SOPP452: What are the prerequisites to Organ Hymn Improvisation Master Course Level 1?
Vidas: Hi, guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 452, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by May, and she writes:
What are the prerequisites to Organ Hymn Improvisation Master Course Level 1? For example, what kind of chords do I need to know in order to study this course well? What level of music theory should I have before starting this course?
Also, what are the expected outcome of this course?
V: Maybe you could ask me some questions about this and I could explain it a little bit further, right?
A: Don’t you think May asked enough questions in one question?
A: Maybe you need to start in a row and answer them.
V: I will start from the beginning but if you need some clarification, just tell me.
A: Okay, sure.
V: Okay. Prerequisites to Organ Hymn Improvisation Master Course Level 1, is very simple; you need to know only intervals.
A: No chords then?
V: No chords because it’s a course for two voices.
A: I see.
V: And each hand plays counterpoint. One hand plays a melody, hymn melody and another hand plays counterpoint to it, and then they switch. Therefore no chords are built in this course. So prerequisites are really simple—you just need to be able to play two notes together on the keyboard without pedal. Alright? We talked about chords—no chords are needed, and what level of music theory? About intervals I could talk about a little bit, right? What kind of intervals? Well of all the intervals until an octave, up to an octave, perfect octave. So, a unison which is an interval of repeated notes, like C and C. This is a unison. It’s called perfect unison because it has no vibrations. Then major and minor seconds, then major and minor thirds, perfect fourth, a tritone which is, could be augmented fourth or diminished fifth, perfect fifth, minor six, major six, minor seventh and major seventh, and then the last one would be perfect octave. Does it mean that you should use all those intervals? How do you think, Ausra?
A: Well I don’t think so, because there are good intervals and bad intervals.
V: Yes. But you have to know all of them…
V: in order to avoid bad intervals.
V: And so we primarily sweet sounding intervals which are major and minor thirds and sixths, but then occasionally use octaves and fifths. But then there are some rules to avoid parallel octaves and fifths.
A: What about fourth?
V: Fourth is allowed. Fourth is okay.
A: What about second?
V: Second is a dissonance, therefore it’s a, not sweet sounding interval, and therefore we don’t use it in this style.
A: And I guess then you don’t use seventh as well, yes?
V: Seventh is an inversion of the second, so yes—no seventh. Would you like to know, Ausra, what are [is] the expected outcome of this course?
A: Well yes. I think it would be good know before starting the course.
V: I think you could also guess what people could do after practicing.
A: Well after practicing these counterpoint intervals, you could start practicing chords too.
V: Three voices.
A: Three voices, yes. That would be then next step, to add another voice.
V: Mmm-hmm. At first we do note against note—counterpoint for two voices, then two notes against one, then three notes against one, then four notes against one—those kinds of things. So therefore the next level could be also note against note for three voices and then note against, two voices against one, for three voices. Gradually complicating, making the texture more complex so to say.
A: Do you think it’s important to start from this level one if you are just a beginner? Or you could skip it and start with harder courses? What would be your suggestion?
V: Your goals. Depends on your goals, right? If you are trying to learn improvisation on the hymn tune and you want to [do] a methodical method, a systematic method, then yes, probably starting from two voices, note against note is very beneficial. And sometimes even too hard for really, people who just started playing organ today. Maybe they can play only with one voice. Then okay, play just the hymn tunes, for right hand and left hand alone. And then, after that you will be ready to supply the second voice.
V: Right! So we hope with Ausra, that May can benefit from this course as well, and others who are interested in learning hymn related improvisation, which could lead to further discoveries and complications, like fuguettes, and also chorale preludes, and also chorale fantasias later on.
V: And once you learn this course you will be able to learn and play maybe ten or more variations on the same hymn tune because of the progressing complications of the variations.
A: It’s very beneficial, especially if you have long service.
V: Yeah. You could play…
A: If you have to prolong your playing time.
V: You could add interest with registration of course, but it could be an excellent piece for communion, for example.
