What a fabulous conference at the University of Kansas! While Philippe Lefebvre’s completely improvised recital was one of my highlights of the conference, the opening concert was a unique experience that will inspire me for years to come. Five organists played a Mass in alternation with a chant schola. Michel Bouvard and Shin-Young Lee played movements from François Couperin’s Messe pour les Paroisses, while the three organists from Notre Dame, Philippe Lefebvre, Olivier Latry, and Vincent Dubois improvised. Here was truly a program in alternatim. No player played twice in a row, and improvisations alternated with repertoire. In between the movements, the chant schola from Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, under the direction of Nicholas Lemme provided exquisite chant. I have heard that the AGO intends to release videos from the conference over the next year. I certainly hope they include this unique concert soon. This was apparently the first time all three organists from Notre Dame have played on the same program outside of Paris ever. Bravo to the University of Kansas and AGO for organizing such a great event!

From left to right: Vincent Dubois, Olivier Latry, Shin-Young Lee, Philippe Lefebvre, Michel Bouvard

In an opening presentation to the conference, Michael Bauer asked what makes French pedagogy different. Is there anything specific or unique to the French system of training organists that carries across styles, time periods, and even teachers that sets it apart from the way organists are trained in the US, Germany, or other countries? There were panel discussions probing the French organists on their teachers and their own teaching methods, as well as presentations on the approach of Marie-Claire Alain and the conservatory system in France.

Because of the time I spent studying organ in both the United States and in France, I believe I came up with an answer by the end of the week.


Every music student in France is required to have multiple years of solfège. After a few years of learning to read music notation and sight-sing, students begin the disciplines of Écriture. This includes multiple years of harmony, counterpoint, and eventually the possibility of composition. To complete a college degree in music in the US, students generally have two years of music theory classes. In these two years, students cover basic notation, sight-singing, harmony, counterpoint, and analysis for all periods of music history from early to the most recent. Some students or schools may continue into a third year of required studies.

When I went to France, I had completed my Master’s Degree. I had composition lessons and had breezed through the theory classes I had taken in the US. When I took a placement test in France, I ended up in first year harmony! Now, I found it very easy and probably could have placed into second year with a little coaching, but harmonizing melodies in four-part open score (with C-clefs!) without the use of a keyboard was something I had never done in the US. Even the basic level of harmonie instruction in France requires skills that simply aren’t taught in this country.

Troisième cycle

The French Conservatory system has a system of three cycles for each discipline. The first cycle is a beginner; second level is intermediate; third level is advanced. Each cycle generally takes 2-3 years to master. During my time in France, I was able to complete the first cycle of harmonie. Even now, I wish I could complete the final levels of harmony and counterpoint from the French system.

Most of the organists in France also earned prizes or diplomas in harmony, counterpoint, and/or écriture (according to how the formation was grouped at the time). Many of them completed their studies in these disciplines before they earned their organ or improvisation prizes. If you had six or seven years of harmony and counterpoint classes, how much better would you be as an improvisor? Even for playing repertoire, how much more insight could you have on the construction of a piece if you had to write similar passages while studying harmony and counterpoint?

Pen and paper exercises develop not just the knowledge of music theory, but also the inner ear. I believe it is the extended study of these disciplines that sets the French organists apart. They have in depth study not just of the instrument, but also the disciplines of music construction. If you haven’t done so before, it may be time to sit at a desk and work on your musical écriture.

Music as Language

At the beginning of the month, I gave a presentation to the Baltimore AGO chapter. You can now view my opening remarks here. I truly believe that if we treat music as a language and invest the time into practicing it, we can become as fluent speaking music as we are in our native tongue. The French insist upon longer more detailed studies, and we can see the results there.

Before I ramble on too much longer, today is Halloween in the United States. Somehow, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor has become linked with the celebration. (With my American mentality, it was quite a shock when a couple I met with in France requested the piece as the entrance music for their wedding!) ORGANPromotion assembled two recordings of improvisations on the piece. You can hear them both on Spotify (Disc 1 and Disc 2). Rather than frighten you, I hope these recordings inspire you to improvise more often.

Happy Halloween!

Newsletter Issue 69 – 2017 10 31

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Two Keys at One Time?

