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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Because notes have letter names, it is possible to generate musical themes from words or names. One of the earliest and most popular themes has been the name of one of the greatest composers of organ music: Johann Sebastian Bach. Germans use the letter H for what we call B-flat, making Bach’s name into a concise chromatic motif:

Anders Börjesson – Improvisation fugue B A C H – Mariestad Cathedral
Tomáš Ibrmajer – Organ Improvisation on B-A-C-H – Bazilika minor, Brno
Martin Látal – Improvisation on the Theme B-A-C-H – Šternberk
Tomasz Adam Nowak – Improvisation on BACH – Hauptwerk organ

Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her


Composed by Martin Luther in 1535, “Vom Himmel hoch” was first published in Valentin Schumann’s Geistliche Lieder in 1539. Johann Sebastian Bach used the melody in his Christmas Oratorio and as the theme for his Canonic Variations.

See a list of other chorale themes here.

Cor Ardesch – Vom Himmel hoch – Grote Kerk, Dordrecht
Maria Scharwieß – Vom Himmel hoch – Nathanaelchurch Berlin-Schöneberg

La Marseillaise


Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé
Entendez-vous dans nos campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras.
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Aux armes citoyens
Formez vos bataillons
Marchons, marchons
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons

La Marseillaise is the national anthem of France. The song was written and composed in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle during the French Revolutionary Wars, and was originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin”. It acquired its nickname after being sung in Paris by volunteers from Marseille marching on the capital. The French National Convention adopted it as the Republic’s anthem in 1795. It later lost this status under Napoleon I, and the song was banned outright by Louis XVIII and Charles X. It returned briefly after the July Revolution of 1830, but was not restored as France’s national anthem until 1879.

See a list of other traditional song themes here.


Xaver Varnus – La Marseillaise – Mathias Church, Budapest
Pierre Cochereau (Jeremy Filsell plays) – La Marseillaise – Liverpool

Adoro te devote

Adoro te devote is a Eucharistic hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) at Pope Urban IV’s (1261-1264) request when the Pope first established the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. The chant melody in Mode V potentially dates from the first millennium.

Robert York – Improvisation on ‘Adoro te devote’ – St. Sulpice, Paris

O Filii et Filiae

This melody dates to the Fifteenth century and was very popular in France. The original nine verse Latin hymn was written by Jean Tisserand, OFM (d. 1494). It was assigned to the celebration of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament on Easter Sunday. While the triple alleluia was only to be sung at the beginning and ending, it has become a persistent refrain after each verse in most modern hymnals. The irregularity of the word stress may also have contributed to the great variety of rhythmic variations in the tune.

See a list of other chant themes here.
See a list of other hymn tunes here.

François-Henri Houbart – Improvised Sortie on ‘O Filii et Filiae’ – La Madeleine, Paris
Jonathan Y. Tan – Postlude on ‘O Filii et Filiae’ – Grace Episcopal Church, Cincinnati
Bert Rebergen – Entree Improvisation “O Filii et Filiae” – St. Lambertus Castrop-Rauxel


Known in the United States by the lyrics “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or in the United Kingdom as “God Save the Queen” (or “King” as appropriate), the origin of this melody are uncertain, but the earliest attribution is to John Bull in 1619. Traditionally, the first performance was thought to have been in 1745, when it was sung in support of King George II. The lyrics for the US were written by Samuel Francis Smith in 1831. The melody has appeared in the compositions of many classical composers including Beethoven, Clementi, Haydn, Liszt, Strauss, Debussy, Reger, and Ives.

Xaver Varnus – Improvisation on Submitted Themes – Canterbury Cathedral
includes “Good King Wenceslas,” the Hungarian National Anthem, and “God save the Queen”
Gabriela Montero – “God Save the Queen” – Aldeburgh (piano)

Valet will ich dir geben – St. Theodulph

A hymn commonly associated with Palm Sunday and the words ‘All Glory, Laud and Honor,’ this chorale was one of the themes for the final round of the NCOI competition in Boston in 2014.

See a list of other popular hymn and chorale themes here.

Rafael Ferreyra – Fantasia improvisation on ‘Valet will ich dir geben’ – San Juan Bautista, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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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