Modeling Tournemire: Offertoire

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:

  1. Alternate contrasting sections to create a piece to cover an unknown length of time.
  2. Borrow from closely related modes or keys for harmonic interest.
  3. Use inversions and suspension to keep the piece moving forward.
  4. Suppress repeated notes in the melody.
  5. Standardize the rhythm of the melody into one time value.
  6. Change the unit of standardization for contrasting formal sections.
  7. Use single voice textures.
  8. Plan for repetition. Make sure you can play what you just played again.
  9. Repeat with variation. Keep it the same, but add more motion.
  10. 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.

Happy Halloween!

Newsletter Issue 52 – 2015 10 31

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The Final Grand Jeu

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:

  • G.O.: Trompette, Clairon, Cromorne, Cornet, Tierce, Bourdon 8, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard

A distinction emerged in the Classical period between the Grand Jeu using the registration above and the Grand Dialogue which omitted the Jeu de Tierce:

  • Pos: Montre 8′ or Prestant 4′, Bourdon 8′, Cromorne
  • G.O.: Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Trompette 8′, Clairon 4′, Cornet

As the organs grew larger and the Dialogue advanced, the registration expanded to:

  • Pos: as above
  • G.O.: as above
  • Récit: Cornet
  • Écho: Bourdon, Prestant, Doublette, Nazard, Tierce

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,

Newsletter Issue 49 – 2015 09 21

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French Classic Fugues

As we near the end of this series on the movements of the French Classical Suite, we need to face the much revered and highly intimidating form of fugue. Before composers turned to serialism with twelve-tone rows in the twentieth century, I believe fugues represented the highest level of compositional craftsmanship. With the possibilities of stretto (overlapping statements of the subject) and diminution or augmentation, it is very easy to imagine a composer spending hours working out exactly how to combine the subject with itself in multiple ways to create a masterpiece. To be able to improvise a fugue on the with little preparation and no possibility of correction once the notes have been played makes this one of the most impressive forms to improvise.

Luckily for us, in the French Classical Suite the movements are too short to worry about or try to include many of these advanced techniques.


At it’s most basic structure, a modern listener expects a fugue to begin with a single voice and each of the subsequent voices to enter one at a time in imitation of the original subject. The first statement provides the subject of the fugue, and the second entrance, typically in the dominant would be the answer. A real answer is a strict transposition of the subject. A tonal answer makes some modification of the subject in order to adjust for the unequal distances from tonic to dominant (perfect fifth) and dominant to tonic (perfect fourth). Most people find it is easier to improvise fugal expositions working from the lowest voice to the highest. French Classical fugues were almost always for manuals alone, so the lowest voice would be played by the left hand, enabling us to keep our improvising a little simpler by not using our feet for this movement.


Given the shorter time expected for most verset movements, there is not time for extensive development and modulation to multiple key centers. Some movements in the French Classical repertoire with the title fugue consist of little more than an exposition with a conclusion shortly after all the voices have entered. For a slightly longer movement, try modulating towards closely related keys with new statements of the subject clearly stated when you arrive at the new key. It is useful and important to remember in a fugue that all of the voices do not need to continue during the entire piece. Especially for modulating sequences, it can be very helpful to reduce the texture to two parts for the transition with the third voice re-entering to mark the arrival at the new key center. The best fugues seem to always have a subject or material from the subject present in at least one of the voices at all times, so be sure to keep your development focused, and make it back to tonic for your conclusion.


Reeds provided the most clarity on the French Classical organ and so were the basis for these highly contrapuntal pieces. The Classic registration for a fugue is to use the Trompette of the Grand Orgue perhaps with Bourdon and Prestant. An alternative would be to use the Cromorne (with Prestant or Flute 4′).

The highest level of fugue in the French Classical period was probably produced by Nicolas de Grigny. His fugues were for five voices on two manuals and pedal. The right hand played two voices on the Cornet while the left hand played two voices on the Cromorne. The fifth voice was played by the pedal on the Flute 8 or Grand Jeu de Tierce coupled from the Grand Orgue. Because there is at most an upper and lower voice in each of the tone colors, it becomes easier for the listener to follow individual voices. If you have mastered fugal exposition on one manual, try the registration used by Grigny. If you need some inspiration, listen to Christophe Mantoux play Grigny’s Fugue on Ave Maris Stella.

