Back in 2014, I wrote a list of twenty ways to improvise on a hymn. Many of these are more like exercises than specific ways to create pieces. Following a request for clarification, I thought I’d do a few video lessons to demonstrate the topics.
More and more often I turn to the metaphor of music as a language. When we were young and learning our native tongue, we spent time learning vocabulary lists. Friday was often the day for spelling tests when I was in elementary school. While these exercises may seem simple – the written instructions are often only one or two lines – I believe they are the vocabulary lists for our improvisation studies. When we have chords and keys in our ears and in our hands, we can more easily say what we wish to say when we speak in the language of music.
For these demonstrations, I work with the tune St. Anne, commonly sung with the words “O God, Our Help In Ages Past.” So far, there are a total of three videos that cover the first nine items of the original 20 on the list. Here’s part one:
Because music is so difficult to capture on the written page, I have always found it helpful to have recordings or videos of examples or demonstrations. Especially with the organ, it can be instructive to see how a sound is being created. Is that solo being played by the pedal or the left hand? I remember after listening even to a piano piece by Olivier Messiaen, I had to go buy the score so I could find out how certain sounds were created.
if there are any other past lessons that you would like me to demonstrate, please let me know, and I’ll add them to my to do list.
We have recently installed cameras at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. In the near future, you should be able to tune in live to hear me play. I am hopeful that I will be able to share more of the pieces I improvise with you when this new camera system is fully functional. Please let me know if you tune in to one of the broadcasts!
Hoping all your improvisations speak to your audience,
Earlier this summer, I taught an organ masterclass at the National Pastoral Musicians convention in Cincinnati. Participants were encouraged to bring repertoire or ask questions about improvisation. One of the objectives of improvising can be to create a piece that sounds like it might be written down, so when the student was interested, we looked for improvisation skills to learn from the repertoire that we covered. One of the pieces presented then seemed like a great piece to share here, so let’s take a look at Johannes Brahms’ chorale prelude on “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele.”
I recorded the video above earlier this spring at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. A basic harmonization of the chorale can be found in the Hymnal 1982 which was in the pews at Christ Church Cathedral where the masterclass was held. So with scores for the chorale and the prelude on the music rack, we pondered, how did Brahms get from one to the other?
Any time you start an improvisation, it is helpful to know the form you intend to create. You may choose or need to deviate in the form after you start, but if you haven’t chosen a form to begin with, it’s highly unlikely your improvisation will sound like a written piece….
The chorale in the hymnal is in four-part harmony. Brahms provides no introduction, and leaves the melody in the soprano virtually unaltered. In this way, the melodic presentation and form of the two scores stay the same. The differences appear in texture, harmony, and figuration.
Brahms reduces the texture from four voices down to three. Because one of them as the melody is given to us, this actually makes our job as improvisers a little simpler. We only have to create two different parts to accompany the tune. If this seems difficult, we could even consider simplifying further so that we are only playing with two voices. One of the joys of improvising is being able to customize the level of difficulty. Unlike repertoire where we work to play what the composer has indicated, in improvisation, we can adjust to what we are able to manage.
The standard harmonization of the chorale borrows from related keys only a small number of times. Brahms begins borrowing in the first full measure. The chorale only borrows from B major and F# minor. Brahms borrows from A major, C# minor, F# minor, and B major. He doesn’t just use secondary dominants for these keys. He even manages to include a D minor (sub-median, vi) for F# minor as he enriches the harmonic vocabulary. Brahms also occasionally fits two chords in the place of one from the chorale.
Finally, after the first two beats, Brahms manages to keep sixteenth note movement going throughout his chorale prelude. Neither the alto nor bass move consistently in sixteenth notes, but their combined movements provide continuous motion throughout the piece. He uses passing tones, arpeggios, neighbor notes, and suspensions all to help fill in this more active texture.
Sounds like Brahms
If we really want to sound like Brahms, we’ll need to look at more than just this one piece. However, as we compare the chorale to his chorale prelude, we can identify areas to study and develop in our improvisation tool box:
How do you harmonize a melody in only three voices?
What harmony can you imply with only two voices?
Where can you borrow from related keys to make the harmony more rich?