V: Or a prelude. Good. Thank you guys for sending these questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice…
V: Miracles happen!
SOPP433: When I am doing the hymn improvisation, should I think in 3rds and 6ths or should I think harmonically?
Vidas: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 433 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Ariane. And she writes:
When I am doing the hymn improvisation, should I think in 3rds and 6ths or should I think harmonically?
V: Ariane is our Total Organist student, and obviously she practices Organ Hymn Improvisation Mastercourse Level 1. And at some point, she has to add a counterpoint to the hymn tune in the right hand or in the left hand. And usually, this is done in the sweet sounding intervals, thirds and sixths. Well, sometimes, fifths and octaves, but they have to be used sparingly because of danger of employing parallel perfect intervals like fifths and octaves, so therefore, thirds and sixths are most common obviously, in tonal music, for two parts. So, she asks about the concept itself. Ausra, do you think that it needs to be done harmonically, or thinking about intervals? First of all, explain what do I mean by harmonically?
A: You mean that you would need to think about chord functions. Like tonic, subdominant, dominant, and all those inversions, and you know, all the other various chords. And if we are talking about counterpoint, then definitely you need to think in the intervals.
V: Mm hm.
A: Because I cannot imagine how you would think in functional harmony, we are talking about counterpoint. Because counterpoint, guys, that’s polyphonic compositional technique. Before tonal harmony. So, making good intervals was a crucial point in the counterpoint. And if you would talk about chords, you would talk about later developed techniques. Then you know, music is small harmonic, and not polyphonic so much.
V: I think my opinion is also similar to yours. I would just expand a little bit. When you have just two voices, obviously, you will think intervals. When we have three or more voices, then the chords are produced, and you would think tonally and harmonically. But, if you analyze a piece of Sweelinck, bicinium, right, for two hands, for two voices, soprano and bass. I’m quite positive that when you see sweet sounding thirds and sixths, you could imagine some chords, you know, at least to some extent. Not always maybe, but sometimes you could think, oh, this is tonic, this is dominant. But not always, I think, especially for that period.
A: I think it comes a little bit later, let’s say in Bach, and even in the most complicated Bach fugues, you already can, you know, hear chords all the time, and think functionally.
V: But you know why this is the case…
A: But not always in Sweelinck.
V: Exactly. Because Sweelinck’s counterpoint is more vocal still. And when you sing melodies based on the Renaissance style, you don’t have a lot of leaps. I mean, when you have leaps, then you have to compensate those leaps with stepwise motion, in the Renaissance music. But in the Baroque music, let’s say, string playing was most prevalent. And the string technique allowed more arpeggios. And this arpeggio technique transferred to the keyboard writing as well. So what we see in Bach’s counterpoint, even if it’s created for two voices, you could see some chords, because the second voice jumps up and down, creating arpeggios, based on chords. So it depends, Ariane, obviously, on the style, what you are using, right. But at first I would recommend, and Ausra would join in with her recommendation, to think about intervals first.
A: Yes, especially if you have only two voices. Then you just have intervals.
V: Mm hm. Maybe later in the course, when you need to move in, let’s say, sixteenth notes. Not eighth notes, but sixteenth notes. So, four notes against one. You might have some arpeggios. And therefore, thinking in chords would be already possible. Or even, six notes against one, like sextuplets. That would be even faster movement. I guess this is more advanced stage.
V: For chordal thinking. Tonal and harmonic thinking. But at first, you have to be really comfortable with instantaneously deciding what kind of interval you want to play, and what kind of note would that be. You know, if you have to think about what is this interval, and there is some delay in your thinking between thinking and playing, then you are not fluent, right Ausra?
V: It has to be instantaneous. How to check this, Ausra, in the score, if you’re looking on the page of music, if you can’t instantaneously say what kind of interval is between two voices, then you need to work on that fluency more.
A: True. That’s how my theory professor at Eastern Michigan would say. If you are looking at the interval and you have to think what the interval is, it means you don’t know that interval. Because fluency is all that counts.
