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Sometimes, older books can be out of date and contain little relevant information.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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Film accompaniment

For many years the pipe organ was used to provide accompaniment for films. The American Theatre Organ Society exists to help preserve and perpetuate the musical theatre pipe organ heritage that began in the early 20th century. Because the number of theatre organs has been greatly reduced, classically trained improvisers have started to accompany films on traditional church organs as one way to preserve and continue the art form. While film accompaniment may not require the contrapuntal skills to create a fugue, it poses other challenging demands for the improviser. Depending upon the movie, there can be long tension builds, sudden shifts of mood, and even the need to create a few sound effects. As an effort to catalog or discuss film accompaniment on the organ could be the focus of a whole other website, I have chosen to list below those organists already included here that also accompany silent films on a regular basis along with examples where available.

David Briggs
Scenes from The Phantom of the Opera

Thierry Escaich
Final Scene from ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Piano)
Freder’s Nightmare from Metropolis by Fritz Lang
Final Scene of Metropolis by Fritz Lang

Peter Krasinski
How Peter Krasinski Approaches Accompaniment

Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard
20.000 lieues sous les mers (Georges Méliès)
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

Dorothy Papadakos
often accompanies the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton & Harold Lloyd.

Pierre Pincemaille
Pierre Pincemaille – the film FAUST of MURNAU – Saint-Ouen de Rouen

Mathias Rehfeldt
Nosferatu (1922) – Full Movie

Timothy Tikker

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)
Timothy Tikker provides organ accompaniment for the 1931 version of the film included in this DVD.

Todd Wilson
Chandelier Falls from Phantom of the Opera

Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures
A Practical Manual for Pianists and Organists, and an Exposition of the Principles Underlying the Musical Interpretation of Moving Pictures
by Edith Lang and George West
Available through Forgotten Books or Amazon.

The Silent Film Sound & Music Archive also offers a free download of the above title as well as several other instruction books for movie accompaniment.

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.

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


Jan Bender (1909-1994) was born in Haarlem, The Netherlands. At age 13, he moved to Lübeck, Germany, and began studying organ with Karl Lichtwark at the Marienkirche. In 1929, he studied with Walter Kraft, the new Marienkirche organist. In 1930, he enrolled as a student of Karl Straube at the Kirchen-musikalische Institut of the Landeskirche Sachsen, part of the Leipzig Konservatorium. He later studied composition from Hugo Distler. He served as organist at St. Gertrudkirche in Lübeck, St. Lambertikirche in Aurich, and Michaeliskirche in Lüneburg (where J.S. Bach had studied in his early years). He eventually came to teach in the United States at Concordia Teacher’s College in Seward, Nebraska, before becoming Associate Professor of Composition and Organ at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Though he returned to live in Germany upon his retirement in 1976, he continued teaching with occasional residencies in the US at Valparaiso University, Gustavus Adolphus College, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

He composed over one hundred works, primarily for for organ and/or choir. Though active in the Missouri Synod, he served on the commission which eventually published the Lutheran Book of Worship. He wrote a method book for organ improvisation:

Organ Improvisation for Beginners: A Book of Self-Instruction for Church Musicians : Op. 59
A full review of the method book can be found here.

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.

Michael Burkhardt – Creative Hymn Playing

Michael Burkhardt
Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire

Michael Burkhardt is well known for his inspiring hymn playing and hymn arrangements. This book provides a guide to some of his techniques and can best be summarized by a quote from the end of the instruction portion of the book:

Develop one facet of improvisation at a time. Create a plan of attack, experiment, and modify.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part – Leading Congregational Song – offers some philosophical background and covers general performance practice for accompanying hymns. He gives specific and concise advice concerning tempo, registration and phrasing:

Slower tempi may be needed for rhythmically complex and intricate hymns….
Consider using as few stops as possible….
Generally speaking, a pulse of silence is needed for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins on the beat, and half a pulse of silence for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins with an anacrusis.

Part Two moves on to using the hymnal and becoming comfortable playing and using the material provided on the printed page. A series of very simple steps is outlined and illustrated using the tune Winchester Old.

Part three outlines a process for beginning hymn-based improvisations and then works through examples using the tunes O Filii et Filiae, Erhalt Uns, Herr, and Holy Manna. The last portion of part three is a set of variations on O Filii et Filiae with all the techniques of part three explained and labeled. Like part two, these steps are very simple and seem like they would be easily managed by a student with minimal music theory instruction.

The final part, providing almost half of the page count for the book, is filled with examples of hymn treatments with the forms and techniques identified in a box at the top of the piece. In addition to providing repertoire that the student could play, these examples show how simple the application of the techniques outlined in this book can be.

