This conversation continues from previous podcast episode: AVA232 where David asked how often we improvise in a church service.
Listen to AVA233 here.
Vidas: So yeah, we imagine that those masters were superhumans, superheroes, and in a sense, they were! Right? But, we all have that inner power to do something outside of our comfort zone, because the first step for Bach, probably, was also to surpass his own current level. He never did something twice, probably. Once he managed to do something that is working, he always tried to create something new. And this is quite scary, you know? Because, if it’s working, why change it? You could do like some of his students did, like writing all over the same type of compositions. But, if you do that, our advancements will not be as great, and a contribution to humanity.
Ausra: So, that’s coming back to the original question… how much? How many times do you need to improvise? I think it’s up to you actually to decide.
V: As many times as you can comfortably say that you are not sacrificing, perhaps, your site reading, also practice. Because site reading is also important.
A: And the quality of the service, and as long as the congregation is not complaining about your improvisations.
V: Yes. For example, when I go to Saint John’s church, when they invite me, which is very rare nowadays because they prefer guitar music and synthesizers, and just once in a while when those guitarists are not able to show up, they ask me. And when I’m able and I’m in town, then I go and play everything on the organ. Almost nothing from the score, because it’s so rare, I want to show the organ side of the service. And everyone knows that, that this is me who is playing, and this is me who is specializing in improvisations, you know? But for everyone it is different, right? Maybe David, at first, would be brave enough to improvise just once a month if he plays four Sundays. Or maybe twice a month, you know? It’s not that big a deal. You could even improvise once a week, just for one setting—for communion, you know? Or part of the communion. If communion is five minutes long or more sometimes, you could do a two minute improvisation. And then the rest of it could be hymns or service music. What do you think Ausra?
A: Yes, that’s right, I think. That’s a very good suggestion.
V: You don’t have to go all in, in that, for improvisations. You can just dip your toes in the water and see if it’s something you can pursue in the future—if it’s something you can envision perfecting later on in years to come—maybe in decades to come. What do you think Ausra.
A: Yes, I think that’s very nice. Although don’t improvise so much that you forget to play a repertoire as well.
V: That’s what I’m saying.
A: You always need to find the right balance.
V: Because improvisation feels your repertoire playing. You’re starting to recognize patterns in written down compositions. You’re starting to look at how the piece is put together so that you could also learn from the piece, and maybe steal some ideas and use them in your own playing. And, vice versa, when you improvise, it also helps you to play the repertoire.
A: That’s right, I think it goes both ways.
V: For example, remember, Ausra, when I played Passacaglia by Bach the last time for Bach’s birthday recital,
A: Yes, I remember!
V: and I had this faintest idea at the last minute, basically, just before the recital, I never practiced this type of playing, but I thought of playing a cadenza after the fermata towards the end of the fugue in Passacaglia where the Neapolitan chord is held, and maybe I have heard somebody do that maybe decades ago, could be. Or maybe I heard that done in other pieces. But, I’d never done this before in Passacaglia. What was your reaction, Ausra, without complimenting me too much.
A: Well, I was surprised, I was shocked a little bit! I liked it. It was so dramatic that it almost made me smile.
V: And, of course, since I’d never done this before on that piece, I had to come out of this cadenza somehow skillfully, and I didn’t! You know? Anyone who heard the recording might have felt, maybe, that I was searching for the right arpeggio or the right final note to finish the flourish. But I didn’t panic, I found that note, it wasn’t how I would do in the future, and actually, I did practice for a couple of weeks later on, this Passacaglia, for another performance, and I played this cadenza every time something different. And I don’t know which version was better! So you could add to existing organ compositions, too, if you learn this style and skill.
A: Yes, because sometimes cadenzas are risky, because if they will be completely out of style you might ruin the entire piece.
V: Remember we heard in our philharmonic hall...
A: Yes, that’s what I thought about..
V: written down cadenza for what? For Mozart’s piano concerto.
A: Yes. But it was a professional composer who did it, and actually he’s quite famous in Lithuania, and he wrote a cadenza in his style, completely out of Mozart’s style, and I think it was quite disgusting, at least for my taste. What do you think?
V: Yes and no. You know, it’s so surprising, it actually was shocking but…
A: I felt like you are eating soup and you suddenly find a worm in your soup, or a fly.
V: What if you like worms?
A: Well, I don’t!
V: Then this is like a delicacy, right?
A: Ooy!!!! Yuck!!!
V: Yuck! Nice! So guys, be fearless, basically. Whatever you do, you will not be as good at the beginning as later on. If you have played organ repertoire for years, and now want to dip your toes in improvisation, you will inevitably play worse than repertoire. And you will feel “Oh, I’m not good, I shouldn’t even try.” Right? That’s what I thought at the beginning. And, in fact, somebody wrote about my improvisations, that… how’d they say?
A: “Essentially very ugly...in places”
V: “Essentially very ugly in places” after one competition. You see? So after this comment, somebody with poor self esteem might have stopped playing altogether.
A: Yes, but now that man is dead who commented on you like this, but you are still alive and still improvising.
V: Exactly. So, continue practicing everyday, even as little as 15 minutes, and in one year, you will probably see a miracle happen, right? It’s a nice ending of our conversation, because remember, when you practice,
A: 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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