Vidas: Hello and welcome to Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast!
Ausra: This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better organist.
V: We’re your hosts Vidas Pinkevicius...
A: ...and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene.
V: We have over 25 years of experience of playing the organ
A: ...and we’ve been teaching thousands of organists online from 89 countries since 2011.
V: So now let’s jump in and get started with the podcast for today.
A: We hope you’ll enjoy it!
Vidas: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 659 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Eduardo, and he writes,
Recently I found about historical improvisation and I stumbled upon your dissertation "Improvisation of keyboard preludes in the style of JS Bach: A practical method comprising techniques derived from selected keyboard works" And it looks exactly what i'm looking for at the moment, but I can't find a complete version of it, I just found the index. Is there a way I can get the complete one?
Also , In your webpage you mention a Keyboard Prelude Improvisation Mini Course but the link is dead. Can I still join the Course?
Looking forward to hearing from you,
V: You remember Ausra, how we wrote dissertations?
A: Yes, I remember.
V: It was so long ago.
A: It was probably really the most horrible work I have ever done.
V: Horrible meaning quality bad, or something different?
A: Well, I’m not a writer. It was easier for me to play for degree recitals, including lecture recital, than to write one dissertation.
V: Mm hm.
A: Simply, I’m not the researcher type.
V: I was kind of lucky that I was able to select a pedagogical approach for my dissertation. And you were my guinea pig, remember?
A: Yes I remember.
V: You tried my exercises.
A: Yes, some of them. I think I stuck at the beginning. But I haven’t finished them.
V: Right, right.
A: I think you selected a good approach, because I heard from other people who said a nice things about your dissertation. And if Eduardo wants to get it, I think all of them are in the United States in the place where you can order any dissertation. But you cannot get them for free or course, you have to pay.
V: But he wants to join the course, which is Keyboard Prelude Improvisation Mini Course, I converted that dissertation into two things here in Lithuania. The first chapter of it is this mini course, and the rest of it is Prelude Improvisation Formula Course over I think 16 weeks long or so. So basically, it is still available, this free mini course introduction. People can learn one specific way to improvise a prelude, and if they are still interested, they can go into longer course like Prelude Improvisation Formula. So I will put the link into the description of this conversation and people can click and go to the registration of that mini course.
A: Okay, but is the link dead? Have you checked it?
V: It was dead. I was migrating my mini courses from Mailchimp to Convertkit.
A: So you need to revise it, update somehow.
V: And I did, yes. Here it is.
V: And Eduardo wrote to me that he was able to access it now. So, excellent. I think this approach really works because what I did is took models from early music collection like Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Klavierbüchlein - not entire Büchlein but just selected preludes from it. And analyzed and dissected each prelude into different, different compositional elements that Bach uses, and help people to internalize them and to adapt them into new situations, enabling them to improvise their own preludes based on these models. What do you think, Ausra?
A: Yes, I think that’s a really good approach if you want to improvise in historical styles.
V: Yes. If you want to take as a model preexisting musical material, so to say. There are many other approaches. You could take any piece that you are playing actually, and take a fragment of that piece, and that could become a basis of a new prelude, right?
V: I’ve heard Sietze de Vries improvise, for example, based on the first trio sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach, first movement, that famous theme in the right hand part, remember?
A: Yes, I know it.
V: It becomes the basis of the counterpoint, contrapuntal theme - like a fugue basically. Which Bach also treats, but in a different key. Bach uses E flat major, and Sietze de Vries I think uses C major key. So it’s a really different approach, but similar material. Very recognizable. Such a pleasure to listen to it.
A: Sure, he is really master of improvisation.
V: Yeah, but approach is the same that probably all the improvisers in historical styles use - they take preexisting material and dissect it. And take what they want out of it. At the end of that course, Prelude Improvisation Formula for example, I devise like a longer prelude with other sequences and cadences and modulations to tonal plan that Bach wouldn’t have used in a shorter prelude. So if somebody completes this course, then the last chapter would be a really nice progress and result, I think.
A: True. But you know for example, I always feel sort of uneasy about the things that I was taught in general, in other musical subjects. For example, in composition classes or any other academic classes - you were not supposed to plagiarize something. For example in the composition class…
A: Yes. We were told to create original things, to compose our original things, and everything should be new and made with innovation that nobody would have done that before. And all this historical improvisation approach sort of teaches the other way around. That you have actually to plagiarize…
A: Yes. And you have to repeat things that you have already done. Because if you are changing a key but keeping still the same melody, still the same melody. Of course, you treat it in another genre, for example in the fugue, not in like trio, trio sonata - but still, sort of it’s hard to digest things like this.
V: Tell me this, for example. What do you admire more - French style improvisation that let’s say Pierre Cochereau, Olivier Latry improvises at the end of the mass at Notre Dame? Of course it was in the past, no longer available, but you can still get many videos on YouTube. Or let’s say, contrapuntal improvisation, the one that let’s say Edoardo Bilotti, William Porter, or the same Sietze de Vries does.
A: Well you know, you are asking a very hard question.
A: Because if I tell you the truth, I don’t think you will be happy with it.
V: What is the truth?
A: What I like.
V: Sure! Tell me.
