Macdougall – First Lessons

Hamilton Crawford Macdougall
First lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ

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Sometimes, older books can be out of date and contain little relevant information.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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The Haarlem Essays


The Haarlem Essays
Edited by Paul Peeters
published by J. Butz Verlag (Bonn)
ISBN 978-3-928412-15-5
Available through OHS.

Published to celebrate fifty international organ festivals held in Haarlem, this book is a treasure trove of information about the Haarlem competition, the organs, and the themes. With over 400 pages of interviews, articles and reflections by such luminaries as Peter Planyavsky, Hans Haselböck, André Isoir, Jan Jongepier, Piet Kee, Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, Jos van der Kooy, Zsigmond Szathmáry, and Anton Heiller (to name only some), I look forward to spending many months exploring the valuable content provided here.

One of the unique features of the Haarlem competition is the possibility for a winner to enter again. Most competitions bar the winner from entering again, but Haarlem actually has given out special prizes to those who were able to win the competition three times: Piet Kee, Hans Haselböck, André Isoir, Jan Jongepier, Jan Raas. Included with the book is a CD that includes some of the prize winning performances of these five threefold winners. Also included on the CD are performances from the 2010 winners Sebastian Bartmann and Samuel Liégeon.

While not a method book, I believe there is plenty of material here for the student of improvisation to consider and practice. Many of the essays concern not only the philosophical considerations of how to improvise, but also issues of style, form, language and determining how to evaluate an improvisation. With just a quick glance through the text, the difference between improvising and fantasizing is highlighted numerous times. How many of us understand and practice that distinction?

As the Haarlem competition has always been centered on more contemporary musical language, one of the greatest assets for the student in this book is the compilation of themes. The theme for every final round of the competition from 1951 to 2012 is included. Spending a week exploring the possibilities of each theme would provide a year’s worth of practice material. While there is the occasional hymn or chant, many of the themes were written specifically for the competition. For anyone desiring to enter the competition in the future or simply wishing to improve their “contemporary style” improvisations, this collection of themes alone is an invaluable resource.

I look forward to exploring this tome further and practicing with the themes.

Peter Ewers – Just play!

Peter Ewers
Just play! An invitation to improvisation

With a copyright date of 2013, this is the newest improvisation method book that I have seen. I just received my copy this week and very quickly began exploring the contents. Because the book is a hardcover (and includes a ribbon book mark!), my first impression was that rather than a method book, this might be a theoretical tome rather than an instruction manual, but the book does live up to its subtitle: An invitation to improvise.

The book is comprised of short sections of text that read almost like blog posts. While some of the sections are more philosophical in nature, they read easily and definitely are not technical academic writing. One of the earliest “philosophical” points Ewers makes by drawing a parallel with a physics experiment:

When a physics experiment is conducted, one tries to set as many parameters as possible to a fixed value in order to observe remaining parameters, ideally a single one, more precisely. In a vibrant improvisation, all aspects mix up constantly. Nevertheless, in the course of this book, the focus will be on a small number of parameters in order to lift the veil which has been drawn over improvisation.

This paragraph was a light bulb moment for me, and let me know that Ewers has a pedagogical approach to improvisation that makes sense to me. Each of the first chapters chooses a parameter as the focal point (meter and rhythm, harmony, tone colour, dynamics, melodics) before he moves into material that combines multiple elements (Storytelling, the school of Sainte-Clotilde, Pierre Cochereau, and “Be consciously unconcious!”). Within each chapter, the material is delivered in bite-size chunks – i.e. “the blog post” – with a single idea for the student to ponder or to explore at the keyboard.

Another novel idea for me is the graphic notation system for form outlined in the “Storytelling” section. By relating form to plot and a graphic scheme, the student has much more flexibility with the potential realization of the scheme and can quickly develop a form without being so concerned about the details (such as Dupré provides in his Cours Complet D’improvisation). Several compositions are analyzed using this notation, and I think this could be an excellent way to guide group improvisations.

In my quick evaluation of the book, while I have found much to recommend it, there are a few weaknesses that I want to point out. First, this book is a translation from German. While most of the phrases and instructions are clear, there are the occasional phrases that seem a little odd, and a few which simply don’t make sense. One of the other issues is a production/editorial decision to fully justify the text. While this looks beautiful on the page, it created many hyphenated words that are either divided in the wrong place or would not have been divided by a native English speaker. Finally, while the table of contents only identifies areas (not specified as chapters), it would be helpful when flipping through the other pages of the book to actually know which chapter I was in and what topic actually constitutes a major subject area change verses a new sub-topic in the same subject area. While it may be a bit of a pain to layout and proofread for these sorts of issues, a few extra hours spent pre-production could have remedied these problems. The content is good, I just wish I didn’t have these obstacles to my encounter with the content.

