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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Jan Bender


Jan Bender (1909-1994) was born in Haarlem, The Netherlands. At age 13, he moved to Lübeck, Germany, and began studying organ with Karl Lichtwark at the Marienkirche. In 1929, he studied with Walter Kraft, the new Marienkirche organist. In 1930, he enrolled as a student of Karl Straube at the Kirchen-musikalische Institut of the Landeskirche Sachsen, part of the Leipzig Konservatorium. He later studied composition from Hugo Distler. He served as organist at St. Gertrudkirche in Lübeck, St. Lambertikirche in Aurich, and Michaeliskirche in Lüneburg (where J.S. Bach had studied in his early years). He eventually came to teach in the United States at Concordia Teacher’s College in Seward, Nebraska, before becoming Associate Professor of Composition and Organ at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Though he returned to live in Germany upon his retirement in 1976, he continued teaching with occasional residencies in the US at Valparaiso University, Gustavus Adolphus College, and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

He composed over one hundred works, primarily for for organ and/or choir. Though active in the Missouri Synod, he served on the commission which eventually published the Lutheran Book of Worship. He wrote a method book for organ improvisation:

Organ Improvisation for Beginners: A Book of Self-Instruction for Church Musicians : Op. 59
A full review of the method book can be found here.

Jan Bender – Organ Improvisation for Beginners

Jan Bender
Organ Improvisation for Beginners: A Book of Self-Instruction for Church Musicians : Op. 59
Concordia Publishing House

For many years while I was a student, there were only three method books available for improvisation study: Hymn Improvisation by Michele Johns, the two-volume Cours Complet d’improvisation a L’orgue by Marcel Dupré, and this title by Jan Bender. The Bender has been on my shelf for many years, but received little attention as my teachers have been primarily from the French school, relying upon their own material or the Dupré.

The immediate distinction between this method and the others reviewed so far is the jump into counterpoint from the second chapter of the book. Chapter one gives the student the assignment to choose and memorize two hymn tunes, practicing them each hand alone, feet alone, and in octaves in different combinations. These melodies are to be memorized and practiced not only at the keyboard but through a visualization process where the student imagines a keyboard (or pedalboard). While I have used these techniques for repertoire, I found it very novel to apply them to improvisation. Haw many of us are studious enough in our improvisation practice and conscious enough of what we are improvising that we could sit at a chair and visualize it away from the keyboard?

Chapter two begins by introducing a pedal point and simple counterpoint. After giving one example and explaining the hierarchy of intervals, Bender offers another insight:

Treating the second hymn like the first would not be a new assignment, and yet we should be sure that solving only one problem is like doing nothing. Practice the given form … on 100 hymn tunes, and you will discover and learn a lot of important and interesting things.So the third assignment will be appropriate and new only insofar as the differences in melodies offer different possibilities of “fitting” a suitable counterpoint to them.

How often as improvisers do we do something once and then move on?

After increasing the activity of the two-voice improvisations to primarily note against note, the next chapters add non-chord tones and other embellishments. Chapter six allows for the inclusion of an alto part, creating a three voice texture. This is as complicated as Bender wishes to advance in a book designed for beginners. The second part gives instructions for applying these techniques to the four-part texture of the standard hymn harmonization in order to create introductions. The final part suggests ways to work through the same material covered in the first part but using original material (i.e. not chorales).

Though each chapter is filled with assignments for the student to complete, the end of the book offers an appendix of exercises. Considering one of the first exercises here is to play the C major scale in the left hand while playing an E major scale with the right, I think there are definitely some challenges presented here that we could all practice.

While this is a small volume, it provides solid instruction in the material covered. It presents several ideas that I have not seen elsewhere and encourages the mental training side of improvisation in a way that I think everyone could utilize more often whether a beginning improviser or someone who has improvised for many years.

Jan Overduin – Making Music: Improvisation for Organists

Jan Overduin
Making Music: Improvisation for Organists
The best summary of this book can be found in the opening quote and paragraph from the preface:

There is no mystique or magic to improvising, just consistent and conscientious practice.
Gerre Hancock

It has been said of Jean Langlais that he could teach stones to improvise, and it is true that his own example and his enthusiasm for the art of improvisation were inspiring and contagious. But miracles are as rare in improvisation as they are in any field, and after several decades of teaching improvisation, I have come to rely less on the miraculous and more on clearly laid out exercises and assignments. The aim of this book is to show the student that improvisation is within the grasp of everyone, even those with minimal keyboard skills. To some this might seem like a tiny miracle, but it is achieved by hard work and an encouraging teacher rather than by chance.