V: Yes. You might know it mentally, but you cannot apply it in practice.
A: That’s right. Because tempo, fast tempo is really important. Fast tempo of your thinking, I mean, not of your playing.
V: Mm hm. And we are developing, not compositional techniques here, when you can sit down at the table, think about it, write something correctly or incorrectly, play on the instrument, see if it sounds right, then adjust it – we are not doing this technique, right? We are trying to help you grow your instantaneous, spontaneous playing, right? Thinking while playing, that’s what we’re doing.
A: That’s right.
V: Creating while performing. Thank you guys. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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SOPP393: I would like to finish my pedal course and move on to a hymn improvisation class
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra!
V: Let’s start episode 393 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. And this question was sent by Ariane. And she writes:
I would like to finish my pedal course and move on to a hymn improvisation class, perhaps the one on the lowest level - which one would that be?
V: So, Ausra, Ariane is our Total Organist student, and obviously, she wants to take those courses which are the most beneficial to her. And now, she is on the course to finish the pedal work, and moving to the hymn improvisation class, and I have created, in the early days, this level one course of Organ Hymn Improvisation Master Course. Would you like me to tell our listeners about it?
A: Sure! Go head.
V: So, this course is a video based course, and I recorded those videos in my church, Vilnius University St. John’s Church, with the hope that people can develop the skill of playing two part chorale improvisations. Just two part, for this level. Does it sound doable?
A: Sure, I think it’s much easier to control two voices, comparing with four, for example.
V: In our Organ Playing Master Course, it’s of course just one voice at level one. You start with solo voices, but with hymn improvisation, one voice would mean, probably, just a theme, and the theme itself is not improvised.
A: Sure, you really need to have some support melody.
V: So, I’m treating this course like a counterpoint in practice course. You know, in counterpoint, we have 5 species of counterpoint, and this system is devised to be very systematic for learning later types of polyphonic writing such as fugue.
V: Do you like counterpoint, Ausra?
A: Yes. I like it. It has strict rules.
V: Which pieces are your favorite?
A: Do you mean written counterpoint?
A: I never thought about it in such a way. And what are yours?
V: Maybe we should first talk about what those pieces are, right?
A: Sure, tell us!
V: The first species of counterpoint, and the beginning of my course, is when the chorale notes move at the same time as the counterpoint melody moves. In other words, note against note counterpoint. One on one. So, then we have some rules, like to move in opposite direction than the melody to avoid parallel fifths and octaves. What else…. To play in sweet sounding intervals, such as thirds and sixths. And that basically creates a very basic simple disposition of voices, and the melody could be in the soprano or in the bass as well. Do you think, Ausra, that Ariane could benefit from this beginning?
A: Well, I think any musician could benefit from this beginning, because most of the musicians at some point of their life actually have done exercises in this species of counterpoint.
V: But, usually, they do in written form, only.
A: Well, it’s just a matter of how advanced you are, because to write it down is easier, because you have time to think. When you’re playing it, performing it on the instrument, then it’s harder. It’s sort of a hard level, but I think it’s beneficial.
V: And even later in life, if your skills are more developed, it’s very good to go back to your basics. For example, I find it very fascinating to put a hymnal or chorale book in front of myself and just improvise those species of counterpoint.
A: Because, although the rules seem so simple, it’s not as simple to do things when you actually start doing it, because the simpler rules are the hardest to achieve a really nice result.
V: And in second species, we have two notes against one. So, against one chorale note, you have two counterpoint notes. There we have not neighbor notes, passing notes allowed.
A: And that gives more possibilities already.
V: Mhm. And in species number three, we have four notes against one, like imagine a whole note in the soprano, and quarter notes in the bass, or vice versa. So we deal a few weeks with that. And then, the fourth species deals with syncopations, where you create dissonances, like intervals of seventh or second or ninth or a fourth, in this case it could be dissonant, too.
A: So basically, it teaches you to do suspensions.
V: Yes, syncopations are about suspensions. And we finish this course with mixed species in number five, and there you can combine all those previous movements in quarter notes, in half notes, and in syncopations as well.
