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Simon Walker

Improvisation

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I don't think there has been much discussion of improvisation on this board... I've seen varying standards of improvisation around in Britain, but no one seems to teach it. I do it every week, and in the last couple of years I've improved a lot - now I even start to get nice complements about it! But I`d like to be a lot more confident and adventurous.

 

How do I improve? I often listen to people, youtube helps, and various colleagues in the past have given me lots of inspiration, but I feel I need to actually knuckle down and do some work to improve further. Do any of you know any study books to recommend? I have a pretty good knowledge of keyboard harmony, but lack enough creative drive I feel. I'd certainly like to hear from any enthusiastic improvisers on this forum. Thanks in advance for your contribution!

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I don't think there has been much discussion of improvisation on this board... I've seen varying standards of improvisation around in Britain, but no one seems to teach it. I do it every week, and in the last couple of years I've improved a lot - now I even start to get nice complements about it! But I`d like to be a lot more confident and adventurous.

 

How do I improve? I often listen to people, youtube helps, and various colleagues in the past have given me lots of inspiration, but I feel I need to actually knuckle down and do some work to improve further. Do any of you know any study books to recommend? I have a pretty good knowledge of keyboard harmony, but lack enough creative drive I feel. I'd certainly like to hear from any enthusiastic improvisers on this forum. Thanks in advance for your contribution!

 

 

Nigel Allcoat's method - superb! - I use his suggestions all the time - there is/was a booklet available plus CD and also some dedicated improvisation CDs. He comes on here sometimes so maybe can add to this.

 

A

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We are very fortunate, here at the Oratory in Birmingham, to have John Pryer as our 'titulaire'. The choir sing a motet at the offertory and while the incensing is taking place he often improvises on it - often brilliantly.

 

To improvise well I think you need several important musical attributes. Firstly a vivid imagination borne of a considerable knowledge of repertoire. Secondly, a thorough harmonic knowledge and, thirdly, a real command, in the broadest sense, of the instrument you are playing and of your own technique.

 

I suppose the rest is just practice and confidence - dead easy really - or not!!!!

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I suppose the rest is just practice and confidence - dead easy really - or not!!!!

 

....but let that not put anyone off.

 

A

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...I suppose the rest is just practice and confidence - dead easy really - or not!!!!

Quite so, as it appears. Dupré is reported to have, in his formative years, practiced literature for two hours a day, and improvisation for another six. Which, in due course, brought about such wonderful works as the Symphonie-Passion.

 

There is Widor's famous saying about his student: "That was improvised? It sounded as if it was composed." I am not sure that this was meant as a compliment exclusively, but rather as stating a fact. When listening to the Motette recording of Dupré's improvisations at Cologne from the Sixties, I am under the impression that he, quite systematically, counts beats and bars, grouping them by two, four, eight etc. while going along, thus creating a highly ordered form, even up to the point of sounding academic. This impression is confirmed by his

.

 

I suppose that his grasp at musical form in improvisation was something to be practiced very hard, over and over again. Not that this was everyone's cup of tea nowadays. Most improvisers, as much as many audiences, like a more rhapsodic approach. As a listener, however, I for one prefer to know, or at least be able to take a good guess, where I was in a piece of music, be it improvised or not.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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There is something about this that reminds me of a one-time BBC TV programme, Face the Music. From certain angles the organist looks like the person (can't remember his name) who played the dummy keyboard for Joyce Grenfell and others to guess what he was playing. There's nothing wrong with my PC but I can't hear a note from the You Tube clip.

 

B

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There is something about this that reminds me of a one-time BBC TV programme, Face the Music. From certain angles the organist looks like the person (can't remember his name) who played the dummy keyboard for Joyce Grenfell and others to guess what he was playing. There's nothing wrong with my PC but I can't hear a note from the You Tube clip.

It starts mute, the playing comes in only after c. 40 seconds. Strange as that may be.

 

Best,

Friedrich

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From certain angles the organist looks like the person (can't remember his name) who played the dummy keyboard for Joyce Grenfell and others to guess what he was playing.

