Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra – Bach and the Art of Improvisation

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra
Bach and the Art of Improvisation
Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press, 2011.

Johann Sebastian Bach is often hailed as the greatest composer of organ music and a fabulous improviser. To be able to improvise in the style of Bach is a significant accomplishment for any musician. This book (part one of two volumes) looks not simply at how a student might learn to improvise in the style of the great master, but also how the great master perhaps taught and/or learned keyboard technique including improvisation.

As with other improvisation method books (like Hancock and Brillhart), Ruiter-Feenstra begins with a philosophical discussion of why we should learn to improvise. In the preface and first chapter, she places improvisation in a historical context and demonstrates how it was a common expectation in Bach’s time that organists be accomplished improvisers. Extensive notes for historical references are provided for each chapter in the book making this a well documented and researched presentation. Chapter two continues the look at historical techniques by considering fingering and touch. Though there are “applications” given in each chapter, only once we arrive at chapter three and the study of thoroughbass, is there any opportunity (or need) for the student to actually improvise or otherwise be creative. Chapter four requires slightly more inventiveness of the student by finally expecting the student to harmonize a given melody.

Finally with the beginning of counterpoint studies in chapter five is the student expected to create, though many of the exercises are to be done with pencil and paper first. One of the more interesting items in the text for me is the chart of ways to fill in assorted intervals with figuration. Table 5.2 also provides lots of good instructions for how to insert figuration into the chorale harmonization. Chapter six turns to the Neumeister Collection of Bach chorales for improvisational models. Chapter seven looks at dance suites and how to apply dance forms and rhythms to create chorale variations.

This book attempts to serve two purposes at the same time: 1) providing historical documentation of improvisation practice and pedagogy and 2) providing instruction for a current student wishing to learn to improvise in tonal style. While I appreciate the historical information, I am much more interested in applying the information today. As such, the later chapters in the book are much more useful to me. While foundational for the material covered later in the book, the early chapters are weak in opportunities to master the concepts. Many other texts treat the topics of fingering, thoroughbass, harmonization and even counterpoint in a much more complete manner. While it is interesting to consider these topics through the lens of improvisation, attempting to serve two purposes limits the potential depth of coverage. A second volume is projected to cover more forms, and I presume, will follow a similar dual purpose format. I have to wonder if it might have been better to divide the material into two books according to purpose, providing one volume of historical documentation and reference with a second volume of practical application and exercises. The historical documentation, research, and analysis included in this book is thorough and very interesting, however I find the practical application side weak.

Improvisation is a skill that takes time to master with many areas to cover. A beginning improviser would be better served by Jan Overduin, Gerre Hancock, or even Jeffrey Brillhart. Even if Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra has provided us a window into historical improvisation, the book lacks enough material for it to be a true method book for today’s beginner.

Competition and Twitter

This week I am attending the AGO National Convention in Boston. There will be several events that include organ improvisations during the week: a concert by Thierry Escaich, a Hymn Sing with Bruce Neswick and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, a silent movie accompanied by Peter Edwin Krasinski, and several workshops and masterclasses. You can see the complete list that I compiled here. While I am always excited to see many familiar people and hear some fabulous playing, one of the highlights for me at the national convention is always the National Compeition in Organ Improvisation (NCOI).

After a preliminary selection round by recording, five candidates were selected to participate in the semi-final round. For this round, the candidates will have 30 minutes of preparation time with the themes and then will be required to play 1) a historically inspired improvisation based on a given hymn melody, chorale tune, or plainsong and 2) an improvisation on one of the given free themes, or on one given free theme and a secondary theme of the contestant’s choosing. Total performance time for these two improvisations is a maximum of 27 minutes. While that may seem like a long time to improvise, most candidates usually create a suite of variations on the hymn, chorale, or chant, so it becomes a little easier to fill the time requirement with short manageable movements. In fact, over the years, I’ve seen a few candidates have to end quickly in order not to play too long!

A maximum of three candidates will then be selected to continue on to the final round. The requirements for the final round are 1) a prelude, fantasia, or toccata and a fugue based on given theme(s), which may be sacred or secular and 2) a free improvisation based on a given musical theme or a given nonmusical theme (literary passage or artwork). Total performance time is again limited to a maximum of 27 minutes.

How many of these tasks would you feel comfortable doing now? Even if you aren’t able to hear the competition this week, the AGO has previous competition recordings available in the AGO Store. I found the recording from Nashville in 2012 listed in the Organ Music/Essays/Catalogs category. It also seems like you may be able to obtain other recordings from AGO National if you call and ask.

Now on Twitter

Because I received a request to report on the competition from someone who is not able to attend, I decided to set up a twitter account and live tweet the competition. I’ll eventually post a summary at, but if you’d like to follow along as it happens, I’ll do my best to make it informative and entertaining. With everyone following the World Cup, here’s my chance to be the announcer for the “American Cup” of organ improvisation. Follow me at @organimproviser to see if improvisation can be more exciting than soccer!

After a week of competitions, concerts, and workshops, I hope to have more practical advice for you next week.

Hoping you are having a fabulous summer of learning and fun!


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Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra

Pamela Ruiter-FeenstraOfficial website:

From 1996–2002, Ruiter-Feenstra served as Senior Researcher at the Göteborg Organ Art Center, learning much about historic instrument construction, sound, and music from colleagues and instruments, teaching improvisation courses at Göteborg University, and launching research on Bach and improvisation. As Professor of Music at Bethany College, Lindsborg, Kansas (1989–1996) and Eastern Michigan University (1996–2008), Ruiter-Feenstra taught organ, harpsichord, theory, improvisation, sacred music, and directed the Collegium Musicum. In 2008, Ruiter-Feenstra chose to leave institutional work in favor of freelancing as performer, pedagogue, author, composer, and recording artist.


Bach and the Art of Improvisation
Ann Arbor, MI: CHI Press, 2011.


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Bach, Improvisations and the Liturgical Year

Vidas Pinkevicius

PinkeviciusVidas Pinkevicius graduated from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius with Bachelor‘s and Master’s degree in Organ Performance. He also holds Master’s degree from the Eastern Michigan University (USA) under Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra. He graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA) with the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Organ Performance. At UNL, he defended his DMA dissertation on Improvisation of Keyboard Preludes in the Style of J.S. Bach.

Vidas Pinkevicius has his own channel on YouTube:

He also offers a free keyboard prelude improvisation course via email here.

Vidas Pinkevicius – Painting: Pieta
Vidas Pinkevicius – Painting: Sleeping Beauty