Hoping fugues inspire you rather than send you fleeing!


Newsletter Issue 48 – 2015 09 15

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Not All Solos Are for Soprano

As our ears are naturally attracted to the extremes, melodies often get placed in outer voices. The default location for a solo voice tends to be the soprano or uppermost voice. A soft gentle air will usually have the theme here. The most common exception to a soprano solo would be a rousing toccata where the extreme low end gets the theme played by our feet. Today, I want to look at two forms found in the French Classical Suite where the left hand gets the solo.

Basse de Trompette

The basic registration suggestion for a Basse de Trompette is:

  • RH (Pos): Bourdon 8′ with the Prestant 4′ or Montre 8′
  • LH (G.O.): Trompette 8′, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′ or Montre 8′

Depending upon the organ, a Clairon 4′ might also be added to the solo registration and the Doublette 2′ and/or Larigot to the accompaniment.

These pieces are generally in 2 or 4 beats to a measure and often start with the accompaniment alone. They may be imitative and occasionally are even titled as fugues. Most often though, the accompaniment remains simple once the bass solo begins. Whereas a soprano solo may be very lyrical with lots of motion by step, these bass solos are modeled more after pieces written for the viole de gamba with large skips. For example:

Like the other récits last week, it is possible to use other solo registrations for a bass solo. A Basse de Cromorne will have more stepwise motion that a Basse de Trompette, and a Basse de Tierce will be even smoother. Though large leaps will still appear with these other registrations, the frequency of them will decrease as the registration becomes further removed from the trompette. The tempo is also likely to slow down. Because of the activity in the solo voice, the harmonic rhythm is likely to be only one or two chords per measure. That makes these great pieces to work on if you want to practice thinking faster than you play!

Tierce en Taille

The earlier registration suggestion for the Tierce en Taille is:

  • RH (G.O.): Bourdon 16′ (or Montre), Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (Pos): Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Nazard, Tierce, Larigot

While the pedal is used for these pieces, no registration was specified as there would be so little to choose from on a French Classical organ. Most organs had a Great to Pedal coupler, and the only pedal stop available for accompaniment would be the Flute 8′. As the Tierce stop lost its’ strength in the 18th century, the accompaniment also lost some of its vigor by exchanging the Prestant for a Bourdon and even losing the 16′ stop(s). If a Montre 8′ was available on the Positif, it might be added to the solo and the Prestant 4′ changed to a Flûte 4′.

These movements are some of my favorite from this stylistic period. The registration is rather unique with the accompaniment surrounding the solo (written above and below, but also sounding in the same register as the solo). It was often used at the Elévation in Mass (where the priest consecrates the bread and wine – the most solemn moment of the celebration), but it also appears in other suites for verses of the Magnificat, Gloria, and other hymns. These solos are very vocal in style and highly ornamented. They should be considered like récitatives sung during the same time period, almost without tempo and with lots of freedom to explore the exquisite sounds of this registration. The Cromorne en taille would be slightly less active, but still extremely vocal and highly ornamented. These are delicate pieces so a Trompette would never be chosen as a solo here.

Left Hand Workout

These movements will encourage you to think more about your left hand. As the left hand often ends up playing in the middle of our improvised texture, it can be filler and often is mindlessly making noise. These two solo movements require that we focus our attention on the left hand, whether it is playing the lowest part of a Basse de Trompette or is in the middle as a Tierce en Taille. If you have difficulty focusing on the left hand, you could always rehearse the solo and accompaniment separately. Just like a live duo, the accompanist practices his or her part before meeting the soloist, and the soloist learns his or her part before meeting with the accompanist. Practice your left-hand solos alone to discover how to play the leaps and ornaments for these movements. Practice the right-hand (with pedal) accompaniment so that harmonically you have a support for the solo. Then schedule a joint rehearsal after each has learned his or her part!

May your left-hand solos be as creative and easy as your soprano solos!

Newsletter Issue 47 – 2015 08 31

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From Two to Three: Moving to Trios

One of the things I really enjoyed during my time in France was the study of harmony and counterpoint. My plan was to spend a year abroad in between my Master’s and Doctoral degrees here in the US. I loved living in France so much, that I eventually stayed for four years. Even though I had earned an advanced degree here, when I began study of harmony and counterpoint in France, I was placed in the class of first year students! 

