Where's your swimwear?
A lot of organists have their favorite musical styles, favorite composers, even favorite compositions. Some people love French music, some - German, some - Baroque, some - Romantic, and some - modern style. Is it enough to have just one favorite composer or a style and practice playing it with the exclusion of everything else?
I think that today knowing one style is not enough. Here is a simple reason:
Organs you get to play might be from different period, different national school, and different type.
Imagine you only play Franck's music and you are invited to try out a small positive Baroque one manual organ. You would feel quite awkward not being able to play any chorale prelude by Pachelbel, a choral partita by Bohm or other pieces that works well for this type of instrument.
Or you get to play an English Romantic organ but all you practice are manualiter pieces by Scheidt. No pieces from his Tabulatura Nova would work for this type of instrument.
Or perhaps you are trying out a North German Baroque organ with a short octave and split subsemitones. Of course, you would need pieces by Scheidemann, Buxtehude, Tunder, Weckmann etc.
What could you play on an Italian or Spanish Baroque organ? Of course, Frescobaldi, Diruta, Banchieri, Gabrieli or Cabezon, Arauxo, Coelho and the like.
You might say that Bach's music would work on the organ of any style? While this is true for a lot of modern instruments, Bach's compositions wouldn't sound convincing in a lot o village churches which have 19th century organs.
You might also say that there is no chance you get to play such various historical organs? I wouldn't be so sure. In today's world, when people like to travel a lot for their vacations (and when connecting with local organists is just a click away), it's actually quite likely.
If you are travelling to another country and you don't have your music scores with you, the best way to try out a new instrument is simply to improvise. This is true not only if you go abroad but also if you are visiting another church in your town which houses an unfamiliar organ. Of course, the ability to improvise in various musical styles (with or without pedals) is still very important in such case.
You could also ask a local organist demonstrate the organ for you but this wouldn't be nearly as much fun as trying this organ yourself. This would probably feel like being on the beach on the sunny summer day and watching other people swim while you would be just standing there and thinking that too bad you left your swimwear at home (assuming you like swimming).
Perfect pitch and improvisation
Improvisation, among many other benefits, helps to develop perfect pitch. This might sound strange, especially, if you think that perfect pitch can only be given to you with birth and not acquired with practice later in life. But the fact is, we have plenty of examples of people developing perfect pitch.
Just look at the Suzuki system. The kids who learn to play an instrument following faithfully the Suzuki method might have weaker sight-reading skills, but they all develop perfect pitch. Listening for many hours a day to their pieces being performed on tape (which is required for them) plays a significant role here.
So if you can learn to have a perfect pitch through practice and immersion into the musical world all day long, how can improvisation also help you develop it?
The answer lies in understanding the phenomenon of perfect pitch. It has many things to do with your memory. You see, when these kids listen to the musical compositions for many hours a day, the correct musical sounds are ingrained into their memory and so little by little they learn to guess and hear the right notes.
Improvisation also has many things in common with memory. When you sight-read unfamiliar pieces or practice your own organ compositions, every day you discover something beautiful, something worth memorizing, something worth using in your own improvisations later on. This maybe a fragment, a passage, a chordal progression or an interesting texture that your fingers and feet have to get used to and internalize.
If you want to learn from previously composed models, then you simply memorize these passages, fragments, cadences etc. Moreover, you also transpose them from memory into all possible keys. This way the musical material that other masters have created becomes your own and you can later recreate it and incorporate it into your improvisations. A side effect of memorization is of course the development of perfect pitch.
For people who don't have a perfect pitch and who still doubt my assumption that improvisation can help develop perfect pitch, I leave these two questions to answer:
1. How many pieces can you play from memory right now?
2. How many pieces can you transpose from memory?
I have no doubt that if you can improve the results from your answers to these two simple questions over the next 6-24 months, a perfect pitch will be easier to acquire.
By the way, I don't think that perfect pitch is the ideal we should all strive to develop. In the world of historical instruments with historical tunings and pitch levels, when the treble A can be anywhere from 415 to 465 Hz (not only 440 Hz) a perfect pitch only gets in the way of understanding music (for example, I can personally testify that hearing C major prelude as B major or Db major is no fun at all - you have to override your perfect pitch in such cases).
I believe that more important than having a perfect pitch is to have a deeper understanding of musical composition, of creative processes, of how the pieces are put together, and developing your own creativity through improvisation and composition. But I'm aware that for some people having a perfect pitch means to be an ideal musician and improvisation can also help to achieve this.
I'm excited to announce that the registration to my new Suite Improvisation Workshop is now open. You can find the details here.
The surprising reason why organists make pedal mistakes (it's not what you think)
Every organist hates making pedal mistakes. They are so irritating and they are much more difficult to fix than the wrong notes in manual playing. The reason for hitting the wrong notes in the pedals might be that your pedal technique is weaker than finger technique.
Also a new pedalboard, uncomfortable bench position, wrong organist shoes, practice experience, inefficient practice techniques, and pedal preparation all have something to do with the amount of mistakes you make when playing with your feet.
But there is another even more important factor at work here. It's much more difficult to spot, though. Here it is:
Pedal mistakes are also triggered by the insufficient ear training. Let me explain.
You see, when you make a mistake in the pedals, your ear has to do two things very quickly, actually instantly:
1. Recognize that this is a wrong note.
2. Recognize what kind of note you just hit.
The 1st point is very clear - if you know the piece well, any wrong note is quite obvious and needs fixing (unless you sight-read). The 2nd point though is much more subtle - you can't fix the wrong note unless you know what this note exactly is. You can't play the right note after you hit the wrong one unless you know your target note and the exact location of the wrong note.
