AVA245: Do you have any advice for organists who have never played hymn melody in feet or in tenor range?
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 245, of #AskVidasAndAusra Podcast. This question was sent by William. And he writes:
Do you have any advice for organists who have never played hymn melody in feet or in tenor range? I have been trying all week to do this on hymn amazing grace. I am having hard time. Is it a waste to learn this process? I am trying to begin to improvise and so much I read say to do this and then practice in different keys. It is really hard for me. Is this a God given talent or something that I can learn by practice?
Someone told me today if cannot do it it is you can not learn. Another I read to transpose everything to C Major and then you can eventually play by ear instead of thinking about intervals. Do you have as part of your course a step by set way to learn to improvise? I just want so bad to learn improvisation. Is ear training the basic problem? Thanks.
V: Where to start, Ausra?
A: Well, that’s a very broad question actually. William brought up many problems that many organists encounter.
V: So let’s unpack this a little bit from the beginning. He wants to play hymn melody in the tenor range with his feet, on the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, right?
V: And he’s having a hard time. Obviously this is not a simple solution, right? Because most of the time people are playing bass line in the pedals.
V: Especially in hymn playing. But then if you want to play a melody with your feet, but a little bit higher, not in the bass range, you have to get use to it, right? How long would it take, I think, in your opinion, Ausra, with everyday practice for William?
A: I think it depends on individual abilities so it’s very hard to prognose, how fast he would advance, but definitely he could do it, if he would work regularly on it.
V: Is it a waste of time or no?
A: No. It’s not a waste of time, but in terms of starting to improvise on the organ, if you don’t have particularly pedal advanced, pedal technique, I don’t think it’s a good solution to start to improvise from things what William is doing, like playing the melody in the pedal, of ‘Amazing Grace’. It’s not such an easy tune to play in the pedals.
V: No, not easy.
A: So, and if he’s just a beginner improviser, I don’t think that this is the right way or easiest way or the right way to start to improvise. Because, let’s say, for starters, I would definitely improvise something on manuals only, and if he wants to include pedals, he needs to support harmony, at first.
A: But not to play a solo part. What do you think about it?
V: Well there are many approaches to start. Some of the easiest ways to get used to the pedal board and to keyboards, I think, it’s good to choose just four pitches. Any random pitches that you like. It could be adjacent like C, D, E, F, or really random pitches like D, F#, B and G#. It doesn’t matter which four you choose but if you use them explicitly in you improvisation they will sound nice. It’s like one mode, one color in paintings.
A: Yes, so improvisation on these four pitch base melodies could work well, nice for many things. For Offering, for example, for Communion at church service. But what if you need to improvise on a particular hymn for example, ‘Amazing Grace’. What would you suggest for a beginner?
V: Then, if you really badly want to play the hymn melody with the pedals, then do it just like a normal organ composition. Play it voice by voice. Pedal solo would be ‘Amazing Grace’ melody, with you feet alone, without any accompaniment first, right? And then, even you can play the melody in three parts; in soprano, in tenor and in the pedal. It would be steps one, two and three, without accompaniment, without any additional voices. Just one voice texture, solo melody. Once you get used to this, yes, you could improvise maybe transpose first, not improvise, transpose it to other keys, to really get the hang of it. And then, add the second voice. Like if you play with the soprano add the bass. If you play with the bass, add soprano. What do you think?
A: Yes, I think that’s an excellent suggestion. Do you think, is it necessary in your improvisation since it’s improvisation, not a hymn accompaniment, would you necessarily use the entire melody, or could you just extract some specific motive or some motives from the hymn tune?
V: Obviously you would choose just fragments of the hymns that would be even more creative, I think.
A: Do you think that people would still recognize the tune that you are improvising on?
V: If you use it often, in various voices. I wouldn’t recognize it. I don’t know about people. I’m not an ordinary listener, you know. But it’s not important as much as they understand it or recognize it. It’s important that they enjoy it, right?
V: …for people. So, I have this course, Hymn Playing Improvisation Level One, or Organ Hymn Improvisation Level One, where I improvise a second voice in addition to the choral melody, in the right hand or in the left hand. And then I switch. And I first do it note by note. Basically, for one note of the melody, you supply one note of the accompaniment. And then the second step would be, two notes against one. And then three notes against one, like triplets. And four notes against one like sixteenth notes. And gradually it becomes faster and faster and you can really create an entire cycle of variations on any hymn tune based on this course.
A: Very interesting. Now what about the second half of the question? As I understand, William is wondering either you need to know theory well enough or you can play by ear, if I understood it correctly. What do you think about it? How much improvisation needs to be based on the theoretical knowledge?
V: It’s really hard to say for me because all my life I was involved in theory in one way or another.
A: But do you think it helps or it slows you down?
A: Yes, learning theory.
V: I would say it helps. It helps a lot. Like when I improvise, I always think about key signatures, about modes, and that wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t know the theory behind those modes. I would probably play by ear but then I would create some unnecessary dissonances and basically wouldn’t understand what I am playing. And would only play nicely by accident, you know. I could not repeat it. I could not even teach it to somebody else.
A: And I know that you have perfect pitch. Does it help for you to improvise? Is it necessary to have perfect pitch to be able to improvise?
V: No, because you still are looking at the fingers and manuals and pedals when you’re improvising. You seeing what you playing. I think it’s okay, but, if I didn’t have this perfect pitch, who knows. Hypothetically maybe it would slow me down.
A: But it’s possible to learn to improvise, what to you think? Without having perfect pitch?
V: Obviously yes. You just have to think about what exactly you would like to play with your mind, you know, theoretically. Your mind goes first and then fingers follow, not the other way around. Although, there are some improvisers who would disagree. You could close your eyes and play whatever comes out of your fingers.
V: What do you think?
A: Well, hard to say. I think that improvisation is sort of a combination of all these things; your ear, your theoretically knowledge, your technical skills. Of all those things. And of course your personal taste.
V: If you think too much then it might become too predictable and too boring, you know. You have to leave some space for surprises.
A: Don’t you think that sometimes, improviser who improvise in historical, sort of limit the imagination, or not?
V: It’s a complicated question because what they do usually, they adjust to the instruments. The reason probably why they do it in historical styles is because they love historical instruments. And to play a modern imaginative improvisation on a historical instrument, it’s much, much more difficult than just to copy somebody else’s style from the past. And these people of course, fall in love with early music, and want to recreate them, sort of imagine them in the real life. Imagine what Sverlink would do today, you know. Imagine what Krebs would do today or Couperin or Bach. So I think instruments dictate the style for them. And when they switch instruments they could switch styles too. So it’s really a fascinating subject. You should really try yourself, even if you have a modern instrument, it doesn’t matter. Just play something interesting for starters on four notes. Or on ‘Amazing Grace’ hymn tune. Thank you guys. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Please send us more of questions. We love helping you grow. And 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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