The French Opening: Plein jeu

In the French Classical period, composers wrote suites of pieces that were used in alternation with the choir. The choir would sing a verse of chant and the organ would play a verse, trading with each other until the entire chant text had been proclaimed. Except for the Gloria during Mass, the organ would generally play the first movement in order to establish the mode and pitch for the choir. The first movement might also clearly cite the theme as a reminder for the choir of the melody that they were about to sing.


Gregorian chant was the primary source of liturgical music during this period and was considered to be in modes rather than our modern major and minor keys. There are eight chant modes commonly referred to as:

  1. Dorian (D-D)
  2. Hypodorian (A-A)
  3. Phrygian (E-E)
  4. Hypophrygian (B-B)
  5. Lydian (F-F)
  6. Hypolydian (C-C)
  7. Mixolydian (G-G)
  8. Hypomixolydian (D-D)

The easiest way to describe these tonalities is using the white notes of the keyboard for the ranges listed next to the names above. While this is a vast oversimplification of the use of modes in chant, it will give you a basic idea of how each mode has a different character. 

These modes could be transposed to other pitch centers to make it easier for the choir to sing the chants, so while you may not need to know how to play every mode starting on any pitch, in order to improvise in the French Classical style, you definitely need to know the modes. The links above and last fall’s newsletter on learning modes are places to start if you need more of an introduction.

Registration and Style

The classic plein jeu registration is:

  • G.O. (Great): Bourdon 16′, Bourdon 8′, Montre 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Cymbale, Fourniture
  • Pos (Choir): Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Fourniture, Petite Cymbale
  • Péd: Trompette 8′ (if used)
  • Keyboards coupled

The pedal trompette is quite a loud stop compared to the typical pedal trumpets on most American organs. Take advantage of all the videos on YouTube to listen to some of the historic instruments like Poitiers, St. Maximin, or even the restored Dom Bedos in Bordeaux if you haven’t gotten to hear these sounds live and in person.

Most often these opening movements are in cut time with two slow half note pulses per measure. The writing is often in four to six voices. If there is a chant theme, it could appear in the bass or tenor. According to Dom Bedos:

Le grand plein-jeu doit se traiter gravement et majestueusement, l’on doit y frapper de grands traits d’harmonie, entrelacés de syncope, d’accords dissonant, de suspensions et surprise d’harmonie frappantes.

The great plein-jeu must be treated gravely and majestically. There one must make broad strokes of harmony, entertwined with syncopations, dissonant chords, suspensions, and striking harmonic surprises.

One of my favorite harmonic progressions from this period is where the bass makes a deceptive resolution from V to vi while the other voices resolve to a major tonic chord. For example, in A minor:


Especially in the earlier not so equal temperaments, this is definitely a striking chord progression!


Unless there is a theme present, many times these pieces simply seem to wander through chains of interesting harmonies in the tonic or closely related modes. Themes tend to be in half notes in the pedal, usually in the tenor, but occasionally  in the bass. Looking at a standard harmonized hymn and placing the melody in the tenor played by your feet requires practice. While not my best improvisation ever, I did manage to record a short plein jeu on Tallis’ Canon this week as a demonstration of the style and so you could hear the organ at the Cathedral. Feel free to share your own improvised plein jeu performances in the comments for this post.


Happy improvising!


Newsletter Issue 43 – 2015 07 28

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Solo Pedal Variations

Thank you to everyone who has completed the survey from the last newsletter about a workshop next summer in Baltimore! So far, it looks like July is the preferred month, but you can still make your voice heard here. I’m excited by the interest demonstrated in the responses and will keep you posted as the event takes shape.

Solo Pedal

A regular part of my early organ studies was devoted to pedal practice. Whether it was exercises by Stainer, Gleason or Nilson, a significant chunk of my practice time was spent acquiring the ability to find my way around the pedal board. The end goal however was always to combine the feet with the hands. Aside from a few cadenza passages, we rarely play with out feet alone after we master the basic technical exercises.

