I was prepared to improvise at this service on some of the most famous Easter hymns, such as Jesus Christ is Risen Today and others. But when I came to the church I met my priest who after greeting me with the words "Alleluia" asked me if there wasn't going to be Handel's Alleluia for the organ during service.
I answered that this was a good wish but knew that I don't know this piece from memory and I left the score at home (plus I haven't played it for several years now so I was sure it wasn't going to be a nice performance anyway). Besides I felt like the priest was not really serious because he must know that such things have to be asked for quite in advance (I don't approach him with the special request for the theme of his sermon just before the service starts, for example. In fact, I would never do such a thing even a month in advance - there are some professional boundaries we must honor).
But when I was going up the stairs to the organ loft I started thinking maybe I should give Handel's Alleluia a try. I thought people would enjoy it. Besides - I like musical challenges. But how can you play a piece, if you don't have a score and don't know it from memory?
I decided to take my own advice and improvise on the beginning few lines of this piece. It should have been a prelude before the service - so really not very long - 2-3 minutes of duration should have been just fine.
I turned on my organ, choose Organo Pleno with mixtures registration on all three manuals (just in case) with III/I coupler and principals and 16' Posaune with I/ped coupler in the pedals and began to play.
I foolishly chose the C major key and soon realized that the original is in D major so yes, I had to transpose it in my mind (at the beginning in the video you can probably feel a short moment of this sudden unpleasant realization).
In the short few moments I had for preparation before playing I thought up a rather simple plan for this improvisation. I was going to present this Alleluia theme in various related keys of the C major scale (d, e, F, G and a - not in this particular order, though) and connect the thematic entrances with modulating sequences taken from the fragments of the theme.
The end of the improvisation was supposed to be about 30 seconds after the bell (announcing the beginning of the service) rings. That's about time when the priest has come to the altar in our church. As I was playing, I didn't have my watch on but kept one eye (and ear) open to this bell sound...
The time passed but there was no bell sound so I had to keep on playing. But here's the thing: how do you keep on improvising when your original plan for improvisation was rather short?
I guess improvisation is such a handy skill for any organist because you can make it shorter or longer according to the situation. It's not easy to find a nice place to stop in a written down organ composition but if you are spontaneously improvising, you can make it as long or as short as you wish.
This means that your original plan can be extended with more modulations and more sequences which was exactly what I did then.
What was supposed to be a rather modest prelude of 3 minutes of duration, became a rather solid 8 minute piece. If you are curious what I played, watch this video, since I recorded it.
The performance is not perfect, there are a few wrong notes here and there but I think it's worth sharing it with you not because you can see how can I play without mistakes or because I want to entertain and amuse you (that's not the point). What's more important here is that you can see what can YOU do with such a famous theme (or in fact with any other theme) for 8 minutes.
So what lessons can my readers draw from my musical adventure of yesterday?
1. Some fear and anxiety in such situation is fine but if your mind feels paralyzed, then it's not a good sign. If you feel paralyzed or in panic, it means you are biting more than you can eat at the moment. Start with small baby steps.
2. A good knowledge of harmony and chords is of paramount importance for such improvisations.
3. When playing modulating sequences for connection of the theme presented in various keys add or omit one accidental at a time. For example, if you are modulating from F major to G major, first modulate to C major (omit the Bb) and then modulate to G major (add F#). For sequences use a dissonant four-note chord and its resolution, just like we are learning in Basic Chord Workshop.
4. You don't have to know the entire piece from memory. In fact, the less you know, the better. A short theme or an episode of 8 to 16 measures is usually sufficient. You just have to be able to transpose your theme to various keys.
5. In order to have a variety of texture and color, play some episodes on the secondary manual without the pedals only. This gives you a nice time to think ahead of what are you going to do next.
6. Maintaining a steady tempo is vital in improvisation. You might miss a few notes and a lot of your listeners will not notice a thing but if you miss a beat, slow down, or speed up without any good reason - then the feeling is not so nice.
7. When you prepare for some sort of recapitulation or re-entry of the theme, or return of the main key, the dominant pedal point works very well - it builds up the tension.
8. When you are prepared to end your improvisation, incorporate the tonic pedal point with the shorter or longer excursion to the key of the subdominant.
9. In order to feel a little more secure, don't start improvising in public right away. Improvise for a friend or a family member first (even recording yourself feels very different, right?). In church service, start small - perhaps invert soprano with the tenor or re-harmonize the bass. Another good way to start improvising is to memorize your hymn and transpose it to various related major and minor keys, connect various stanzas with different modulating bridges, add a coda at the end and it will sound and feel quite nice.
10. Don't blame yourself for any mistakes. Record yourself, analyze what happened, learn from the mistakes, find any nice tricks to reuse in the future and move on.
11. Lower your expectations. Your progress is more important than the result. If you improvise even a little better now than 6 months ago, then you are on the right track.
I hope that my experience has inspired you to create musical experiments of your own and start your own adventures.
By the way, do you have a musical adventure or experiment from this Easter (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Day) to share? If so, please post them to the comment section.