One of my tasks during my undergraduate studies was to memorize the C major Prelude from Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier (Book 1). My theory teacher for harmony, Dr. Stefan Young, wanted us to play the piece in block chords and sing the bass line with the harmonic analysis as our lyrics. When I had Dr. Young for counterpoint the next semester and he again assigned the same piece, I was given the additional complicating task of playing the piece not just in any key, but in any two keys at the same time. Dr. Young wanted me to play the right hand in one key while playing the left hand in another. It’s a real mind-bending experiment to try, even if it doesn’t always sound so great…

When I pulled out the hymnal yesterday to practice, I stumbled upon “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The melody basically is a G major chord, so I thought what if I harmonize it in F major instead. There are a few other key shifts here, but the harmonic rhythm remains slow so that you have time to consider the unexpected colors.

Creating Holiday Variations

One of the first forms many organists attempt to improvise is most likely a variation on a hymn tune. Perhaps you needed a little extra music for communion or didn’t have time to practice a postlude, opting instead to fill the time with some modified version of the last hymn that was sung. Louis-Claude Daquin (born on July 4, 1694) was famous for his variations on Christmas carols which he played before Midnight Mass at Notre Dame in Paris. Pierre Cochereau delighted audiences with his concert variations on popular tunes. Even the complex tonal language of Max Reger becomes more accessible when there is a chorale stated amongst all the chromaticism. Remembering the improviser’s goal to sound like a composition, I thought we would spend the next few weeks looking at some written variations to see what we could learn about improvising from a written piece.

Because we just celebrated Independence Day here in the US, the first set of variations I’d like us to consider is Variations on ‘America’ by Charles Ives. E. Power Biggs asked Ives if he had any organ music that he could perform on his weekly radio program in 1948. Though Ives had written the piece in 1891 when he was sixteen, Biggs performance on July 4, 1948 led to the publication of the piece in 1949. If you are unfamiliar with the piece, I encourage you to listen to the performance by E. Power Biggs below which will also allow you to follow the score (sometimes with Ives’ manuscript):

Out of the fourteen-page modern edition, there are only a handful of measures where there is material that is not explicitly connected to the theme. No aimless wandering here!


As today is the introduction to our survey of variations, we’ll focus on the introduction that Charles Ives writes. While only two pages in length, it offers a wealth of practice ideas for us to master. Looking at our theme America, we can see that it uses two-measure phrases. The only time Ives deviates from two-measure units is in measures 5-8 (repeated as 29-32) when there is a tension building harmonic progression that has the loosest connection to the theme of any material in the piece. Here’s our first element we can extract for practice. I’ve simplified the chord progression for these measures below. Ives provides two different figurations in the introduction. How many more can you develop?

You should also learn to transpose this progression into every other key (as suggested when we explored color).

Transposition is also something Ives uses liberally in his introduction. Phrases of the theme appear in F major, G minor, D minor, D major, B major (or E Minor). Later on, we have an entire variation in Db Major, so being able to play the theme in any key seems like a worthwhile skill to practice. If the entire theme seems a little long to work with, Ives seems to change keys every two measures (in keeping with the phrse structure), so try practicing in bite-size two measure units. Depending upon the theme you have chosen, the adaptation in to minor mode (from major) can sometime prove tricky. When Ives ventures furthest afield in the introduction (mm 17-24), he keeps the rhythm, but adapts the melody to suit his harmonies. While it can be a worthy exercise to be strict in your transposition, don’t be afraid to make adaptations and adjustments to make the changes more musical. After all, we are in the process of making variations here!


Whether you are making variations on a patriotic tune for a concert or competition, providing an extended Christmas prelude, or introducing or concluding a hymn, studying written variations can provide us with ideas and tools to practice. Just as we break down repertoire into chunks to practice, so too we can break down our improvisations into bite-size practice bits. Looking at Ives this week, we identified nuggets about practicing phrase length, transposition, and a harmonic sequence in just the Introduction to Variations on ‘America.’ Next week, we’ll explore ideas from the actual variations. How much more gold can we find in this piece?

Hoping the freedom you have inspires you to freely create music!


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Newsletter Issue 11 – 2014 07 07
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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.

A Next Step to Harmony

Last week, we looked at Harmonizing: A Method to Encourage the Art of Improvising by Sietze de Vries. It focused primarily on basic chords in the same key as the melody. Today, I’d like to offer an idea on developing a tonal vocabulary more in the style of Jean Langlais.

