2015 a few days after the semifinal round. Launch a new set of rules for 2016 in Houston with a panel of three judges selected and announced in advance with performance requirements similar to NCOI 2014. Remove the hymn playing (and figured bass) requirements from NCOI and establish a regional hymn playing competition that requires improvised introductions and accompaniments. (The winners of this competition could then provide a fabulous hymn festival for the following national convention!) Finally establish procedures to offer one or more certificates in improvisation as outlined above.

As a devoted supporter of the art of improvisation at the organ, I wish to support any effort to encourage more people to improvise and to raise the level of improvisation in this country. (After all, I started organimprovisation.com in my free time.) I hope AGO will take my suggestions and turn NCOI back into a competition and begin to explore the certification and other hymn-playing competition ideas I have offered here so that we may all work together to encourage spontaneous music making.

Glenn Osborne
www.wmglennosborne.com

Review and Recovery

Wow, what a trip! After two weeks on the road attending the Association of Anglican Musicians Conference in Washington, DC AND the AGO National Convention in Boston, it is nice to be back home. One of the reasons I chose to pursue the organ rather than piano was the joys of congregational singing. For me, there is very little more exciting musically than a room full of people raising their voices together in song (accompanied by the organ). The hymn singing at both of these conferences did not disappoint. I think I heard someone describe the three volume levels of conference singing as sing, stun and kill! Whether it was new music or old standards, everyone at the conferences sang gustily every time they were given the chance.

When a congregation sings well, the organist has many more liberties in what he or she can play. When I was studying at Westminster Choir College, the music director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton was John Bertalot. He is a fabulous hymn player, so I asked about taking lessons from him. His reply: “Why do you want lessons? Hymn playing is easy. You play anything but what is on the page!” What always amazed me then was his ability to do that while the choir and congregation sang the harmonies as they were printed on the page. (The simple way to practice this is to invert the voices or solo out the alto or tenor instead of the soprano melody – that’s what we covered in my first lesson.) With daily worship during AAM, there were plenty of opportunities to experience such fabulous hymn playing (in addition to some excellent choral singing). This was my first AAM conference, and I plan to attend next year when the conference will begin literally in my back yard with a pre-conference day in Winter Park and Orlando before moving over to Tampa.

After a brief stop in New York, I journeyed on from Washington to Boston for the AGO convention. Unfortunately, I missed the hymn sing led by Richard Webster on Sunday evening. If I had seen the poster beforehand with the quote from the Chicago Tribune – “Gabrieli meets Darth Vader.” – I might have expedited my travel plans a little to make sure I was there.

NCOI

The first event I was able to hear was the National Compeition in Organ Improvisation (NCOI). As described last week, five competitors performed two improvisations on themes given to them with 30 minutes of preparation time. This round was held at First Lutheran Church of Boston on the Richards, Fowkes & Co. organ. Bálint Karosi is the music director there and served as host. The organ (full stop list here) is in North German Baroque style, and this fact proved to be one of the larger difficulties for the candidates.

The themes for the first task (a chorale fantasy, partita, or suite) were the hymn tune Burns by Bruce Neswick, the chorale Puer nobis, and the chant Pange lingua. We had one improvisation each using the hymn and the chant. The other three candidates chose the chorale. Given the style of the instrument, a partita or fantasy in German style seemed the best match for music and instrument, however the final candidate managed to secure a spot in the finals with a delightful suite in French style on the hymn tune!

The second task of the semifinals was free of any imposed form and gave the candidates a choice of using a melody by Benjamin Britten and/or Greensleeves. This is where some of the candidates started running into problem both from a composition stand point as well as using the instrument to convey their ideas. Most American improvisers are used to playing on instruments with pistons for registration changes. This organ did not have pistons. They also have been greatly inspired by the French tradition illustrated by Marcel Dupré and Pierre Cochereau. Unfortunately, many of the techniques and favored dispositions of this style can create hiccups, burps, tremolos and all sorts of other unhappy sounds on an instrument with unstable wind like this one. In discussions with other audience members, it seemed like the last three candidates would advance to the finals, however the judges selected candidates 2, 4 and 5. Competition results can be a mystery sometimes and sometimes the differences between players can be subtle, so while I was surprised by the selection, I also was not surprised.

When I arrived at St. Cecilia Church to hear the finals, we were told that one of the competitors had withdrawn. We later found out that he had returned home the day before to be present for the birth of his child. As he was a strong contender, I was disappointed that he was unable to compete in the finals, however, his excuse was completely understandable and acceptable.

The themes for part one of the final round were King’s Weston by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter by John Williams, and Valet will ich dir geben by Melchior Teschner. The themes for part two were Adoro te devote, lines 151-67 of “Il Penseroso” by John Milton and the painting “The Passage of the Delaware” by Thomas Sully. Both finalists chose to use the Vaughan Williams hymn tune. The second candidate (and winner) also included Valet will ich dir geben. For the second part, we heard an improvisation on the literary passage and one on the artwork. Both improvisers started with a fantasy inspired by the style of Maurice Duruflé. Where the second competitor truly outshone the first was in the abundance of thematic material. Hardly a moment went by when there was not something heard that could not be tied closely to the theme. This difference continued in the second improvisation as well. While there was no musical theme implied by the selected improvisation subjects, the second competitor basically began with a clear statement of a melody that might have been played by a fife accompanying the army across the river. He then proceeded to vary and develop this theme, once again providing us with a piece with thematic material clearly stated throughout. With it’s patriotic and fanfare overtones, I suspect he won the audience prize by a landslide.

