Thank You

This week in the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving. While it has become a commercialized holiday that at one point marked the start of the Christmas shopping season (which now begins before Halloween), I believe it is very useful for everyone to spend a few moments from time to time to express gratitude to others. Today, I’d like to thank you for visiting If you enjoy the content, would you thank me by sharing it with your friends and colleagues and asking them to subscribe? Every time I see a new subscriber or get a note from someone, I feel encouraged because I believe in some small way I’ve been able to help someone become a better organist. Thank you for your confidence in my abilities to offer you useful information. Please feel free to email me with your ideas for topics or lessons that would be most helpful to you.

Now Thank We All Our God

One of the most popular hymns sung at Thanksgiving is the German chorale Nun danket alle Gott, and one of the most popular settings of the chorale for organ is the Virgil Fox transcription of a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata no. 79. (Here Virgil Fox play it on YouTube here or the original Bach Cantata movement with orchestra here.) I’d like to use this piece as our model to imitate this week. How can we break this piece down and use the pieces to build something like it with a different choral?

Language and Form

Being composed by J.S. Bach, the musical language is very tonal. Secondary dominant seventh (or ninth) chords are about as adventuresome as we get harmonically. If you wish to treat another tune in this style, make sure the tonal language of the theme is consistent with the style.

For form, the piece basically alternates what I will call concerto material with phrases of the chorale. The second half of the chorale is also repeated, creating additional length for the piece. The chorale theme always appears in the left hand on a solo stop and is also given a half-note pulse. This allows time for the right hand to provide concerto material for each note of the theme, but the harmonic rhythm does not move any faster than the theme itself. In some other forms, doubling the length of time a melody note is played gives the composer the opportunity to fit more chords in the harmony, but this is not the case here. Bach keeps it simple.

Getting Started

The opening concerto material is actually the same material that is used to accompany the first phrase of the chorale. Rather than play the chorale, the left hand just played a rhythmic idea to keep the piece in motion:


Perhaps a first step to try if you wish to do this with another chorale is to simply use the left hand accompaniment figure to above to play through the harmonies of your new chorale theme. For example, here’s the opening of All Glory, Laud and Honor (Valet will ich dir geben):


After this, it’s time to experiment to find a motif or idea that you can play with the right hand. Bach uses both rising and descending thirds as well as neighbor notes to create his concerto material. Try using similar material for your harmonic progression, but keep the idea simple so that you can remember it and use it or reference it again and again in between each of the phrases of your chorale theme.

Pulling It All Together

One of the other details I noticed about the Bach cantata movement is that each full phrase of the chorale is interrupted at the halfway point by a short phrase of concerto material. At the end of a phrase of the chorale, there is a longer section of concerto material before the chorale returns. This makes it easier to modulate to the dominant where the second half of the chorale begins and is an easy way to create a longer piece if you have more time that you need to fill. To shorten the piece, leave out the additional concerto material that interrupts the theme at the midpoint of each phrase.

Thank you again for visiting I hope you find these tips helpful and that your improvisations fill those around you with gratitude for the musical gifts that you have been given!

Happy Thanksgiving,

Recent additions to



Newsletter Issue 29 – 2014 11 24
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Modulations with Motive

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 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:


or C Major:

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?

I want thank those of you who have responded to my sign-up survey. It is helpful for me to know about my audience, and I was also alerted through the comments to two other improvisers that I’ll be adding to the website soon! Because the survey is anonymous, if you would like a response from me, please leave your contact info in the final response box or simply email me directly. If you are not yet a subscriber and would like to take the survey, please uses the boxes to the right to get your free lesson and a link for the survey.

Hoping your improvisations inspire people to thank you for your music!

Recent additions to




Newsletter Issue 27 – 2014 11 3
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
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Nun danket alle Gott

This melody is attributed to Johann Crüger and was written around 1647. The German text “Nun danket alle Gott” was written in approximately 1636 by Martin Rinkart. It was translated into English in the 19th Century by Catherine Winkworth.

See a list of other chorale and hymn themes here.

Gabriela Montero – Improvisation on “Now thank we all our God” (piano)
Johannes Schröder – Improvisation zum Auszug über ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ – Abtei Marienstatt
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation Nun danket alle Gott – Geneve
Sietze de Vries – Improvisation Nun danket alle Gott – Martinikerk, Groningen