Gerre Hancock – Improvising: How to Master the Art

Gerre Hancock
Improvising: How to Master the Art
Oxford University Press

As one of the most highly regarded American improvisers of the late twentieth century, Gerre Hancock has left us a wonderful treasure in his book Improvising: How to Master the Art. I remember as an undergraduate student anticipating its release, anxiously waiting to see what this master would put down on paper as the way to learn American improvisation. While there were some smaller volumes (by Jan Bender and Michele Johns), the referential text for improvisation when I was a student was still the Cours Complet D’improvisation a l’orgue by Marcel Dupré. While offering lots of guidance, the Dupré was written for French students who normally have many years of harmony and counterpoint studies either already under their belt or in parallel process which typical American students lack. This makes the Dupré a very challenging place to start for most Americans. Gerre Hancock provides a wonderful bridge for those aspiring to follow the Dupré method but without the advanced theoretical background.

After an introduction where he offers two axioms of the art of improvising – 1)Never stop and 2)Salvation is never more than half a step away – Hancock begins with scales. Beginning with one voice, the student is encourage to make an interesting melody out of an ascending and descending scale. Slowly the texture is increased up to four voices. Numerous examples are given in a multitude of styles, however there is always one voice that is the scale. Whereas Dupré expects a student to practice proper voice leading and keep a strict even rhythm to the scales, Hancock encourages variety. This does not mean rhythmic instability as one of the recommendations at the end of the first chapter is for the student to count the time signature aloud while playing.

Chapter two moves on into phrases, starting again with only one voice and building up to a four voice texture. Having mastered scales and phrases, the student begins work on transitions in chapter three (“The Interlude”). Chapter four lays the foundation for variations as Hancock leads the student through re-voicing and re-harmonizing hymns. Chapter five (“The Ornamented Hymn”) begins to move the student away from strict statements of the hymn tune, preparing for “The Hymn Prelude” of chapter six where the student is given several forms to combine and apply the work of the previous chapters on phrases, interludes and ornamentation.

Beginning at chapter seven, Hancock moves the student from a given melody to forms that can be used with freer themes, beginning with Song Form, moving through Sonata Form (chapter 8) to Toccata (chapter 9). At chapter 10, he begins to introduce contrapuntal ideas through study of the canon. More complicated imitative structures are studied in chapter 11 (“The Duo and the Trio”) before arriving at the ultimate improvisational achievement- the fugue (chapter 12).

Overall, I find this book to be very logical in the progression through the material covered. While tonal language is implied throughout the course of study, the primary instruction in this book is in coherence through form and thematic development. It can be followed using a very simple or very complex harmonic language, i.e. in whatever language the student is most comfortable. If you are looking for instruction in harmony or a specific style, this is not the place to go, but if you wish to develop your improvisational form, this is an excellent workbook. Each chapter is filled with concrete recommendations for practice. It begins simply enough that anyone with basic music theory knowledge can follow, but it provides enough substance that even those with several years of harmony and counterpoint studies can still follow and learn.

Gerre Hancock was not only a master improviser, but also a master teacher. Improvising: How to Master the Art is indeed a masterwork of improvisation pedagogy and should be in any serious student’s library.

Charles Tournemire

Tournemire2Charles Arnould Tournemire (1870 – 1939) was a French composer, organist, and accomplished improviser. His compositions include eight symphonies (one of them choral), four operas, twelve chamber works and eighteen piano solos. Today he is almost exclusively remembered for his organ music, especially L’Orgue Mystique, a set of 51 suites of pieces for the liturgical year based upon the chants of the day.

He studied organ with César Franck. From 1898 to 1939, Tournemire served as the organiste titulaire at Franck’s old church, the Basilique Ste-Clotilde in Paris. He was also professor of Chamber Music at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1931 he published a biography of Franck. A year before the biography appeared, Tournemire recorded five organ improvisations, which were later transcribed by Maurice Duruflé from the phonograph recordings. These recordings and most all of his improvisations were often rooted in the music of Gregorian chant.


In 1936, Éditions Max Eschig published Précis d’éxecution de registration et d’improvisation à l’orgue by Charles Tournemire. Of the 117 pages, only the last 16 are devoted explicitly to the art of improvisation. Much of the text is devoted to philosophy, references to examples in repertoire, with some explanation of forms. Tournemire writes that the most profitable study that one could do is to read each day a sonata of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, and then to take the same elements and try to develop them oneself.


