Video Improvisation Lessons

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.

Livestream

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,
Glenn

Using my iPhone to play the organ

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.

Technology

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.

MIDICableSquareThe Cable

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.

Beyond its usefulness for studying improvisation, this set up enables me to transfer pistons between consoles and opens some new possibilities for accompanying.

Conclusions

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.

Happy improvising,
Glenn


Newsletter Issue 55 – 2016 03 09

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The French Opening: Plein jeu

In the French Classical period, composers wrote suites of pieces that were used in alternation with the choir. The choir would sing a verse of chant and the organ would play a verse, trading with each other until the entire chant text had been proclaimed. Except for the Gloria during Mass, the organ would generally play the first movement in order to establish the mode and pitch for the choir. The first movement might also clearly cite the theme as a reminder for the choir of the melody that they were about to sing.

Modes

Gregorian chant was the primary source of liturgical music during this period and was considered to be in modes rather than our modern major and minor keys. There are eight chant modes commonly referred to as:

  1. Dorian (D-D)
  2. Hypodorian (A-A)
  3. Phrygian (E-E)
  4. Hypophrygian (B-B)
  5. Lydian (F-F)
  6. Hypolydian (C-C)
  7. Mixolydian (G-G)
  8. Hypomixolydian (D-D)

The easiest way to describe these tonalities is using the white notes of the keyboard for the ranges listed next to the names above. While this is a vast oversimplification of the use of modes in chant, it will give you a basic idea of how each mode has a different character. 

These modes could be transposed to other pitch centers to make it easier for the choir to sing the chants, so while you may not need to know how to play every mode starting on any pitch, in order to improvise in the French Classical style, you definitely need to know the modes. The links above and last fall’s newsletter on learning modes are places to start if you need more of an introduction.

Registration and Style

The classic plein jeu registration is:

  • G.O. (Great): Bourdon 16′, Bourdon 8′, Montre 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Cymbale, Fourniture
  • Pos (Choir): Bourdon 8′, Prestant 4′, Doublette 2′, Fourniture, Petite Cymbale
  • Péd: Trompette 8′ (if used)
  • Keyboards coupled

The pedal trompette is quite a loud stop compared to the typical pedal trumpets on most American organs. Take advantage of all the videos on YouTube to listen to some of the historic instruments like Poitiers, St. Maximin, or even the restored Dom Bedos in Bordeaux if you haven’t gotten to hear these sounds live and in person.

Most often these opening movements are in cut time with two slow half note pulses per measure. The writing is often in four to six voices. If there is a chant theme, it could appear in the bass or tenor. According to Dom Bedos:

Le grand plein-jeu doit se traiter gravement et majestueusement, l’on doit y frapper de grands traits d’harmonie, entrelacés de syncope, d’accords dissonant, de suspensions et surprise d’harmonie frappantes.

The great plein-jeu must be treated gravely and majestically. There one must make broad strokes of harmony, entertwined with syncopations, dissonant chords, suspensions, and striking harmonic surprises.

One of my favorite harmonic progressions from this period is where the bass makes a deceptive resolution from V to vi while the other voices resolve to a major tonic chord. For example, in A minor:

DeceptiveCrunch

Especially in the earlier not so equal temperaments, this is definitely a striking chord progression!

Form

Unless there is a theme present, many times these pieces simply seem to wander through chains of interesting harmonies in the tonic or closely related modes. Themes tend to be in half notes in the pedal, usually in the tenor, but occasionally  in the bass. Looking at a standard harmonized hymn and placing the melody in the tenor played by your feet requires practice. While not my best improvisation ever, I did manage to record a short plein jeu on Tallis’ Canon this week as a demonstration of the style and so you could hear the organ at the Cathedral. Feel free to share your own improvised plein jeu performances in the comments for this post.

PleinJeuTallisCanon

Happy improvising!

Glenn


Newsletter Issue 43 – 2015 07 28

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Kay Johannsen

KayJohannsenWebsite:
http://kay-johannsen.de

YouTube Channel:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1MdT1h9PCTOQcDns9LkBvA

Kay Johannsen is Collegiate Cantor and and Director of liturgical music at the Collegiate Church in Stuttgart, Germany. He directs the Stuttgarter Kantorei, the solistenensemble stimmkunst and the Collegiate Philhamonic Stuttgart and oversees a weekly concert series at the church. In addition to numerous recordings of repertoire, he has made three recordings of organ improvisations.