The judges for NCOI in Boston this year were Christa Rakich, Carson Cooman, and Edoardo Belotti. The five semi-finalists were Chris Ganza, Matthew Koraus, Douglas Murray, Patrick Scott and Samuel Soria. Second place was awarded to Douglas Murray and Patrick Scott received the audience and first prizes. The next competition will take place in Houston at the 2016 AGO National Convention. I have heard there are some rule changes for the competition, so if you’d like to enter, be sure to keep an eye on the NCOI page at AGO headquarters.

Recovery

While there were many other improvisation events during the AGO convention, I don’t want to be like some of the competitors and ramble along too much, so I’ll save my commentary on those events for another time. These two weeks were a change of pace for me as well as an opportunity to be exposed to some different ideas. Part of continued growth is the opportunity to relax and discover new material. If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear others improvise lately, be sure and check out the YouTube video links at organimprovisation.com. Is there an organist that you don’t know listed here? If so, check out their performances to see if you can gain any new ideas. Being an organist can be a lonely profession, so I am thankful for these intense weeks where I’ve been able to meet, connect, and hear so many other fine organists. Now it’s time to rest and digest all that I took in.

Wishing you a relaxing summer of fun and learning!

Glenn


Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:

Forms:

Organists:

Themes:


Newsletter Issue 10 – 2014 06 30
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.

Competition and Twitter

This week I am attending the AGO National Convention in Boston. There will be several events that include organ improvisations during the week: a concert by Thierry Escaich, a Hymn Sing with Bruce Neswick and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, a silent movie accompanied by Peter Edwin Krasinski, and several workshops and masterclasses. You can see the complete list that I compiled here. While I am always excited to see many familiar people and hear some fabulous playing, one of the highlights for me at the national convention is always the National Compeition in Organ Improvisation (NCOI).

After a preliminary selection round by recording, five candidates were selected to participate in the semi-final round. For this round, the candidates will have 30 minutes of preparation time with the themes and then will be required to play 1) a historically inspired improvisation based on a given hymn melody, chorale tune, or plainsong and 2) an improvisation on one of the given free themes, or on one given free theme and a secondary theme of the contestant’s choosing. Total performance time for these two improvisations is a maximum of 27 minutes. While that may seem like a long time to improvise, most candidates usually create a suite of variations on the hymn, chorale, or chant, so it becomes a little easier to fill the time requirement with short manageable movements. In fact, over the years, I’ve seen a few candidates have to end quickly in order not to play too long!

A maximum of three candidates will then be selected to continue on to the final round. The requirements for the final round are 1) a prelude, fantasia, or toccata and a fugue based on given theme(s), which may be sacred or secular and 2) a free improvisation based on a given musical theme or a given nonmusical theme (literary passage or artwork). Total performance time is again limited to a maximum of 27 minutes.

How many of these tasks would you feel comfortable doing now? Even if you aren’t able to hear the competition this week, the AGO has previous competition recordings available in the AGO Store. I found the recording from Nashville in 2012 listed in the Organ Music/Essays/Catalogs category. It also seems like you may be able to obtain other recordings from AGO National if you call and ask.

Now on Twitter

Because I received a request to report on the competition from someone who is not able to attend, I decided to set up a twitter account and live tweet the competition. I’ll eventually post a summary at organimprovisation.com, but if you’d like to follow along as it happens, I’ll do my best to make it informative and entertaining. With everyone following the World Cup, here’s my chance to be the announcer for the “American Cup” of organ improvisation. Follow me at @organimproviser to see if improvisation can be more exciting than soccer!

After a week of competitions, concerts, and workshops, I hope to have more practical advice for you next week.

Hoping you are having a fabulous summer of learning and fun!

Glenn


 
Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:

Organists:

Review:

Themes:


 
Newsletter Issue 9 – 2014 06 23
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
Sign up to receive future issues using the box to the right on this page.

Tom Trenney

TTrenneyTom Trenney serves as Minister of Music to First-Plymouth Congregational
Church (United Church of Christ) in Lincoln, Nebraska. He became the first organist to be awarded First Prize and Audience Prize in the American Guild of Organists’ (AGO) National Competition in Organ Improvisation in 2006.


Recordings:

Organ Ovations & Improvisations
Includes an improvised suite on the tune Hyfrydol.

Videos:
Excerpts from a masterclass by Tom Trenney given at the AGO National Convention in Nashville, TN, July 2012:
Tom Trenney – Improvisation Masterclass, Part I – Nashville, TN
Tom Trenney – Improvisation Masterclass, Part II – Nashville, TN
Tom Trenney – Improvisation Masterclass, Part III – Nashville, TN

“Duke Street”, April 28, 2013 at First-Plymouth Church
“Come Down, O Love Divine” – First-Plymouth Church
Tom Trenney – Improvisation on ‘ENGLEBERG’ – First Plymouth Church, Lincoln, Nebraska