Solo Pedal Variations

Thank you to everyone who has completed the survey from the last newsletter about a workshop next summer in Baltimore! So far, it looks like July is the preferred month, but you can still make your voice heard here. I’m excited by the interest demonstrated in the responses and will keep you posted as the event takes shape.

Solo Pedal

A regular part of my early organ studies was devoted to pedal practice. Whether it was exercises by Stainer, Gleason or Nilson, a significant chunk of my practice time was spent acquiring the ability to find my way around the pedal board. The end goal however was always to combine the feet with the hands. Aside from a few cadenza passages, we rarely play with out feet alone after we master the basic technical exercises.

After creating the virtuoso pedal variation on Salzburg, I realized how easy it would be to progress to solo pedal variations. Where we made the virtuoso pedal part by playing the bass and ornamenting the tenor, we could play the soprano ornament the bass, perhaps something like this:

Sometimes it might be easier (or sound better) to use the alto as a harmony part rather than the bass. When there is a half note in the melody, we can choose to find some way to fill in order to keep the motion going (I added passing notes above), or we could slow the motion down to eighth notes or even have a quarter note if we need a break in our virtuosity!

Ornamented Melody

As Salzburg has several large skips in the melody, we could create another simpler variation by using choosing to only ornament the melody with neighbor tones:

And of course, one of the most impressive pedal techniques is to play notes with both feet at the same time, adding in three- or four-note chords for the biggest splash:
While these solo pedal variation techniques might better be suited to concert use than liturgical use, they are still useful tools for our improvisational toolbox. If we need to practice our pedal technique, we might as well practice our improvisation skills at the same time. Besides, wouldn’t a flashy pedal cadenza be a great touch to add to the end a toccata?

Hoping your feet will soon be flying across the pedalboard,


Newsletter Issue 38 – 2015 05 26
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Twists and Turns

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been working from Charles Ives’ Variations on ‘America’ to discover improvisation ideas and practice techniques. After looking at the fireworks of the first variation, the polonaise, and the introduction, today we turn to the chromaticism of Ives’ second variation.


The first difference to notice with this variation is that Ives has changed range. The melody begins one octave higher, allowing him to use chords with more open voicing – and thus more space for chromatic fill! This variation is filled with stepwise motion (whether chromatic or diatonic) in the lower voices. Only the soprano melody remains largely untouched. Ives also moves from the predominantly quarter note rhythm of the theme to consistent eighth note activity. As our first exercise (since Ives didn’t touch the soprano), let’s try to tun the melody into a flurry of chromatic eight notes:


Add chromatic passing tones between steps in the melody and chromatic neighbor notes for repeated notes. It may be overkill to do this only to one voice, but I think it is a great practice technique to explore, working our way through each of the voices in the standard harmonization one after the other. Do the same exercise with the alto, tenor, and then the bass alone. For step two, play the full harmonization while adding chromatic neighbor and passing tones to one voice. After you are comfortable focusing on one voice at a time, your ear will likely have led you to discover spots where chromaticism works better in one voice than another. Play through the harmonization again now adding the chromaticism in the voice where it works best.

Some tips to consider as you explore: In four-part texture, one of the notes of the chord is doubled. This is probably not the note to alter chromatically unless it is the root of the chord and you are adding the seventh. (Ives ignores this in m.4 of this variation, but ends up with parallel octaves between the soprano and this inner voice.) Thirds of chords can easily be major or minor. Choose whether to move from major to minor or minor to major based upon where the voice needs to go next. Fifths of major chords can be raised; fifths of minor chords can be lowered. The diminished triad (and fully diminished seventh chord) can transport us easily from one key to another, so provide excellent transition material (see m.6 of variation II). Ives also reduces his texture to only three voices at times in order to highlight the chromatic lines (and lessen his concerns about doubling). As you become comfortable shifting from one voice to another, be sure and try combining chromaticism in multiple voices at the same time!

And now, faster!

Typically when creating variations, the rhythms move from quarters to eighths, through triplets and on to sixteenth notes. After exploring eight notes, the third variation on ‘America’ by Ives suggests the triplet feel by shifting to 6/8 time. Ives also sets up an accented chromatic neighbor note in the accompaniment as a motif for this variation. Leaving modulation and discussion of the interlude for next week, Ives also changes keys here. Rather than change so many items at once in our practice, how about doing them one at a time? Stick to the original key, but instead of chromatic eight notes, add chromatic triplets! Rather than using passing and neighbor tones on the weak beats, try to use more accented chromatic neighbors. It would be overkill, but what if each note of the soprano (or alto or tenor) began a half-step lower and slid into the proper pitch? (How many vocalists have you heard scoop into a note? Why can’t we try it at the organ!) After you are comfortable in the home key, choose another key in which to practice the harmonization and addition of chromatics. Start again with eight notes and progress through the same steps outlined above.

