Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Improvising at the Organ

One of the most necessary skills in being an organist in the Roman Rite is also one of the more neglected: improvisation. To be sure, this art form seems to have enjoyed a renaissance of late, and many church organists are quite adept at this kind of undertaking. My sense of things, however, is that most are still petrified.

Fear not! Organ improvisation is fun. It is a total blast. In my own experience I've found that I have to be improvising regularly in order to feel like I've been making music. A good organ improvisation can make all the difference between adding beauty to the liturgy, or the organ merely serving as background noise so that the silence doesn't make anyone uncomfortable. So I've decided to write a series of posts on this subject. This first post will be rather broad; details will be pursued later.

Before beginning an improvisation, one must have a general outline of the piece in mind. Planning and preparation (even practice!) are critical. "Improvisation" means that one is composing the music as he is playing; but it doesn't necessarily mean (and shouldn't) that there is no forethought.

Some essential considerations:

1. Source material. Will the improvisation be based upon pre-existing music, or will it be original? If it's original, make sure to remember the core thematic ideas. (There's nothing wrong with writing it down, either.) If pre-existing material is being used, it's wise to have the music on the rack if possible. It's surprising what one can forget for no good reason in the middle of playing.

2. Key/mode. After deciding upon musical material, decide which key or mode will be used. This seems so obvious as to require no consideration. Take it from one who's had to switch modes abruptly because the source chant was not adequately examined: It's worth pondering this question before beginning.

3. Time signature/pulse. Pick a time signature or a pulse and stick to it. This clears away a lot of aimlessness in the improv. Time signatures as such are not, in my opinion, always needed, but one must at least have a pulse. In fact, for improvisations on chant I find that a mere pulse works a lot better in most cases.

4. Registration/voicing. How is the organ going to be registered? Should a few registrations be preset? This question is very much tied into form and style, discussed below.

5. Form. What will the structure of the piece be? Which structures best fit the liturgical action that will be taking place during the improvisation? Is it possible that the playing may have to stop on relatively short notice? Rondo form is good for that. Or is there time to have a more elaborate development?

6. Style. This is not only the consideration of whether one will emulate Baroque, French Classical, Romantic, or 20th century styles in general, for example. There is also the consideration of styles of specific composers. Langlais or Messiaen? Buxtehude or Sweelinck?

7. Listen to music other than organ and choral music. Listen to anything that can be found. This keeps the ideas fresh.

8. Don't be afraid to mix and match the above in positively nutty fashion. The flip side of this, though, is not to get too hung up on being original. Our standards of originality today have, in my opinion, become too strict. It seems that this is part of what has lead to the iconoclastic art that is found in so many places. Be adventurous, but don't be afraid to copy, especially at first. I know of a very fine cathedral organist who actually models his improvisations on specific pieces of music. He'll sit with the music at the console and improv on it. Remember: Good artists borrow; great artists steal.

9. DAYDREAM. You'll be surprised what you come up with.

10. Sooner or later, you just have to play. So get started already.


UPDATE: One of my former teachers, a dear friend from Baltimore, writes in response:

Hi Mike,
There is a wonderful story about someone calling on Marcel Dupre at home on a Saturday afternoon. His wife answered the door and said, "Come in. Marcel is practicing his improvisations for tomorrow and will be finished shortly." So, there you have it.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: