Getting back up to speed

After a month of packing, moving and settling in to my new position at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen in Baltimore, I’m delighted to resume the regular weekly publication of thoughts and practice tips on organ improvisation. I’m still discovering the fabulous instrument at the Cathedral – stoplist available here – and look forward to posting videos later this year.

How Fast Can You Play

Back in October, I wrote an article on the first part of my first lesson with Franck Vaudray. At the time, I couldn’t find the paper that summarized my lesson and was my practice guide for the next week, but luckily while packing to move, I was able to locate it! So four months later, I’ll finally tell you about the second part of my lesson. (If you haven’t read the first part, it is available here.)

Melodic dictation

After assessing my technique and ability to play in an atonal style, this next part of my lesson tested my dictation and transposition skills and concluded with canons. Asking me to look away from the keyboard, Franck Vaudray proceeded to play a melody that I had to then play back to him. No reference or tonality was given. I had to find the right pitch and play the melody as he had just done. I don’t remember exactly how well I fared at this, but I do remember that Mr. Vaudray was kind enough to play the melody several times for me before I got it. We repeated the process for a second melody. Both are pictured below.


Once I had the motives down, it was time to transpose them. If transposition is not something you practice regularly, I’d suggest moving up (or down) by half-steps through all twelve transpositions. Be sure and do this with both hands. As these motives are not exactly tonal, be sure and pay attention to the intervals and shapes as you practice the transpositions.

In my lesson, we may or may not have gone through all twelve transpositions of both melodies with both hands before we started a more advanced transposition cycle. Rather than simply move in one direction or even around the circle of fifths, I was asked to alternate hands with one hand moving higher with each transposition and one hand moving lower. Applying this to the first motif, the starting notes for this pattern look like this: (Stems up for the right hand, stems down for the left)
If you were mentally tired after the atonal lesson, this one really stretches the mind!


In the themes above, you may have noticed a rhythm written out above the second melody. This shows the rhythmic placement for that motive in canon. Not only was I asked to play the canon in any transposition, but eventually to play the canon in different transpositions. For example, the left hand plays as written while the right hand follows starting on G, a minor third above. While I don’t think I was asked to do this then, it would be an interesting exercise to try and play the canon following the transposition scheme above. That would be a real challenge!

Free at last

Finally, I was given free reign to improvise a piece using these motives. After transposing and playing them in canon for the past thirty minutes, it was relatively easy to keep the themes front and center regardless of the tonality that I might have wondered in to. I prepared a worksheet with the melodies and transposition scheme that you can download here for your own practice.

Thorough preparation

How much work do we do with a theme before we improvise with it? While not all forms or pieces would require the amount of preparation outlined here, is there a hymn or chant that you improvise on regularly? Will it work as a canon? Perhaps you should put it through the transposition and canon practice outlined here. The better we know the theme, the more flexible we can be in our improvisations, and the more competent, convincing and coherent they will be as well!

Wishing you all the best for 2015!


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Newsletter Issue 32 – 2015 02 02
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How Fast Can You Play?

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to study with many different improvisation teachers. The encounters have been in short masterclass lessons, intensive workshop immersions, and regular weekly lessons. Only once, however, has a teacher ever made an attempt to asses my improvisation skill level.

I met Franck Vaudray when I was in Lyon to audition at the conservatory (CNSM). I was in town on Sunday morning, so made a visit to St. François de Sales. I sat in a pew for mass and went up to the organ afterwards, expecting to find Louis Robilliard and planning to ask what pieces he had played. Instead, that’s when I met my next improvisation teacher.

Franck Vaudray

As I arrived at the organ while he was still playing the sortie, I instantly discovered that I was hearing an improvisation. No score by César Franck was on the music rack. (I had dismissed Charles-Marie Widor as an option once the canon appeared.) After we exchanged introductions, I learned that he also had improvised the lovely baroque trio sonata movement at the offertory. These improvisations were both so polished that they could have been written pieces, so when he offered to take me as a student, I was more than happy to begin commuting to Lyon for lessons whenever I could.

The Evaluation

When I came back to St. Fraçois de Sales a few weeks later for my first lesson with Franck, he started by placing a piece of paper on the music rack with something like the following written on it:
(I had the original paper for many years, but it seems to have gotten lost in my last move.)

My instructions were to play single notes as fast as I could with my hands in an atonal style and then add in the theme in long notes with the pedals. While the instructions may seem simple, it can be very easy to fall into tonal patterns if you are not careful with the hands. Likewise, this duo may not seem very impressive, but with all the foundations and swell reeds coupled together, it could be the start of a very nice toccata!

Increasing Difficulty

So ends the easy part. Every step thereafter basically served to make the task more difficult. It’s hard for me to remember the exact sequence of steps, but here’s a few basic ideas of what I went through:

  1. Increase to trio texture. Both hands play independent atonal lines of fast notes. No rests allowed. Pedal plays them in long notes.
  2. Duo: Right hand and pedal alone, but this time, play the theme in retrograde (C, E, F#, Eb…)
  3. Duo (left hand and pedal) with the theme played from the outside in (G, C, Ab, E, F, F#…)
  4. Duo (both hands and pedal) with the theme from the inside out (A, Bb, Eb, D, F#, F…)
  5. Duo with the theme inverted (octave transposition permitted so as to not run out of notes) so it becomes: G, F#, A, C, E, F…

Is your brain tired yet? Now, it’s time to do it all over again, but this time observe the numbers as the duration of the notes of the theme. Starting again with the basic theme, this means that you would play five notes with the hands for the G in the pedal, followed by ten for Ab, seven for F, six for D, and so forth through the entire theme. I’m guessing this will slow you down a little, because it certainly decreased my speed! Be sure you go through all the retrograde, in-out, out-in, and inversion steps following the numbers as well.

Texture Inversion

For the final task, I could disregard the numbers (Yeah!) and was told to start again with long notes in the pedal and fast notes in the hands. Instead of ending after playing once through the theme, however, I was to continue playing more notes of shorter and shorter duration with the feet while the hands were to play longer and longer notes until eventually I managed to reverse the texture and could play the theme in long notes (in octaves) with the hands while the feet played the quick atonal notes. Here was the final speed test: how fast could my feet move?

To Be Continued

So that you can try this easily yourself, I created a pdf with the theme and instructions above that you can download here and print to take with you to the console. How fast can you play? Is it easy to play atonal lines with your hands? How about with your feet?

These exercises turned out to be only the first part of my first lesson with Franck Vaudray. We continued on for at least an hour more through challenges involving dictation, motives, transposition, canons and harmonization. (If I can find the sheet he gave me as homework, I’ll share more of these in a future newsletter.) I walked out of St. Fraçois de Sales mentally exhausted. When was the last time you tested your improvisational limits?

Hoping your improvisations set new speed records!

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Newsletter Issue 23 – 2014 10 06
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Franck Vaudray

FranckVaudrayFranck Vaudray studied organ at the Conservatoire National de Région in Lyon and the Conservatoires Nationaux Supérieurs de Musique in Paris and Lyon where his teachers included Louis Robilliard and Loïc Mallié. His other teachers include Denis Magnon, Roger Boutry, Jean-Claude Henry, Marcel Bitsch, Daniel Gaudet, Claude Ballif, and Gilbert Amy. He presently serves as professor of musical writing at the Conservatoire National de Région in Grenoble and associate professor at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon.

Franck Vaudray – Improvisation – Saint François de Sales