Sacred Time

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.

Language Practice

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.

Music Practice

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!

Sacred Practice

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….

Happy practicing!

Newsletter Issue 53 – 2015 12 07

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Choose Your Adventure

HouseofDangeGrowing up, I loved to read, and one of the series of books I discovered was the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Whereas normally a book proceeds from front to back, these were different because every few pages, there would be an option in the plot for the reader to choose what action the main character takes next. Based upon your choice, you would flip to somewhere else in the book and continue reading until the next decision point. Sometimes you flipped forward, sometimes backward, so you never knew how soon the end would come. You could also reread the book many times to see how the different choices changed the outcome, so suddenly instead of just one book, you had fifteen or twenty!

Programming Choice

In preparing for my upcoming concert at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen, I had to choose repertoire to play and decide if I wanted to improvise on the concert. As I sifted through my music options, I felt like I was in a choose your own adventure story. Which piece will follow this one? What theme shall I use for my improvisation? While there was never a wrong way to progress through the adventure books, there was usually only one way that led to the best ending. What is the best musical program I can build from the pieces available to me? What would I be comfortable improvising and how might it fit into the mix?

Try it again!

While it is important to be able to keep going while improvising, I believe it is also useful to attempt the same improvisation multiple times. Just as I reread the adventure books multiple times to get to all the different endings, we could practice our improvisations from the same starting points and make different choices as we progress along. Occasionally the ending of the book came fast and furious (and not too happily). So might our improvisation come to a rapid close if we deviate too far from our plan, but the joy of practicing is that we can start once again from the beginning, making a few different choices and hopefully reach a more satisfactory ending. Even if you are content with your improvisation, could you do it the same way again? Chances are (especially if it is more than a minute long), you’ll end up doing something a little different the next time through. Did the change make it better? This is how some composers actually write their pieces. Why couldn’t we do the same as improvisers?

Final answer

While I had the pleasure to reread the Choose Your Own Adventure books numerous times, at some point, I had exhausted the options of the book and it was time to move on to another volume. The themes we choose for our improvisations offer an almost infinite source of options for us to explore. We may provide a “final answer” when we improvise in public, but even after a performance, we can continue to work and rework a theme many more times. How many different ways have you tried to improvise on the same theme? Besides simply doing variations on the theme, can you use the theme in a new way to create a completely different form? I challenge you to dive into a theme and work with it to see how many different styles and types of piece you can make with it before exhausting your adventure with it.

May your adventures always end happily!


PS. If you need a theme to work with, check out the list of options at

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Newsletter Issue 35 – 2015 03 19
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Waiting, Wondering, What Do I Do?

Out of the Depths600Another one of my duties at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen is to manage the concert series. It so happens that the artist scheduled for March cancelled (well before my arrival here), so I had to decide whether there would simply be no concert, or how I might choose to fill the slot. As our concert brochure announced a performance of Marcel Dupré’s Chemin de la Croix, I considered trying to find someone else who might play the piece, or if I might be courageous enough to improvise my own music for Stations of the Cross. While I opted to play mostly repertoire and fill the concert slot myself, the time I spend practicing repertoire is reminding me of things I need to do when practicing improvisation which I thought you might need to do as well.

Practice Time

Perhaps it’s blatantly obvious, but in order to improve, we have to set aside time to practice. This includes our improvisations. Beginning in my student days, I set aside regular time to practice. My undergraduate teacher taught me to make my practice time sacred, something I haven’t necessarily done in recent years. Especially if practice time is hard to come by where you play, make practicing your number one priority when you have it scheduled. Don’t let any other appointments or phone calls interrupt you. When you decide to practice, make it a time of focused work with goals to accomplish. If you have regular practice time, it is easier to develop a plan for your improvisation practice so that not only are you not wondering when will you get to practice you won’t be wondering what to improvise today.

What to practice

If our goal when practicing is to improve the performance of the piece, then we pay attention to particular details of the piece and work them. If there is a technically demanding passage, we slow it down, play it in different rhythms, and then play it faster. If we want to include a difficult technical gesture in our improvisation, what might it look like? Think about it first and then play slowly. Just because something goes by quickly is not an excuse for sloppiness.

Certain blocks of my practice time have been devoted to registering pieces for the concert. Perhaps a chunk of our improvisation time could be spent exploring new combinations at the organ. Choose odd combinations of stops that you might never have used before and search for a texture or style that works well with that sound combination. While we often look for sounds to express our ideas, what if we turn the tables and try to discover what ideas the sounds might suggest to us?