After creating the virtuoso pedal variation on Salzburg, I realized how easy it would be to progress to solo pedal variations. Where we made the virtuoso pedal part by playing the bass and ornamenting the tenor, we could play the soprano ornament the bass, perhaps something like this:

Sometimes it might be easier (or sound better) to use the alto as a harmony part rather than the bass. When there is a half note in the melody, we can choose to find some way to fill in order to keep the motion going (I added passing notes above), or we could slow the motion down to eighth notes or even have a quarter note if we need a break in our virtuosity!

Ornamented Melody

As Salzburg has several large skips in the melody, we could create another simpler variation by using choosing to only ornament the melody with neighbor tones:

And of course, one of the most impressive pedal techniques is to play notes with both feet at the same time, adding in three- or four-note chords for the biggest splash:
While these solo pedal variation techniques might better be suited to concert use than liturgical use, they are still useful tools for our improvisational toolbox. If we need to practice our pedal technique, we might as well practice our improvisation skills at the same time. Besides, wouldn’t a flashy pedal cadenza be a great touch to add to the end a toccata?

Hoping your feet will soon be flying across the pedalboard,


Newsletter Issue 38 – 2015 05 26
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Learning Modes

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
― Pablo Picasso

Learning to do something requires us to step beyond our comfort zone. Just as hearing someone describe a watermelon to you will not allow you to taste it, reading about improvisation does not allow you to become an improviser. At some point, it is essential to sit down at the keyboard and, as Nike encourages us, “Just do it.”

How to Learn

Some people learn best by watching someone else do the task first. Others need to hear someone give an example. This is one of the reasons why I include YouTube videos at While all of the videos provide auditory examples, when I am searching for videos to include, I will give a preference for those where you can see the player’s hands at the keyboard as well. I know from my own personal experience that it has been very helpful in my learning process to be able to see exactly how someone is creating the sounds that I am hearing. The organ offers so many different sound combinations and such complex sounds (through the use of mixtures and other upper work), that a quick glance to see where the hands are at the keyboard can settle many questions that the ear might have posed. I remember even my teacher peering around the corner once after I had been asked to improvise with my left hand and feet alone. I’m sure he was checking to make sure I didn’t slip my right hand into the texture!

Some people also learn best by touch. You can explain to them and show them, but until they can use their hands and do it for themselves, their learning will be incomplete. For me, this is where scales, arpeggios, cadences and other progression exercises help train us as improvisers. Any one who has ever memorized a piece of music is familiar with the idea of muscle memory. We need to find ways to train and take advantage of this muscle memory when we improvise as well. Knowing our muscles know where to go next frees up brain power for us to focus on form or any of the other elements we need to consider as improvisers.


As a young piano student, I learned to play all the major and minor scales, along with arpeggios, chords and cadences. These drills helped build technique and were my introduction to harmonic theory. If you have not learned to play scales, arpeggios, chords and cadences (I-IV-I-V-I) in all the keys, I strongly urge you to do so. While I have most often done these at the piano, we shouldn’t forget to practice them with our feet as well. Go as slowly as you need to in order to play accurately, then you can work for speed.

While the major and minor scales are part of most every musician’s formation, other modes are frequently omitted or only touched briefly. As an improviser, I believe the more tools we have in our toolbox, the better we will be prepared to improvise on any given theme. For this reason, I’d like to recommend spending some time getting to know other modes as well as we know the major and minor modes.

Dorian Mode

As mode number one in the codification of the church modes used for Gregorian chant, I’d like to start with the Dorian Mode. It differs from the natural minor scale by having a raised sixth degree.


Rather than playing minor scales this week when you practice, how about playing the Dorian mode? Be sure you can play the mode starting from each of the different pitches. If you need to verify or want to have a reminder in front of you, I prepared a pdf that you can download here.

Aside from scales, here are a few other ways to practice and learn the Dorian mode:

  1. Play the same arpeggios, chords and cadences that you would play when practicing a major or minor scale.
  2. Practice any other technical exercises that you might normally do (Czerny or Hanon for example) in the Dorian mode.
  3. Change the key signature for a hymn to the equivalent Dorian mode signature. This will be easiest with hymns that have no accidentals, but you could also try with more complicated hymns.
  4. Create melodies in the Dorian mode. Be sure to include the scale degrees that make it different from the natural minor so that you can learn to hear the difference.
  5. Practice the Dorian mode in different keys by playing a pedal point on the tonic and chords or melodies with the hands. After 1-2 minutes, change the pedal point and tonic to a new key.