Where can you add additional harmonies to increase the frequency of changes?
Where can you add passing tones, neighbor notes, or suspensions to make more active figuration in the accompaniment?
What if you use triplets instead of eighth or sixteenth notes?
All of these are items that we can practice separately before combining them together. Work with them one at a time until you feel comfortable, then start combining them together. Brahms had a lifetime of experience before writing his chorale prelude. What will you be able to create if you continue practicing for the rest of your life?
The Sierpinski triangle is an equilateral triangle that is subdivided repeatedly into smaller and smaller equilateral triangles. It is one of many recursive designs that mathematicians call fractals. Whether you look at a small portion or the entire picture, the design appears the same.
While Sierpinski divided the basic triangle to create smaller triangles, Helge von Koch added triangles to each side:
Like the Sierpinski triangle, the Koch snowflake can be continued infinitely. More and more details arise, but they are all triangles. The most common structure in music is the 4-bar phrase. Sierpinski and Koch used triangles for their forms. We will look at form through the lens of the 4-bar phrase.
Though he died at the age of 35, Léon Boëllmann is one of the well-known French organist-composers thanks to his Suite Gothique. While he wrote numerous pieces for organ, piano, and even orchestra, the “Toccata” from Suite Gothique is a staple of the organ repertoire and his best-known work. Rather than look at the “Toccata,” I’d like to look at the second movement from the suite, the “Menuet gothique.” If you do not have a score for the Suite Gothique, you can download one at IMSLP. You can also hear me play it as a postlude on YouTube.
The Menuet is built virtually entirely with 4-bar phrases. The overall form is ABA. Only towards the end of the B section is the 4-measure structure even slightly ambiguous. The return of the A section is abbreviated in that the repetitions on different manuals are omitted. The piece is constructed entirely through the use of repetition and contrast in 4-bar phrases. The first improvisation lesson from this piece is to be sure you can play what you just played, even five minutes later after doing something different!
The first section of the piece is 48 measures long. The first eight measures (two 4-bar phrases) is played on the swell and then repeated on the great. The next sixteen measures (4 4-bar phrases) on the swell takes us a little further away from the home key before returning to end on the tonic. This is repeated on the great and brings the first A-section to a close.
Whereas the A-section began softly with the repetition being louder, the B-section reverses those and begins loudly with softer repeats. The A-section was also more connected with longer notes and step-wise motion (especially the descending bass line). The B-section is filled with staccato notes, arpeggios, and rests creating a marked contrast with what came before.
Following the same format as the A-section, the first eight measures of the B-section (two 4-bar phrases) played on the great are repeated on the swell. After another two 4-bar phrases on the great, we get another break with the repetition when the softer material is not a repeat. This new figuration gets a four measure extension which brings back the original A-section material which will now alternate with the louder B-section material for another page until we modulate back to the original home key and arrive at the recapitulation of the original A-section.
Because I believe anyone can improvise a 4-bar phrase, I believe it is possible to use the “Menuet gothique” as an improvisation model to build much longer pieces. I’ve created a PDF map of the form which is available for download here. The key centers are indicated so that you could use this to create a similar piece with different thematic material. It also could be interesting to change the tonal plan but use the same thematic material from Boëllmann.
While Sierpinski and Koch used triangles to create and break down forms, as musicians, we can use 4-bar phrases and work with a surprisingly small amount of material to build larger works.
Hoping Boëllman’s “Menuet gothique” inspires you to improvise!
Our modern ears have become so accustomed to advanced tonal languages that dissonance has become a relative concept. Just a few short centuries ago, composers would not include a third in the final chord of a piece because it was considered dissonant. In the 20th-century, Olivier Messiaen crafted pieces that end peacefully on a dominant seventh chord (as in Le banquet celeste). Context allows us to walk away from this final chord without demanding a traditional harmonic resolution.
I don’t necessarily remember where I got the idea, but one of the foundational ideas of the instruction I received in improvisation was that there are no wrong notes when improvising. Why then do some notes sound wrong? Why do the pieces I end on a dominant seventh chord usually sound unfinished (unlike Messiaen)?
I believe the simple answer is that these wrong notes make a change in the level of dissonance.