 

I think he was called Joseph Cooper

 

DT

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I don't think there has been much discussion of improvisation on this board... I've seen varying standards of improvisation around in Britain, but no one seems to teach it. I do it every week, and in the last couple of years I've improved a lot - now I even start to get nice complements about it! But I`d like to be a lot more confident and adventurous.

 

How do I improve? I often listen to people, youtube helps, and various colleagues in the past have given me lots of inspiration, but I feel I need to actually knuckle down and do some work to improve further. Do any of you know any study books to recommend? I have a pretty good knowledge of keyboard harmony, but lack enough creative drive I feel. I'd certainly like to hear from any enthusiastic improvisers on this forum. Thanks in advance for your contribution!

 

 

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

 

 

I am known to improvise things, but I'm not sure I could describe how I go about it. I've never read a single thing about improvising, and most of those to which I have listened in the UK sound disturbingly like Herbert Howells on a bad day.

 

I tend to use a certain free modaility and the savour of all improvisation; pentatonic harmony. What I tend to do is either select a theme from plainsong, or a strong motif which keeps me on track. From thereon, I can play around with the theme by inverting it, playing it in quasi-canon rather than strict canon; sometimes altering the rhythm, sometimes in augmentation or diminution....all the usual tricks I suppose.

 

What I tend to find on a good day, is that the accompaniment to a theme, or the harmonisation of it, throw up new motifs of their own, which can be developed or not, as the case may be.

 

My problem is one of mood swings. If I have a good day and feel inspired, I can feel happy with the result. More often than not, I just discount the results as total rubbish.

 

Interestingly, I have two improvisations on tape; one of which is almost Hindemith-like; consisting of four movements of a complete Suite. The first and second movements are quite acceptable, and perhaps worthy of being used as the basis for a composition, if only I had the time.

 

The second one is out of character, for it uses whole-tone harmony, it is quite wild and lasts over 20 minutes. Again, there are some good ideras lurking around in it, but I wouldn't claim that it is worthy of being transcribed by a would-be Durufle.

 

Curiously, I can improvise very good "Early English" voluntaries of the John Stanley/Walond type, and by some miracle, I seem to get everything right structurally, but that's probably quite easy.

 

I remain in awe of those formal improvisation by Michel Chapuis and Balint Korasi, and especially some of those I posted links to in the Hungarian thread. I find some of the latter better than almost anything I've ever heard, and they came as a pleasant surprise when I came across them.

 

Finally, the music of Tournemire is a gold-mine of improvisational ideas and motifs. The five "Improvisations" transcribed by Durufle are remarkable enough, but in "L'orgue mystique" there are a wealth of very original ideas.

 

MM

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I've seen varying standards of improvisation around in Britain, but no one seems to teach it.

 

I have been teaching players for a few decades now, some in this country and quite a lot in Europe by invitation - as well as musical institutions in the UK. I have enjoyed the successes of students as prize-winners at St Albans, Chartres, Montbrison and the European in Knokke, - British players all, except for one 'country cousin' who was Australian! Improvisation is certainly very alive and kicking over here!

 

If anything, I would say that most British players are extremely reticent in improvising even though I have constantly sometimes found them to be the better musicians with remarkable techniques. Improvising for me is not about 'showing off' but about communicating to those who listen in the most succinct and apposite way. This of course can mean 'excitement' at times but for most times small-scale pertinent movements are the most rewarding. Rambling suggests no Form which to some intents and purposes a listener needs to enjoy in a spontaneous piece as there is a comprehensible structure to the work that they can appreciate for some reason. A Chef doesn't dump anything and everything on a plate at one go. Colour, flavour and 'just enough' is a good basis from which to work. Good basic ingredients, well presented and not too fussy in their preparation is a good start I suggest.

