Back in 2014, I wrote a list of twenty ways to improvise on a hymn. Many of these are more like exercises than specific ways to create pieces. Following a request for clarification, I thought I’d do a few video lessons to demonstrate the topics.
More and more often I turn to the metaphor of music as a language. When we were young and learning our native tongue, we spent time learning vocabulary lists. Friday was often the day for spelling tests when I was in elementary school. While these exercises may seem simple – the written instructions are often only one or two lines – I believe they are the vocabulary lists for our improvisation studies. When we have chords and keys in our ears and in our hands, we can more easily say what we wish to say when we speak in the language of music.
For these demonstrations, I work with the tune St. Anne, commonly sung with the words “O God, Our Help In Ages Past.” So far, there are a total of three videos that cover the first nine items of the original 20 on the list. Here’s part one:
Because music is so difficult to capture on the written page, I have always found it helpful to have recordings or videos of examples or demonstrations. Especially with the organ, it can be instructive to see how a sound is being created. Is that solo being played by the pedal or the left hand? I remember after listening even to a piano piece by Olivier Messiaen, I had to go buy the score so I could find out how certain sounds were created.
if there are any other past lessons that you would like me to demonstrate, please let me know, and I’ll add them to my to do list.
We have recently installed cameras at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. In the near future, you should be able to tune in live to hear me play. I am hopeful that I will be able to share more of the pieces I improvise with you when this new camera system is fully functional. Please let me know if you tune in to one of the broadcasts!
Hoping all your improvisations speak to your audience,
One of the skills every improviser needs to have in their toolbox is the ability to transpose. Any of the larger forms which include a development section require the repetition of material in different keys. While it is acceptable to modify the material in the development, the best preparation for that is to practice strict transposition.
There are three ways that can learn to transpose: by ear, by clef, or by analysis. Some experience with all three can be useful as improvisers.
Using Your Ear
The ear is a great asset in transposition. It will be how you check if the notes you play sound the same in the different keys. If you have learned a melody by ear, then it may be easy to transpose by ear. Harmonies, especially complex ones, can by much harder to transpose by ear. This can be the slowest way to practice your transposition, but the ear will always be how we judge if our transposition is correct.
Using a Clef
The simplest transpositions are those by a half-step. Depending upon how many accidentals are in the piece, it is relatively easy to move a piece from Ab major to A major by simply changing the key signature. Likewise, moving down from E major to Eb major requires only a change in key signature and some attention to the alterations.
It is also possible to change the clef and read the music in a key further away. Sadly, most musicians today are generally only fluent in reading treble and bass clef. Violists will know alto clef. Some trombone and cello players will know tenor clef, but unless you read from a lot of early music scores, you probably haven’t spent much time with the other C and F clefs. There are enough different clefs that any note on the staff can actually be any pitch. Here’s an example of the same space on a staff and how it appears with the different clefs:
The way I learned to read these clefs was with Preparatory Exercises in Score Reading by by R.O. Morris and Howard Ferguson. (This is an Amazon affiliate link.) I spent one summer working through learning to read the various C-clefs and larger open scores. Being comfortable reading the different clefs makes it much easier to transpose pieces into more distant keys. I strongly encourage you to master as many clefs as you can.
Transposition by Analysis
Learning to read by clef reinforces reading by interval. One form of transposition would be to consider the interval that each voice moves. This can be very helpful when transposing a single melody or theme but also for complex harmonic structures. Recognizing that the alto moves a half-step down might be easier to see than reading the part in a new clef which shows a movement from F# to E#. In a tonal piece where you can analyze harmonic function, knowing that the original is a ii-V-I progression should make it easier to play the proper notes and progression in the new key.
One of the exercises I did daily for almost 6 months was to play a single Bach chorale in all twelve keys. Not only did this help me recognize standard chord progressions and voicings, I played everyday in keys that most people avoid, e.g. Eb minor, Bb minor, and F# major. I now read harmonic function almost as fast as I read the notes on the clef. The further I have to transpose a piece, the more likely I am to rely upon some form of analysis in addition to using a clef and my ear.
I still remember my amazement when one of my theory (and piano) teachers told me that Alfred Cortot suggested transposing Chopin etudes into different keys while keeping the same fingerings! I left my piano studies behind well before I ever played any Chopin etudes, however as an aid towards improvisation, I would recommend transposing repertoire. Let’s take something a little easier like the first of Louis Vierne’s 24 Pièces en style libre, the Préambule. (Free score available through IMSLP.)
The simple texture of this piece makes it relatively easy to transpose by ear or clef. The harmonic passages on the Récit will require some analysis (harmonic or melodic) in order to master. For my own practice, I read through the piece quickly in several keys:
Once you’ve transposed a piece like this, use it as a model for improvising. Follow the score, keeping the same registrations and rhythms, but change the notes. After playing the piece in several keys, I improvised an imitation Vierne piece in F Major and in G minor. There are some hesitations as I searched for similar interesting tonal gestures without following exactly what Vierne did, but that’s why we practice. I decided to make this exercise my prelude this weekend, so there are two more that follow the score less slavishly in A minor and D minor as well.
Transposition is a skill that everyone easily recognizes as something that must be practiced in order to be mastered. Improvisation requires practice as well. Whether you choose a piece by Vierne or another favorite composer, I hope you will spend some time practicing it transposed and then imitating it in improvisation.
In January, just as I sent out the last newsletter issue, I left to attend the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians in Hartford, CT. A collegial gathering of usually around 60 music directors and organists from across the country, I had not been able to attend for several years, so was really looking forward to catching up with the group this year.
Pipe organs have been around for many centuries. Technology has led to advances in the ways sound is created and the way it is controlled. While trying to avoid the pipe versus digital debate, the fact that this debate exists I believe has left pipe organs woefully behind in the technological advances of how we can control a pipe organ.