This works both ways. If you are playing in an early tonal language and your melody lands on the minor third while the accompaniment has a major third (F natural above a D-major triad for example), it will certainly sound like a wrong note and a mistake. Likewise, if you are playing in an advanced language with lots of seconds, sevenths and clusters, the appearance of a major triad can sound quite jarring. The sounds are perfectly acceptable by themselves. It is the context that makes them seem wrong.
The study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a very systematic and controlled way. First species allows no dissonance. In the language of Palestrina, this limits us to thirds, fifths and sixths using notes within the mode. If we wish to develop a more modern sound, what if we did first species using only seconds, fourths, and sevenths? For example:
Another alternative might be to keep the intervals restricted to thirds and sixths, but move one hand into another key:
Second species counterpoint where there are two notes against each note of the cantus firmus allows more options for introducing dissonance. Like first species, it can be done without any dissonance (only seconds, fourths and sevenths here):
Or passing and neighbor notes can be included:
With its carefully graded level of difficulty, the traditional path to the study of counterpoint introduces dissonance in a careful and controlled manner. Even if we wish to use a more modern language, we can still apply those same concepts for the introduction of dissonance. Choose which intervals will be consonant for your exercise. As you move into the second and third species, introduce categories of dissonant notes one by one: passing tones, neighbor notes, chromatic passing and neighbor notes, appoggiaturas, and accented passing tones. How do these categories change or alter your dissonance level?
In my first days as a student, I spent an entire year (or two) on two voice counterpoint working slowly through the levels of dissonance and species. Mastery of counterpoint takes time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and boring. Change the rules and keep exploring!
Happy Easter! I hope all of you who had extra and important services over the last weeks are now recovered and ready to continue with your improvisation study. During this season with liturgical churches focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it seemed fitting that I should resurrect the newsletter and take up the task once again of encouraging people to improvise at the organ. The message of Christianity has not spread far and wide because it was only practiced by a few people, but because those who practiced it told others about it. We must do the same for improvisation. If you have colleagues that do not improvise, teach them something simple as a way to get started (or send them to explore the previous newsletters).
Gradus Ad Parnassum
Aloysius– But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna.
My area of focus for 2016 is counterpoint. I was fortunate as an undergraduate student that my composition teacher included counterpoint exercises as part of every lesson. Most undergraduate theory programs include some study of harmony and counterpoint, but usually spend more time analyzing them than actually creating them. For me, this is the equivalent of learning to read, but never learning to write or speak. As improvisers, we need to learn to speak music, and thus have embarked upon the lifetime of learning Johann Joseph Fux mentions in the quote above.
Gradus Ad Parnassum is one of the classic texts for the study of counterpoint. Written in 1725 by Johann Joseph Fux, it was held in high esteem and used by such composers as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and even Strauss. It is written as a dialogue between a student, Josephus, and the teacher, Aloysius, identified in the Foreward as Palestrina. The dialogue is a fictional creation of Fux therefore, but is meant to present the rules of counterpoint (indeed all musical composition) as practiced by Palestrina.
One of the advantages of learning composition through the study of counterpoint is the very easily identified and graded levels. Beginning with only two voices, the student progresses through five species before adding another voice:
First Species – note against note
Second Species – two notes against one
Third Species – four notes against one
Fourth Species – syncopation
Fifth Species – florid counterpoint
When creating counterpoint, one of the voices is identified as the cantus firmus. This is the given melody for the exercise that may not be changed. The other voice(s) must be written to follow the rules and fit correctly with the cantus firmus. Here is the first theme Fux provides:
All notes in first species counterpoint must be consonant intervals: 3rds, 5ths, 6ths, or octaves. There are many more rules regulating the movement between the voices, but before we get there, let’s consider some practice ideas we can take away from what we’ve covered so far.
All rhythms are equal in first species. What happens to a melody or theme if we strip the rhythm away from it? Some hymns are almost all quarter notes, so won’t change much. Others have a variety of rhythms and will sound quite different when equalized.
Counterpoint can appear either above or below the cantus firmus. Here is a chance to practice our dexterity at the organ. Each of your hands, as well as your feet could be the cantus firmus, while one of the others plays the counterpoint. For an added challenge, play the theme in the bass register with the right hand while your feet play an added melody above on a 4′ (or 2′) stop!
