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Making up for lost time


Martin Cooke
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I am sure that board members will come in all shapes and sizes in terms of what I'm about to mention - I want to develop my ability and fluency in the art of traditional improvisation and also in re-harmonization for occasional last verses. I'm a pretty experienced player and can fill in pretty competently and can also work up a last verse through forward planning but can't do much with these "on the spot" as it were. I'm not quite clear what it is I need to work on. I presume I need a much more advanced understanding of harmony - should I be looking to study this on paper or at the keyboard? I must have missed out on doing this in any depth (nothing much post A-level) but it would be good to catch up. I hear people doing things that sound exquisite - what is it that they have studied and what resources do I need? Do I actually need a teacher for this, perhaps?

Many thanks in anticipation of some thoughts on this.

Martin.

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For what it's worth I am going back to have a series of "refresher" lessons after 20 years without formal teaching. Not for improvisation or harmonisation but simply to find out what bad habits I've fallen into, and how to get out of them as well as finishing off (or polishing up) a few pieces I've been working on. I would say that a teacher is always worth gettng. Good luck and maybe we can exchange progress notes!

 

Peter

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Oh my goodness, what a broad topic. Since I cannot improvise I am probably the least qualified to pontificate, but in my youth I did have the honour of daily watching someone who was a very skilled improviser – and by that I mean someone whose improvisations were always proper miniature compositions, often of a quite contrapuntal nature, in a completely coherent harmonic idiom (whichever one he chose to use out of his impressive armoury of different harmonic styles).

 

From this I learnt two important things: (1) there was no way I was ever going to develop that sort of skill and (2) anyone who just doodles away without regard for proper control of form, texture, harmony and counterpoint isn't really a proper improviser.

 

I am quite sure that they key is practice, practice, practice, both on paper and at the keyboard.

 

Improvising, whether complete pieces or just last verse harmonies is essentially composition and I do think that to do it justice one needs to have studied the subject. A sound understanding of harmony is the key (if you'll pardon the pun). For me there is nothing more excruciating having to listen to lame hymn harmonisations with no harmonic logic and discords that do not resolve.* For improvisation I was told that the most important things were to be comfortable playing in any key whatsoever and to be able to modulate (properly, it goes without saying) from any one key to any other within seconds. In other words you need to be able to twist and turn the music wherever you need it to go. Obviously this sort of thing needs to be practised at the keyboard, but I think control on paper is also necessary. Certainly I find it necessary to visualise a score, especially if I am attempting imitative counterpoint and I find that it is when I lose track of the mental score that I tend to come adrift.

 

Then again, invention at the keyboard can be hamstrung by theoretical conventions. I believe at least one noted improviser advises that the best way for the beginner to free the imagination is simply to 'let go' and not worry about the sound that will emerge. I can certainly see the value of this.

 

In a nutshell, I would say that to be a good improviser, you simply cannot have too many musical skills.

 

* On the other hand, others might counter that there is nothing more excruciating than my own attempts, which, from the minimal feedback I get, I suspect may be a tad too disorientating for the average congregation.

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As with most musical skills, it's about just doing it, over and over, developing those skills. I can do neither particularly well, though I must say I find improvising easier on some instruments and not others - acoustics and beauty of tone help.

 

Martin, if you want some guidance, then down in our neck of the woods I would recommend having a chat with David Coram; without a doubt a very fine improviser - one of the best I've ever heard.

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As with most musical skills, it's about just doing it, over and over, developing those skills. I can do neither particularly well, though I must say I find improvising easier on some instruments and not others - acoustics and beauty of tone help.

 

Martin, if you want some guidance, then down in our neck of the woods I would recommend having a chat with David Coram; without a doubt a very fine improviser - one of the best I've ever heard.

 

....and search for improvisers, who know how to teach improvisation!

There are Impro didactics, but one should know... See the Jazz: The Berklee System of teaching and practising allows to shorten the development of jazz history from several decades down to some years of study. Listening and trying to copy is always right, but it may take as long as music history itself.

Improvisation is a craft - it can be taught and learned. Talent is fine and helps reaching the top.

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I am sure that board members will come in all shapes and sizes in terms of what I'm about to mention - I want to develop my ability and fluency in the art of traditional improvisation and also in re-harmonization for occasional last verses. I'm a pretty experienced player and can fill in pretty competently and can also work up a last verse through forward planning but can't do much with these "on the spot" as it were. I'm not quite clear what it is I need to work on. I presume I need a much more advanced understanding of harmony - should I be looking to study this on paper or at the keyboard? I must have missed out on doing this in any depth (nothing much post A-level) but it would be good to catch up. I hear people doing things that sound exquisite - what is it that they have studied and what resources do I need? Do I actually need a teacher for this, perhaps?

Many thanks in anticipation of some thoughts on this.

Martin.

 

 

==================================

 

 

People tell me that I am able to improvise, but I have always had doubts about my abilities, simply because it isn't as "thought out" logically as perhaps it needs to be.

 

However, when it comes to harmony, the obvious study would be composers like Reger, Howells (Aaaaaaaaaagh! :rolleyes: ), Schubert and Grieg. I also keep some of the American light-music composers in mind; especially Gershwin, Kander and Carmichael.....all great harmonists. Another very useful study, is to play a single note repeatedly, then see what harmonies can be used to accompany it.....you'll be astonished, as I was. It's the organist's equivalent of the "One note Samba" I suppose.

 

MM

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I wouldn't say I am a skilled improviser by any means but I am delighted to say that I am perfectly comfortably twiddling away to fill time. This is a skill often demanded by the vicar, and its usefulness should not be underestimated! I also like practising playing with harmonic progressions, and in the days we had two communion hymns would take great joy at linking them seamlessly (in theory, at least) together. Now the vicar has decided he only wants one communion hymn so I instead take the hymn and link to and improvise on the theme of the anthem which follows. Then at least I know I have something to aim for.

 

However, these things are very much twiddling away to no great effect, and are certainly not mini-compositions that would be worth repeating. To me the idea that something such as the Symphonie-Passion could have been improvised is just scary (probably almost as scary as the thought of having to transcribe it all!).

 

In terms of last verse reharmonisations, I have to confess that I use books most of the time. I (but probably not others) would recommend getting something like the Rawsthorne collection which isn't particularly daring (all pretty much sight-readable, some are more interesting and successful than others) which will give you some ideas as to what might work. I use these ideas to either improve whats in the book or make up my own sometimes. If you want something more adventurous, then the RSCM collection with a blue cover has some crackers in (Helmsley, Llanfair and Miles Lane spring to mind) but they do need practice as they somewhat trickier.

 

I think as others say these things get better with practice and trying them out.

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I think if you want to learn how to re-harmonise on the spot, the best first step is to learn how to harmonise a hymn tune. Get a melody-only hymn book and practice harmonising the tunes in 4 part harmony. You can start simply - most simple hymn tunes can be harmonised with 3 chords: tonic, dominant and sub-dominant. Look out for the cadences and work back from those. Gain fluencey. Slowly you can build up your armoury of more advanced harmonies with inversions, suspensions, modulations, secondary 7ths, etc - you can learn these by deconstructing what's going on in harmonic progressions you particularly like (not just in hymns but also in real music - I find Bach's Gravemente section of his Piece d'orgue is a goldmine), text books and trying the ideas out in different keys.

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Hi Martin,

 

I thought I would relate a charming incident I came across in France whilst on holiday in '94 at the Bastide town of Lauzerte.

 

2 children were being given a rather unusual organ lesson, they both had violin cases with them and I got the impression that this was part of a 'summer music school'. The boy was no more that ten years old and the girl younger, the boy was quite confident and obviously enjoying the fact that visitors were sat listening, the girl less so. They played a couple of simple manual pieces, the boy managing final pedal notes. Next they had to stand up on top of either side of the organ stool and sing hymns whilst the teacher accompanied!

