SOPP290: My dreams are to be able to improvise postludes and to be able to re-harmonize the final verse of congregational hymns to add a few juicy twists
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 290 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Danielle. She writes:
Dear Vidas and Ausra,
I was an organ major as an undergraduate but had no background in harmony or scales. So even though I could learn organ literature, play for church services, and accompany choirs on organ, I could never improvise. Because I had no mental shortcuts (ie knowing what key the piece had modulated to, etc) the learning process was extremely arduous, and I stopped playing as soon as I could and switched to choral conducting. The stress of preparing for weekly church services was just too great.
Fast forward 25 years, and now I am subbing on organ for Catholic masses, and sometimes cantoring simultaneously! Thanks to some Dalcroze training, I can now entertain the possibility of improvising. But I’m finding it to be more challenging to improvise on organ vs improvising on piano for children’s music classes.
So my dreams are to be able to improvise postludes and to be able to
re-harmonize the final verse of congregational hymns to add a few juicy twists. I see these goals as interrelated.
The three things most holding me back are a lack of understanding of
harmony, a lack of handy chord progressions to lean upon, and a lack of an organized approach to tackle these tasks.
Thank you so much for your daily emails! They are very encouraging.
Danielle in New York
V: That’s a lofty goal, right Ausra?
A: Yes, it is.
V: But well worth pursuing, I would say.
A: Yes, especially if you want to learn to improvise, you have to know something about music theory and harmony, of course.
V: And I can imagine that if you are limited to just a few chords that you know, and basically playing from sheet music, you get quite frustrated if you can’t really prepare in advance those hymns and preludes on time for church services. And if you’re not good for sight reading, then it’s so challenging that people might quit, and she did, I think, many years ago.
A: But it’s that Danielle came back to the organ after so many years.
V: Mhm! Maybe she had this inner desire regardless of her limitations, which is nice. So, this desire, this inner motivation will keep her moving forward, even though the practice might not be as pleasant as it seems.
A: Yes, and sometimes I think how much my students at school are ungrateful for what they are getting there. Because, they don’t have that understanding of what other people around the world are missing. That is so important for a musician to receive early training in music theory—harmony.
V: The reason your kids are not grateful, I think, some of them shouldn’t even be there, right? They’re not planning to be musicians, I think, some of them. Or, they just want to play their instrument and they don’t even realize what kind of life is ahead of them.
A: True, but some who later become professional musicians, they feel, I think, grateful for what they learned.
A: It’s just too bad that sometimes in our school that theory is so much unrelated to the practice.
V: Yeah, those 8 measure exercises are very good, and they’re limited in scope. Each exercise has their own chords and limitations, and the students will know what to put inside of those 8 measures or 2 sentences where the cadence is, right, at the end of four measures and at the end of the 8 measures, too. Sometimes you have an extension, right, maybe 10 or 12 measures, but that’s about it.
A: Yes. And now when thinking about Danielle, I think she should learn or take a look at our course of harmony for beginners.
V: Mhm, basically to look at the variety of courses we offer under the category of harmony and music theory, as well, because before attempting to learn harmony, you should know chords—basic chords…
A: Yes, and of course keys, as Danielle wrote “scales,” I think she probably meant keys…
V: Circle of Fifths
A: Circle of Fifths
V: With all accidentals.
A: It’s sort of a cornerstone for music theory.
V: So that’s why we created this Basic Chord Workshop, which tackles the main three note or four note chords, and even five note 9th chord as well, at the end, but in closed position. So, if it’s a tonic chord in C major, it would be C-E-G, in three notes, not in soprano, alto, tenor and bass layout, as harmony would be. But that’s another step. After this first course, then, Danielle would be ready to go to “Harmony for Organists Level 1”, I think.
A: Yes, and then after that, I think it will be time for her to play some sequences and some cadences and some modulations from my YouTube videos.
V: But before that, she would play the same sequences, but in closed position with one hand. Not with two hands, but basically internalize the chords “Basic Chord Workshop,” and that would help her to really get to know those chords, and get to know all the keys through those chords.
A: Yes, and of course, in addition to this, then she would master those courses, she would have to analyze some pieces of music that she is playing, or that she has played in the past. And then, she would get a notion how a piece is put together.
V: Right! So, basically, pick a favorite piece that you are playing, either right now, or in the past, or maybe in the future you are planning to do, and then look for those chords that you know. At first, maybe, simple chords—Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant—and their inversions—first inversion, second inversion—and once in a while, you will notice them. Not always, but sometimes the keys will be simple enough that you will start noticing those things.
A: Yes, and analyze the hymns that you are playing for church.
V: Oh, that would be even better.
A: And then you could start by doing simple improvisation on a hymn tune, on those chords that are given to you.
A: Add some figurations.
V: So, you don’t need to master an entire course about harmony before starting to improvise, right?
A: True! I think it should come together, side by side.
V: Yes. If we just think about it for a second, playing sequences is already sort of limited improvisation, right? Because you only have one chord with maybe a resolution, and then you have some rules, how to go about in ascending motion or descending motion, and then you improvise the rest of the sequence, too. This is basically the easiest way, and sort of applying those chords in practice.
A: That’s right.
V: And then, you can expand a little bit, right? Try to harmonize your hymns, but that’s a little bit later, probably.
A: Yes, I think so.
V: Or, if you want to do it earlier, you could play with two voices, not with four voices, adding the bass to the soprano line. Would that work?
A: Yes, I think so. It should work.
V: Okay, so I think we have laid out a plan for you for the next about three months or so, could be longer, but if you practice everyday diligently, after a few weeks, you will start noticing real decent progress, and that will keep you moving!
V: Thank you guys for listening, for sending those thoughtful questions. Please continue to do so, we love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice,
A: Miracles happen.
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