A: It seems like when you’re learning these five species of counterpoint, you could actually improvise a nice set of variations.
V: Even in the first level, when you have…
A: ...only two voices…
V: Only two voice, you already have two variation possibilities. And on the organ, you can actually expand with different registrations—it’s very beautiful, too. Imagine playing the chorale melody with the Reed and the counterpoint with a Principal, for example. And then you switch with another Reed in the bass, and with a Flute combination in the soprano, for example, and it sounds really convincing, even at this level, note against note. I’ve tried it before, and even did live streams on Facebook, and people reacted nicely to that, and not only people, but myself, I’m listening from a distance, sort of, as a listener, and I would think that in a service environment, this could be done, even at the liturgy, too.
V: But of course, after a few weeks, you move to the second level, and you can do two notes against one. That’s like a jump to the next level, and very exciting. So guys, we hope that everyone who is interested in chorale based improvisation, can take advantage of this course, because it’s just a foundation—level one. From there, you can add a third voice, obviously, or you can do ornamented chorales, where the chorale melody is no longer stationary, but in itself it can have species, like two notes, like chorale melody can move in half notes, or in quarter notes as well. That’s another creative path to take. And in species number five, in that level, both voices could move in imitation and in unpredictable ways, creating polyphonic duets, not unlike Palestrina and Olando di Lasso would write. And for organ composers, it would mean Samuel Scheidt, easily, and, of course Sweelinck.
A: Yes, they all were masters of counterpoint.
V: Right. Thank you guys, this was Vidas,
A: And Ausra,
V: Please send us your wonderful questions; we love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 300, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. And this question was sent by John. And it doesn't start like a question, but rather like feedback or response to another question that we discussed earlier about improvising alternate hymn harmonizations. So John writes:
There are a number of books of varied accompaniment [published by companies such as Kevin Mayhew and Novello], but these are for hymns sung by English-speaking congregations. Eric Thiman composed two books of excellent accompaniments [published by Novello and OUP, still available]. A very effective way of beginning a final verse is by playing a flattened seventh on the pedals. Other devices include: introduce a dominant pedal towards the end of the hymn, changing major chords into minor [if possible], playing the alto line above the treble, placing the treble line in the tenor [fauxbourdon - this is quite difficult and needs to be written out in full]. My advice would be (i) get hold of Thiman's books to see the techniques he uses and (ii) if you require a varied accompaniment for a choral, write in out if you are a beginner. Do not try improvising harmonisations until you are proficient. There is no fast-track route I'm afraid. I have just seen a single copy of C H Lloyd's "Free Accompaniment of Unison Hymn Singing" available on Amazon—this is a very rare book—brilliant accompaniments written by a master. Good luck! John
V: That’s a lot of advice, right Ausra?
V: And quite solid advice, I would say. John knows what he is talking about.
A: But I think he took them all from that book that he advertises.
V: Could be. We could discuss a little bit, what he is suggesting. For example, at the beginning of the final verse, you should play a flattened seventh on the pedals. Let’s imagine, C Major, flattened Major would be B flat, right? But in C Major there are no accidentals, so how would this sound?
A: I don’t think it would work for every hymn, what he is talking about.
A: That dominant pedal point toward the end of the hymn, that nothing special. That’s very obvious too, in general,,,
A: to have a pedal point.
V: What about changing major chords into minor?
A: That’s a possibility, yes. That’s if you would look at the collections such as, Cesar Franck’s ‘The Organist’. You would find it in each of the piece that he switches very often from major to minor. Because it’s a very easy thing to do, and you don’t have to do a modulation in order to do that. So that’s a very common tool.
V: It is just a juxtaposition of two modes. And you mention Franck; yes he takes the same theme, right?
A: That’s right. Yes
V: Only rewrites it in minor.
V: With no accidentals. So if the theme of the hymn is in C Major, you could just add three flats.
A: That’s right.
V: In many cases it would work.
A: But not always, as John mentioned too.