Another great motivator can be a deadline. I certainly know that having a concert date on the calendar will get me on the organ bench a lot more than simply playing for Mass every weekend. While everyone often notices the bad effects of peer pressure, there can be good side effects as well. If you tell someone in advance when and what you will improvise, you now are responsible to that person and will be more likely to stick with your plan. While it can be intimidating to have another competent musician evaluate whether you do what you say you will do, there is a great deal of motivation and focus that you can gain by knowing someone is listening purposefully. Whether your goal is a simple four measure interlude (exactly four measures) or a whole concert of improvisations, choose a date and a time and tell someone your intentions.

Waiting to find time on the bench or wondering what to do when we get there doesn’t help us improve. Whether we are learning a new piece, polishing repertoire for a concert, or practicing our improvisations, having a purpose and a deadline for our practice time will keep us on the road to being better organists.

May you find more time for focused practice!


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Newsletter Issue 34 – 2015 03 2
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Twenty ways to improvise on a hymn

As this issues is number twenty in the series of newsletters, I thought I’d offer a simple and practical list of twenty ways to practice a hymn that you can make part of your regular routine. Depending upon your experience level, some of these might be considered warm-up exercises while others will hopefully help you expand your improvisational toolbox. While I typically only give hymn melodies on the website here, I’m writing this list with the presumption that you have a four-part harmonization in front of you, so break open the hymnal and get started!

  1. Transpose the hymn to all the other major or minor keys.
  2. Play the hymn in other modes: change major to minor (or vice versa). Try Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian (coming this Friday) as well.
  3. Invert the soprano and alto parts. (If this is your first effort at doing this, don't worry about parallel fifths for this or any of the other exercises on this list. Simply play the notes on the page.)
  4. Play the melody in the tenor (left hand) with the right hand playing the alto and tenor parts up an octave. Play the bass either with the left hand or pedals.
  5. Play the melody in the tenor(left hand) with the right hand playing the tenor part above the alto part. Again the bass can be played with the left hand or pedals.
  6. Use an 8' stop in the pedal to play the melody in the tenor register. Play the bass with the left hand while the right hand fills in from the tenor and alto parts.
  7. Play through the hymn harmonizing each melody note as each of the following functions: tonic of a major chord, tonic of a minor chord, third of a major chord, third of a minor chord, fifth of a major chord, fifth of a minor chord, tonic of an augmented chord, tonic of a diminished seventh chord. (See Issue #7 for an example.)
  8. Rather than applying one type of chord throughout the entire hymn, choose a numeric sequence (such as 1-3-5, all in major) and follow the same idea as above. You could also follow a more complicated sequence, such as 1M-3m-5M-1m-3M-5m. While the progressions might not make much sense harmonically, this will help you think and shift between keys quicker.
  9. Play the melody as a two-voice canon at the distance of one note, a half-measure, and a full measure. Each of these canons can be practiced starting with the right hand, left hand or pedal creating six different combinations for each distance.
  10. Choosing the distance than works best, play through the canons again, but at different melodic intervals.
  11. Play a monophonic variation arpeggiating the chords in triplets or sixteenth notes. Be sure and try different figurations where the melody note is not always the first note of the arpeggio.
  12. Create a duo where the top voice is the melody and the bottom voice plays eighth notes (two notes for every melody note).
  13. Create a duo where the top voice is the melody and the bottom voice plays triplets (three notes for every melody note).
  14. Create a duo where the top voice is the melody and the bottom voice plays sixteenth notes (four to one).
  15. Repeat steps 12 to 14 with the melody in the lower voice and the more active voice above the melody.
  16. Repeat 12 to 14 but rather than ornament the bass, ornament the melody. Instead of a duo, you may choose to play the full ATB harmony as in the hymnal as the accompaniment.
  17. Create echo passages by changing manuals (or registration) and repeating short sections of phrases, i.e. for a two-measure phrase, repeat the second measure, and then repeat the last half-measure again.
  18. Change the meter from duple to triple (or vice versa). How many different ways can you shift the meter? For example, one measure of four can become two measures of three or one measure of three.
  19. Change the meter to 5/4, 7/8 or some other odd (but consistent) meter.
  20. Improvise a toccata following the plan from the newsletter sign-up handout!

Many of these steps can be done at the piano and do not require a significant chunk of time, so I encourage you to practice as many of them as often as you can. If you can’t practice all twenty daily, choose as many as you can and practice them for twenty days and then move on to another set. Slowly over time, your improvisational skills will grow.

May your improvisations be better each day,

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Newsletter Issue 20 – 2014 09 15
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