A: Okay. Then I prefer the French style.
V: French style, you prefer French improvisation…
A: Over that…
V: Contrapuntal improvisation.
V: Can you articulate why?
A: Well because I can comprehend the French style better. Because I’m imagining myself still being able to do something in that kind of manner.
V: And then if you…
A: And I could not do the contrapuntal improvisation at all, unless I would write it down and memorize, and then pretend I’m improvising. And actually I’ve met many organists, especially in the United States, especially among ladies who actually did that, and call themselves improvisers. So of course I’m not referring to Porter or Edoardo Billotti, I’m sure they can do that very well without writing it down.
V: Well, you touched a very interesting subject about women in improvisation. Over this year I think, in the last year, there have been series of articles in The American Organist magazine, TAO, by Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, our former professor. And she interviewed many organists, mostly women but some of them were men, about various aspects of why women are not so into organ improvisation in general, and as you noticed, yes there are mostly men in this art rather than women. And in competitions as well, too. Especially in Europe - mostly men, not so much women. And jurors; also men, not women. So when you think about French improvisation, probably the only lady who comes to mind is Sophie-Veronique Cauchefer-Choplin, right, who was here in Vilnius a few years ago.
A: Well, but I think we have more, maybe not as well-known ladies as brilliant organists and improvisers, in French style of course.
V: There is a need for women to step up and start improvising, and it’s not easy. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated at first. That’s the big hurdle that everybody has to understand, you don’t start by running marathon. You start by probably crawling on the floor, then you stand up, or sit up, actually, then you stand up, then you start walking, then you start running a little bit like 100 meters, then half a mile, then one mile, then five miles, 10 kilometers, 20 kilometers, and then entire marathon. It’s a lifetime of achievement probably, lifetime journey. But the journey is probably more important than the result I think, than the destination, don’t you agree, Ausra?
A: Yes, probably you are right. But you know, it would be very hard to start that when you are, sort of at your middle age. Because I think we were just taught from our childhood in a very different manner. Because we grew up in the Soviet times when even improvisation could cause you trouble. Because improvisation was connected to jazz, and jazz was connected to United States, and United States was sort of complete evil….
A: … and there was no way we could learn how to improvise as kids. And we were taught strictly by the rules. And I think that if we have spent as much time learning to improvise as we spent learning the real repertoire, we would be real masters at improvising in any given style.
V: That’s what Sietze deVries did as a kid. He took a hymnal, he said in one of his interviews, in multiple interviews probably, he would open a hymnal and start playing those psalms, genuine psalms in one key, in another key transposing - probably very simple at the beginning. But as he progressed, he became more fluent with it. But one thing I can guarantee, Ausra. That - you remember what I did before with those psalms? I would probably add, add a second voice to the chorale melody, note against note like a first species…
A: Yes, I remember.
V: ...counterpoint. Very simple approach, right? You only use consonant intervals: thirds, sixths in parallel and contrary motion, and if you want octaves and fifths in contrary motion. No parallel motion. So basically those sweet-sounding intervals. And I guarantee that you could do it.
A: Of course I could do it.
V: And that’s the starting point.
A: But really I don’t see…
V: If you can do step one, there is no reason you couldn’t do step two.
A: Well I know all that, but you know, I’m not a child anymore and I don’t think it’s worth spending as much of my time, because the result wouldn’t be great - wouldn't be what I imagine if I had started those things 30 years ago, for example.
V: Well, I didn’t start 30 years ago. What about my result? Do you like my result? (laughs) Be honest.
A: Yes, sometimes I do. (laughs)
A: Not always.
V: Yes. So you also have the same background as me. Maybe less, you are less optimistic than me, right? You are sort of down-to-earth.
A: I have no fantasy, I have no good memory. Well…
V: But you have quicker thought processes. You think faster than me. That’s for sure, right?
A: I don’t know.
V: If you think faster, then you can actually improvise better than me, because you can compose in your head in the moment of performance faster than me.
A: But I think you have better technical facilities.
V: Technical facilities?
V: Yes, if you think about playing trio sonatas, right away from your imagination. But you don’t need those facilities when you’re playing in two voices, let’s say without the pedal. That’s beautiful.
A: Anyway, I will not improvise in any historical style.
V: But would you want…
A: Although I have tried for example, Pachelbel's style or something like this, but I see no point why I should do it. If I will start improvising it will probably be something in the style of Demessieux.
V: And that’s not a bad idea.
A: Because when I play her pieces, I think that I could improvise something like that in a mode.
V: Sometimes when we play modern music we think it’s easier to improvise than to learn the notes, right?
A: Sure. And I learn her pieces, they are not hard of course, but sometimes I’m playing different notes than they are written. And it still sounds very nice and in the same style. So that’s how I thought I might improvise similar style.
V: Okay, let’s make a deal. You improvise like Demessieux one video, and I improvise like Sietze deVries one video, okay?
A: Yes, but this will be only after I will perform her pieces.
V: Yes, after June 12.
A: After June 12.
V: Yeah, marked in calendar. And that would be great. Let’s look forward to it. Okay guys, this conversation has been going for 19 minutes now, wow! Maybe we should stop.
V: Okay, please send us more of your 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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