Fux (and Palestrina) make use of the church modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. If these modes are not part of your improvisational vocabulary, spend some time becoming more familiar with them. Ideas for practicing them can be found here and here. Counterpoint is not required in order to learn a mode.
Themes are written in whole notes. Practice slowly. Whether it is counterpoint, or some other improvisation technique, take your time. Especially as we move into more complicated counterpoint, never play faster than you can think.
Spread the Word
Improvisation is not an easy task to master. It takes time and practice, but there are ways to start and make it accessible to everyone. In this Easter season when Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the Good News, I hope you will practice your improvisations and share with others the joy and delight you find in creating music in the moment.
In January, just as I sent out the last newsletter issue, I left to attend the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians in Hartford, CT. A collegial gathering of usually around 60 music directors and organists from across the country, I had not been able to attend for several years, so was really looking forward to catching up with the group this year.
Pipe organs have been around for many centuries. Technology has led to advances in the ways sound is created and the way it is controlled. While trying to avoid the pipe versus digital debate, the fact that this debate exists I believe has left pipe organs woefully behind in the technological advances of how we can control a pipe organ.
MIDI has been around for over thirty years and is perhaps the only piece of recent technology that might be included on a pipe organ. I suspect many organists that have MIDI never use the capacity because it is primarily seen as a way to add in other sounds to the organ. The organ at the Cathedral has MIDI ports, so when one of my cathedral colleagues told me that I could get a MIDI-to-lightning cable and connect my iPhone to the organ, I became very interested in what I might be able to do.
I ordered the cable once I came home from the conference and anxiously waited for its arrival. With a recorder app on my phone (MIDI Tool Box), my first thought was that I could now record my improvisations and then take the files to the computer and transcribe them! Some people have spent hours upon hours listening to Pierre Cochereau‘s improvisations to transcribe them. Now with my iPhone, I would be able to have at least a rough transcription with a few mouse clicks!
The Trial and Demo
In addition to capturing the notes I played, the recorder app would also capture the registration and swell pedal movements! Even when studying repertoire, I was encouraged to record myself so that I could coach my own performances. Imagine being able to hear your improvisation again simply as a listener. That fabulous harmonic progression you stumbled into by mistake can now be transcribed, studied, and repeated! Check out the video below for a demonstration of how it works.
Pipe organs rely on very reliable technology from centuries past in order to produce sounds, but we don’t have to miss out on other technologies from the 21st century. (Bluetooth even opens the door to wireless connections!) MIDI is a great way to capture improvisations, and I encourage you to take advantage of it if you have it on the organ you play regularly.
Usually as the New Year begins, may people set goals that they would like to achieve in the upcoming months. Unfortunately, after a couple of weeks, these usually fall by the wayside and go unfinished. How often have you set the same goals on New Years that you set for the last year?
A Word Instead of a Goal
The new trend is to choose a word for the year rather than set specific goals. I like this in that it can be more flexible and can help keep you focused without making you feel guilty about missing a deadline or not keeping up with a routine. One of the reasons goals often go by the wayside is the need to restart after we miss a workout, eat too much, or otherwise miss a step on our plan. Once we miss a step on our goal journey, it is often easier to quit than to figure out what to do next.
As improvisers, we should be well acquainted with missteps and the need for recovery after mistakes. We have to keep going until the end. Any public improvisation requires us to continue regardless of how far we might stray from our intended path. Choosing a word for the year is a way to maintain our focus. We might wander into some foreign keys, use a few chords from outside our tonal language, but if we can reclaim our focus, we should be able to bring our improvisation to a successful conclusion.
My word and area of focus in improvisation for 2016 is counterpoint. My goal for 2016 is to be able to comfortably improvise a fugue in four parts on a hymn or chant. There was a time when I felt competent to at least try a fugal exposition, but after many years of neglect, whatever of those skills I had has fallen out of practice. As the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Such has been my contrapuntal improvisational skills, and my aim in 2016 is to remedy that.
