Whether you are looking to fill a little time, transitioning from the choir anthem to the doxology, or creating a larger form, one of the hallmarks of a good improvisation is the virtually constant presence of thematic material. By using recognizable material, your improvisation becomes more coherent, more competent and more convincing, thus improving your skills in three of the four C’s of improvisation.
One of the patterns I practiced when learning piano were standard I-IV-I-V-I cadential patterns. (If you need an explanation of Roman Numerals for music, there is a lesson available at www.8notes.com.) I learned to play these in every major and minor key in multiple inversions. These cadences are basic building blocks to have in your ears and fingers, especially if you are looking to establish a new key center. I had to play them for the key of every piano piece I learned. If you need to practice them, you could play them for the key of every hymn or piece you plan to play this Sunday.
At the end of November here in the United States, we will celebrate Thanksgiving. While the story of the Pilgrims and Indians sharing food together is likely more fiction than fact, the idea of giving thanks for all that we have is something we should probably practice more than once a year. One of the hymns closely associated with the holiday, Nun danket alle Gott, also happens to open with a harmonic progression that requires only I, IV, and V chords of the cadential patterns mentioned above.
Thematic material can be melodic, but it can also be harmonic. Try playing the first phrase of Nun danket followed by a similar I-V-I-IV-IV-I pattern in a closely related key (D minor, C major, Bb major, or G minor)? Congratulations! You just made a modulation with motive!
As this phrase ends with a plagal cadence, you’ll probably wish to continue playing in your new key or keep moving to another closely related key if you haven’t arrived at your destination yet.
Another way to modulate while using ideas from a theme is to reharmonize the melody. Here’s the same opening phrase in A minor:
Same melody. New chords. And while C major might make it a little easier to get to G major, the reharmonization in A minor opens up the option of E major for us which would normally be considered a very distant key from our start in F major. How many other harmonizations can you find for this melody? Where will they free you to go?
Q and A
Often musical phrases are described as antecedent and consequent or question and answer. When making transitions, it is helpful to be able to answer the same question in many different ways. If the first four measures of Nun danket alle Gott is the question, can you find answers that get you to any other key at the end of four more measures? Which of the thematic material is most helpful when modulating to different keys? Can you keep the first three notes and chords the same before modulating? How does this exercise change when you use a different hymn tune as your theme?
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Hoping your improvisations inspire people to thank you for your music!
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