Charles Tournemire: Complete Recordings

*original audio recorded by Tournemire with slide show of pictures for videos

Charles Tournemire – Te Deum – Ste. Clotilde, Paris, France
Charles Tournemire – Fantasie on ‘Ave Maris Stella’ – Ste. Clotilde, Paris, France

I couldn’t find a video or audio online of Tournemire himself playing the other improvisations, but am including performances by other organists below because these have been such influential and well-known improvisations:
Charles Tournemire (Philippe Lefebvre plays) – Victimae paschali laudes – Chartres Cathedral, France

Peter Ewers

You can hear him on Spotify.

Peter Ewers is a German organist, musicologist and psychotherapist. He served as assistant organist at the Paderborn Cathedral from 1991 to 1996.


Just play! An invitation to improvisation


Peter Ewers: Les Planètes, Improvisations

He has four albums available at:

Peter Ewers – Organ improvisation – La Madeleine, Paris
Peter Ewers – Méditation on “Dich liebt, oh Gott, mein ganzes Herz” – St-Aposteln, Cologne

Franz Josef Stoiber


Franz Josef Stoiber is a renowned organist and teacher of improvisation. He has been organist of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg since 1996, and was appointed as full-time professor for organ and improvisation at Regensburg University in 2003. He studied with Jon Laukvik in Stuttgart and Peter Planyavsky in Vienna. He is very active as a concert organist and lecturer, and has made many CDs. He was recently involved in the design of the ground-breaking new organ in Regensburg Cathedral.

He will teach courses in improvisation in London and Regensburg during the summer of 2014.


Gehörbildung, Tonsatz, Improvisation
This book is in German.


  • Orgelmusik aus dem Regensburger Dom – Works by Reger, Renner and Improvisations (1999), IFO-records, Mainz
  • Glocken und Orgelimprovisationen im Hohen Dom zu Regensburg – (2002). Motette CD 12561
  • Orgelimprovisationen – Weihnachten. Göckel-Orgel in St. Peter zu Düsseldorf (2005). ORGANpromotion, Sulz am Neckar
  • Die Regensburger Domorgel – Works by Bach, Renner, Dupré and Improvisations – Rieger organ (2010). Motette 13791
  • Die Orgeln der Hochschule für katholische Kirchenmusik und Musikpädagogik Regensburg – Improvisation on “Lobe den Herren” and the Gregorian Antiphon “Cantantibus organis Caecilia Domino decantabat” (2010). HfKM, Regensburg
  • “Alles meinem Gott zu Ehren” – Works by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Improvisations – Kögler organ in the Stadtpfarrkirche St. Laurentius in Neustadt a.d. Donau (2013). Ambiente Audio
  • Glocken- und Orgelklänge aus dem Regensburger Dom – Improvisations on the Rieger organ (2013). Motette 50931

Franz Josef Stoiber – Suite francaise – Regensburger Domorgel
Hommage à Nicolas de Grigny (Plain jeu – Duo – Trio – Basse de Crommorne – Recit de Nazard – Grands Jeux) on Nun lobet Gott im hohen Thron

Michele Johns

Johns.MicheleMichele Johns is professor of music at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance, where she has taught church music skills and philosophy for over twenty years. She is the author of Hymn Improvisation (Augsburg 1987) which has received critical acclaim in professional journals and continues to enjoy popularity with organ students in universities, as well as those at other levels of experience.

Jan Overduin

A multi-award winner, Jan Overduin won the Healey Willan Prize in 1963; the International Organ Competition in London, Ontario (1967), second prize and finals in improvisation; the Festival of Flanders International Organ Competition in Bruges, Belgium (1970), finals; and the St. Alban’s International Organ Competition (1973), shared main prize, finals in improvisation, and the audience prize. He has been the recipient of several Canada Council awards for studies abroad during the 1960’s, allowing him to study with, among others, Marie-Claire Alain, Jean Langlais and Peter Hurford.

Jan Overduin was University Organist and Professor (and Chair) of the Organ and Church Music Department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, where he also conducted the WLU Chapel Choir. He served as Director of Music at St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Kitchener for over 12 years, and as Director of Music at First United Church in Waterloo, where under his supervision a 44-stop tracker-action organ by Gabriel Kney was installed in 2004. In 2005 the Kitchener-Waterloo Arts Foundation honored him with its “Lifetime Achievement Award”.

In his book, Making Music: Improvisation for Organists, Jan Overduin shows that improvisation requires neither a virtuosic command of the instrument nor a magisterial command of music theory. These simple but satisfying, loosely-graded, exercises are aimed at bolstering self-confidence and enable the student to improvise from the start.

Sietze de Vries


Official website:

Sietze de Vries received his professional training from, among others, Wim van Beek, Jan Jongepier and Jos van der Kooy. He was awarded his undergraduate degree at the Groningen Conservatoire; at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague he completed his post-graduate studies with an endorsement for improvisation. In addition, he graduated from the Alkmaar school for church music with the Dutch church music diploma.

Between 1987 and 2002 he won fifteen prizes at various national and international competitions for both repertoire and improvisation. The pinnacle, and also the conclusion, of that period was his triumph at the International Improvisation competition in Haarlem in 2002. On two previous occasions he had been a finalist.

He has many recordings available here:
Many of these recordings have been shared on YouTube by the user Henk van den Brink.

DeVriesHarmonizingHe has written a book- Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising which covers basic theory while gradually moving toward improvising using I, IV, and V in easier keys. As the book advances, he includes harmonizing and improvisation on ii, iii, and vi as well as in minor keys and even church modes. Published by Boeijenga Music Publications. Available from the OHS Catalog here.

Sietze de Vries – Improvisation on Psalm 130 – Grote kerk, Brouwershaven
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation on’The Old Hundredth’ – Martinikerk, Groningen

Lionel Rogg

LionelRoggOfficial website:

Professor of Organ at the Geneva Conservatory until 2001, Lionel Rogg has welcomed students from all over the world. He frequently gives master-classes and is now professor of organ and improvisation at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

RoggImprovCourseVol1He has written an Improvisation Course for organists, published in French and English by Editions Musicales de la Schola Cantorum. Volume 1 is practical harmony, ornamental counterpoint and chorale. Volume 2 is modal and free style. See a complete review of volume 1 here.


Organ Improvisations on Bach Toccata & Fugue in D Minor
This recording features many performers, including Lionel Rogg, Barbara Dennetlein, Frederic Blanc, Holm Vogel, Johannes Mayr, Vincent Thevenaz, and David Franke. There is a video below that is likely made from this recording, but until I get a copy of the recording this is an unverified claim.

Lionel Rogg – Variations and Fugue on a theme of Albert de Klerk – 15th Haarlem Improvisation Competition

Improvisation sur la Toccata en ré mineur
Lionel Rogg – Interlude improvisé – Hofkirche, Lucerne

Marcel Dupré

Marcel_DupréIn 1926, Marcel Dupré was appointed professor of organ performance and improvisation at the Paris Conservatoire, a position he held until 1954. In 1934, he succeeded Charles-Marie Widor as titular organist at St. Sulpice in Paris, a post he held until his death in 1971. He taught two generations of well-known organists such as Jehan Alain and Marie-Claire Alain, Jean-Marie Beaudet, Pierre Cochereau, Jeanne Demessieux, Rolande Falcinelli, Jean-Jacques Grunenwald, Jean Guillou, Jean Langlais, Carl Weinrich and Olivier Messiaen.

Full bio. You can hear him on Spotify.


Cours Complet D’improvisation a L’orgue/vol 1: French and English
Cours Complet D’improvisation a L’orgue/vol 2 English
Manuel d’Accompagnement du Plain-chant Grégorien


Organ Masterpieces: Marcel Dupré Recital (Live, 1953)
Includes and improvised symphony and other written compositions performed by Dupré.

Norbert Moret – Marcel Dupré – Guy Bovet: Les orgues de la collégiale de Neuchâtel
GALLO CD 943 1996
Includes: Norbert Moret- Premier concerto pour orgue et orchestre
Marcel Dupré- Improvisation sur des thèmes de Samuel Ducommun
Guy Bovet– Improvisation sur un thème de S. Ducommun à l’orgue de 1952 & Improvisation sur un thème de S. Ducommun à l’orgue de 1996

Marcel Dupré – Improvisation on ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ – St. Sulpice

I have yet to see a video of Dupré improvising, but there are several audio recordings that have made their way on to YouTube here.
Marcel Dupré – Improvised Double Fugue on Kyrie XI ‘Orbis Factor – Recorded 1957
Marcel Dupré – Veni Creator – St. Sulpice, Paris

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra

Pamela Ruiter-FeenstraOfficial website:

From 1996–2002, Ruiter-Feenstra served as Senior Researcher at the Göteborg Organ Art Center, learning much about historic instrument construction, sound, and music from colleagues and instruments, teaching improvisation courses at Göteborg University, and launching research on Bach and improvisation. As Professor of Music at Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas (1989–1996) and Eastern Michigan University (1996–2008), Ruiter-Feenstra taught organ, harpsichord, theory, improvisation, sacred music, and directed the Collegium Musicum. In 2008, Ruiter-Feenstra chose to leave institutional work in favor of freelancing as performer, pedagogue, author, composer, and recording artist.


Bach and the Art of Improvisation
Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press, 2011.


Bach’s Teacher Böhm & Improvisation

Bach, Improvisations and the Liturgical Year