MIDI has been around for over thirty years and is perhaps the only piece of recent technology that might be included on a pipe organ. I suspect many organists that have MIDI never use the capacity because it is primarily seen as a way to add in other sounds to the organ. The organ at the Cathedral has MIDI ports, so when one of my cathedral colleagues told me that I could get a MIDI-to-lightning cable and connect my iPhone to the organ, I became very interested in what I might be able to do.
I ordered the cable once I came home from the conference and anxiously waited for its arrival. With a recorder app on my phone (MIDI Tool Box), my first thought was that I could now record my improvisations and then take the files to the computer and transcribe them! Some people have spent hours upon hours listening to Pierre Cochereau‘s improvisations to transcribe them. Now with my iPhone, I would be able to have at least a rough transcription with a few mouse clicks!
The Trial and Demo
In addition to capturing the notes I played, the recorder app would also capture the registration and swell pedal movements! Even when studying repertoire, I was encouraged to record myself so that I could coach my own performances. Imagine being able to hear your improvisation again simply as a listener. That fabulous harmonic progression you stumbled into by mistake can now be transcribed, studied, and repeated! Check out the video below for a demonstration of how it works.
Pipe organs rely on very reliable technology from centuries past in order to produce sounds, but we don’t have to miss out on other technologies from the 21st century. (Bluetooth even opens the door to wireless connections!) MIDI is a great way to capture improvisations, and I encourage you to take advantage of it if you have it on the organ you play regularly.
One of my tasks during my undergraduate studies was to memorize the C major Prelude from Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier (Book 1). My theory teacher for harmony, Dr. Stefan Young, wanted us to play the piece in block chords and sing the bass line with the harmonic analysis as our lyrics. When I had Dr. Young for counterpoint the next semester and he again assigned the same piece, I was given the additional complicating task of playing the piece not just in any key, but in any two keys at the same time. Dr. Young wanted me to play the right hand in one key while playing the left hand in another. It’s a real mind-bending experiment to try, even if it doesn’t always sound so great…
When I pulled out the hymnal yesterday to practice, I stumbled upon “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The melody basically is a G major chord, so I thought what if I harmonize it in F major instead. There are a few other key shifts here, but the harmonic rhythm remains slow so that you have time to consider the unexpected colors.
Harald Vogel is a leading expert in early German organs and organ music. As the director of the North German Organ Academy, which he founded in 1972, he teaches historical performance practice on the original instruments. He has been professor of organ at the University of the Arts Bremen since 1994.
First, I wish to offer my apologies for not sending out newsletters or posting regularly at organimprovisation.com for the past month. My schedule has been subject to change on an almost daily basis for the past two months as I have been coping with two different events in my life. In a live conversation, here is where I would ask if you want the good news or the bad news first. Since I’m writing and have to make the choice for you, we’ll start with the….
On December 9, early in the morning, my mother passed away. She developed other difficulties while undergoing her second round of chemotherapy for lymphoma. Her condition kept us and the doctors guessing for several weeks as she would seem to be deteriorating as we got good test results or otherwise showed signs of improvement. I was able to spend a couple of weeks with her and my family as we journeyed through this difficult time together. I played for the funeral, improvising the prelude. Another organist friend sang a composition I had written earlier in the year when I began to face the possibility that my mother would not be with us much longer. For me, improvising is not just a skill for making music, but also a life skill. Being able to change directions and make choices that reflect your values and the current conditions is not simply a useful skill for creating a piece but also for daily living. I’ve had to employ it quite often while coping with the bad news and the …
On January 15, I will begin my new position as Director of Music for the Cathedral and Archdiocesan Liturgies at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen in Baltimore, MD. The space is fabulous with a large four-manual pipe organ. There is a tour of the building on-line here. With such a wonderful instrument at my disposal, I hope to begin posting videos in the new year where I can provide examples and lessons for the content I have been providing here. In the mean time, my postings may still be a little erratic, but I plan to be back on pace by the end of January once I am settled in Baltimore.
As I suspect this will be the last newsletter issue until after the new year, I will wish you both Merry Christmas and Happy New Year now. Thank you for your interest in organ improvisation. For your holiday inspiration, I found the clip below showing Pierre Cochereau improvising on a noel. Enjoy all the marvels of the season!
May all your improvisations be competent, convincing, coherent and colorful!
Franz Josef Stoiber is a renowned organist and teacher of improvisation. He has been organist of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg since 1996, and was appointed as full-time professor for organ and improvisation at Regensburg University in 2003. He studied with Jon Laukvik in Stuttgart and Peter Planyavsky in Vienna. He is very active as a concert organist and lecturer, and has made many CDs. He was recently involved in the design of the ground-breaking new organ in Regensburg Cathedral.
He will teach courses in improvisation in London and Regensburg during the summer of 2014.
Die Orgeln der Hochschule für katholische Kirchenmusik und Musikpädagogik Regensburg – Improvisation on “Lobe den Herren” and the Gregorian Antiphon “Cantantibus organis Caecilia Domino decantabat” (2010). HfKM, Regensburg
“Alles meinem Gott zu Ehren” – Works by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Improvisations – Kögler organ in the Stadtpfarrkirche St. Laurentius in Neustadt a.d. Donau (2013). Ambiente Audio
Glocken- und Orgelklänge aus dem Regensburger Dom – Improvisations on the Rieger organ (2013). Motette 50931
Porter studied organ at Oberlin College and Yale University where he received the DMA degree in 1980. He taught harpsichord and organ at Oberlin from 1974 to 1986 and taught organ, music history and music theory at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1985 to 2002. He has also taught organ improvisation at the Eastman School of Music and McGill University.