After triplets, move on up to sixteenth notes. The final variation Ives provides keeps the same chromatic neighbor from variation three in the accompaniment, returns to the tonic key, but increases excitement by using a constant sixteenth note motion passed between the voices (including some challenging runs for the feet). While it looks complicated on the page, it really grows out of the techniques covered in the earlier variations.

While the road may offer many choices for the twists and turns to take, I hope you will take each step forward, confidently making progress towards creating your own fireworks at the organ!


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Review and Competition:


Newsletter Issue 13 – 2014 07 21
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Creating Holiday Variations

One of the first forms many organists attempt to improvise is most likely a variation on a hymn tune. Perhaps you needed a little extra music for communion or didn’t have time to practice a postlude, opting instead to fill the time with some modified version of the last hymn that was sung. Louis-Claude Daquin (born on July 4, 1694) was famous for his variations on Christmas carols which he played before Midnight Mass at Notre Dame in Paris. Pierre Cochereau delighted audiences with his concert variations on popular tunes. Even the complex tonal language of Max Reger becomes more accessible when there is a chorale stated amongst all the chromaticism. Remembering the improviser’s goal to sound like a composition, I thought we would spend the next few weeks looking at some written variations to see what we could learn about improvising from a written piece.

Because we just celebrated Independence Day here in the US, the first set of variations I’d like us to consider is Variations on ‘America’ by Charles Ives. E. Power Biggs asked Ives if he had any organ music that he could perform on his weekly radio program in 1948. Though Ives had written the piece in 1891 when he was sixteen, Biggs performance on July 4, 1948 led to the publication of the piece in 1949. If you are unfamiliar with the piece, I encourage you to listen to the performance by E. Power Biggs below which will also allow you to follow the score (sometimes with Ives’ manuscript):

Out of the fourteen-page modern edition, there are only a handful of measures where there is material that is not explicitly connected to the theme. No aimless wandering here!


As today is the introduction to our survey of variations, we’ll focus on the introduction that Charles Ives writes. While only two pages in length, it offers a wealth of practice ideas for us to master. Looking at our theme America, we can see that it uses two-measure phrases. The only time Ives deviates from two-measure units is in measures 5-8 (repeated as 29-32) when there is a tension building harmonic progression that has the loosest connection to the theme of any material in the piece. Here’s our first element we can extract for practice. I’ve simplified the chord progression for these measures below. Ives provides two different figurations in the introduction. How many more can you develop?

You should also learn to transpose this progression into every other key (as suggested when we explored color).

Transposition is also something Ives uses liberally in his introduction. Phrases of the theme appear in F major, G minor, D minor, D major, B major (or E Minor). Later on, we have an entire variation in Db Major, so being able to play the theme in any key seems like a worthwhile skill to practice. If the entire theme seems a little long to work with, Ives seems to change keys every two measures (in keeping with the phrse structure), so try practicing in bite-size two measure units. Depending upon the theme you have chosen, the adaptation in to minor mode (from major) can sometime prove tricky. When Ives ventures furthest afield in the introduction (mm 17-24), he keeps the rhythm, but adapts the melody to suit his harmonies. While it can be a worthy exercise to be strict in your transposition, don’t be afraid to make adaptations and adjustments to make the changes more musical. After all, we are in the process of making variations here!


Whether you are making variations on a patriotic tune for a concert or competition, providing an extended Christmas prelude, or introducing or concluding a hymn, studying written variations can provide us with ideas and tools to practice. Just as we break down repertoire into chunks to practice, so too we can break down our improvisations into bite-size practice bits. Looking at Ives this week, we identified nuggets about practicing phrase length, transposition, and a harmonic sequence in just the Introduction to Variations on ‘America.’ Next week, we’ll explore ideas from the actual variations. How much more gold can we find in this piece?

Hoping the freedom you have inspires you to freely create music!


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Newsletter Issue 11 – 2014 07 07
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Traditional songs

Popular songs are frequent themes for concert improvisations, usually giving rise to a set of theme and variations, though occasionally being used in other forms. As the melody is usually very familiar to the audience (i.e. popular), it is generally easier for the people to follow and understand the development of the theme when well presented.

Example songs:


Franz Lehrndorfer
Theme & Variations, Vol. 1: Improvisations on Children’s Songs

Olivier Latry – Improvisation on The Simpsons Theme – Toronto
Pierre Pincemaille – Theme and Variations on a popular tune – St Martin de Dudelange – Luxembourg
Olivier Latry, Vincent Dubois, Paolo Oreni and Michael Bottenhorn – Happy Birthday – St. Joseph, Bonn Beuel