SOPP553: I have seen Your videos about improvisation on Major and Minor chords and rhythmical canon. These were pretty simple and I could try them.
Vidas: Hi, guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra
V: Let’s start episode 553 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Agnese. And she writes:
Dear Vidas! Your advice is great! My dream for organ playing is to do some improvisation and to be able to sight-read the score. For some practical reasons--chorals within church service, for example. I have seen Your videos about improvisation on Major and Minor chords and rhythmical canon. These were pretty simple and I could try them. I got very inspired afterwards, thank You about that.
So, answering question—what is holding me back from my dream—lack of experience (for sight-reading), lack of ideas (for improvisation) and lack of self-confidence—in general. But I am pretty sure, that experience, techniques and ideas I can get from You or some other smart person. So—advice for improving sight-reading and some more simple (easy understandable) improvisation ideas would be really great from You!
With best wishes -
V: I think we could say that some of those videos that I put on Youtube that I maybe share with people from my improvisation experience, might be helpful, right, and Agnes is saying that major and minor chords and rhythmical canon are helpful to her. What can I say? Do you like major and minor chords? They’re the basics, right?
A: Yes. That’s a good question.
V: Have you ever tried to play a C Major scale, C Major scale, but harmonized only in major chords?
A: No, I haven’t.
V: But you know how would it sound, right?
V: It sounds very weird but this weirdness is quite colorful. Or minor chords. Imagine—C D E F G A B and C. Instead of playing only with white keys, you would C Major chord on the note C, D Major Chord on the note D…
A: Yes, yes, I imagine that. But since I’m teaching the harmony course of the common period it’s kind of strange for me. I wouldn’t let my students do that.
V: I actually did exercises with them. We sang in three voices—soprano, 2nd soprano and alto, I think—for kids voices. And we would harmonize the scale up and down this way. Or maybe I think we would sing an exercise like a melody, harmonizing in major or minor chords. That would be weird but they wouldn’t protest.
A: I guess that’s why you are not teaching at school anymore.
A: Because of all these experiments.
V: What do you mean?
V: Say the truth.
A: It’s not on the program.
V: It’s not on the test?
A: Yes, that’s right.
V: I know. You know, but what’s on the program might be, might be not always something that I wanted to do, you know.
A: But rules are rules, so program is program.
V: Do we always have to live by the rules?
A: Hmm, well, not always, but, work I guess, yes.
V: In our work, yes. That’s very particular school which really emphasizes the rules. But yes, major, minor chords, that would be very simple way to harmonize a melody but creatively, not in tonal harmony, but something that would be weird. I think I’ve written a few compositions like that. In particular, variations on the Christmas tune Adeste Fideles. It was dedicated to our friend Paulius Grigonis. I remembered when he was planning his recital at Vilnius Cathedral, and I offered, ‘Paulius would you like me to create some music for you?’ And he said. ‘okay’, you know. And I was so excited and created six variations out of major and minor exclusively. And of course they were too difficult for him and he didn’t play.
A: Yeah. Nobody values your great ideas.
V: Nobody from our close circle of friends, that’s for sure. But there are others who live farther away, maybe across the ocean. What about, Ausra, what about canons, rhythmical canons? She means, Agnese means that it’s not a direct canon like, one voice would strictly follow another voice by a certain interval or a certain rhythmical pattern. But I mean that the melody can be similar but a little bit different. Intervals might be a little different but the rhythm has to be strict. Just like Franck would do, would have done, for example, in some of his organ works. It’s not a strict canon but rhythmical canon. Have you seen that?
A: Yes, I have seen it. In many cases I think that’s a great idea to improvise on it. But of course if I would be a beginning improviser I probably would choose variation genre. It seems the easiest way for me to improvise something.
V: You’re right. Canon requires more focus on two voices. And variations can be quite simple, less complicated that canons. Although when you only have two voices that’s not too many things to think about, right? Two voices. Right hand and left hand. And let’s say it’s in 3-4 meter and right hand starts with three notes in quarter notes and then stops for entire measure. And at that moment the left hand enters and plays three quarter notes. And then stops again but at that moment right hand starts to move, you know. It’s like a dialogue.
A: I know but you might get bored after a while by playing only two voices. And if you are doing variations on them, variations might be based on that kind of canon.
V: Yes. Just one variation.
V: Mmm-hmm. Exactly. If you do canons for a long period of time, let’s say more than two minutes, then it’s very difficult to keep it interesting, right, unless you spice up the meter, or spice up the rhythms, add the more intricate combinations of rhythmical values, syncopations, dotted notes, even rests. Not necessarily all the quarter notes—one, two, three, one, two, three. The interest would be bigger. Of course you can do more interest in tonal terns, right Ausra? You can add different keys, you can add different colors, which might be…
A: Yes, yes, that’s possibilities too.
V: also interesting. You know there are seven elements of music, right, which generally comprise any tonal musical composition, composed up to, let’s say, beginning of the Twentieth Century. And after that it’s more varied than that. There are various other elements involved in various other techniques when composers got beyond tonal style. But those elements are what, melody, rhythm, harmony—what am I missing—dynamics, on the organ, registration, let’s say texture and then there’s seven for this form. Those seven elements are inherent in any, let’s say, keyboard composition or organ composition that we play today. And if you think about each element separately and keep it interesting, let say, interesting rhythm, interesting melody, interesting dynamics, or interesting form, then in general your improvisation or composition will be more interesting too.
A: Yes, but you know, I wouldn’t agree with this sort of point of interesting form. I would say that clear form is better definition for me at least. Because what you mean by interesting?
V: By mean, yes, those, are two different things. Clear form could be A-B-A.
V: Three part form, right, with recapitulation.
A: Usually that’s what I like about the piece of music that I can understand a form of it. Because if it’s too interesting I might not be able to comprehend what it’s about.
V: But what if the form is complex enough, but on the edge that you could still understand where the recapitulations are. You know there is like, there are maybe two themes which are reoccurring from time to time and your attention is drawn to them from time to time and you are not lost. But besides that, what composer does, or improviser does, inside of the piece, is quite strange, you know. It’s difficult to analyze but you hear some thematic re-occurrences which you can recognize but it’s difficult too. But that’s what I mean by saying it’s interesting.
A: But I thing for a beginning improviser it would be too difficult to achieve.
V: Yeah! The easiest form is probably to deal with A-B-A form, when you present one idea, and then present another idea, and then go back to the first idea. Strictly or a little bit more variation if you want more interest. Yes?
V: And never underestimate the value of improvising on just four notes. Pick any four notes and play anything you like on those four notes for let’s say, ten minutes, and see what happens. Of course, try to keep it interesting.
A: What else can I say?
V: You can say that I’m right! Can you say that?
A: Maybe not.
V: Not today?
A: Not today! But as Agnese talks about sight-reading, lack of experience, I think she just needs to practice more.
V: Yeah. With time it will come. And she acknowledges that. She simply needs to focus on the now.
A: Yes, yes.
V: Not on the long term results which are not visible yet. But on today.
A: And I think when she will practice more, she will get more new ideas. They will come up to her during her practice.
V: Yeah. It’s like eating breakfast. Before you eat breakfast you might not want to eat breakfast, but once you start eating breakfast, you want more and more. Right Ausra?
A: I don’t think that this is such a good comparison, but…
V: It works for me because I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten breakfast and it’s early in the morning. So, guys, I hope you will find this conversation useful. Apply our tips in your practice. Let us know how it goes. Keep sending us more questions. We love helping you grow. And I will go to eat breakfast. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: 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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