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jonadkins
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On a good day I would describe myself as a passable organist, but I am not good at improvising, which is a shame as it is necessary at our services. I did once have the privilege of attending a Briggs "workshop" at Gloucester Cathedral, at which he did his best to try and explain what he learned from Langlais, but he did rather leave our heads spinning with his technique when he, as he put it "knocked a couple of themes about" at the end. As another attender memorably put it: "Well, I was confused at the start, now I'm confused at a much more exalted level!"

 

Now, I fully realise the difficulty of trying to encapsulate in a post what would take years of training in France, but can I appeal to the breadth of experience and knowledge on this board and ask "What would be your one, overriding piece of advice about trying to improve improvisation?"

 

Thanks in anticipation,

jonadkins

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Get Nigel Allcoat's improvisation CDs and listen to how he does it. Then buy his book on how one can attempt to do similar. He is on here sometimes so you can find his contact details 'in the system'. Then as heva says - do some as often as you can.

 

AJJ

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Now, I fully realise the difficulty of trying to encapsulate in a post what would take years of training in France, but can I appeal to the breadth of experience and knowledge on this board and ask "What would be your one, overriding piece of advice about trying to improve improvisation?"

 

Thanks in anticipation,

jonadkins

 

I'll say what I've heard every person tell me in all of the improvisation classes/seminars/coaching I've been in:

 

"You must practice the techniques of improvisation with as much dedication as you have for the written literature"

 

In other words, there is no magic decoder ring - learn the techniques and PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

 

There are some folks who have a natural knack for extemporization, some who do not, but nearly all musicians can learn the skills acceptably if they practice them.

 

Cheers,

 

-J

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I'll say what I've heard every person tell me in all of the improvisation classes/seminars/coaching I've been in:

 

"You must practice the techniques of improvisation with as much dedication as you have for the written literature"

 

In other words, there is no magic decoder ring - learn the techniques and PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

 

There are some folks who have a natural knack for extemporization, some who do not, but nearly all musicians can learn the skills acceptably if they practice them.

 

Cheers,

 

-J

 

This is good advice. After all, I doubt that anyone would expect even a famous player to sight-read the music for an organ recital. It is also equally illogical to expect a player who has not previously worked long and hard at this very desirable skill, simply to sit at an organ and produce beautiful music at the drop of a hat, as it were.

 

I also strongly recommend that you track down some of the CDs which feature David Briggs improvising. One particular favourite is that which has his improvised soundtrack to the Cecil B. de Mille film King of Kings. This is, quite simply, stunning - I have never heard anything like it from any other British organist.

 

You could try his site:

 

http://www.david-briggs.org.uk/

 

However, I suspect that you might have to contact him via e-mail, since the improvisation CDs appear not to be listed. It may be that they have sold-out, or that he still has a few copies left. In some instances, these recordings were financed by David, who subsequently sold copies privately.

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There's an improvised symphony by Briggs buried away somewhere on the Pipedreams site. No doubt a search on his name would reveal it. Very impressive - at least I thought so. In fact if you type "improvisation" in the search box you could keep yourself amused for hours.

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Guest Psalm 78 v.67

Can anyone offer an explanation as to why the only times I can improvise passably are in the keys of d minor and g minor.. ?!

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Guest Patrick Coleman
Can anyone offer an explanation as to why the only times I can improvise passably are in the keys of d minor and g minor.. ?!

 

Isn't that one for your analyst? :rolleyes:

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Yes. The answer has already been given - practice!

 

I should undoubtedly keep quiet since I have never been able to improvise properly (though I think I have improved a bit over the years), but I was told long ago that the key to being able to improvise efficiently is:

 

( a ) to have full control of harmony in every single key (not just the common chords either, but more advanced harmony as well)

( b ) to be able to modulate from any one key to any other within a few chords.

 

Then the key is to have a theme on which to improvise and to be strict about phrase structure and form (to prevent aimless meandering). A full control of several different harmonic styles is also desirable.

 

I think the question of textures and figuration patterns are subservient to all of the above, though they do play an important part in bringing an improvisation to life. One of the most useful tips I have heard is to use the whole keyboard rather than keep to just the couple of octaves used by hymn tunes.

 

I have also heard directly opposite advice to the above, which is to start by throwing care (and considerations of proper harmony) to the wind and just letting yourself go, making any old sounds that take your fancy. There is a lot to be said for this as it encourages you to free your imagination. However, I am not sure that ultimately it actually teaches you anything other than how to make a noise.

 

Probably the most important skill of all is knowing when to stop!

 

Of course, everything written above is subject to correction by those who can improvise!

 

(Edited to include some extra points.)

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Pierre Pincemaille who is one of the today best improviser expresses his opinion as follows (clumsy translation from his website www.pierrepincemaille.com): "The Art of the Improvisation lies in a question: how to exploit a theme - either selected, or imposed? This question calls immediately another one: why, to the listening of an improvisation, one is too often condemned to hear at its beginning only one quotation of the theme (even roughly harmonized ); another with the peroration (of an air to say: You see! I have been able to use it! …) ; and between the two: nothing more ? Nothing more… except a laborious verbiage resulting in a deep trouble of the audience of which the author is not even conscious. It is thus necessary to know to develop the theme while taking advantage of all its resources: such melody contour, such rhythmic cell being used as ingredients.

That requires a control of the musical Forms, a very good registration by the knowledge of the resources of the instrument (and the complete exploitation of the various timbres), finally and especially, a very solid experience in musical Writing - Harmony, Contrepoint and Fugue: any improviser reaches the top of his art when he is able to carry out with the keyboard an as well organized work as that he could have written on paper. Still it is necessary for him to be able to write it…"

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
"What would be your one, overriding piece of advice about trying to improve improvisation?"

 

Thanks in anticipation,

jonadkins

 

1. Make the Improvisation have Form and in so doing, use less notes which are then performed into a simple coherently cogent piece.

1.5 But before that, believe that you can make even the simplest of offerings which you must practice daily.

1.6 Love sound and let that be an inspiration, for we all strive to make the most musical sounds possible.

 

All the best,

NJA

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...I was told long ago that the key to being able to improvise efficiently is:

 

( a ) to have full control of harmony in every single key (not just the common chords either, but more advanced harmony as well)...

I had been pondering this point myself over the last couple of days (I am a very poor improviser). I can hear ideas in my head but don't yet have the harmonisation skills to translate them into music on the fly.

 

What's a good way of acquiring this "full control of harmony in every single key"? Aside from theoretical study, is it taking time out to practice harmonising familar hymns and others tunes in a variety of keys by ear? Any other suggestions?

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
I had been pondering this point myself over the last couple of days (I am a very poor improviser). I can hear ideas in my head but don't yet have the harmonisation skills to translate them into music on the fly.

 

What's a good way of acquiring this "full control of harmony in every single key"? Aside from theoretical study, is it taking time out to practice harmonising familar hymns and others tunes in a variety of keys by ear? Any other suggestions?

 

Without plugging a publication too far - I do suggest that reading the 4 Improvisation articles in the Organists' Review (one in each copy last year) might answer some of your questions and allay a multitude of fears and concerns you have over this incredibly simple and mis-understood discipline.

 

By the way - I don't ever suggest playing by ear. It hurts after a time.

 

Best wishes,

Nigel

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What's a good way of acquiring this "full control of harmony in every single key"? Aside from theoretical study, is it taking time out to practice harmonising familar hymns and others tunes in a variety of keys by ear?

Since I've never really bothered to follow the advice I was given, my honest reply would have to be "Don't ask me!" - and I'm equally sure that Nigel's advice is worth 100 times anything I might say. However...

 

I'm quite sure that having to playing loads and loads of traditional hymns in sound four-part harmony is the main reason why, speaking generally, organists have historically been so much more adept at keyboard skills than players on any other instrument. So yes, the time spent assimilating hymns (as opposed to dubious arrangements of worship songs) will not be wasted. There aren't too many hymns in the more "distant" keys, but if you practise transposing them facility in these keys will come.

 

I suppose the basic requirement is to become perfectly at home with chords I, IV and V in every key, both major and minor and in root position, first inversion, second inversion and any mix of these positions at will. Once all this is second nature, include other chords, starting with chord II.

 

But I'm theorising. I really should go and follow my own advice. I might then one day end up being able to improvise!

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Guest Lee Blick
Can anyone offer an explanation as to why the only times I can improvise passably are in the keys of d minor and g minor.. ?!

 

When I improvise, I always seem to gravitate towards D major even if I start off in a distant key. It's annoying.