Recordings:

Advent And Christmas Music


Christmas: Improvisations on Christmas Songs


Passion

Videos:
Kay Johannsen – Orgelimprovisation – Mühleisen-Orgel der Stiftskirche
Kay Johannsen – Free Improvisation ‘The Great Wall’ – Stuttgart, Stiftskirche
Kay Johannsen – Orgel-Improvisation über Psalm 57 – Stuttgart, Stiftskirche
Kay Johannsen – Improvisation on “Ode an die Freude’ – Stuttgart, Stiftskirche

János Pálúr

János PálúrWebsite:
http://palur.hu
YouTube:
https://www.youtube.com/user/palurj/videos


János Pálúr is professor of organ at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and titular organist of the Fasor Reformed Church. From 1995 to 1997 he studied organ with Olivier Latry in the Perfectionnement class of the Conservatory of Paris (CNSM). In 1997 he won the Grand Prix of the second International Organ Competition of Paris.

Recordings:
PalurImprovisations


Concerts2004Palur


200 Improvisations


Videos:
János Pálúr and László Fassang – Improvisation on ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ – Fanciscans Church Budapest
János Pálúr – Dies Irae – Improvisation – Palace of Arts, Budapest
Olivier Latry, László Fassang and János Pálúr – Sortie Improvisation – Notre Dame de Paris

Timothy Howard

Timothy-HowardWebsite:
timothyphoward.com

YouTube Channel:
http://www.youtube.com/user/TimothyHowardMusic

Dr. Timothy Howard holds degrees from the University of Southern California, Westminster Choir College and Biola University. He is Director of Music and Organist at Pasadena Presbyterian Church and Lecturer in Music at California State University, Northridge. He has recorded organ scores to accompany the silent films Nosferatu, From the Manger to the Cross, and The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ.


Videos:
Timothy Howard – Improvisation on ‘Kingsfold’ – Pasadena Presbyterian Church
Timothy Howard – Improvised postlude on NETTLETON – Pasadena Presbyterian Church, California
Timothy Howard – Postlude on ‘Westminster Abbey’ – Pasadena Presbyterian Church
Timothy Howard – Postlude on ‘Wondrous Love’ – Pasadena Presbyterian Church

Michael Joseph

Michale JosephMichael Joseph earned both a Bachelor’s degree in Music Theory and Composition and a Master’s in Music Education from the University of New Hampshire in Durham. For over thirty years, Michael has worked in music education in both MA and NH and directed music ministries for several churches in Manchester. He also served as Director of Music Ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester. He currently serves as an adjunct professor of music at Rivier University and Director of Music Ministries at First Baptist Church of Nashua.

Michael Joseph offered a masterclass to the Manchester AGO Chapter that you can watch here.

YouTube Channel:
ProfJoseph4855

Videos:
Michael Joseph – Improvisation on Hyfrydol – First Baptist Church of Nashua, NH
Michael Joseph – Symphonic Improvisation on ‘Slane’:Minuet – St. Joseph Cathedral, Manchester, NH
Michael Joseph – Symphonic Improvisation on ‘Slane’:Finale – St. Joseph Cathedral, Manchester, NH

Xaver Varnus

varnus-xXaver Varnus is a Hungarian-born Canadian organist, improvisor, writer, and television personality. His first piano teacher was Emma Németh, one of the last pupils of Claude Debussy. At sixteen, he undertook his first concert tour of Europe. In 1981 Varnus left Hungary to study with Pierre Cochereau in France. Over the course of his short career, Xaver Varnus has played to more than six million people worldwide, recorded 51 albums, made sixty concert films, and written five books.


YouTube Channel:
https://www.youtube.com/user/xavervarnus

Videos:
Improvisation on three given themes – Walcker Organ
Xaver Varnus – Improvisation on a theme by Jean Guillou – St. Eustache, Paris
Xaver Varnus – Improvisation on a theme of Stokowski – Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, Philadelphia
Xaver Varnus – Variations on Frère Jacques – Dominican Church, Budapest

Eric Dalest

EricDalestSm

Website:
http://www.dalest.org/

YouTube Channel:
https://www.youtube.com/user/dalestorgue

Born in 1974 in Marseilles, Eric Dalest studied at the Conservatories of Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. He obtained his Médaille d’Or with unanimity of the jury presided by Jean Guillou. He subsequently studied improvisation with Jean Guillou and received the Diplôme Supérieur from the Schola Cantorum in Paris where he studied with Paul Imbert. Since 1996, he has been the organist at St. Sauveur in Aubagne. He has concertized widely across Europe.


Recordings:

Eric Dalest: Improvisations


Eric Dalest: Organ of Telfs in Tirol Improvisations


Christmas Organ Improvisations at Tezze Sul Brenta


Christmas Improvisations (Live)


Eric Dalest: Improvisations Symphoniques Organ

Videos:
Eric Dalest – Improvised Waltz
Eric Dalest – Improvised Berceuse