SOPP433: When I am doing the hymn improvisation, should I think in 3rds and 6ths or should I think harmonically?
Vidas: Hi guys! This is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 433 of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by Ariane. And she writes:
When I am doing the hymn improvisation, should I think in 3rds and 6ths or should I think harmonically?
V: Ariane is our Total Organist student, and obviously she practices Organ Hymn Improvisation Mastercourse Level 1. And at some point, she has to add a counterpoint to the hymn tune in the right hand or in the left hand. And usually, this is done in the sweet sounding intervals, thirds and sixths. Well, sometimes, fifths and octaves, but they have to be used sparingly because of danger of employing parallel perfect intervals like fifths and octaves, so therefore, thirds and sixths are most common obviously, in tonal music, for two parts. So, she asks about the concept itself. Ausra, do you think that it needs to be done harmonically, or thinking about intervals? First of all, explain what do I mean by harmonically?
A: You mean that you would need to think about chord functions. Like tonic, subdominant, dominant, and all those inversions, and you know, all the other various chords. And if we are talking about counterpoint, then definitely you need to think in the intervals.
V: Mm hm.
A: Because I cannot imagine how you would think in functional harmony, we are talking about counterpoint. Because counterpoint, guys, that’s polyphonic compositional technique. Before tonal harmony. So, making good intervals was a crucial point in the counterpoint. And if you would talk about chords, you would talk about later developed techniques. Then you know, music is small harmonic, and not polyphonic so much.
V: I think my opinion is also similar to yours. I would just expand a little bit. When you have just two voices, obviously, you will think intervals. When we have three or more voices, then the chords are produced, and you would think tonally and harmonically. But, if you analyze a piece of Sweelinck, bicinium, right, for two hands, for two voices, soprano and bass. I’m quite positive that when you see sweet sounding thirds and sixths, you could imagine some chords, you know, at least to some extent. Not always maybe, but sometimes you could think, oh, this is tonic, this is dominant. But not always, I think, especially for that period.
A: I think it comes a little bit later, let’s say in Bach, and even in the most complicated Bach fugues, you already can, you know, hear chords all the time, and think functionally.
V: But you know why this is the case…
A: But not always in Sweelinck.
V: Exactly. Because Sweelinck’s counterpoint is more vocal still. And when you sing melodies based on the Renaissance style, you don’t have a lot of leaps. I mean, when you have leaps, then you have to compensate those leaps with stepwise motion, in the Renaissance music. But in the Baroque music, let’s say, string playing was most prevalent. And the string technique allowed more arpeggios. And this arpeggio technique transferred to the keyboard writing as well. So what we see in Bach’s counterpoint, even if it’s created for two voices, you could see some chords, because the second voice jumps up and down, creating arpeggios, based on chords. So it depends, Ariane, obviously, on the style, what you are using, right. But at first I would recommend, and Ausra would join in with her recommendation, to think about intervals first.
A: Yes, especially if you have only two voices. Then you just have intervals.
V: Mm hm. Maybe later in the course, when you need to move in, let’s say, sixteenth notes. Not eighth notes, but sixteenth notes. So, four notes against one. You might have some arpeggios. And therefore, thinking in chords would be already possible. Or even, six notes against one, like sextuplets. That would be even faster movement. I guess this is more advanced stage.
V: For chordal thinking. Tonal and harmonic thinking. But at first, you have to be really comfortable with instantaneously deciding what kind of interval you want to play, and what kind of note would that be. You know, if you have to think about what is this interval, and there is some delay in your thinking between thinking and playing, then you are not fluent, right Ausra?
V: It has to be instantaneous. How to check this, Ausra, in the score, if you’re looking on the page of music, if you can’t instantaneously say what kind of interval is between two voices, then you need to work on that fluency more.
A: True. That’s how my theory professor at Eastern Michigan would say. If you are looking at the interval and you have to think what the interval is, it means you don’t know that interval. Because fluency is all that counts.
V: Yes. You might know it mentally, but you cannot apply it in practice.
A: That’s right. Because tempo, fast tempo is really important. Fast tempo of your thinking, I mean, not of your playing.
V: Mm hm. And we are developing, not compositional techniques here, when you can sit down at the table, think about it, write something correctly or incorrectly, play on the instrument, see if it sounds right, then adjust it – we are not doing this technique, right? We are trying to help you grow your instantaneous, spontaneous playing, right? Thinking while playing, that’s what we’re doing.
A: That’s right.
V: Creating while performing. Thank you guys. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: 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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