Building Chords

Common practice harmony uses chords built by thirds. When choosing how to harmonize a melody note, it typically is the root, third or fifth of a chord. Eventually, we could consider the possibility that it is a seventh, ninth, or a non-chord tone, but we’ll keep it simple for now. Keeping only to major and minor triads, this will give us six options of how to harmonize a single melody note:


Using our chorale Lobt Gott den Herrn, ihr Heiden all from last week, our first step will be to harmonize the theme with one of the six chord types all the way through. Here is the first phrase with the melody as the root of a major triad:


Play through the entire chorale using each of the six types of chords one at a time (Root of a major chord, root of a minor chord, third of a major chord, and so forth). Enjoy the cross relations like the C# and C natural in the second measure above. Eventually, you can venture into diminished and augmented triads, or even seventh chords:


Once you can consistently apply one chord type to the melody, it’s time to start looking for different progressions that will provide the most interesting colors. If the melody note stays the same, be sure and change the type of chord (from root of a major chord to third of a major chord for example).


Lobt Gott den Herrn is a very stepwise melody. Be sure and practice with other themes that include mores skips (especially thirds!) in them so that you are very comfortable with the cross relations that develop from keeping the chord type consistent. You can practice this using only one hand at a time (Yes, you should do it with your left hand alone!), both hands playing the same notes, or eventually right hand chord with left hand (or pedal!) playing the root. This last one can become particularly tricky once you start changing chord types. Remember the instruction from Naji Hakim (a student of Langlais): “Never play faster thank you can think.”

Finally, add a little rhythm, a few manual or registration changes, and you are well on your way to creating a piece like the Pasticcio from Langlais’ Organ Book or the Dialogue sur les mixtures from Suite Brève.

Hoping your harmony is colorful!

Glenn Osborne

Recent additions to organimprovisation.com:
I’ve added a new section to the store with recordings of piano improvisations in classical styles. It includes recordings by Gabriela Montero, Ola Gjeilo, and my favorites by John Bayless on Happy Birthday and tunes by The Beatles.



Newsletter Issue 7 – 2014 06 09
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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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Newsletter Issue 6 – 2014 06 02
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The Final C: COLOR!

While I did not plan for the series to end this way, it seems appropriate that on this day when American are waving their red, white and blue to celebrate Memorial Day, the topic of the newsletter is color. Whether you are from the USA or somewhere else, I hope you will take a moment to express gratitude to those who gave their lives to enjoy the freedom that you are able to enjoy today.


While registration is an issue of competency, it also is an aspect of color. In the first issue on Competency, I expressed the need for an organist to be familiar with the registrations and combinations of organ stops available to him or her. Even a small organ of 12 stops offers 220 combinations of three stops! (You can check the math or try other numbers here.) While not all of these would project a sense of competency, I believe we fall into registrational habits and often fail to exploit all the colors an instrument may offer us. Instead of simply pulling out the 8′ Flute as a solo, why not try using a 4′ down one octave or a 2′ down two octaves? That 16′ reed in the swell might make a lovely 8′ solo stop if you play an octave higher. Using “non-traditional” registrations like this can also increase your mental dexterity and make it easier for you to play a melody or theme with the left hand or pedal.


Speaking of melody, a layer of color can come from melody notes that are non-chord tones and the contour of the melody itself. Every style (see The 3rd C: Coherent) has a set of rules for the relationship of melody to harmony with guidelines for how to treat non-chord tones. One simple exercise that was given to me by Philippe Lefebvre for finding colorful melodies was to hold a chord with the left hand and only play notes not in the chord with the right hand. It will take trial and error to discover which notes of the scale work best with what sort of chords, but let your ear be your guide. Perhaps the simplest rule I ever heard for non-chord tones came from Gerre Hancock in his admonition “Salvation is always a half-step away.” If you play something that sounds a little off, chances are there is a note right next to it that will sound better, and if you can repeat yourself and play it again, you become convincing and colorful at the same time!


A lot of my instruction in improvisation has focused on building and creating my own harmonic language. One of the ways to do this is to take a colorful harmonic progression from a written composition, memorize it, and then transpose it into all possible keys. Here’s a sample from the first movement of Louis Vierne‘s Symphonie no. 3:

The pedal part is an ornamented pedal point. (We could consider it a melodic way to add color to a static note!) The manuals could be simplified by only playing beats one and three of the chords. With these adjustments, we have a progression ready to transpose into all other keys and will be adding a new way to color a pedal point to our harmonic vocabulary.

What passages from repertoire do you find colorful? Examine them closely, simply if necessary and transpose them to make them part of your improvisational vocabulary. I’d love to know which composers and pieces you find inspirational.

Happy Memorial Day!

May all your improvs be colorful!

Glenn Osborne

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The Store

has been greatly expanded. There are now over a dozen method books and over fifty recordings with a separate section now for Pierre Cochereau!



Newsletter Issue 5 – 2014 05 26
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