In general, I find this to be an entry level book. The material covered is very simple, but not so simple that it can be skipped by the student beginning to study improvisation. There is almost no discussion of harmonic language in this book. If the organist is to use these techniques to introduce, accompany, or provide an interlude for a hymn, it makes sense that harmonic vocabulary would be similar to what is printed on the page, so not a lot of discussion is necessary. Burkhardt does indicate that “further harmonizing possibilities are beyond the scope of this resource.” It would be nice to see a second volume address harmonic vocabulary in the same concise way Burkhardt has addressed form and melody here. (Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart addresses harmonic language brilliantly but might be a little advanced by comparison to this book.)

Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire gives clear and concise instructions with many examples on how to transform and create pieces based upon hymns. While the material is simple, it provides a solid foundation for further studies. It would be a great volume to work through before tackling Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock.

Jeffrey Brillhart – Breaking Free

Jeffrey Brillhart
Breaking Free: Finding a Personal Voice for Improvisation through 20th Century French Improvisation Techniques. Published by Wayne Leupold Editions.

One of the great difficulties I see in the teaching of improvisation is choosing where to begin and how to cover the wealth of material that a well-trained improviser needs to know. Whereas Gerre Hancock focuses almost entirely on form throughout his book Improvising: How to Master the Art, the bulk of the material in Breaking Free concerns harmonic language.

Jeffrey Brillhart attacks the challenge of what to cover and where to begin by narrowing the focus to “finding a personal language for organ improvisation through 20th century French Improvisation techniques,” the subtitle of the book. In the Introduction, Brillhart acknowledges that each student’s route to mastery is different:

There is no “one size fits all,” in learning to improvise or in teaching someone to improvise. What may work for one student may completely stymie another student.

Improvisation is a mystery. We do not fully understand what happens within the mind of the improviser while improvising. Improvisation is a search. It is a search for a personal musical language. It is a search for musical coherence. It is a search for personal self-expression. It is a search for beauty.

Breaking Free is a book filled with ideas for the student to explore. The first part (chapters 1-5) provides a philosophical grounding of improvisation and establishes the importance of the theme. Many example themes are given and chapter 4 is a catalog of development techniques. Any advice or examples provided are always accompanied by the encouragement of the student to find his or her own solution for how to treat the theme.

Part II (chapters 6-15) move into harmonic language and provides a framework not of scales, but intervals. Each chapter is devoted to a different interval (fifths, fourths, thirds, seconds, and so forth) and the harmonic colors that can be generated while using that specific interval to either harmonize or accompany the given theme. The pentatonic mode is also introduced and the student is urged to explore canons in this mode because of the harmonic simplicity the mode offers. Triads and seventh chords are also given their own chapters in this part, and while there may be references to key centers in the text, the student is encouraged to explore the textures without the restriction that a scale or specific mode would require.

Part III (chapters 16-20) begins with a look at Charles Tournemire. This chapter combines the techniques already covered with the structure and style of a specific composer, and provides a bridge into a harmonic language built upon modes. The next three chapters explain and explore the modes of Gregorian chant, a common theme source for much of French music. The final chapter of this part looks at the Bartok mode and serves as a bridge into Part IV which covers the more complex modes of Olivier Messiaen.

Only in Part V (chapters 25-35) does Brillhart finally begin to address large scale forms. Forms covered in this part include Passacaglia, Song From, Scherzo, Sonata Allegro, the structures of Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau, free improvisation and finally improvising on a literary text. The last two chapters (Part VI) provide examples of the language of Debussy and Ravel for the student to explore. Finally, for the student still searching at the end of this book there is a wonderful two-page bibliography of high quality resources for further exploration either of improvisation or other specific musical topics such as harmony or counterpoint.

Having spent the majority of my formal instruction in improvisation learning from French teachers, I am delighted that Jeff Brillhart has created this volume. While it may not be exactly what I experienced in France, he provides a codified and logical progression for something that I saw many French teachers address in a very haphazard way. By choosing to focus on a specific style, he actually helps the student develop many tools that can be applied in other areas. The greatest difficulty with this book may come from the lack of specific challenges for the student. Each chapter of Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock concludes with specific activities for the student to complete before moving on. While each chapter in Breaking Free has numerous examples and may offer ways for the student to apply the materials in the chapter, there is no task given where the student (or teacher) can clearly know if they have understood and can apply the material presented. If the student is creative, then this is probably not much of a problem, but for a beginning improviser who has trouble generating ideas, this may make it difficult to use this book without the aid of a teacher. Perhaps unintended, but a likely benefit of a student working through this book will not only be a breaking free of harmonic language, but also a strengthening of the creative muscle.

It takes a lot of varied skills to master the art of improvisation. Breaking Free by Jeff Brillhart is an excellent resource for adding tools to the improviser’s toolbox. Using this book, not only will the student break free harmonically, but he or she will also break free from the reliance on a teacher and discover his or her own creative potential. For anyone interested in improvising in a modern style (whether French or not), I highly recommend this book.