This is the third and last article in our Prelude Improvisation Formula series. I hope you have read the first two articles about 9 deadly mistakes new organ improvisers make and a proven and tested system for long term improvisation success. These two instructional articles really set the stage for what I consider the most important article in this series.
So in this last article, I would like to give you some down-to earth strategic advice and 5 steps for creating a plan which will lead you to your success in organ improvisation regardless of what kind of musical style or genre you will be improvising. In order to get the most of this article, make sure you read the parts where I share with you some real-life examples of how this system works. It should be especially fascinating to read the original citations from historical authentic treatises about improvisation so make sure you read them all as well.
Right now you are probably wondering what those 5 steps are, so I’m giving them to you now:
Step 1 – Select the Best Model Piece for Easy Copying. This is the beginning of the system. It’s all about knowing which compositions will be the right for you to copy.
Step 2 – Identify the Musical Elements from this Model Fast. Of course, I’m talking about taking notes of various figures, cadences, and sequences you found this piece. And I’m going to show you how to do it very quickly.
Step 3 – Internalize the Elements from This Model. Once you know what elements will work for your improvisations, you have to make them your own and so automated that you could re-create them in the middle of the night.
Step 4 – Put the Elements Together and Start Creating Your Own Music. This is actually the first step were you will be improvising and I’ll show you some strategies for doing that.
Step 5 – Maximize Your Success. In this step, you will learn some advanced techniques which will be necessary for making your improvisations stronger, longer, and more creative.
After I’ve showed you what those 5 steps for learning to improvise successfully are, we will discuss each of the steps in detail. And I hope you will be taking notes because this is really practical down-to-earth information.
Step 1: Select the Best Model Piece for Easy Copying
Let’s go into the first step right now. How do you go about selecting the best model for your improvisations? Well, I want you to think about these questions which will help you to find the right model to use for learning to improvise.
Does a model have enough quality musical substance? This is a crucial point. If this composition doesn’t seem like a genuine work of art, it may not worth your attention. You see, life is short and you want to select models which are of the highest quality.
The next question is this: can you play the model with precision and clarity? Your model can sound quite sophisticated and be worth of in depth study but if it put too many technical demands on your technique, it will be very difficult for you to improvise successfully a piece based on that model.
In other words, if this piece has many jumps, double trills, advanced polyphonic texture, or pedal parts which you can’t really play right now without mistakes, the same mistakes are going to show up in your improvisations. That’s why it is better to choose a piece which is currently within your reach. In fact, it is even better if the piece is easier than you can play at the moment.
Last but not least you should ask yourself if you are passionate about it? If you have a wonderful piece which is technically not too challenging but you are not exactly passionate about it, then you will have a hard time imitating it. You will have to choose wisely because remember, you are going to spend a great deal of time studying this piece, analyzing it and improvising your composition based on the material from it. Therefore, your model should be of interest to you.
If you found the model piece which you like and it consists of quality musical material and the technical level is within your current abilities, you are ready to go to Step 2.
Step 2 – Identify the Musical Elements from this Model Fast
Here is how I do it very quickly. Once I have my model in place, I play it through once or twice and circle the places that I especially like with pencil. For example, if I see a nice sounding cadence which I think might serve for my improvisations, I mark this place in the score. The same is with sequences. Somehow descending sequences are more common in music, but ascending sequences create a nice tension and drive.
If a piece is constructed using several figures (melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic) I also might make a note of them because they will be very useful in my improvisations later on. If I see an episode where the composer adds imitation between the voices (dialogues), I try to find out how these imitations work. Usually they are based on harmonic structures. What I mean here is that these passages in separate voices which are repeated exactly or in part in some other voice normally have a basis in chords that are used at that moment. Since imitations greatly enhance any polyphonic composition, I recommend taking notes of them as well.
A special note on the form of the piece. A form is also one of the 7 important elements which constitute a composition. So when I look at the model, not only do I try to analyze the cadences, figures, or sequences but also I try to find out what is the form of the piece. In other words, here it’s necessary to see how the piece is put together.
Repetition of the thematic material helps to identify the form. Even if you don’t know the proper term for such form simply mark letter A for the first theme or episode that is present in the score. Then if you see something new, mark letter B and so on. If the theme is repeated exactly, mark A again, if repetition is with some alteration put A1 etc. Once you go over your model and mark all the thematic material, you will have a very clear picture of how the piece is put together and you can use this plan for your own improvisation.
When we talk about identifying various musical elements, compositions in a modern French style deserve a special attention. You see, typically pieces by modern French organ composers, such as Messiaen, Tournemire, Langlais, Dupre, Durufle, Alain and others have a very colorful harmonic language. We call it a modal style. Here the term „mode“ is used because we don‘t normally meet major and minor key systems in such works. Instead, what stands out is the mode – a term sort of similar to tonality or a key, but has a broader meaning as well.
A mode can be described as a whole of musical sounds used in a composition or in some part of it. So in other words, if we want to know what notes constitute the mode of this episode, we have to count all the notes in such measure or two.
