How’s the weather?

Here in the northern hemisphere, it’s summer. Even after moving further north from Orlando to Baltimore, we still have frequent afternoon thunderstorms. All this rain reminded me of two more ways we can work with the ideas from last week.


Here’s the progression from Maurice Clerc again:


Did you practice this progression (or something similar) this week? The first registration suggestion was to use celestes to accompany a flute solo. The second option was for a solo in the tenor range. If you tried the tenor solo, did you use your right or left hand for the solo? Hopefully you made some progress toward mastering these registrations and are now ready to add a new texture to the improvisation!


Keep the celestes as the accompaniment, but now add something sparkly to the flute solo, like a larigot or sifflote. Instead of playing long connected legato lines, your task is to make raindrops – super short staccato notes – on this sparkly registration. Because rain falls pretty quickly during a nice summer shower, be sure to spend some time practicing just the rain with the chords to make sure you can think faster than your fingers play! I prepared a handout to demonstrate each of the three dispositions.

Advanced options

If you happen to have an organ with a pedal divide, you can actually put the melody in the pedal (right foot) while still playing a bass part with the left. And lest you feel unchallenged because you don’t have a pedal divide, try thumbing the melody on another keyboard while still playing the raindrops and accompanying chords. From top to bottom, registrations on the keyboards would be: Top=celestes, Middle=Solo, Bottom=Raindrops. If you can master this disposition, people who aren’t able to see what you are doing will think you’ve grown another arm!

Another free method

After sharing First Lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ by Hamilton Crawford Macdougall, several readers pointed me to resources where I’ve been able to locate other method books available for download. This week I spent looking at Organ Accompaniment and Extempore Playing by George E. Whiting. It is available through IMSLP which is a fabulous source of scores if you are not already aware of it.

The book claims to be the only work that treats choir accompaniment and improvisation together. Given that it was first published in 1887, I suspect that was true at the time. The improvisation instruction begins with imitating hymns. These imitations become interludes, modulations, and then periods. Here’s one example of a modulation sequence which he suggests learning:
Because the book also focuses on accompaniment, one of the common themes becomes registration and how to make the organ sound at its best. While some of the ideas are opinionated:

As for the Flutes –especially the Stopped Diapasons– I consider them of the least consequence of any of the various tone qualities of the organ. They are the most cheaply built of any of the registers, and small, inferior organs are apt to be full of them.

Others are more practical:

Light passages, rapid scales, staccato chords, arpeggios, trills, etc., are not appropriate to the Diapasons of either manual: this family of stops requiring a grave, church-like style of performance, such as chorals, linked chords, contrapuntal effects, and slow arpeggios.

While the improvisation instruction is nothing that couldn’t be found in any number of newer methods, if you want to improvise in a late 19th century style, this book provides lots of key ideas about how to register the organ and, through the examples of accompaniment and orchestral transcription, what sort of disposition of voices sound best.

Summer Rain

In addition to being a season when I can expect rain outside to enable the plants to grow, I hope these emails provide nourishment for your growth in improvisation. It has been a pleasure to receive emails from several of you lately. These messages nourish me and keep me looking for ideas and ways to help you. Thank you for subscribing.

Hoping this season brings growth in your improvisation skills,

Newsletter Issue 41 – 2015 07 01
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Practice with focus

First I’d like to offer an update on information from the last newsletter. Last week I offered a review of an almost free edition of First Lessons in Extemporizing on the Organ by Hamilton Crawford Macdougall. Thanks to a couple of readers, I discovered the complete edition of the book is available for free here. No need to suffer through the incomplete version I had found on Forgotten Books. If any one knows of any other free improvisation method books that are available on-line, please let me know and I’ll pass them along as well.

Maurice Clerc

I spent most of this week attending the Church Music Institute of Shenandoah Conservatory where Maurice Clerc taught improvisation. My primary take away for the week was that I need to spend more time in focused practice. As we get better as improvisers, it is still important to spend time practicing with focus, and perhaps even challenging ourselves to master a particular element in a particular setting.

One note at a time

One of the focus areas for the week was harmony. After a brief review of traditional cadences, Maurice Clerc focused on creating harmonic progressions by changing one note at a time. The example he eventually wrote out for us was as follows:

Rather than following traditional harmonic progressions, these chords change by moving notes to neighboring tones. I’ve heard a very similar lesson from several French organists, so I believe this is one of the hallmarks of the French style of improvisation.


We first worked with this progression playing the chords on the celestes with the left hand and a melody on the harmonic flute with the right. (Think of ‘Clair de lune’ from Louis Vierne’s Pièces de fantasie.) Another suggested option was for a solo on the clarinet in the tenor range or even a 4′ in the pedal! The new registration I heard from Maurice Clerc this week was to use all the 8′ foundations. Can you play an active texture with lots of movement in different voices (not just tremolos) and still follow a progression of harmonies where basically one note changes at a time?


If you practice the progression above in several different keys and with several different registration arrangements, it becomes very easy to create a lengthy 7-9 minute piece simply by modulating once or twice and changing the disposition of the material. Choose a tonic key for the opening and concluding sections with one registration. Add a contrasting middle section in one or two other keys and with a different registration, and suddenly you are on your way to improvising the slow movement of a symphony!


As we made the progression from simple harmonies to a symphonic form, each step required us to focus on some quality of the improvisation. For the students who mastered the harmony quickly, Maurice Clerc focused on the quality of the melody, critiquing the range, rhythm, and shape. If the melody was ok, could there be more movement in the accompaniment? Any problems that arose required a step backwards in the process and simplification. When it was time to work on the form, the different sections were mapped out in advance, making it easy to work on each section individually. Though some people might think we are taking the spontaneity out of the improvisation by working each section over and over, I prefer to consider it as exploring for better options. If you find something that works, were you focused enough to be able to do it again? Is there an even better option that you might discover (especially if you didn’t like the one you chose last time)?

Encouraging you to be focused in your explorations,

Newsletter Issue 40 – 2015 06 22
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Maurice Clerc

Appointed in 1972, Maurice Clerc is Titular Organist of the Cathedral Saint Bénigne in Dijon, France. He studied organ with Suzanne Chaisemartin, Gaston Litaize, and earned his Premier Prix from the Paris Conservatory in the class of Rolande Falcinelli. For several years, he also attended the Académie internationale de Nice where he studied improvisation with Pierre Cochereau. He won first prize in the international improvisation competition in Lyon in 1977.

He will teach at the Church Music Institute of Shenandoah Conservatory during June 14-19, 2015.

Maurice Clerc – Concert Improvisation on an old Noel – Suhr, Switzerland
Maurice Clerc – Free Improvisation – Klais organ