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Pierre Pincemaille who is one of the today best improviser expresses his opinion as follows (clumsy translation from his website www.pierrepincemaille.com): "The Art of the Improvisation lies in a question: how to exploit a theme - either selected, or imposed? This question calls immediately another one: why, to the listening of an improvisation, one is too often condemned to hear at its beginning only one quotation of the theme (even roughly harmonized ); another with the peroration (of an air to say: You see! I have been able to use it! …) ; and between the two: nothing more ? Nothing more… except a laborious verbiage resulting in a deep trouble of the audience of which the author is not even conscious. It is thus necessary to know to develop the theme while taking advantage of all its resources: such melody contour, such rhythmic cell being used as ingredients.

That requires a control of the musical Forms, a very good registration by the knowledge of the resources of the instrument (and the complete exploitation of the various timbres), finally and especially, a very solid experience in musical Writing - Harmony, Contrepoint and Fugue: any improviser reaches the top of his art when he is able to carry out with the keyboard an as well organized work as that he could have written on paper. Still it is necessary for him to be able to write it…"

 

Indeed. There are also a number of excellent recordings on CD which are commerciallly available - and which give a good idea of Pincemaille's superb skill and inspiration in this field. He can even sound like Cochereau, if he wishes....

 

I would further recommend obtaining a copy of the CD recorded at Nôtre-Dame by the late Yves Devernay (1937 - 1990) - very much in the Solstice/Cochereau mould; it contains a mixture of entrées, offertoires, communions, sorties and other 'incidental' service improvisations, all of which were recorded during various services at Nôtre-Dame, between 1985-1990, when he died.

 

YVES DEVERNAY (1937 - 1990)

IMPROVISATIONS À NÔTRE-DAME DE PARIS

 

Studio SM D2892

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Pierre Pincemaille who is one of the today best improviser expresses his opinion as follows (clumsy translation from his website www.pierrepincemaille.com): "The Art of the Improvisation lies in a question: how to exploit a theme - either selected, or imposed? This question calls immediately another one: why, to the listening of an improvisation, one is too often condemned to hear at its beginning only one quotation of the theme (even roughly harmonized ); another with the peroration (of an air to say: You see! I have been able to use it! …) ; and between the two: nothing more ? Nothing more… except a laborious verbiage resulting in a deep trouble of the audience of which the author is not even conscious. It is thus necessary to know to develop the theme while taking advantage of all its resources: such melody contour, such rhythmic cell being used as ingredients.

That requires a control of the musical Forms, a very good registration by the knowledge of the resources of the instrument (and the complete exploitation of the various timbres), finally and especially, a very solid experience in musical Writing - Harmony, Contrepoint and Fugue: any improviser reaches the top of his art when he is able to carry out with the keyboard an as well organized work as that he could have written on paper. Still it is necessary for him to be able to write it…"

 

Another important piece of advice is to make sure that you are given a decent theme. Latry's recent RAH impro was marred by one of the two themes being 'The British Grenadiers'. Last year Peter Wright inflicted 'London Bridge is falling down' on Hakim at Southwark. If improvisation is to be taken seriously, we just need to give executants a single gregorian theme; otherwise we are treating it as a musical party trick.

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT
Another important piece of advice is to make sure that you are given a decent theme. Latry's recent RAH impro was marred by one of the two themes being 'The British Grenadiers'. Last year Peter Wright inflicted 'London Bridge is falling down' on Hakim at Southwark. If improvisation is to be taken seriously, we just need to give executants a single gregorian theme; otherwise we are treating it as a musical party trick.

 

Oh boy! Well writ!

This is always a hot potato. Giver of themes should take due regard of previous repertoire to be played I think. The question arises whether or not the Improvisation tacked on the end of big programme is to be treated as a light-hearted Bis (please don't use the term Encore - it surely means "play it again, Sam". It comes from the same bucket of cries as Bravo. Screamed at a Diva, it suggests that she has had a sex change. Sorry to digress. It's one of those mornings.)

 

This dreary moment when an envelope is given to you and often has some trite theme enclosed, is most lowering. It also is made more lowering as no cheque can be found enclosed. That gets handed over in the vestry afterwards. If a major work is to be considered by the artist, so too should the themes be by the giver. Remember, these themes are musical detonators to the powder keg of the player's creativity. No damp fuses, please.

