These 3 articles are part of the opening celebration for Prelude Improvisation Formula, a 16-week training program which teaches the art of improvising keyboard preludes in the Bach style.
So in this article, I would like to tell you how I personally came up with proven and tested system for long term improvisation success and how I learned improvising preludes in the Bach style.
Make sure you read this article all the way to the end not just because I’ll be sharing some awesome information with you here but also because at the end of it, just as a way of saying thanks to you for taking the time to read this article, I’ll give you a free gift which will help you solidify your goals in organ improvisation.
But before I tell you about my system of improvisation and how it works, let me share with you some of my personal current interests in the field of improvisation.
As I’m writing this, I’m very interested in exploring advanced ideas of French modern improvisation style. I’m studying the works of Messiaen, Tournemire, Langlais, Dupre, Durufle, Alain and some other composers so that I can better understand the techniques that they used in their works. While looking deep into these pieces, I also need to internalize these techniques so that they become my own. This way not only can I improvise pieces in the French style but also it helps me in the compositional process as I compose new organ music on paper. (By the way, you can watch some of my new compositions performed live by me during an organ recital on the largest pipe organ in Lithuania (Vilnius University St. John's church):
But before I started learning improvisation, I was just a regular student organist at the Lithuanian Academy of Music in Vilnius. And one day back in the spring of 2000, I noticed a brochure about the upcoming International Organ Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden. I started communicating with the organizers of this Academy and felt a strong desire to go there.
In that Academy I met a few brilliant improvisers, most notably William Porter, Edoardo Bellotti and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, all of whom left a deep impact on me of what could be achieved in this field.
As a result of this Academy, I went on to study with Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra at Eastern Michigan University for my second Master’s degree. I was so fortunate that she introduced me to the art of improvisation in the Bach style. She was so passionate about the art of improvisation in historical styles that her teachings were full of inspiration. My studies in this field continued also at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of my DMA program, with two legendary Bach experts – Quentin Faulkner and George Ritchie. All of the professors mentioned above contributed greatly to what I was able to achieve today.
I was so fascinated with the works of Bach that I wondered if I could study his compositions and incorporate his techniques in my improvisations. When I looked at the works of Bach and decided that I want to assimilate his style so that I could create something of my own which would be similar to his compositions, at first it was very overwhelming.
What I saw initially in Bach’s pieces was an incredible amount of creative variety in his compositions. In other words, because of his creative genius he had composed so much of musical material, I just saw it impossible to start learning from it.
This was my initial struggle in learning to improvise – the incredible wealth of musical material and the necessity to limit it for the instructional purposes in creating a system.
But I had to start somewhere.
As I’m looking back now at all these years of trial and error, all these experiments that I had done with myself in search for a perfect system, I understand that it takes a very specific mindset to learning improvisation without which it would be very difficult to succeed.
It takes a mentality of not giving up when you don’t feel the results. You just have to stick to your plan and not let yourself be distracted when a new technique, a new style, or a better system is on the horizon. We call it “a shiny object syndrome”. You have to persevere with your efforts if you want to achieve something. You have to try not to make any excuses and just do the steps which have to be done.
But you know what is truly inspirational in all this quest? It’s knowing that so many people have achieved this fluency in improvisation. An that’s not a myth. It’s a reality. We have so many great examples of living organists who are experts improvisers and we had even more famous composers in the past (Handel, Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Franck, Dupre to name just a few) who were equally renowned for their improvisations. To know that somebody has taken the same steps as yourself in the past is truly an inspiration and motivation to never give up.
So anyway, determined that there was a way to de-construct Bach's pieces so that I could re-discover his creative process, I started to look for some systematic collection that would suit my purpose.
And that's when I came across this wonderful collection of keyboard pieces called Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (in German - Clavierbüchlein für W.F.Bach). This collection was put together by Johann Sebastian Bach with the intent to teach his 9-year old son not only the principles of keyboard playing but also the basics of composition and improvisation.
In this collection, we can find not only preludes, but also early versions of many preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier along with the 15 2-part inventions, 3-part sinfonias and some other pieces. However, Bach called the inventions as Praeambules and sinfonias as Fantasias.