There are parallels with impromptu speaking too and the delivery of a great orator. A great actor can make make even margarine sound a work of art. Performance coupled with profundity frequently can be a winning combination - but after considerable and constant work. Improvisation on any instrument is possible and most necessary in my mind. It's all to do with the attraction of sound. As a vehicle for our communication we need to be able to produce the very best sounds from instruments. Improvising allows us to experiment without the distraction of the written score. That gets in the way of our ears. I aim to build on the reasons why a particular person was drawn to play or use a particular instrument in the first place. On the keyboard, showing them where 'Middle C' is on the piano and then show how it is printed and played with a thumb; that is not my whole idea of teaching a youngster how to play the piano when the reason they are sitting at the instrument was to make sound - and lots of it. We encourage babies to chatter. I have never encountered a parent who only wishes their child to communicate only if they can see and understand the written word. It is communicating - even if the grammar is incorrect or the words the wrong way round. At least it is communicating and imperfections (as in musical improvisation too) that get simply ironed out as time passes. Even a player at 50 years must take simple easy steps and stages when learning another language even if they are fluent in their native one. The same with improvisation. Just because they can play much repertoire does not mean that their ability is the same in the creation of music. Simple phrases that mean something are the basis of producing sentences. Sentences then join to form paragraphs, and so on. It is all gently structured and painless. Not everyone will make a great orator, but we all can communicate musically in some way with daily or constant practice. Simplicity is the watch-word for many people.

 

Just thought I ought to mention it as it saddened me a little to read your quote as many work rather hard in the land to produce remarkable results.

Best wishes,

Nigel

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Thanks Nigel, and all the others who have contributed. I'll definitely try and obtain the Hancock book, because I love his style of improv. Otherwise I shall just keep plodding on with it. I try to improvise for a bit every time I go and practice. I've got the time at the moment!

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I think he was called Joseph Cooper

 

DT

 

He was, indeed, called Joseph Cooper - and a fascinating man he was too. He had been a boy at Clifton College, winning a scholarship, and then organ scholar at Keble where he was friendly with Ted Heath, then organ scholar at Balliol. After University in Oxford he became organist of St. John's, Smith Square. The 2nd world war interrupted his pianistic studies but, leaving the army with the rank of Captain, in 1947, he gave his Wigmore Hall recital. He gave a number of performances with the Philharmonia orchestra and made his 'Proms' debut in 1953.

 

In 1954 Walter Toods asked Cooper to take over the music quiz 'Call the tune'. This eventually became 'Face the Music' which went onto BBC2 in 1972 and ran for 13 years.

 

He produced three books of improvisations - 'Hidden Melodies' in 1976, 'More Hidden Melodies' in 1978 and 'Still more Hidden Melodies' in 1978. I remember playing a version of "Yes we have no bananas" in the style of Schumann!!

 

He was a hugely skilled musician, although he always seemed to like to present himself as being a bit 'lightweight' . With Vaughan Williams he prepared an edition for two pianos of the VW Piano Concerto but his real claim to fame was his claim that he had 'discovered' Elgar's Enigma. Cooper maintained that a theme in the slow movement of Mozart's 38th symphony, the 'Prague' had not only identical notes but also identical rests and that Elgar had been at the Leeds Festival the day before he started work on 'Enigma' and had heard a performance of that symphony.

 

He died in 2001

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... but his real claim to fame was his claim that he had 'discovered' Elgar's Enigma. Cooper maintained that a theme in the slow movement of Mozart's 38th symphony, the 'Prague' had not only identical notes but also identical rests and that Elgar had been at the Leeds Festival the day before he started work on 'Enigma' and had heard a performance of that symphony.

Interesting. I looked it up. There is only one possibility, the closing section in the end of the two main parts of the movement, and in this only the first six, with some licences the first eight notes in Vn 1. The relation to the Enigma is quite a bit hidden, since the Mozart movement is in 6/8 time. The fifth note is a syncopated fifth over the tonic, which relates pleasantly to the emphasized d in the Enigma. -- Some music! And for once in our ongoing discussions here, I am glad that I chose the violin instead of the organ -- played them both, and fun to play they were!

 

Best,

Friedrich

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but his real claim to fame was his claim that he had 'discovered' Elgar's Enigma.