 

When confronted with such a scenario, I politely refuse and suggest that the best giver of the themes should be the organ or some beautiful piece of art or architecture that is housed in the building. That makes a far more apposite offering in my mind. Dressing up themes for titivation belong to the world of the Salon and the aprés concert, where they have a most distinct and proper place. However, I can see some tenuous link between London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral, so long as the decibels don't provide another verse or two about who knocked it down for a second time. Gregorian themes are mostly fine so long as there is the drift of incense in the air and the flickering of votive candles in a distant chapel. Smell and atmosphere works well for cooking and eating. So too, I suggest, for Improvisation. The themes also need to be known in some way. Having them printed in the programme is a bonus and easily done as there are many ways to reproduce them. Then the player does not have to discretely play them over a couple of times. To return to the cooking analogy, please don't treat the Improviser like the chef on Ready Steady Cook! when a mixed bag of ingredients is dumped on the table and the bewildered cook has to make a stunning dish. Give the best ingredients and your dish will be a sensation.

 

Happy creating!

 

Best wishes,

N

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I had been pondering this point myself over the last couple of days (I am a very poor improviser). I can hear ideas in my head but don't yet have the harmonisation skills to translate them into music on the fly.

 

What's a good way of acquiring this "full control of harmony in every single key"? Aside from theoretical study, is it taking time out to practice harmonising familar hymns and others tunes in a variety of keys by ear? Any other suggestions?

I worked with a jazz musician in New York City a couple of years ago who told me about a pianist he knew who could improvise in a contrapuntal manner in many different styles. Apparently he had acquired this facility in part by methodically practising Bach's 48 transposing each piece into every key with the result that his fingers could find their way from anywhere to anywhere harmonically using something close to Bach's counterpoint.

 

Alternatively you could adopt the method of the German baroque musicians (I'm a little hazy about the details of this) which combined figured bass realisation at the keyboard with counterpoint, a method that resulted in the average parish church organist being able to improvise 4-part fugues at the drop of a hat; the results may have been formulaic to some extent (apparently JSB would listen to such fugues with his sons "marking" (like Hans Sachs) each fugal device as it went past) but completely, if you will pardon the pun, serviceable.

 

Both the above methods will require some considerable level of application.

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Another important piece of advice is to make sure that you are given a decent theme. Latry's recent RAH impro was marred by one of the two themes being 'The British Grenadiers'. Last year Peter Wright inflicted 'London Bridge is falling down' on Hakim at Southwark. If improvisation is to be taken seriously, we just need to give executants a single gregorian theme; otherwise we are treating it as a musical party trick.

 

Absolutely.

 

I know a respected organist who does not value greatly the art of improvisation (other than getting a bishop form point A to point C). One of the arguments he once used was the opposite of this thought. He maintained that he thought that it was cheating for a recitalist (for example) to improvise on his own themes - he felt that this would all have been worked-out in advance. Aside from the fact that, as I previously wrote, no-one would expect a recitalist to sight-read major repertoire in a concert (which is roughly equivalent), the provision of themes by a third person is rarely satisfactory. It would be like someone approaching Beethoven and saying "Ach! Güten morgen, Herr Beethoven! Here - I have an idea for the last movement of your new symphony...." and promptly whistling some banal, meandering 'tune'. It is possible that Beethoven himself only arrived at the final theme after honing his inspiration carefully, until it was exactly the way he wanted it.

 

Certainly, there are occasions when a theme will spring to mind fully-formed.

 

I am not particularly proud of this, but at the Friends' Evensong last Sunday afternoon, I played the procession out to an improvised fugato on I'm Popeye the Sailor-man. This was largely because my boss had already played Whitlock's Chanty (from the Plymouth Suite) after Sung Mass, and subsequently played a movement from Handel's Water Music after Choral Matins. He then turned to me and said "Now what's my assistant going to play after Choral Evensong, now that I have nicked all the best bits?" Since we had both had lunch at The Kings Head, and consumed a bottle of Merlot (14% by volume), followed by two double whiskies each in the White Hart, all I could think of was the above, which I rather glibly (and not entirely seriously) announced. My boss responded with "Excellent! That is what I shall expect."

 

Oh joy, I thought.

 

So that is what they got.

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Absolutely.