As we journey through 2016, I intend to share my progress and the resources I discover and use here so that 1)I am publicly accountable for my focus and goal, 2)other readers and organists may benefit from my discoveries, and 3) others may offer their own feedback and suggestions to help my progress. Please feel free to drop me an email or comment if you have suggestions or resources that you have found particularly helpful in your own study of counterpoint.
To get us all started, here are the books on counterpoint in my library that I intend to review this week as I sort out the best way to improve my skills:
Each of the above links are to Amazon.com. Any purchases made through the links will go towards the support of this website. As I was looking for the books on Amazon, I noticed a few other books on counterpoint that looked interesting, but since these five are already in my library, I thought they would be the best place to start. I’d love to hear about your experiences with these or any other books on counterpoint for this journey through 2016.
My word for improvisation is counterpoint. What is yours?
One of my central beliefs is that improvisation is a skill that can be learned through practice. If you have learned to read and write in any language and have learned to play the organ, then you should be able to learn to improvise. Some gift or talent may be required to get to the level of Gerre Hancock or Pierre Cochereau, just as we are all capable of carrying on an improvised conversation with another person, we should be able to learn the basics of improvising music.
Conversation is a skill that we practiced every day as a child. Our parents, family, and friends corrected us and helped us to pronounce words correctly and form sentences with proper grammar. We were coached every day for many years in order to develop these skills. We heard these skills practiced by others for hours every day, and practiced for ourselves almost as much. After a few years of informal tutoring, we were sent for formal schooling in spelling, grammar, and eventually studied larger structures such as form, plot, and character development.
Contrast this approach to how we learn music. We may hear it everyday, but how many of us practice making music every day? Let alone, how many of us have practiced music every day for years? How many times did your parents have to tell you to practice your music? I know I certainly went through phases when I wasn’t interested in practicing, and even when I wanted to practice, if I could get to the organ three days a week that was a good week!
Think also for a moment about the difference in method of learning music. Depending upon your country and what sort of music first caught your attention, there’s a strong chance that you actually had to learn to read music before you ever got to make music. When speaking a language, it is the reverse: we learn to speak and converse before we ever learn to read and write. Much of our music instruction is focused on learning to read and write rather than on speaking and creating. No wonder we have so much difficulty with and fear of improvising!
Whether music is your full-time job or only a part-time concern, because practice may have only been a daily habit when (if) it was required for school, it often gets pushed down towards the bottom of our to-do lists. It is very easy to let other tasks, especially administrative ones, take up most of our time.
I attended a very demanding academic high school and my musical studies were always in addition to my schoolwork. When I began my undergraduate studies with music as my primary focus, even though I had a full course load of 18 credits, I was not as challenged, so the next semester I took an overload of 22 credits — all one and two credit music classes. That semester, my organ teacher told me that I needed to make my practice time sacred. With so much on my calendar, it would have been very easy to let my practice time get bumped for other activities and rehearsals. Making my practice time sacred meant that nothing else could reschedule it. There were only limited number of hours on the instrument where I had my lesson, so whenever I signed up to practice there, those hours became sacred. No other homework or rehearsals could usurp those organ practice hours.
At one point, the column on improvisation in The American Organist was titled “Learn to improvise in 15 minutes a day.” Improvisation is a skill that we can learn through practice, but, like any language, it takes daily practice. Musical practice time is not built into our day like conversation practice, so I suggest we find a time to make sacred for our music. Perhaps it is only ten minutes a day. Maybe it is three different hours in a week. I would love to have again the two hours a day that I eventually reserved for practice as an undergraduate. Whatever time you choose, be intentional about your selection, and make the time sacred. After all, even Mozart practiced….
As I prepare to play selections from Tournemire’s L’Orgue mystique for All Saints this weekend, I thought we’d look at the second movement for some improvisation ideas.
Form and Language
The Offertoire for All Saints is based on the chant Justorum animae. The short piece contains five sections: A)harmonized chorale, B) monophonic chant, A’)elaborate harmonized chorale, B’) shorter monophonic chant, C) Coda.