V: I imagine it would not work very well if we use harmonic minor; if this augmented second between the sixth and the seventh scale degrees would be, somewhat uncomfortable to listen and to sing.
A: And again, because it’s hymn singing, you need to look at the text, because of that particular stanza where you would like to switch from major to minor or otherwise, because it might not suit the text very well.
V: Uh-huh. So if the language talks about,,,
A: Joy, and you will switch suddenly to a minor, I don’t think it would be appropriate.
V: Mmm-hmm. And vice-versa. And you can add major in the minor hymn.
A: I know. For example during the Lent, probably wouldn’t be good.
V: Right. I find it easier to add major keys in the contemplative hymn, let’s say for communion, and play it softly, just like a meditation. Mmm-hmm. What about playing alto line above the treble?
A: Well we talked many times about this but actually he suggested to play tenor voice above the other voices.
A: Because for alto voice, I don’t know, about this particular case that John talks, but in general while teaching harmony for many, many years, what I noticed that alto voice is the most,,,
A: Stationary. And it’s the most stationary voice and I don’t think it would sound so well in the soprano, in the treble range.
V: Unless, we could add eighth notes.
A: Yes. That’s true.
V: Or interesting rhythms.
A: Yes. Because in general when I look at the four voice harmonization, I can tell if it’s good or not just from looking at the alto voice. If it’s stationary, I know that it’s no good.
V: No good, or good?
A: It’s good.
A: If it jumps a lot then I’m looking for treble, and for mistakes.
V: I see. If it jumps a lot your student is looking for treble.
A: That’s right. Because, sort of like tenor voice, it’s like an inversion of soprano voice. So you can easily switch these two voices. But alto stays stationary...
V: I see.
A: ...most of the time.
V: Right. What about the advice of writing down varied accompaniment?
A: I think that’s a good idea, but I wouldn’t do that for myself, because I wouldn’t have time to do it.
V: That’s probably for beginners more.
A: Yes, but imagine if you are playing a church service, well you have to play what, at least four or five hymns for each service, and sometimes even more. So if you would start writing down the accompaniment for each of those hymns, I think it wouldn’t be enough for you, hours in the day.
V: What if this is a full-time job and you are immersed in this position and have forty hours to do your preparation?
A: Well, maybe do it once or twice, but in the future I would rather spend that time practicing, actual thing than writing it down.
V: And then you will gain the skill of doing it on the spot.
A: That’s right.
A: Like with my ninth-graders, in music theory course, we start playing sequences on the piano. And some of them actually write them down. And I’m actually really not supporting these things, because I’m telling them in order spending all that time while writing, and memorizing it, rather just sit and play it.
V: So, although John writes, there is no fast-track route, but I would think that the idea of ‘not trying improvising harmonizations until you are proficient’ needs to be somewhat understood not literally, right? How can you get proficient if you are not improvising hymn harmonizations? You have to improvise them, and make mistakes, and then get frustrated and get more mistakes. But it’s a process which needs to be done, I think.
A: Yes. And I think sometimes you have to take a risk. That’s no different approach, how people learn for example, how to swim.
A: Somebody just tells that, drop somebody into the middle of the lake, and you either swim, or you will...
A: Sink. I’m not telling that you have to sink and do these extreme things, but I think sometimes it’s worth risking. You cannot write everything down.
V: Mmm-hmm. Right. And those mistakes will teach you many things, too.
V: You learn more from mistakes than from good playing, I guess. Thank you guys. I hope this was useful to you. Ausra is also joining me, right?
V: In hoping that you can apply those tips in your practice. And please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice...
A: Miracles happen!
Playing a hymn harmonization in four parts with the soprano voice on the solo manual might be fun to listen to and to play. However, did you know that once you can do this, you are only a few steps away from creating a beautiful ornamented chorale melody?
This in a sense is a technique that North German Baroque composers, such as Dieterich Buxtehude used to create ornamented chorale preludes. I'm sure that after learning about this technique you will be anxious to try it out on your favorite hymn tune.
When you have your favorite hymn tune in front of you, naturally you can harmonize it in four parts and put it into soprano or tenor or the bass with or without the solo registration. But you can do something else, too.
In this video, I will show you what can you create using just one chorale phrase. If you apply this procedure to the entire hymn tune or a chorale, the result will be quite unexpected and colorful. This will be sort of like a preliminary step to create a real chorale fantasia.
Are you bored with your hymn improvisations on the organ? Do they sound the same all the time? Today I'm going to tell you about the special trick which will allow you to make your hymn improvisations much more colorful. Watch this video to find out.
On the first day of Easter I was invited at the Vilnius university St. John's church to play during the mass where I performed a few improvisations. One of them - for the offertory - I would like to introduce to you today, because it demonstrates an interesting situation when the improvisation has to be adjusted to the changing liturgical situation.
Because I was preparing for the improvisation recital on the most famous Easter hymns which will be tomorrow, that day I planned to improvise the piece in the form of a modulating rondo based on the three Easter hymns: Wer nun den lieben Gott (A), Gelobt sei Gott (B), and Alelluia by Palestrina (C).
The main refrain which should occur 4 times was supposed to be Wer nun den lieben Gott, and the entire rondo structure would look like this: A (G minor), B (G minor), A (D minor), C (Bb major), A (C minor), B (C minor), C (G minor), and A (G minor).
This plan, if executed fluently would sound quite nicely, because Bach used it in one of his most famous preludes for organ (Eb major, BWV 552). But what to do, if the improvisation has to be shortened unexpectedly, when for example, a certain part of the liturgy lasts shorter than usual?
That's exactly what happened to me - in this video you will hear how the improvisation has to be completed before I finish this plan - as I was playing the ending of the second B part (the third episode from the end), I saw in the organ mirror that the priest is ready to start his prayer for the Offertory part of the mass.
Because I wasn't ready to return to the original key of G minor, I had to do it very quickly, if the piece should be ended on time.
Therefore after starting the new episode C, even at the end of the first sentence I created a final cadence in G minor and finished the improvisation. At the end of this video you can hear that it was done just in time, because the priest started to read his prayer for the Offertory right away. In my case, the final version of this improvisation could have been more complete (if there was more time to do it), but at least I ended after the end of the musical idea.
So if you are ever in a situation like I'm here describing, I think it's not really important on which part of the improvisation you are on, because the best way is simply to return to the main key as quickly as possible and create a final cadence. But try not to end the improvisation or a written down composition abruptly and without warning, as sometimes might happen to some organists.
Launching today: my new Hymn Harmonization Workshop. It's for people interested in learning to harmonize hymns and chorals in four parts. Check it out if you want to develop a skill in playing your hymns without hymnal harmonizations spontaneously.
This course will greatly enhance your service playing because you can then provide alternate harmonizations. Besides, hymn harmonization is one of the first steps in learning organ improvisation.
It took me many years of struggle to learn to harmonize hymns and chorales on the spot. You can be smarter - you have this course.
This video is an example of how you can leverage your transposition skills to create a rather lengthy improvisation on any hymn tune you like. Specifically, this is a famous Christmas carol "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing".
The text of this hymn was written by Charles Wesley in 1739 who was the leader of the Methodist movement in England in the 18th century and is best known for more than 6000 hymns he wrote.
The original opening text was a little different: "Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings" but Wesley's co-worker George Whitefield changed it to the one we use today. The modern music of the hymn was adopted from Felix Mendelssohn's cantata that he wrote in 1840 to commemorate the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg (hence the name of the hymn tune - Mendelssohn).
At any rate, here is the tonal plan of this improvisation: F major, C major, A minor, D minor, G minor, B flat major, E flat major, A flat major, B flat minor, and F major (with Coda).
This straightforward plan leaves a powerful impression on the listener for several reasons - the fluency of performance, the tune is lovely and familiar and the key changes make the harmony quite colorful (especially when you change the major mode to the minor and vice versa). It works best if every verse is played on a different registration.
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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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