 

I know a respected organist who does not value greatly the art of improvisation (other than getting a bishop form point A to point C). One of the arguments he once used was the opposite of this thought. He maintained that he thought that it was cheating for a recitalist (for example) to improvise on his own themes - he felt that this would all have been worked-out in advance. Aside from the fact that, as I previously wrote, no-one would expect a recitalist to sight-read major repertoire in a concert (which is roughly equivalent), the provision of themes by a third person is rarely satisfactory. It would be like someone approaching Beethoven and saying "Ach! Güten morgen, Herr Beethoven! Here - I have an idea for the last movement of your new symphony...." and promptly whistling some banal, meandering 'tune'. It is possible that Beethoven himself only arrived at the final theme after honing his inspiration carefully, until it was exactly the way he wanted it.

 

Certainly, there are occasions when a theme will spring to mind fully-formed.

 

I am not particularly proud of this, but at the Friends' Evensong last Sunday afternoon, I played the procession out to an improvised fugato on I'm Popeye the Sailor-man. This was largely because my boss had already played Whitlock's Chanty (from the Plymouth Suite) after Sung Mass, and subsequently played a movement from Handel's Water Music after Choral Matins. He then turned to me and said "Now what's my assistant going to play after Choral Evensong, now that I have nicked all the best bits?" Since we had both had lunch at The Kings Head, and consumed a bottle of Merlot (14% by volume), followed by two double whiskies each in the White Hart, all I could think of was the above, which I rather glibly (and not entirely seriously) announced. My boss responded with "Excellent! That is what I shall expect."

 

Oh joy, I thought.

 

So that is what they got.

 

Well done pcnd! Entirely appropriate for this service and decidedly better than what Latry and Hakim had to contend with.

I am sure the musical aware members of the congregation enjoyed this latest Tucker-Merlot production!

 

Cheers

 

Alistair

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Well done pcnd! Entirely appropriate for this service and decidedly better than what Latry and Hakim had to contend with.

I am sure the musical aware members of the congregation enjoyed this latest Tucker-Merlot production!

 

Cheers

 

Alistair

 

Thank you - I certainly enjoyed the Merlot. I do wonder whether any of the 'Friends' noticed that 1) my boss was not entirely vertical whilst he was conducting, or 2) I played more quietly than usual. My head....!! :blink:

 

The choir barbecue was also a little interesting afterwards....

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Guest Lee Blick
Oh boy! Well writ!

This is always a hot potato. Giver of themes should take due regard of previous repertoire to be played I think. The question arises whether or not the Improvisation tacked on the end of big programme is to be treated as a light-hearted Bis (please don't use the term Encore - it surely means "play it again, Sam". It comes from the same bucket of cries as Bravo. Screamed at a Diva, it suggests that she has had a sex change. Sorry to digress. It's one of those mornings.)

 

This dreary moment when an envelope is given to you and often has some trite theme enclosed, is most lowering. It also is made more lowering as no cheque can be found enclosed. That gets handed over in the vestry afterwards. If a major work is to be considered by the artist, so too should the themes be by the giver. Remember, these themes are musical detonators to the powder keg of the player's creativity. No damp fuses, please.

 

When confronted with such a scenario, I politely refuse and suggest that the best giver of the themes should be the organ or some beautiful piece of art or architecture that is housed in the building. That makes a far more apposite offering in my mind. Dressing up themes for titivation belong to the world of the Salon and the aprés concert, where they have a most distinct and proper place. However, I can see some tenuous link between London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral, so long as the decibels don't provide another verse or two about who knocked it down for a second time. Gregorian themes are mostly fine so long as there is the drift of incense in the air and the flickering of votive candles in a distant chapel. Smell and atmosphere works well for cooking and eating. So too, I suggest, for Improvisation. The themes also need to be known in some way. Having them printed in the programme is a bonus and easily done as there are many ways to reproduce them. Then the player does not have to discretely play them over a couple of times. To return to the cooking analogy, please don't treat the Improviser like the chef on Ready Steady Cook! when a mixed bag of ingredients is dumped on the table and the bewildered cook has to make a stunning dish. Give the best ingredients and your dish will be a sensation.

 

Happy creating!

 

Best wishes,

N

 

I would agree. There are those who should do it in a recital, and those who shouldn't. Within the context of the liturgy, spontaneous improvisation to link one element of the worship to another is an art in itself. Those who can do it seamlessly and sensitively can really heighten the worship, in my opinion.

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