The chant is in Dorian, Mode 1, so though there are no alterations in the key signature, because Tournemire starts the chant on G, every B is flatted except at the final cadences of the A sections. He borrows from closely related modes by including E-flats and A-flats. The chant is presented in half notes in the soprano, but Tournemire suppresses all the repeated notes, making each pitch of the chant equal in duration. While a traditional Bach-style chorale harmonization would include many root position chords, Tournemire rarely uses root position triads. Sevenths, suspensions, and inversions keep the progression unstable even at the cadence in the middle of the section at the end of the first phrase of the chant. The voices move mostly with step-wise motion.
The second section is a monophonic statement of the last two phrases of the chant. The change of registration and texture provide a contrast to the opening chorale. The relative speed of the chant also changes dramatically from half-notes to eighth-notes.
The return to the opening material for the third section is on a slightly softer registration and now includes more motion. While there were occasional eighth-notes in the first harmonization, this repetition keeps to the same harmonies, but includes constant eighth-note motion.
The fourth section is an echo of the second. The registration is softer, and only the second (final) phrase of the chant is cited. The final section seems to be a return to the opening material, but does not cite any of the chant. It is more of an extended harmonic return to an open fifth on the tonic G.
As offertories often take different lengths of time in different places, it strikes me that this piece could be easily shortened if needed by leaving out a section (or two or three). It would also be possible to repeat the longer B section instead of the shorter B’ section in order to lengthen the piece. While I do not know that Tournemire intended a performer to do these things, if we consider these pieces as examples of how we can improvise and fulfill the musical needs of the liturgy, I see no reason not to alter the number of sections we might play.
To summarize, here are ten ways to apply ideas from Tournemire’s Offertoire in our improvisations:
Alternate contrasting sections to create a piece to cover an unknown length of time.
Borrow from closely related modes or keys for harmonic interest.
Use inversions and suspension to keep the piece moving forward.
Suppress repeated notes in the melody.
Standardize the rhythm of the melody into one time value.
Change the unit of standardization for contrasting formal sections.
Use single voice textures.
Plan for repetition. Make sure you can play what you just played again.
Repeat with variation. Keep it the same, but add more motion.
Use registration to help mark formal sections.
As an example, I recorded an improvisation on Veni Veni Emmanuel following the model of this movement which you can watch here. As I recorded it before writing this column, I’m not sure I followed all ten of the above ideas, but hopefully it demonstrates at least some of the ways to apply ideas from Tournemire to a new theme.
In concluding this series on the French Classical Suite, we come to one of the most impressive sounds of the French Classical organ, the ensemble of reeds. Virtually every time I sit down at a historic instrument and pull out the small number of stops required for the Grand Jeu, I am impressed by the volume of sound. Listen to Jean-Baptiste Robin play Louis Marchand’s Grand Dialogue at Poitiers to hear what 6-7 stops can produce!
The Pre-classical Grand Jeu registration consisted of:
Use of the pedal depended upon the organ, but was based on the Trompette, adding the Clairon and then Bombarde stops if available. Couperin and Boyvin specify the flute stop on the pedal when they include trio passages in their dialogues.
Multiple forms are used with this registration including Pedal points, Fugues, Dialogues, and Overtures. In an early suite, the Grand Jeu may only be 10-12 measures long and played entirely on one keyboard. Later composers created 10-12 minute Dialogues exploiting the varied palette of colors and demonstrating a variety of writing styles. For a short movement with a little variety, the overture provides an easy example for us to follow.
Start on the Grand Orgue in a slow tempo. Use dotted rhythms. Scales by either the right or left hand can provide movement while the other hand holds a static chord. This slow section is generally in a duple meter.
The second section is generally faster and in a triple meter. Voices could enter in a fugal style (one after the other in imitation). Typically this portion would start on the Positif and could have dialogue sections where the soprano or bass would be played on the Grand Orgue.
The final section would be a return to the material of the opening of the movement, but may be very short and serve more like a coda than a true repeat of the opening.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on the French Classical Suite. Please let me know if you have any questions or areas where I could offer further help as you improvise your suites. If you are able and willing to share recordings of your improvisations, feel free to include them in the comments section for this post.
Improvement comes not only through practice, but also feedback. This applies not just to improvising, but also to writing. If you have suggestions for the next series or ideas for how I can help you improvise better, I’d love to hear them.
May your improvisations continue to improve,