Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start Episode 234 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Tomeu, and he writes,
Thanks a lot for your advice about how to improvise Prelude in Bach’s style. It is very interesting and useful how the information is organized. I keep following you. Kind Regards.
Ausra, I think he is talking about this 9-day or 10-day mini course about playing keyboard preludes in the style of Bach. Remember the time when we were studying in Lincoln University of Nebraska?
A: Yes, I remember that.
V: And in the last year, I wrote this dissertation about improvising preludes in Bach’s style.
A: I remember it, yes.
V: It was an experiment to take keyboard preludes out of Wilhelm Friedemann’s Klavierbüchlein that Bach created for his eldest son, and try to take them as models, as exercises to develop one’s skill in improvising a free type of keyboard-based compositions without the pedals in the Baroque style. And I did that; and then later, when I came back to Lithuania, and we started this internet online organ teaching activity, I thought maybe some of those chapters would fit into teaching, you know--not as a book, but maybe as a course.
And I converted the first chapter into the free 9-day mini course. And then, the rest of the dissertation came into a longer prelude improvisation formula. So that’s how it all started. Of course, I revised and expanded this dissertation a little bit, because at first it was my own experiment with little real-life application; but then I tried it out on other people, and got feedback, you know. So...I did it like that. So I think Tomeu is talking about this type of course.
A: I think you did a great job, and I’m glad that you went back to it, and revised it, and recycled it and refreshed it. Because I think it’s very valuable.
V: Even though it’s not, probably, something that will enable anyone to master the entire Bach style, right? It’s just one side of how to approach beginner’s improvisation until a certain point--until you master cadences, sequences, harmonic progressions, and put them together into a coherent structure to create maybe a 2-3 minute piece. But it doesn’t talk about fugues; it doesn’t talk about chorale preludes. Things like that are too complex for this intent.
A: But still, I think it’s a good beginning, you know; if you could master preludes like this to improvise a prelude like this, I think you would be ready to move forward to do other things, maybe to improvise a fugue or fughette.
V: That’s what I thought, because it’s all based on harmonic foundations. If you have knowledge of sequences, cadences, and how to put several chords together, how to modulate, and maybe to steal some ideas about figuration from Wilhelm Friedemann’s Klavierbüchlein...Sometimes you can even borrow from other sources, if you are curious and playing other repertoire. That’s why we say, analyze your own pieces that you’re playing, and maybe you’ll find something worth borrowing.
A: Yes, because if you take any piece, you’ll always find sequences, cadences...They will all have something similar.
V: Yes, and then, you can even transpose your piece to every single key. Remember, Ausra, how much fun you had?
A: Yes, transposing Handel.
V: Transposing Handel! Was it fun, really?
A: Yes, it was very fun.
V: Would you repeat it today? After this conversation let’s do it--to 24 keys!
A: Hahaha! Well you know, now, after teaching harmony and theory for so many years, I don’t think I would have trouble to transpose them in any given key.
V: Actually you were my first student of that method book.
V: In Lincoln. Of course, my first student was myself, but it doesn’t count, probably. But for other people I taught, you were my guinea pig. Right? Would you like to be my guinea pig again?
A: No. No, I wouldn’t.
V: Maybe I could be your guinea pig!
V: Why not?
A: I don’t like to torture others. Hahaha!
A: But that’s just a joke, really. His suggestions are really worth listening to, and trying, too.
V: That means a lot, to hear that kind of compliment from the closest person in the room.
V: Because she knows me inside out, right? And she knows my weaknesses and strengths...and maybe more weaknesses than strengths, right?
A: Well, I know both well enough, I think.
V: So, it really means a lot when you say this. So today, of course, you can choose to try out our mini course. And it’s not long; it’s just 9 days (or maybe an additional day at the end of it, for recapitulation); but it will give you a good overview of what could be done with any other keyboard prelude. This mini course is based on just 1 keyboard prelude from that Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. And Prelude improvisation formula, which naturally comes afterwards, deals with, I think, 15 or 16 more. 16 more--that’s why it’s a 16-week course. But you can, as we are saying, apply the same foundation you learn from those 9 beginning days to any other style, I would say--any other composer.
Even if you don’t like Bach, and you still try this mini course, you will learn that you can turn the page of your favorite organ composer...Let’s say your favorite is Guilmant, ok? Or Franck, or Mendelssohn, or something from the 20th century, could be. You open that book, and you will see patterns, which could be isolated and practiced and transposed and memorized, and they will become your own. And then you collect as many patterns from other pieces of the same composer, and then you use those patterns in a different order. Right Ausra?
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: And you will create something similar, but something different, as well. It will be like The Lost Piece of Franck, or Long-Forgotten Organ Sonata by Mendelssohn. Right? Or the Seventh Symphony by Vierne, you know?
A: True. And I think in general, while working with your improvisation course, it will teach you to study written compositions in a completely different way. I think you will be more skillful to recognize things in the real compositions--to see how the piece is put together, to see behind the composer’s mind.
V: Who taught you this phrase, “how the piece is put together”?
A: George Ritchie.
V: Ahh. I see. You like him?
A: Yes, he was a great teacher and mentor. And a friend.
A: And he still is.
V: They visited us in Vilnius many years ago.
A: Yes. Not so many--a few years ago.
V: A few years ago, yeah. Maybe we can visit them, too. But it’s a long flight.
A: True. Too bad that Atlantic Ocean exists. We need to bring America closer to Europe.
V: Yes. Maybe that legendary continent Atlantis, if it existed now, it would be much easier to cross!
V: Excellent, guys. So, be fearless today, and try out something new, and look at written organ compositions in a new way: what could you borrow? And you will actually see for yourself that you will gain, at the end of the day, much more than simply just playing the music, right?
V: You will probably start to feel a little hunger or thirst for your own creativity to develop, to flourish, little by little--in any field, not only in music. But you will want to make something which hasn’t been done before.
A: That’s right.
V: 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.
#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.
Welcome to the Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast #3!
Listen to the conversation
Today's guest is Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, organist, teacher, composer, and a world-renown expert on improvising in the Bach style. I had a privilege to study with her at Eastern Michigan University for my Master's degree but her enthusiasm for historically inspired improvisation caught my attention even earlier, back in 2000 when we met for the first time in Gothenburg, Sweden at the Goteborg International Organ Academy. Improvisation in the Bach style has been a life-long pursuit for her and in this episode she shares her insights about improvising chorale-based works of Bach on any keyboard instrument, which is the focus of Vol. 1 of her book "Bach and the Art of Improvisation".
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"Bach and the Art of Improvisation", Vol. 1 (book review)
"Bach and the Art of Improvisation", Vol. 1 - the book
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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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