What an inspirational message for the beginning student!

Jan Overduin also explains in the preface his belief that “the traditional comes first, then the modern.” Thus, this book is primarily focused on common practice tonal language. He begins with melody alone, moves slowly through one or two chords, thirds and sixths before arriving at the pentatonic mode. Even though the harmonic language is simple, he introduces contrapuntal concepts early by having each voice play a different rhythmic species. Only in Chapter 29 on Toccata is there any sort of exercise that deviates from tonal harmony (when the right hand is to play white keys and the left hand black keys).

Each chapter begins with an explanation of the material to be covered and then provides assignments with examples for further clarification and/or completion. Most chapters have 5-7 assignments, though the chapter on ostinato has 12 and rondo only has one. While each assignment usually grows out of the material that appeared previously, occasionally there are a few larger leaps that might benefit from some teacher guidance or further demonstrations. The examples and assignments are clear enough that they seem quite easy and approachable. A student can most likely follow this book without the guidance of a teacher, but should be careful not to skip over the assignments that seem too easy. While the explanations seem simple, I know that integrating the skills to be able to accomplish the given tasks will take time and practice.

In comparison to other methods reviewed so far, this may be one of the best places to start, especially if one wishes to improvise in any common practice harmonic style. Also published by Oxford University Press, Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock, while offering similar clear assignments for each chapter topic, would really work best as a follow up volume to this one, allowing review of the material covered here and advancement into larger forms. Creative Hymn Playing by Michael Burkhardt covers some of the same material as Jan Overduin, but is more limited in what it offers. Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart would also make an excellent second or companion volume to this one depending upon the interests and aptitudes of the student. Many of the assignments in form and structure in this book could be used with the harmonic instruction of Breaking Free.

Michael Burkhardt – Creative Hymn Playing

Michael Burkhardt
Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire

Michael Burkhardt is well known for his inspiring hymn playing and hymn arrangements. This book provides a guide to some of his techniques and can best be summarized by a quote from the end of the instruction portion of the book:

Develop one facet of improvisation at a time. Create a plan of attack, experiment, and modify.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part – Leading Congregational Song – offers some philosophical background and covers general performance practice for accompanying hymns. He gives specific and concise advice concerning tempo, registration and phrasing:

Slower tempi may be needed for rhythmically complex and intricate hymns….
Consider using as few stops as possible….
Generally speaking, a pulse of silence is needed for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins on the beat, and half a pulse of silence for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins with an anacrusis.

Part Two moves on to using the hymnal and becoming comfortable playing and using the material provided on the printed page. A series of very simple steps is outlined and illustrated using the tune Winchester Old.

Part three outlines a process for beginning hymn-based improvisations and then works through examples using the tunes O Filii et Filiae, Erhalt Uns, Herr, and Holy Manna. The last portion of part three is a set of variations on O Filii et Filiae with all the techniques of part three explained and labeled. Like part two, these steps are very simple and seem like they would be easily managed by a student with minimal music theory instruction.

The final part, providing almost half of the page count for the book, is filled with examples of hymn treatments with the forms and techniques identified in a box at the top of the piece. In addition to providing repertoire that the student could play, these examples show how simple the application of the techniques outlined in this book can be.

In general, I find this to be an entry level book. The material covered is very simple, but not so simple that it can be skipped by the student beginning to study improvisation. There is almost no discussion of harmonic language in this book. If the organist is to use these techniques to introduce, accompany, or provide an interlude for a hymn, it makes sense that harmonic vocabulary would be similar to what is printed on the page, so not a lot of discussion is necessary. Burkhardt does indicate that “further harmonizing possibilities are beyond the scope of this resource.” It would be nice to see a second volume address harmonic vocabulary in the same concise way Burkhardt has addressed form and melody here. (Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart addresses harmonic language brilliantly but might be a little advanced by comparison to this book.)

Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire gives clear and concise instructions with many examples on how to transform and create pieces based upon hymns. While the material is simple, it provides a solid foundation for further studies. It would be a great volume to work through before tackling Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock.