John writes that his dream in organ playing is to advance sufficiently to be able to perform well J.S. Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, and to develop his improvisation skills in the Baroque style. However, obstacles such as maximizing the efficiency of the practice time, finding an organ that's available to practice on, and the difficulty in improvising polyphonic music stops him from reaching his full potential.
What a wonderful dream John has! It's not an ordinary simple dream. A person who wants to learn to improvise in the ancient styles clearly has a vision of becoming a complete musician. Obviously this involves not only creating your own music on the instrument but also in writing, too (much like Bach and other old masters did).
I'm sure quite a few of my subscribers would love to be able to improvise like Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Bohm, Scheidt, Sweelinck and others. And that's the problem. I can feel your pain when you try to improvise polyphonic and contrapuntal music and fail.
Perhaps you try to improvise chorale variations with imitations, or an ornamented chorale with fugal entrances before the chorale tune enters in the soprano. Or maybe you try your hand at creating 3 or 4 part fugues (with answer, countersubject, episodes, subject entries in other keys, and even strettos at the end).
You stop and try again and again. You know what you want to do, but your technical, practical, or theoretical limitations won't let you do it. It's very frustrating to take a hymn tune or a polyphonic subject, figure out a key, a meter, tonal plan, form, and attempt to improvise only to discover that your mind is not moving fast enough.
Your fingers might be able to play what you want but you can't seem to give the orders to them fast enough. The result of this is stumbling, irregular pulse, stalling musical ideas, and general feeling of disappointment.
If your failures and frustrations continue and you can't feel any progress, you might even think that you are not creative enough, that you are not disciplined enough, and that this is not for you although deep inside you always felt for many years the fascination with and the desire to learn the ancient and mysterious craft of polyphonic improvisation.
The first step is to start looking at the music of old Baroque masters with new eyes. What I mean by that is that the majority of written down pieces that survived the passage of time was created and published or copied with the intent that they would serve as models for composition and improvisation of the students of the composer and perhaps even for the future generations of organists as well.
So what you do in order to start learning the craft of improvisation in the polyphonic Baroque style is to take a piece of music that you love, that you want to imitate and begin to take it apart. Try to understand it's form, tonal plan, imitative techniques etc. In other words, try to look at it as the old master who created it three or more hundred years ago.
Then take a pencil and a sheet of music paper and begin to compose a similar piece or an exercise of your own based on its techniques. You can use different themes, different chorale or hymn tunes but try to keep the same form, tonal plan, the same order of thematic entrances, ornamentation procedure, and similar rhythms and intervals in the counterpoint.
The key here is writing what you want to play. That's how old master's did. They also took apart their models and wrote down similar compositions and exercises of their own.
Don't stop with just one or a few pieces you create on the same model. It's best if you insist upon just one model for a while and create tenths and even hundreds of its imitations. Then you start to feel that this technique becomes your own and you can use it in any key and in any situation. Basically, you will become a master of this technique.
At first you will write very slowly and make many mistakes but later the process will be faster and faster. At the end you will almost write as fast as you think of those ideas, without any hesitations.
I know that all of this might sound overwhelming and it is. Baroque style is vast and implies many different genres and techniques that masters used in the old times.
For starters become a master of just one or a few techniques. Persist until you achieve certain fluency with them. Assimilate them to the degree that you can write them in any key you want, major or minor.
At the same time you will start to feel the urge to apply them in playing spontaneously on the instrument. And this will no longer feel like the old intimidating task because by now you will have fully mastered it and your brain will function fast enough to give the orders to your fingers before they depress the keys.
Most of all, feel that the result is not the goal. Process is the goal. It will keep you motivated to stay focused.
Part I: Allegro moderato e serioso from Organ Sonata No. 1, in F minor, Op. 65 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) who was a German composer, pianist, organist, and conductor of the early Romantic Period.
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