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.

Gerre Hancock – Improvising: How to Master the Art

Gerre Hancock
Improvising: How to Master the Art
Oxford University Press

As one of the most highly regarded American improvisers of the late twentieth century, Gerre Hancock has left us a wonderful treasure in his book Improvising: How to Master the Art. I remember as an undergraduate student anticipating its release, anxiously waiting to see what this master would put down on paper as the way to learn American improvisation. While there were some smaller volumes (by Jan Bender and Michele Johns), the referential text for improvisation when I was a student was still the Cours Complet D’improvisation a l’orgue by Marcel Dupré. While offering lots of guidance, the Dupré was written for French students who normally have many years of harmony and counterpoint studies either already under their belt or in parallel process which typical American students lack. This makes the Dupré a very challenging place to start for most Americans. Gerre Hancock provides a wonderful bridge for those aspiring to follow the Dupré method but without the advanced theoretical background.

After an introduction where he offers two axioms of the art of improvising – 1)Never stop and 2)Salvation is never more than half a step away – Hancock begins with scales. Beginning with one voice, the student is encourage to make an interesting melody out of an ascending and descending scale. Slowly the texture is increased up to four voices. Numerous examples are given in a multitude of styles, however there is always one voice that is the scale. Whereas Dupré expects a student to practice proper voice leading and keep a strict even rhythm to the scales, Hancock encourages variety. This does not mean rhythmic instability as one of the recommendations at the end of the first chapter is for the student to count the time signature aloud while playing.

Chapter two moves on into phrases, starting again with only one voice and building up to a four voice texture. Having mastered scales and phrases, the student begins work on transitions in chapter three (“The Interlude”). Chapter four lays the foundation for variations as Hancock leads the student through re-voicing and re-harmonizing hymns. Chapter five (“The Ornamented Hymn”) begins to move the student away from strict statements of the hymn tune, preparing for “The Hymn Prelude” of chapter six where the student is given several forms to combine and apply the work of the previous chapters on phrases, interludes and ornamentation.

Beginning at chapter seven, Hancock moves the student from a given melody to forms that can be used with freer themes, beginning with Song Form, moving through Sonata Form (chapter 8) to Toccata (chapter 9). At chapter 10, he begins to introduce contrapuntal ideas through study of the canon. More complicated imitative structures are studied in chapter 11 (“The Duo and the Trio”) before arriving at the ultimate improvisational achievement- the fugue (chapter 12).

Overall, I find this book to be very logical in the progression through the material covered. While tonal language is implied throughout the course of study, the primary instruction in this book is in coherence through form and thematic development. It can be followed using a very simple or very complex harmonic language, i.e. in whatever language the student is most comfortable. If you are looking for instruction in harmony or a specific style, this is not the place to go, but if you wish to develop your improvisational form, this is an excellent workbook. Each chapter is filled with concrete recommendations for practice. It begins simply enough that anyone with basic music theory knowledge can follow, but it provides enough substance that even those with several years of harmony and counterpoint studies can still follow and learn.

Gerre Hancock was not only a master improviser, but also a master teacher. Improvising: How to Master the Art is indeed a masterwork of improvisation pedagogy and should be in any serious student’s library.