Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to return to my alma mater Westminster Choir College for reunion activities and graduation. Westminster is a special place of world-class music making, and I was delighted to see and hear that the standards had not diminished in the 20+ years since I finished my degree.
Graduation at Westminster is almost more of a concert as it is loaded with choral and organ music. The Princeton University Chapel is filled with virtually the entire student body, alumni, and family and friends so the hymn singing is absolutely glorious. There are many pieces that are a traditional part of the Westminster graduation, including the Processional by Warren Martin. With 300+ students and faculty in procession, even with some coming three abreast down the aisle, it takes quite a while to get everyone in.
The first year I was in that procession, I was surprised to discover as we approached the organ console to hear a metronome clicking away. Everyone always talks about practicing with a metronome, but here was one being used in performance! Only those in the choir closest to the organ console could here it, so it was not a distraction to most of the people present and listening.
At the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, we host 10-12 high school graduations every spring. I’m not sure if our aisle is longer or shorter than the Princeton University Chapel aisle, but when you have to play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march for 34 minutes to get 300+ people down the aisle (as I did yesterday), there is a certain usefulness to the metronome. Mine flashes so no one hears it, but I was thankful to have it turned on as I lost track of how many times I played the 32 measures.
Improvising in tempo
One of the most obvious ways to know that an organist is improvising is when there is a rhythmic hesitation. Metronomes are designed to help us remove rhythmic inconsistencies. It seems like all improvisers should practice improvising with a metronome, but I would guess that almost no one ever does that. We practice repertoire with a metronome in order to work through technical difficulties or make sure our tempo is stable. Have you ever tried to improvise while following a metronome?
With these graduation processions on my mind, I’d like to suggest improvising a processional with the metronome. Choose a comfortable (slow) tempo and perhaps a simple form following four-bar phrases. Can you play (or change) something on every beat of the metronome to convey the processional nature of the piece? If this is challenging, choose a slower harmonic rhythm so you have more time to consider what chord will come next. As you become comfortable improvising with the metronome, increase the speed. Choose a different meter. What other forms or styles could you improvise with the metronome? What repertoire do you practice with a metronome? Could you improvise in the same style with the metronome?
Metronomes are a practice tool. They keep us at a steady beat, can urge us on to the next note, and help us play slow enough to not make mistakes. We recognize their utility for learning repertoire and playing long entrance processions, so it seems to me we should also have them in our improvisation tool box. What does the metronome inspire you to improvise?
Newsletter Issue 59 – 2016 05 27
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