#AskVidasAndAusra 110: Learning how to improvise in the style of J.S. Bach is the realization a lifelong dream
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 110 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. And today’s question was sent by Kevin. And he writes:
Thanks for sending the week 2 materials for Prelude Improvisation Formula. I have enjoyed working through week 1 modulation exercises. My goal was to start Descending Sequence 2 and keep going until I passed through all the closely related keys without stopping! This goal was a little too ambitious at first. I made progress taking one modulation at a time, and I found that modulating to keys with two accidentals is much smoother adding one change at a time instead of all at once. Walther's elegant pitches from Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra's Volume 1 of Bach and the Art of Improvisation are also helpful. Thanks again Vidas. Learning how to improvise in the style of J.S. Bach is the realization a lifelong dream.
So Ausra, Kevin apparently practices materials from a few sources: first of all, from Pamela’s book, and from my prelude improvisation formula. And he wants to learn to improvise in the historical styles. We could congratulate him, right?
Ausra: Definitely, yes. That’s a big goal. Like he said, a lifelong dream.
Vidas: People love to emulate historical styles in their improvisations for several reasons. Probably the most important one is that they love early music to begin with, right?
Ausra: That’s right. Plus, I think that modern style has almost exhausted all possibilities already, and people are sort of returning to the origins of music and to early music--to Bach’s music.
Vidas: And if you play your favorite composer long enough, you sort of wish that he or she would have composed more music, right?
Vidas: And then, of course, you’re left with a question: maybe you yourself can recreate this tradition in modern days, and try to create music on the paper or on the spot, at the instrument, spontaneously, just like, for example, Bach would do, back some 300 years ago.
Ausra: Yes, and you know, for Kevin I think it would be helpful to listen to some improvisations by Sietze de Vries.
Vidas: From the Netherlands?
Ausra: Yes, because he is sort of improvising in the style of Bach; so he might get new ideas of how to do it.
Vidas: There are a couple of my other favorites: William Porter and Edoardo Bellotti].
Ausra: Yes, they are excellent, too.
Vidas: You know, a lot of music which was composed back in the day could serve you as models today. They were meant, actually, to be models for students--not only as technical exercises and pieces to be performed in public. Sure, there were some; but the majority of musical examples were used as models for composition and improvisation.
Vidas: So what could Kevin do in this case?
Ausra: Yes, he could also study some pieces and imagine that these are models of how to improvise.
Vidas: Pamela talks in her Volume One (and now in Volume 2, just recently published) of her improvisation treatise, that the goal of this book and her lifelong work is to present the tools for students so that they could decipher any type of style. If they love Bach, that’s good; if they love Sweelinck, they could do the same deciphering with Sweelinck works.
Ausra: That’s right, you could do that with any composer.
Vidas: If they love Franck’s work, they could find out how the piece is put together, and then do all those exercises with Franck’s style. And if they love jazz, they could decipher jazz style--the same thing. And modern style, as well. They just need to learn to use the tools.
Ausra: That’s right. You can basically apply one formula to any composition.
Vidas: Yes. So I think Kevin is on the right track. He is studying from these sources; but try to go back to primary sources--
Vidas: Not only from my material and Pamela’s book (which of course will be helpful), but go back to the origins, to the composer themselves. See what they have created.
Ausra: And another thing, if you want to become a fluent improviser, you might practice more sequences, modulations, cadences.
Vidas: That’s what Kevin is talking about, right?
Vidas: Descending sequences.
Ausra: Yes, yes. So, on YouTube I believe he can find many of my sequences and modulations and cadences. That will just help you to be able to play equally well in any key; and since Bach already used all the keys, so you need to be fluent in every key.
Vidas: Definitely. Because sequences will sort of help you transfer one musical idea to many different settings--higher, lower, with sharps, with flats--the same idea, but presented higher or lower, in a predetermined manner, in various intervals or in closely related keys which are just maybe 1 accidental apart or so. So, Ausra, you’re absolutely right. When was the time for you, in your life, when you cracked the secret of sequences?
Ausra: Well, that was a long time ago.
Vidas: At school?
Vidas: Did you like playing those sequences at school?
Ausra: Yes, I liked it, actually; I enjoyed it much more than harmonizing the given melody or given bass.
Vidas: Yesterday (we’re recording this on Sunday, but) yesterday you taught a group of Lithuanian organists how to harmonize, right?
Vidas: So, how was your experience with them?
Ausra: It was fun. I had a great time.
Vidas: What did you feel they learned the most from you?
Ausra: I don’t know. Probably some just refreshed their memory with things they knew way back and had forgotten. And for some, it was just a new thing, and I don’t know how much information they were able to digest. But I hope that everybody learned something.
Vidas: Isn’t that--harmonization--sort of the first step in improvisation?
Ausra: I think so, yes.
Vidas: Because if you learn to harmonize a melody, you are very very close to developing this idea even further.
Ausra: That’s right.
Vidas: To adding some passing tones, nonharmonic tones, to add maybe another melody in another voice, or add some dialogues between the parts in certain rhythmic formulas.
Ausra: I think that harmony is sort of a foundation to other disciplines, such as improvisation of course, and composition. Maybe I would say composition first, and then improvisation.
Vidas: So, to be a complete musician, to be a complete organist--as we say, total organist--
Vidas: Do you think that people would benefit from all those additional theoretical disciplines like improvisation, harmony, of course theory...?
Ausra: Yes, that’s right.
Ausra: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. I don’t understand how some musicians just oppose these things, because I think that theory and practice/practical things should go side by side.
Vidas: They’re like two sides of the same coin.
Ausra: That’s right. And people who do one and avoid the other one--I think they make a big mistake.
Vidas: Theory without practice is dry and miserable.
Ausra: Yes, that’s right.
Vidas: It’s boring. And sometimes we make this mistake at school, right? We teach them theory without any applications, and people don’t understand--especially the youth--don’t understand why they need this. On the other hand, practice without theory…
Ausra: Without understanding what you are doing…
Vidas: Doesn’t lead anywhere.
Ausra: I know. You can, you know, teach a bear to learn how to ride a bike; but probably the bear will never understand how the bike is constructed.
Vidas: And will never be able to teach other bears how to ride the bike.
Ausra: That’s right, that’s right.
Vidas: So that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to help you grow as a total musician--total organist--so that you later could transfer this knowledge and this tradition to other people, perhaps.
Ausra: That’s right, that’s so important. To keep this tradition going.
Vidas: Yes. And creativity is key. If we’re not creating, something is wrong with us, right? With creativity, we’re different from other species, right, of beings on this planet. So improvisation and composition are those two ways that our creativity can manifest itself.
Ausra: That’s right.
Vidas: And improvisation in historical styles can get us closer to our origins, to our old masters.
Ausra: That’s right. So guys, please apply our tips in your practice, and send us more questions.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: Miracles happen.
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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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