At any rate, when I looked at these pieces, especially the preludes, a number of things became apparent to me.
1. In any given piece there are only a few melodic, rhythmic or harmonic ideas (I call them figures) that dominate the piece. By the way, if you have completed the free 9 day Keyboard Prelude Improvisation Mini Course, you learned to improvise a prelude based on just one figure.
2. Additionally, there are several significant places in each composition where the musical idea comes to an end. We call them cadences. Some cadences are particularly fit for the beginning of the piece, some - for the middle of it, and some are best used to end the composition.
3. Finally, most of the time one of the main compositional procedures that Bach uses to connect different musical ideas is a sequence. Basically, this is an ascending or descending group of notes or chords moving in the predetermined manner that either stays in the same key or modulates to another key.
When I came to understand this, I also needed a way to systematize all the musical material that I wanted to learn which would allow me to internalize those creative processes. In other words, those figures, cadences, and sequences had to become my own.
Speaking in musical terms, there are 2 techniques which can help you to assimilate the musical material: memorization, and transposition.
So I selected all of the preludes as models for my improvisations out of this Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and made notes of the various figures, sequences, and cadences from this collection.
In order not to become confused with the great number of musical elements, I labeled them and numbered them in the specific order.
Then I committed every figure, cadence, and sequence I could find in this collection to memory. It took many repetitions of each musical detail but it the first step. In addition, I transposed them to all of the 24 keys (from memory) which gradually helped me to master them completely. In other words, they had become my own.
And then something wonderful happened. Because I internalized these musical elements, it is now possible for me to re-arrange them and use in completely different order. I can mix them together and can recollect any given one at any moment and improvise the preludes in any key which greatly enhances the music.
These improvisations no longer sound like the exact Bach compositions but rather like pieces in the Bach style. Does is make sense?
It's exactly in agreement with what many renowned authors and composers from the previous eras had wrote that although the elements are taken from the actual works, the ordering, arrangement, and application is the choice of the improviser. And that's when a true fantasia or prelude is born.
When you have this moment of a true fluency of musical expression, it feels really great. It feels like you are on the right path toward your success in the art of improvisation.
But the journey doesn’t end here. There is always so much new to learn and so much new to discover, and if you master one genre, you can always go search for another. If you learn how to improvise a prelude, you can start improvising chorale prelude. If you are thoroughly familiar with a style of one composer, you can always start imitating some other style. Actually, the more styles can you improvise in, the more unique your own improvisational and compositional style will become.
If I hadn’t created a reliable system of learning improvisation, I certainly would not have achieved all these things in this art. I would have probably just stuck in trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I would have stuck in learning to improvise my third prelude, that’s for sure. But more than likely, I would have given up practicing improvisation altogether.
And if there is just one tip, I could give to people who want to learn improvisation on the organ, I would say “get help”. Find an experienced teacher or a mentor you can trust and follow his or her advice. This will save you time, energy, and money because it will eliminate the trial and error in this process. That’s exactly what happened to me in the past. There were times when I was pursuing some technique or idea which led to nowhere and I was set back for several months or more. Occasionally I still do these mistakes nowadays but the results are inconsequential.
Of course, there will be always some things that you have to experiment with and decide if they will suit you. Things, like whether you should use this sequence or that, whether you should choose this cadence or that, but at least the advice that your instructor will give you will cut out all the unimportant parts of your learning process and give you the things that work and that you need the most. And if you ever feel stuck, you can always ask your teacher to help you out.
So you see how this process leads to a great fluency of expression of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic ideas. I hope this information was valuable to you and that this article helped to clarify the question of how this system works.
As I promised in the beginning of this article, here is my gift to you which will help you solidify your goals in organ improvisation. I call it Improvisation Goal Setting Form and I suggest you download this form, save it on your computer, print it out, fill out the necessary fields and keep it in a place where you normally practice improvisation. By filling out the fields in this form, you will start thinking of what do you want to achieve as an improviser. This form will also give you a clear path, a vision and help you to stay on track with your goals for the beginning, intermediate, and advanced stages in improvisation. Here is the form which you can download now:
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