The beautiful thing about the modes is that once you know what kind of modes does your modern piece have (Lydian, Dorian, Mixolydian, Lydian-Myxolydian, or Octatonic, Whole-Tone or many others) you can master them and re-create them in your own improvisations. And that‘s how you will get a modern French style.
By the way, you can listen to one of my compositions which is written in the style of Jean Langlais. It is a piece for communion from the Mass for the Second Sunday in Lent.
So anyhow, once you have your model in place, look deep into the piece and take notes of various compositional elements that are used to create this piece. Once you do that, you are ready to go to Step 3.
Step 3 – Internalize the Elements from This Model.
It goes without saying that if you only mark the musical elements that you like in the score or if you just write out all of them on the separate sheet but without mastering them, you are not going to be able to use them in practice. In other words, it’s like reading a text in a foreign language. If you translate the unfamiliar words and write them down in your own notebook, you will also need to remember them.
While in the process of learning the language memorization and repetition are the most important techniques which help to internalize the words and expressions in the foreign language, in a musical world, we also have memorization. In addition to memorization, transposition helps to achieve fluency in many different keys. In other words, it is not enough for you to be able to play a cadence or a sequence by hearth in the original key or in C major. In order to reap all the benefits that go with it, you will need to transpose it to many different keys.
There are a couple of ways you can approach transposition exercises. First, you can transpose them using a system of circle of fifths. This means that you play the exercise in different keys which are arranged in ascending fifths. In order to return to the original key you have to have a closed circle, so at the point of 5, 6, or 7 sharps you must switch enharmonically to the flat key. For example, going from C major the next key would be G-D-A-E-B-F#=G flat-D flat-A flat-E flat-B flat-F-C.
The second option in transposition would be to play the exercises in keys arranged in ascending order of accidentals. For example, after playing in the key with 0 accidentals, play in keys with 1 sharp and flat, 2 sharps and flats, 3 sharps and flats and so on. Continue transposing until you reach 7 sharps and flats. Using the first method the exercises start easy, then get more difficult and gradually return to the easy keys. The second method allows you to transpose by progressing in a step-by-step manner until you reach the most difficult keys. In you master exercises in any of these two ways from memory without mistakes at least 3 times, you will achieve a complete fluency in your chosen musical elements.
Incidentally, the power of memorization and transposition was known even in the 16th century when the famous Spanish composer and theoretician Thomas de Santa Maria wrote in his treatise “The Art of Playing the Fantasia”:
"The third thing is to note all the kinds of cadences used in the pieces, to understand them completely, and to hold them in memory in order to use similar ones in the [improvised] fantasy.
… And observe also what melodic progressions are pleasing in each voice, and commit these thoroughly to memory in order to form various fugal subjects from them, for this is of great benefit toward achieving richness and abundance in the fantasy.
…In order for beginners to progress in the fantasy, they must practice repeatedly with the subjects they know, so that through usage art is made a habit, and thereby they will easily play other subjects. It is also a very useful thing to transpose the same subject to all the pitch signs on which it can be formed, but with the warning that wherever it is transposed it must retain the same melodic line.
So that all the foregoing may be fruitful and beneficial in the fantasy, one must practice it many times each day with great perseverance, never losing confidence but holding to the certainty that continual work and practice will prevail in all things and make the master, as experience shows us at every step. And therefore a wise man has said that the stone is not carved out by the water drop that falls one time or two, but continuously“. (Taken from Thomas de Sancta Maria, The Art of Playing the Fantasia, Book I , translated by Almonte C. Howell, Jr. and Warren E. Hultberg (Pittsburgh, PA : Latin American Literary Review Press, 1991), 155-56).
Notice how Santa Maria stresses the importance of great perseverance and repetition in the process of gaining a true fluency. If we take the analogy of learning a new language, it is so true because the scientists have proved that you have to repeat one word or expression at least 80 times before it is recorded in our long-term memory. That’s exactly what happens if you memorize and transpose the musical elements in all of the keys at least 3 times in a row without mistakes.
After you have achieved fluency in your musical elements by memorizing and transposing them in different keys, you are now ready to advance to Step 4.
Step 4 – Put the Elements Together and Start Creating Your Own Music.
In this step, this is where a true improvisation actually begins. Up until now you only had separate musical elements, mastered them to a complete fluency and now you can mix them in any order you want to create your own music.
The way I usually do this step is this:
Because I analyzed my model piece and know what kind of figures, cadences, and sequences can be useful in my improvisations, I can also copy the structure or form of this work. By form I mean not only the order the thematic material but also the tonal design. In other words, I can use in my improvised piece the same keys that the composer of my model uses. This way I can be sure that my tonalities are chosen in a logical order because it has been done before by a master composer.