Just play! An invitation to improvisation by Peter Ewers provides a wonderful guide for an organist to explore the world of improvisation. It provides steps that are accessible and easily managed by the most reluctant improviser. While covering solid material, it does so in a way that is fun for the reader and student so that the contents aptly fit the title: Just play!

Lionel Rogg – Improvisation Course for Organists

Lionel Rogg
Improvisation Course for organists
Cours d’improvisation pour les organistes
Editions Musicales de la Schola Cantorum

While there are two volumes mentioned for this course, I only presently have the first volume that I can review. The topics for volume one are practical harmony, ornamental counterpoint and chorale. Volume two is supposed to cover modal and free style improvisation.

While many of the method books I have examined are full of text and sometimes lacking in exercises, this improvisation method book is virtually 100 percent exercise material. Rogg begins with simple chord voicings, giving students a chance to train their fingers with different positions and resolutions. It is real easy for this to be a bilingual book because the amount of written instruction is very minimalistic. While the instructions may be sparse, the time a student will need to complete the exercises will be quite lengthy. Many of the exercises are the beginning of sequences that the student is expected to continue until the sequence makes a complete circle. There is then an instruction to transpose the exercise into multiple keys (preferably all keys), so three of four measures on the page if practiced as instructed, could becomes an hour or more at the keyboard!!!

Many of these exercises also include the instruction for the student to invent or improvise other ones of the same kind, so even though the exercises may seem very basic, Rogg expects the student to be creative with the given material from the very beginning. Rogg may give several harmonic schemes for the student to practice, but will then also give several ways to vary the texture (usually with only a few notes to indicate an idea to the student), so it really becomes the student’s task to take the material provided and combine it together in a musical way. There are times when I almost wish Rogg provided more instruction for how to work with the material he provides. While sometimes the ornamentation style is clear, at times a few words to explain the intended ornamentation would greatly clarify the goal.

While I did spot a parallel fifth in one of the examples, this book focuses on common practice harmony. Counterpoint is learned through ornamenting different voices in standard harmonic progressions. The chorale melody is the primary thematic material for the book once Rogg moves beyond basic chords and harmonic sequences. Numerous chorales are given throughout the book, sometimes with bass (figured or not), sometimes only the melody. The last fifteen pages of the book are devoted to themes for the student to practice. Nine of those pages are chorale melodies, followed by one page each of psalm melodies, Gregorian chants, other tunes, passacaglias, and finally two pages of fugue subjects. I expect the second volume would contain material about other musical languages and forms not related to counterpoint or variation. (I hope I will be able to find a copy of vol.2 soon.)

Overall, I find the material in this volume to be very useful and presented in a logical order. It may present some challenges for a student pursuing independent study, but I feel like this book may be a compilation of the materials Rogg covered and distributed to his improvisation students during what I suspect might be a first year course in improvisation. (Volume 2 would be the second and final year before earning a certificate or prix from the conservatoire. Just my guess. I’d love to hear from anyone who could confirm my suspicions.) If you want to learn to make a chorale partita, this is an excellent method to study.

Naji Hakim – The Improvisation Companion


I would dare to say that I owned the first copy of this book imported to the USA by Theodore Presser. I forget now exactly how I discovered it was in preparation, but I do remember contacting Naji Hakim directly in order to find out the publication schedule and how to order one. Improvisation method books were (and still are) such a rarity that I was very anxious to see what this modern day master would include in his text.

The Improvisation Companion is intended as a reference book for all musicians looking for a form of personal artistic expression on their instrument. While the organ is mentioned, the material is more generally related to aspects of composition (theme, development and forms) than to specific application at the organ. The two appendices cover the basic principles of harmonization and give a repertoire of themes. The title provides a very fitting description of the contents: there are no lessons or assignments here for the student to master. This is a catalog of ideas to explore and implement as the student explores the world of improvisation.

One of the most useful sections of this book is the second appendix containing themes. Hakim provides 15 themes for each of six different categories: Traditional songs, chorales, Gregorian chants, free themes, fugues, passacaglias, and literary texts. Another bonus included with the book is a CD of Hakim improvising live in concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL. The recording includes a choral partita, Gregorian paraphrase, passacaglia, symphony, and a fantasy on a folkloric tune.

Anyone attempting to learn to improvise from this volume would likely find it to be a very difficult art to learn without the aid of a teacher or second text. However, for a student working through another text on improvisation, this proves to be a great resource of ideas and themes. Stuck on how to develop the theme? Try one of Hakim’s suggestions in Part III. Need a theme to work on for your exercise? Look in Appendix II. The Improvisation Companion makes a great secondary volume for a student’s course of study.

Jan Bender – Organ Improvisation for Beginners

Jan Bender
Organ Improvisation for Beginners: A Book of Self-Instruction for Church Musicians : Op. 59
Concordia Publishing House

For many years while I was a student, there were only three method books available for improvisation study: Hymn Improvisation by Michele Johns, the two-volume Cours Complet d’improvisation a L’orgue by Marcel Dupré, and this title by Jan Bender. The Bender has been on my shelf for many years, but received little attention as my teachers have been primarily from the French school, relying upon their own material or the Dupré.