 

He died in 2001

 

To me this is one of the great hoaxes. The 'enigma' is that (I say) that Elgar composed a variation - perhaps even Nimrod - and then worked backwards and then created the Thema. I argue that the Theme and the last movement come last and that all flowed from one of the variations firstly. Before you are all sending the men in white coats - I firmly believe this to be the case. I say this as I have created a number of Theme and Variations and the last thing to be composed has been the Theme. I might be odd and utterly eccentric (thanks for agreeing), but symphonic scores like this (unlike Baroque/Classical/early Romantic Variations that mostly gently flow out of the Thema) often need much distillation to produce the very first statement. An Original Theme and Variations of mine (which is well over 43 minutes in length CRCD6041) happened just like this. The Thema was the absolute clear movement that quite automatically and simply bloomed from all the variations and thus became the opening. Sorry to add a spanner, but after all this time I think Elgar has had the last laugh - and I laugh with him when I read endless pages of detective work that gets published. But - this is just my view! He just worked backwards to the Theme and then created the final movement to finish it off. Until I read in his own hand anything to the contrary, I shall stick with this!

All the best,

N

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To me this is one of the great hoaxes. The 'enigma' is that (I say) that Elgar composed a variation - perhaps even Nimrod - and then worked backwards and then created the Thema. I argue that the Theme and the last movement come last and that all flowed from one of the variations firstly. Before you are all sending the men in white coats - I firmly believe this to be the case. I say this as I have created a number of Theme and Variations and the last thing to be composed has been the Theme. I might be odd and utterly eccentric (thanks for agreeing), but symphonic scores like this (unlike Baroque/Classical/early Romantic Variations that mostly gently flow out of the Thema) often need much distillation to produce the very first statement. An Original Theme and Variations of mine (which is well over 43 minutes in length CRCD6041) happened just like this. The Thema was the absolute clear movement that quite automatically and simply bloomed from all the variations and thus became the opening. Sorry to add a spanner, but after all this time I think Elgar has had the last laugh - and I laugh with him when I read endless pages of detective work that gets published. But - this is just my view! He just worked backwards to the Theme and then created the final movement to finish it off. Until I read in his own hand anything to the contrary, I shall stick with this!

All the best,

N

 

 

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

 

 

The world is full of people who look for the obtuse and the subliminal; even better if they can discover that Van Eyke really painted by numbers.

 

Bach was, of course, a professional methematician who, according to some, composed by numbers.

 

Then there's the "Da Vinci Code".............. ;)

 

I have found that each of Bach's works can be condensed into an intial theme, in the form of a chorale, using Nigels's backwards approach.

 

Not only does this save hours and hours of practice, it gives the listener the opportunity to be involved, by the creative process of imagining their own counterpoint.

 

If all art was achieved this way, it could be so popular........

 

 

MM

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but his real claim to fame was his claim that he had 'discovered' Elgar's Enigma.

 

I said it was his claim - I don't necessarily agree - in fact, I have long since agreed with Nigel Allcoat's theory, without knowing it!

 

It doesn't alter the fact that Joseph Cooper was a hugely talented man.

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I said it was his claim - I don't necessarily agree - in fact, I have long since agreed with Nigel Allcoat's theory, without knowing it!

A letter in the Musical Times in the early 1980s pointed out that if you removed the first three notes of the theme (GEA) from JAEGER, Elgar's best friend, you are left with JR, so the question Elgar was prophetically posing in the Variations was "Who shot JR?"

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

 

............. using Nigels's backwards approach.

 

MM

 

My school promised never to let on about me being backward. I shall sue for every penny.

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My school promised never to let on about me being backward. I shall sue for every penny.

 

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

 

I hereby unreservedly withdraw my unfortunate use of the word backwards, and trust that both Mr Allcoat and our kind hosts will accept this humble petition as an unqualified apology and retraction.

 

One cannot be too careful these days. I feel sure that the word I should have used was retrograde....or should it have been retarded?

 

In any event, I am more than willing to donate my last remaining penny to a suitable charity of Mr Allcoat's choosing.

 

MM

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A letter in the Musical Times in the early 1980s pointed out that if you removed the first three notes of the theme (GEA) from JAEGER, Elgar's best friend, you are left with JR, so the question Elgar was prophetically posing in the Variations was "Who shot JR?"

 

And the enigma deepens of course as there was a sketch entitled "In the Range at South Fork" Op 50b

N

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