Now, perhaps you are thinking: “if I take the musical elements AND a form AND a tonal plan from the same piece, will my improvisation sound original?” That’s a very good question because you don’t want to replicate the compositional material your composer uses just to create a piece which is an exact replica of it. Instead, you want your improvisation to be BASED on this material, be similar to the original piece but also unique. To put it in another way, you want your improvisation to be a new piece and you want your listeners to think: “Oh, this must be some piece by Bach that I’m not familiar with yet” (if you are improvising in the Bach style, of course).
In order for your improvisation to really sound unique and original, the best way is not to use the same elements with the same form and tonal plan. Instead, you can take the elements from one piece but the form and tonal plan would be from completely different piece. Or you can just invent your own form and tonal plan. Either way, your improvisation will sound very original but at the same time based on the specific style of this composer.
Read how an English author Roger North from the 17th century describes this process of putting all the elements together in improvising a voluntary which was an English form of a prelude (NOTE: the language is original, so don’t be surprised to see many old words here):
„It is not to be expected that a master invents all he plays in that manner. No, he doth but play over those passages that are in his memory and habituall to him. But the choice, application, and connexion are his, and so is the measure, either grave, buisy, or precipitate; as also the severall keys to use as he pleaseth…Then for connection, these passages which a voluntiere serves himself of are (by transitions of his owne) so interwoven as to make one style, and appear as a new work of a good composer, of whom the best…useth the methods of a volunteire, and more or less borrows ayre from those who went before him, and such as he hath bin most conversant with. (This is exemplified in the game of chess, of which they say he that hath most gabetts hath the advantage, which gambetts are pre-contrived stratagems, which are put forward as occasion is given by the walk of the adversary. So he that hath most musicall passages drawne off from the musick of others and in most variety to be put together with extempory connection, is the best furnished for voluntary). But as I sayd, the connexion, handling, and setting forth is his owne; for no one man is an absolute inventor of the art, but comonly takes up and adds to the inventions of predecessors“. (Taken from Roger North, Roger North on Music: Being a Selection from his Essays Written During the Years c. 1695-1728, edited by John Wilson (London: Novello and Company Ltd, 1959), 141-142.)
Notice how Roger North creates an interesting analogy between improvisation and the game of chess and stresses the importance of having many opening strategies in order to dominate the game. Likewise, an improviser must strive to be fluent in as many different pieces as possible for truly extemporaneous performance.
By the way, in the video below you can see how I mixed the various elements in order to create a chorale prelude “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” which is based on the famous “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” by J.S.Bach. I improvised this chorale during a live recital by using the form, texture, and the tonal design of the model piece with a different thematic material.
So now after you have improvised your piece with different musical elements mixed together, you are ready to progress to Step 5.
Step 5 – Maximize Your Success.
In this step we aim for taking your improvisations to the next level where they no longer will sound like exercises but as true works of art. In other words, at this level you will strive for a mature style, techniques, and application.
A famous 19th century composer Carl Czerny gives us a terrific plan of action for achieving a high level in improvisation when he writes on similarities between an orator and improviser:
“Just as the orator must be completely accomplished as much with his tongue as with his speech in order never to be at a loss for a word or turn of expression, the performer’s fingers must likewise have the instrument completely in their power and be at the disposal of every difficulty and mechanical skill.
Just as the orator must combine extensive reading of a general nature and fundamental knowledge in all branches of his field of scholarship, it is similarly the responsibility of the keyboardist, in addition to studying basic principles of harmony and becoming acquainted with many works of varying degrees of value by the masters of all periods, to have memorized a large assortment of interesting ideas from that literature and also to have at his command the current musical novelties, the favorite themes from operatic melodies, and so on.” (Taken from Karl Czerny, A Systematic Introduction to Improvisation on the Pianoforte, translated and edited by Alice L. Mitchell. New York: Longman Inc., 1983: 42).
Notice, how Czerny sees a huge similarity between an improviser and an orator by suggesting that both of them should be fluent in as many different fields of study, genres, and styles. It is only in this manner that a freshness and spontaneity of execution and breadth of ideas can come into play.
So I encourage you to go and find as many different works that you like as possible and repeat the previous 4 steps with them so you can become a true master at expressing you musical ideas on the organ.
OK, let’s bring it all together. Here is your first challenge:
1. Go ahead and find a model for your improvisations. This is very simple and easy step.
2. Then master your first 10 musical elements. Once you’ve done that, you have a foundation and you can build from there.
3. You can mix those elements together in various ways and create your first improvisations.
All right, I hope you got so much value from this article. Moreover, I hope you’re going to take this information and actually go and take action now. That’s what this is all about. You can read and learn as much as you want but if you won’t take action – you’re not going to succeed in organ improvisation. You must remember that information alone does not produce results – a practical application of this information does.
Are you an action-taker? I certainly hope you are.
Later in the week I will be opening the doors for the Prelude Improvisation Formula, a 16-week coaching program which teaches the art of improvising keyboard preludes in the Bach style, so if you like these series of articles and my free mini course in improvisation, then this is the program for you.
Did you find value in this article? If so, leave a comment below.
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