Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 300, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. And this question was sent by John. And it doesn't start like a question, but rather like feedback or response to another question that we discussed earlier about improvising alternate hymn harmonizations. So John writes:
There are a number of books of varied accompaniment [published by companies such as Kevin Mayhew and Novello], but these are for hymns sung by English-speaking congregations. Eric Thiman composed two books of excellent accompaniments [published by Novello and OUP, still available]. A very effective way of beginning a final verse is by playing a flattened seventh on the pedals. Other devices include: introduce a dominant pedal towards the end of the hymn, changing major chords into minor [if possible], playing the alto line above the treble, placing the treble line in the tenor [fauxbourdon - this is quite difficult and needs to be written out in full]. My advice would be (i) get hold of Thiman's books to see the techniques he uses and (ii) if you require a varied accompaniment for a choral, write in out if you are a beginner. Do not try improvising harmonisations until you are proficient. There is no fast-track route I'm afraid. I have just seen a single copy of C H Lloyd's "Free Accompaniment of Unison Hymn Singing" available on Amazon—this is a very rare book—brilliant accompaniments written by a master. Good luck! John
V: That’s a lot of advice, right Ausra?
V: And quite solid advice, I would say. John knows what he is talking about.
A: But I think he took them all from that book that he advertises.
V: Could be. We could discuss a little bit, what he is suggesting. For example, at the beginning of the final verse, you should play a flattened seventh on the pedals. Let’s imagine, C Major, flattened Major would be B flat, right? But in C Major there are no accidentals, so how would this sound?
A: I don’t think it would work for every hymn, what he is talking about.
A: That dominant pedal point toward the end of the hymn, that nothing special. That’s very obvious too, in general,,,
A: to have a pedal point.
V: What about changing major chords into minor?
A: That’s a possibility, yes. That’s if you would look at the collections such as, Cesar Franck’s ‘The Organist’. You would find it in each of the piece that he switches very often from major to minor. Because it’s a very easy thing to do, and you don’t have to do a modulation in order to do that. So that’s a very common tool.
V: It is just a juxtaposition of two modes. And you mention Franck; yes he takes the same theme, right?
A: That’s right. Yes
V: Only rewrites it in minor.
V: With no accidentals. So if the theme of the hymn is in C Major, you could just add three flats.
A: That’s right.
V: In many cases it would work.
A: But not always, as John mentioned too.
V: I imagine it would not work very well if we use harmonic minor; if this augmented second between the sixth and the seventh scale degrees would be, somewhat uncomfortable to listen and to sing.
A: And again, because it’s hymn singing, you need to look at the text, because of that particular stanza where you would like to switch from major to minor or otherwise, because it might not suit the text very well.
V: Uh-huh. So if the language talks about,,,
A: Joy, and you will switch suddenly to a minor, I don’t think it would be appropriate.
V: Mmm-hmm. And vice-versa. And you can add major in the minor hymn.
A: I know. For example during the Lent, probably wouldn’t be good.
V: Right. I find it easier to add major keys in the contemplative hymn, let’s say for communion, and play it softly, just like a meditation. Mmm-hmm. What about playing alto line above the treble?
A: Well we talked many times about this but actually he suggested to play tenor voice above the other voices.
A: Because for alto voice, I don’t know, about this particular case that John talks, but in general while teaching harmony for many, many years, what I noticed that alto voice is the most,,,
A: Stationary. And it’s the most stationary voice and I don’t think it would sound so well in the soprano, in the treble range.
V: Unless, we could add eighth notes.
A: Yes. That’s true.
V: Or interesting rhythms.
A: Yes. Because in general when I look at the four voice harmonization, I can tell if it’s good or not just from looking at the alto voice. If it’s stationary, I know that it’s no good.
V: No good, or good?
A: It’s good.
A: If it jumps a lot then I’m looking for treble, and for mistakes.
V: I see. If it jumps a lot your student is looking for treble.
A: That’s right. Because, sort of like tenor voice, it’s like an inversion of soprano voice. So you can easily switch these two voices. But alto stays stationary...
V: I see.
A: ...most of the time.
V: Right. What about the advice of writing down varied accompaniment?
A: I think that’s a good idea, but I wouldn’t do that for myself, because I wouldn’t have time to do it.
V: That’s probably for beginners more.
A: Yes, but imagine if you are playing a church service, well you have to play what, at least four or five hymns for each service, and sometimes even more. So if you would start writing down the accompaniment for each of those hymns, I think it wouldn’t be enough for you, hours in the day.
V: What if this is a full-time job and you are immersed in this position and have forty hours to do your preparation?
A: Well, maybe do it once or twice, but in the future I would rather spend that time practicing, actual thing than writing it down.
V: And then you will gain the skill of doing it on the spot.
A: That’s right.
A: Like with my ninth-graders, in music theory course, we start playing sequences on the piano. And some of them actually write them down. And I’m actually really not supporting these things, because I’m telling them in order spending all that time while writing, and memorizing it, rather just sit and play it.
V: So, although John writes, there is no fast-track route, but I would think that the idea of ‘not trying improvising harmonizations until you are proficient’ needs to be somewhat understood not literally, right? How can you get proficient if you are not improvising hymn harmonizations? You have to improvise them, and make mistakes, and then get frustrated and get more mistakes. But it’s a process which needs to be done, I think.
A: Yes. And I think sometimes you have to take a risk. That’s no different approach, how people learn for example, how to swim.
A: Somebody just tells that, drop somebody into the middle of the lake, and you either swim, or you will...
A: Sink. I’m not telling that you have to sink and do these extreme things, but I think sometimes it’s worth risking. You cannot write everything down.
V: Mmm-hmm. Right. And those mistakes will teach you many things, too.
V: You learn more from mistakes than from good playing, I guess. Thank you guys. I hope this was useful to you. Ausra is also joining me, right?
V: In hoping that you can apply those tips in your practice. And 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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