The immediate distinction between this method and the others reviewed so far is the jump into counterpoint from the second chapter of the book. Chapter one gives the student the assignment to choose and memorize two hymn tunes, practicing them each hand alone, feet alone, and in octaves in different combinations. These melodies are to be memorized and practiced not only at the keyboard but through a visualization process where the student imagines a keyboard (or pedalboard). While I have used these techniques for repertoire, I found it very novel to apply them to improvisation. Haw many of us are studious enough in our improvisation practice and conscious enough of what we are improvising that we could sit at a chair and visualize it away from the keyboard?

Chapter two begins by introducing a pedal point and simple counterpoint. After giving one example and explaining the hierarchy of intervals, Bender offers another insight:

Treating the second hymn like the first would not be a new assignment, and yet we should be sure that solving only one problem is like doing nothing. Practice the given form … on 100 hymn tunes, and you will discover and learn a lot of important and interesting things.So the third assignment will be appropriate and new only insofar as the differences in melodies offer different possibilities of “fitting” a suitable counterpoint to them.

How often as improvisers do we do something once and then move on?

After increasing the activity of the two-voice improvisations to primarily note against note, the next chapters add non-chord tones and other embellishments. Chapter six allows for the inclusion of an alto part, creating a three voice texture. This is as complicated as Bender wishes to advance in a book designed for beginners. The second part gives instructions for applying these techniques to the four-part texture of the standard hymn harmonization in order to create introductions. The final part suggests ways to work through the same material covered in the first part but using original material (i.e. not chorales).

Though each chapter is filled with assignments for the student to complete, the end of the book offers an appendix of exercises. Considering one of the first exercises here is to play the C major scale in the left hand while playing an E major scale with the right, I think there are definitely some challenges presented here that we could all practice.

While this is a small volume, it provides solid instruction in the material covered. It presents several ideas that I have not seen elsewhere and encourages the mental training side of improvisation in a way that I think everyone could utilize more often whether a beginning improviser or someone who has improvised for many years.

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra – Bach and the Art of Improvisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do I start?

Now that we’ve explored the Four C’s of Improvising (Competency, Convincing, Coherent and Colorful), the question becomes how do we apply them all at once? If our improvisations are to sound like a composition, then we must be able to master all of them, but where do we start? Is there an order that we need to cover them in order to master the art of improvisation?

The Tool Box

I have always looked at my improvisation skills as a tool box. A house or even a piece of furniture is constructed using not just a hammer, but a hammer, screwdriver, saw, nails, pliers, and depending upon the project, perhaps a measuring tape, a few wrenches, a blow torch or even a backhoe! So constructing a piece of music also requires use of harmony, counterpoint, and many other musical tools. It can be advantageous to practice these areas separately, but eventually we must combine them together if we are to achieve a final product. Mastering harmony alone would be like mastering the saw. There are many things we could do, but we will need more tools to complete our project.


Because there are so many tools that we need to master in order to improvise, I have become fascinated by the method books that have been written to teach improvisation. I am attempting to compile a bibliography of books here. Please let me know about others and I will add them to the list. Each of the books I have seen chooses a different place to start and covers different tools.

For example, one of the recent books I found is Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising by Sietze de Vries. As the title implies, this book is aimed at organists beginning the study of improvisation. The first pages explain root position triads, inversions, and basic harmonic progressions. The next few chapters build out from this base by expanding to other major keys, applying the inversions, widening the harmonic palette, and then moving into minor keys and church modes. If you do not have a solid foundation in harmony and theory, then this could be a good place for you to begin your study. As the author says on the last page:

And now a somewhat discouraging announcement: This is only the beginning! The knowledge you have gained about harmonizing can help you begin to improvise hymn introductions and choral preludes. This makes knowledge of different musical forms absolutely necessary.

Indeed, I find this book to be very basic and something I am not likely to use myself except as a thematic resource. It includes over two dozen simple chorale themes from the Dutch Liedboek voor de kerken. If you don’t have access to that hymnal and need some simple themes to work with, this could be an excellent resource. Here’s a sample theme, Lobt Gott den Herrn, ihr Heiden all:
LobtGottdenHerrn - Vries

Rather than search through Bach’s 371 Harmonized Chorales for simple chorales, Harmonizing by Sietze de Vries will provide you with plenty of useful themes to practice not just harmony but many other tools from your toolbox that you might wish to develop. What sort of introduction or chorale prelude could you make with the theme above? If this is the starting place, where would you go next? How many different places can we go from here? Rather than be discouraged, I get excited by all the possibilities! We have a start, so let the adventure begin!

Hoping you will explore the possibilities,

Glenn Osborne

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