Initially, I felt a little humiliated at having to start from scratch, but I also realized that there were some skills I could acquire and improve by starting at the beginning. All exercises were written in C or F clefs (no Treble G clef). While I had learned to read these clefs in school, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to become even more familiar with them.


One of the other distinctions was that exercises were always done with pencil and paper at a desk. No keyboard (or other instrument) allowed. This forces you to hear inside your head and know what the little dots on the page actually sound like before you play them. It is possible to write lines that look great on the page and may even follow all the rules but actually sound very bad. In all my studies in the US, I do not believe we were ever denied the opportunity to check our work on a keyboard before turning it in. Believe it or not, work with pencil and paper can actually be ear training work!

From Two to Three

Have you tried to improvise any duos yet? How successful were you in creating two independent voices? My entire first year of counterpoint in France was spent writing in two voices. To truly master these contrapuntal styles takes lots of practice.

The great joy of improvising a suite is that no movement needs to be very long. Use any opportunity you have to improvise in the two part texture, even if it is only for a 15-30 second interlude or coda where you need to cover some liturgical action with music. Even if the registration is not from the French Classical period, practicing in two voices will help you become more familiar with the texture and gain fluidity. While you may not want or need to spend a year on two-part texture as I did in France, the more comfortable you are with two voices, the easier it will be to move into three parts.

Trio à Deux Dessus

There are two types of trios in the French Classical suite. The simplest to begin is the Trio à deux dessus (with two upper voices). As with the Duo, in this Trio form, the voices are generally imitative and enter one after the other, most typically from high to low. The top two voices are played with the right hand and the lower voice with the left. As with the Duos, these pieces tend to be in a triple meter, though usually with a slower implied tempo than the Duos. (Perhaps this was so the improvising organist could take a little more time to think when managing the three voices!) This doesn’t mean that they were slow, just not as fast.


The most common registration suggestion for the Trio is:

  • RH (Pos):  Cromorne
  • LH (G.O.): Tierce, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard (2′), Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′

Other options include:

  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Trompette
  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Clairon, Bourdon 8′, Bourdon 16′ Prestant 4′
or for smaller instruments, Lebègue suggests the same registration as the duo:
  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Tierce, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard (2′), Bourdon 8′, Bourdon 16′ Prestant 4′

One of the more interesting registration suggestions by Gigault is to use the Tierce of the Grand Orgue for the upper and lower voices while playing the middle voice with the thumb on the Cromorne of the Positif! This would definitely require practice and is not necessarily well-suited to all trio textures. 

Trio à trois claviers

The other Trio voicing has each voice on a different keyboard. While there are a certain number of pieces written that require three hands to play, I’m not sure these are within the realm of an improviser. Even though I have done some joint improvisation, asking someone to improvise a third voice in a strict contrapuntal style would require some real practice and perhaps some other agreements about form and structure in order to have any chance of success.

The great thing about being an organist is the ability to use our feet to play a (pedal) keyboard. French pedalboards of the time were primitive by today’s standards, so the bass voice of these trios is likely to be slower moving than the other voices. Grigny pushes the technique of the organist by providing several measures of eighth-notes in one of his hymn suites. 

In general the registration for these trios with pedal looks very much like the registrations above but with an 8′ Flute in the pedal. On organs where there was a pedal coupler, it was also possible to use the Jeu de Tierce from the Grand Orgue in the Pedal. 


Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of guidance to give you for the best way to improvise a trio. Trios are the sorts of pieces where written contrapuntal studies become extremely useful. Choosing a short motif and making sure to pass it frequently from one voice to another would be a good mental focus when improvising a trio. It could also be helpful to practice improvising two voices alone with the right hand. Study the repertoire. Write out your best ideas and turn them into sequences and transpose them into other keys or modes. Above all else, practice slowly so that you have time to think (and hear) before you play.

While I believe it is easier to begin with a Trio à deux dessus, you may have an easier time with a Trio à trois claviers. Is it more complicated to add in an extra voice (with the hand) or an extra body part (the feet)? I’d love to hear which of the two is easier for you. 