This is where ear training actually comes in. If you can guess which exact note you are playing with your feet (not by looking but by listening only, perhaps with your eyes shut), then you can easily know where is the right note (right or left, by the interval of the second, third etc.)
If you work on your ear training and developing perfect pitch, not only your general musicianship and understanding of pieces you are playing will improve but actually your pedal (and manual) performance will as well.
This all makes sense if I look at some of my organ students playing who have a perfect pitch. After learning to play the organ for about 8 months, such students can easily play pieces with advanced double pedal parts easily.
What's around the corner?
I've written earlier about what you can do when you make a mistake in improvisation. The answer is simple - repeat it several times and it will become intentional.
Once you realize this, you can take this idea one step further and use the same principle in places where you feel stuck, in places where your imagination doesn't work on the spot, in places where you don't know what to do next.
Repeating one musical idea several times (even if it's not a mistake) on the same or different manuals when you don't know what to play in the middle of the piece will give you time to think, react and it will lead you some place else eventually.
This suite from 6 pieces was improvised for the group of French tourists. Take a look at how you can draw inspiration to go from one music idea to another when you seem to be stuck in one place.
One more thing: even if you feel stuck, always be conscious of the form of the piece, where you are in it in any given moment (otherwise the playing will become like rambling without a direction). The pieces in this suite all have a ternary ABA form so even when I didn't know what's waiting for me around the corner, I knew I had a compass to follow.
When you improvise, often your mistakes and the wrong notes throw you off balance. They make it difficult for you to keep your composure and focus and keep going as if nothing has happened. The feeling of being upset about mistakes produces even more mistakes in the course of the performance.
What if we turned this around? What if your mistakes where not mistakes but intentional "decorations" which propel you to go forward with your improvisation?
Remember this rule: if you repeat your "mistake" several times, it becomes intentional and they are no longer mistakes.
In this video (where I improvised a suite of 6 pieces for the group of French tourists) there are a number of "mistakes" which became intentional part of the piece. I "disguised" them by repeating an excerpt of the melody, or a chord progression or a rhythm which didn't seem to work well at first.
As you watch this video, pay attention especially at what's happening around 18:05, 20:17, 31:00 and you will see that these mistakes can be incorporated into the piece. Some people will not even notice them.
Try this trick today when you sit down on the organ bench and play for 10 minutes without resting.
...is precisely the wrong question to ask.
A more important question would be, "is the journey worth the effort?"
How far is the moon?
I haven't met any organist who would not be fascinated by the idea of improvisation and composition. They might not say it openly, but of course everyone of us has heard fantastic tales about Bach's seemingly supernatural skills. Every organist admires some of the best known French organ masters who all were equally talented improvisers and composers.
Some people seem to like more older contrapuntal styles, while others are deeply into Romantic and Modern musical language.
And yet, when it comes the time for us to articulate our dream in organ playing, when it comes the time to set goals, not too many people say that organ improvisation and composition are on their radars.
Why is it so?
I think that fundamental reason is that we've been brainwashed.
We've been brainwashed that only geniuses can create. Normal, ordinary people should follow instructions of those who are creative. We believe that creativity is not for us. That we're too old for this. That we should hide our mistakes. That we should be content to play what's already written by the geniuses. That in order for the organist to start learning improvisation and composition first he has to study many years of music theory.
All of it is true only if you believe it.
I've met hundreds of people who are fabulous in music theory but they still haven't done anything about their creativity. With their skills in harmony and musical analysis they could create entire operas and improvise full-length symphonies but all of them are content at looking into music of others.
What a waste...
We've been told to set realistic and achievable goals. But how do we know what's realistic and what's achievable?
How about reaching for the stars and landing on the moon?
You are worth more than you think.
...You start anywhere and see where your inspiration will take you.
This happened to me yesterday, when I had to play a 30 minute recital for the group of tourists from France in my church. Originally I was prepared to play the Mass for the Convents for them by Francois Couperin. But the group came in 45 minutes later because their plane was delayed. So we had less time than I planned. Instead of 45 minutes, just half an hour.
I had two choices - to shorten the pre-determined program or to improvise. I chose the path of improvisation. What happened there, you can see for yourself in this video.
You can try the same for yourself. Start anywhere and just keep going. The form, the harmony, the melodies, the rhythms, the texture, the registration will be dictated to you by some higher forces - by the Muses (as Greeks would call them).
Can black keys be arranged in 3?
Everyone knows that the keys on the keyboard are arranged in the groups of two and three. Therefore, the octave has 7 white keys and 5 black (or the other way around). But can the sharps be arranged in the groups of 3?
It turns out that it's exactly the case with certain old historical organs. Watch this video with the oldest organ of Holland in Oosthuizen and notice that the bottom octave (called the short octave) is different. It's not complete and some of the rarely used accidentals are missing. That's why the black keys are arranged in threes there.
By the way, the top octave of this instrument is also not complete. I had a privilege to play the music of Sweelinck on a similar organ from 1511 in Alkmaar, Holland. It's not easy at first. You have to apply early keyboard fingering and get used to different arrangement of keys in order to play successfully.
Such an organ in a way is a real time machine. By playing it you can feel that you traveled about 400 or more years into the past. To the time when every citizen had to carry a dagger, when the liturgy lasted 3 hours, when a book was a luxury item, and the organ bellows had to be pumped by foot (or by hand).
The yellowish keys in this video remember these times. The instrument is so old, that you can almost smell the history (everyone who has been in an old church at an old organ will know what I mean).
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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