 

However, the bulk of this lesson which lasted about 45 minutes was spent improvising; solo, both childen together, and duets with the teacher.

Beginning with 1 chord and pentatonic melody, progressing to 2 chords and more free-flowing melody. Again the young boy was confident, had a good grasp of what he was doing and enjoyed himself.

 

I try to attend at least one mass with organ at a French Cathedral during our annual visits and have heard many well-structured, stylistic and convincing improvisations. No directionless quasi-modal meandering, no torrents of un-related chords, no strings of added major 7ths and 2nds, I could go on...

 

I feel that here in the UK we have something to learn from this, that improvisation skills are an integral part of an organist's training that need to be taught and developed from the onset. This appears to be the case in France, with obvious results for the mature musicians produced.

 

DT

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I wouldn't say I am a skilled improviser by any means but I am delighted to say that I am perfectly comfortably twiddling away to fill time.

 

That's exactly the bracket I'd put myself in. Anglican waffling...

 

However, a decent improviser makes the improvisation sound like a composed piece. I cited David Coram earlier - I've had conversations with other respectable organists whilst he's been improvising, along the lines of "which Bach trio is this?" "E flat?" "Nah, I can play that, it's not that - C major?" etc... To hear someone do it well is quite stunning. Most organists you can tell when they're improvising, a rare few, you can't.

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I remember bringing up this topic before: but it's always a fascinating subject. I once went to what was billed as a "workshop" on Improvisation with David Briggs, when he was still at Gloucester, but what was really an illustrated lecture. I think it was an RSCM thing. Of course, with someone as ludicrously talented as Briggs, it was always going to be interesting, but we all went home feeling a little inadequate!

 

Anyway, a lot of what he said boiled down to what has already been said here: or to quote the former Titulaire of Ste. Clotilde: "Improvisation cannot just be improvised! ie it is a process of spontaneous composition, rather than playing and hoping. David said that Langlais got him to do a short paraphrase (I forget which plainsong theme it was), only to have the unnerving experience of the Maitre playing back EXACTLY what he had just done!

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That's exactly the bracket I'd put myself in. Anglican waffling...

 

However, a decent improviser makes the improvisation sound like a composed piece. I cited David Coram earlier - I've had conversations with other respectable organists whilst he's been improvising, along the lines of "which Bach trio is this?" "E flat?" "Nah, I can play that, it's not that - C major?" etc... To hear someone do it well is quite stunning. Most organists you can tell when they're improvising, a rare few, you can't.

 

 

---------------------------------------------------

 

 

I come back to the astonishingly diverse talents of Hector Olivera once again.

 

The French are justifiably famous as improvisers, but in the follwoing link, you can hear something which competes with the best from the nible fingers and feet of an Argentinian organist.

 

pipedreams.publicradio.org/listings/2009/0915

 

Ist hour of programme......improvisation starts at 38m 55 secs

 

I think Messrs.Dukas and Durufle would have smiling from above when this was played.

 

MM

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Anyway, a lot of what he said boiled down to what has already been said here: or to quote the former Titulaire of Ste. Clotilde: "Improvisation cannot just be improvised! ie it is a process of spontaneous composition, rather than playing and hoping. David said that Langlais got him to do a short paraphrase (I forget which plainsong theme it was), only to have the unnerving experience of the Maitre playing back EXACTLY what he had just done!

 

A more mature organist than I, who studied with Anton Heiller, tells the story of asking for a lesson focussing on improvisation as the required piece had not been prepared for the lesson. Heiller asked for a trio in ternary form. The storyteller said that all went okay until it was time for the restatement of the 'A' section - and he couldn't remember well enough what he had done. Heiller started calling out the note to play from the church floor! That sort of aural memory must help so much!

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