What else can we do to get the Dorian mode into our ears and fingers?

In the coming weeks, I plan to include posts about other modes on the website, explaining how they are constructed and identifying themes that are in the mode. All of the suggestions for the Dorian mode today can be (and should be) applied for each of the other modes that will be presented in the weeks to come. Part of creating colorful improvisations is the ability to use different modes. Regardless of how you might choose to go about learning the modes, be sure to find a way to include them in your improviser’s toolbox.

Hoping you will venture into new territory in order to learn more,

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Newsletter Issue 18 – 2014 09 01
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Twists and Turns

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been working from Charles Ives’ Variations on ‘America’ to discover improvisation ideas and practice techniques. After looking at the fireworks of the first variation, the polonaise, and the introduction, today we turn to the chromaticism of Ives’ second variation.


The first difference to notice with this variation is that Ives has changed range. The melody begins one octave higher, allowing him to use chords with more open voicing – and thus more space for chromatic fill! This variation is filled with stepwise motion (whether chromatic or diatonic) in the lower voices. Only the soprano melody remains largely untouched. Ives also moves from the predominantly quarter note rhythm of the theme to consistent eighth note activity. As our first exercise (since Ives didn’t touch the soprano), let’s try to tun the melody into a flurry of chromatic eight notes:


Add chromatic passing tones between steps in the melody and chromatic neighbor notes for repeated notes. It may be overkill to do this only to one voice, but I think it is a great practice technique to explore, working our way through each of the voices in the standard harmonization one after the other. Do the same exercise with the alto, tenor, and then the bass alone. For step two, play the full harmonization while adding chromatic neighbor and passing tones to one voice. After you are comfortable focusing on one voice at a time, your ear will likely have led you to discover spots where chromaticism works better in one voice than another. Play through the harmonization again now adding the chromaticism in the voice where it works best.

Some tips to consider as you explore: In four-part texture, one of the notes of the chord is doubled. This is probably not the note to alter chromatically unless it is the root of the chord and you are adding the seventh. (Ives ignores this in m.4 of this variation, but ends up with parallel octaves between the soprano and this inner voice.) Thirds of chords can easily be major or minor. Choose whether to move from major to minor or minor to major based upon where the voice needs to go next. Fifths of major chords can be raised; fifths of minor chords can be lowered. The diminished triad (and fully diminished seventh chord) can transport us easily from one key to another, so provide excellent transition material (see m.6 of variation II). Ives also reduces his texture to only three voices at times in order to highlight the chromatic lines (and lessen his concerns about doubling). As you become comfortable shifting from one voice to another, be sure and try combining chromaticism in multiple voices at the same time!

And now, faster!

Typically when creating variations, the rhythms move from quarters to eighths, through triplets and on to sixteenth notes. After exploring eight notes, the third variation on ‘America’ by Ives suggests the triplet feel by shifting to 6/8 time. Ives also sets up an accented chromatic neighbor note in the accompaniment as a motif for this variation. Leaving modulation and discussion of the interlude for next week, Ives also changes keys here. Rather than change so many items at once in our practice, how about doing them one at a time? Stick to the original key, but instead of chromatic eight notes, add chromatic triplets! Rather than using passing and neighbor tones on the weak beats, try to use more accented chromatic neighbors. It would be overkill, but what if each note of the soprano (or alto or tenor) began a half-step lower and slid into the proper pitch? (How many vocalists have you heard scoop into a note? Why can’t we try it at the organ!) After you are comfortable in the home key, choose another key in which to practice the harmonization and addition of chromatics. Start again with eight notes and progress through the same steps outlined above.

After triplets, move on up to sixteenth notes. The final variation Ives provides keeps the same chromatic neighbor from variation three in the accompaniment, returns to the tonic key, but increases excitement by using a constant sixteenth note motion passed between the voices (including some challenging runs for the feet). While it looks complicated on the page, it really grows out of the techniques covered in the earlier variations.

While the road may offer many choices for the twists and turns to take, I hope you will take each step forward, confidently making progress towards creating your own fireworks at the organ!


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Newsletter Issue 13 – 2014 07 21
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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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Newsletter Issue 5 – 2014 05 26
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