Hoping the joy of improvising increases with every voice you add,


Newsletter Issue 45 – 2015 08 11

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The Second Part: Duos

In the French Classical suite, after the opening Plein jeu which primarily explores interesting harmonies, the second movements are often more contrapuntal in nature. Rather than jump into a Fugue, we’ll stick with the simpler Duo. Out of 55 Magnificat settings surveyed by Jean Saint-Arroman, 41 have a duo as the second verse.


The registration for the Duo varies quite dramatically by the end of the French Classical period. Early registration suggestions include:

  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Tierce, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard (2′), Bourdon 8′, Bourdon 16′ Prestant 4′


  • RH (Pos):  Tierce, Nazard, Quarte de Nazard (2′), Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′
  • LH (G.O.): Trompette with a foundation stop

By the end of the 18th century, other reed stops (Hautbois, Basson, Cromorne, Voix humaine) begin to show up as options for both voices. In a modification of the first option, Dom Bedos even offers the choice to use the 32′ stop for the left hand along with the tierces and nazards!



Most Duos are in the form of a gigue, so tend to be faster, lively pieces in triple meter. The following rhythm is very common:DuoRhythm

In order to keep the piece light and active, some composers even double dotted the quarter note.

While most Duos tend to be fast, there are a few, generally in a duple meter, that would be in a more moderated tempo. Somehow, I can’t imagine playing quick double dotted rhythms with the 32′ stop Dom Bedos recommends, so the registration of the piece should also reflect the style and tempo.

Creating a Duo

As hinted above, Duos have a more contrapuntal nature. The left hand generally enters after the right hand in some sort of imitative gesture. Parallel thirds and sixths are very common, and hemiolas often appear at cadences. Any study of counterpoint usually starts with writing for two voices and would be most helpful before improvising a Duo.

The opening right hand gesture typically serves as a thematic motif for the piece and is usually about two measures long. Here are some basic steps to help you move from a motif to a full piece:

  1. Choose a motif with distinct rhythmic and melodic characteristics
  2. Practice the motif in both hands (one at a time) in multiple modes and keys
  3. Choose a tempo and play the motif with alternating hands in tempo (like jazz players trade solos every four bars)
  4. Use sequences of the motif (stepwise or circle of fifths) as you alternate hands
  5. Explore counterpoint for your motif. Can you play it in thirds? Sixths? What makes a good bass line for it?
  6. Repeat the process of alternating the motif between hands, but feel free to add in the second voice using the contrapuntal ideas you have found
  7. After so much exploring, it’s time to improvise a piece from start to finish. Fill in with extra material as needed. Make sure you visit one or two other key centers and bring the piece back to a satisfactory close in the tonic. 

If you have not studied counterpoint, it might be helpful to plot out and notate some of your ideas. Just as an infant learns to walk while holding on to a helping hand or other object, there’s no reason not to write a few things down to serve as our support as we learn to improvise. Even writing an entire piece could be helpful.

Duos are to be lively and fun pieces, so make sure your improvisations are joyful this week!



Newsletter Issue 44 – 2015 08 03

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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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The French Suite

During the Baroque music period, French organists developed a style of playing and pieces that has become known as the French Classical School. Notable composers during this period include:

Before improvising in a style, it is always a good idea to play as many of the written pieces as possible. Scores from these and other composers from the era are available from IMSLP. While there will be differences in the pieces between composers, by playing through a large part of the repertoire, it becomes easier to identify the common characteristics of the style.

Movement types

Whether written for use with a hymn, movements of a mass, or for the Magnificat, French Classical composers created suites of pieces, often titled by the expected registration or texture of the movement. The most common movements include:

  • Plein jeu
  • Fugue
  • Duo
  • Trio
  • Récit
  • Grand jeu

While the order and number of interior movements varies, the suites almost always start with a Plein jeu and end with a Grand jeu. In the category of Récit, I am including movements that feature a solo stop and accompaniment such as Tierce en taille and Basse de trompette. Don’t worry if these titles don’t mean anything to you for now. I plan to spend the next few weeks explaining each one individually, offering comments on the style, registration, and steps we can take towards improvising these different pieces.

In the meantime, go find (or download) some scores to play through and enjoy this audio clip of one of the current French masters, Michel Chapuis, improvising in French Classical style for your inspiration:

MichelChapuis YouTube

Hoping you will find inspiration from the French Classics,


Recent additions to




Newsletter Issue 42 – 2015 07 20
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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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