Back in the day, before there was any system of musical notation, all organ music was improvised.
And to this day organists still find themselves improvising, making up music on the spot, either during church services, recitals, fraternal work and ceremonies, or as entertainment.
This is not something a person is born with ... it's a skill they learn gradually to achieve some level of proficiency at it.
The organ is the only classical instrument where the musician playing it needs to have a jazz musician's ability to create music in this way; and all good jazz musicians have models that, in the beginning, they learn to imitate.
Imitation is one of the first steps in learning to improvise [See blog, Ear Training].
A strong argument can be made to support the idea that the hymn book is the organist's best resource when it comes to improvising, because hymns are not organ music; they're choral music that the organist arranges for performance on the organ, and this can be done in a tremendous variety of ways [See blog, Hymns, Parts I-IX].
An improvisation should have a sense of structure and musical development about what is heard at the opening, something that could suggest that it could be a written composition that has never been performed publicly before.
People who are told the music will be improvised on the spot listen to it differently from they way they do written music.
When they know what they're hearing is being improvised, they feel like they're a part of the creative process as it's happening, and they tend to tolerate dissonances much more frequently and readily, whereas they wouldn't tolerate dissonances to the same degree if the music had been written down.
When we think of improvisation, our first thought that comes to mind, typically, is the French School, one which has produced players who can improvise 4-voice double fugues, retaining the countersubject throughout, and even entire organ symphonies in multiple movements, with what looks like remarkable ease.
For the vast majority of work-a-day organists however, this will not be the case; but that doesn't mean that improvisation, for them, cannot put to use.
Still the same, we dream; we invest significant time, money, and effort at collecting books on organ improvisation ... books like Dupre, Hancock, Rogg, Brillhart, and others ... and they're sitting on the shelf.
The first few pages seem straight forward enough, but then the difficulty increases exponentially, and a great number of very fine, proficient organists simply don't know what to do with this information.
Organists at the beginner and intermediate levels want mostly constraint-less pages that build on what has come before, not something that imposes difficulty or jumps suddenly to the difficult.
In learning how to improvise, an organ scholar can't go wrong by starting out with something very, very simple, then build something that builds gradually on that, and so on, as all learning should proceed, one sheet of paper at a time [See blog, Layering Sheets Of Paper].
For example, using the hymn book CLOSED (photo), we can think of any hymn tune that's familiar, such as "Lobe den Herrn" (Praise to the Lord, the Almighty), then try playing the melody (just the soprano line) of this hymn from memory on an 8-foot diapason or principal stop, using our ear to guide us.
We don't play the alto, tenor, or bass notes specifically here at first, just the fixed melody, or cantus firmus (c.f.), with single notes, just in the right hand [See menu bar, Free Stuff, score for Variations Op. 4, for an example of a set of variations written on a c.f.].
Having done this, we might then keep the tune in the right hand and add a counter melody in the tenor range with the left hand, using let's say a color reed stop in one hand and a flute stop in the other.
This counter melody should move whenever the notes in the c.f. are stationary, move in contrary motion to the tune wherever possible, and be singable all by itself.
This encourages the improvisor to think horizontally, and such a 2-part setting is called a "bicinium" [See blog, Masonic Organ Playing, Part III].
When we do this, guess what? ... we've just improvised !
We might then play this bicinium again, only this time adding a very simple bass line with the feet using a soft 16-foot stop in the pedal, just something simple, changing the notes only when we must.
Another way to begin this, when improvising on the hymn book, is to work the right hand part as a solo and add a quiet left hand chord and pedal note in simple rhythm to that c.f., treating the tune in a more vertical, homophonic style.
Some may be thinking, "That's not improvisation because it's so simple," but it is; and it's one of the best ways to get started because it gets our left hand and feet moving from the get go.
We can then try the same thing with a couple of other favorite hymns of ours; this makes us feel more confident about playing something that isn't scripted.
We should try this again with a few more hymns, with the hymn book closed and set aside; the more we do this, the better we get at it.
It's important not to script it out before we play; we should practice this without reading 4 parts from the page; we should try working from just the c.f.
The right hand registration for the c.f. doesn't have to remain the same; it can certainly change; we might start out with a nice principal stop, then maybe switch to a nice solo flute stop for variety, then maybe add a few mutations or maybe alternate between a cornet solo and maybe an oboe, cromorne, or clarinet solo.
After this, we might try sticking with the same c.f. and add ornamentation to the tune, change rhythms, change the harmonization a little, or move the music into a related key, which will make the improvisation even more varied and interesting.
Once we get a "toe hold" on improvising like this in 2 or 3 parts we're going to get better at it, we're going to want to do more, and, even more importantly, once we get out into the action, it will help our fear to recede, and we'll be okay.
In the beginning, when we're learning to improvise a bicinium, we should remember NOT to read from the hymn book; instead, we should either try to memorize the tune of the c.f. or write it down, if need be, and work only from that.
A little scary? ... of course it is, for everybody, in the beginning. It's unchartered territory, and all such territory leaves all of us, without exception, wondering what could be around the bend up ahead. But the foundational tools that will assist us here are a knowledge of 1) keyboard harmony, 2) counterpoint, 3) form and analysis, 4) solfege, or ear training [See blog, Ear Training], plus 5) the rock-solid premise that improvisation doesn't have to be complicated or lengthy to be perfectly acceptable, and 6) the assurance that resources are available to point the way for us.
For example, Malcom Archer has written a collection of 100 one-page hymn improvisations called "After The Last Verse," which help fill the need for organists who find improvisation the hardest thing about organ playing; this is useful and attractive service music based on the hymns -- short extemporaneous pieces which may be used to fill in after the hymn is finished at moments like the Offertory, or during a procession; these pieces provide ideas and encouragement to those faint of heart to have a go at their own improvisations.
We also need to consider that this a skill closely related to transposition and, as we move along, the 2 disciplines should be considered and practiced together, which is not as difficult as it sounds [See blog, Transposition, Parts I, II].
So we find here that we can start with a c.f. and then improvise another moving line to go with it which suggests a harmony or, in the case where 2 additional moving lines are improvised, creates chordal harmony with the c.f. at any point vertically.
The reverse process should also be tried, i.e., we can take the same series of chord changes found in the hymn selected and then invent another little tune to go with it which is similar to or might actually paraphrase the actual c.f. of the hymn much like a soloist in a swing jazz band improvises a commentary on a portion of the number being played.
The swing jazz musician assigned a solo for a few bars first memorizes the tune of the song and its chordal harmony, then improvises a commentary on that; for anyone who cares to listen carefully to the timeless arrangements of the swing jazz bands of the late 1930's and early '40's, particularly the Glenn Miller orchestra, how this is done will be profusely illustrated.
It may come as a surprise, but listening to the distinctive arrangements of the Miller band can teach an organist a great deal; every musician in that orchestra was an expert technician, sight reader, and swing jazz improviser, the best in the business.
By knowing the 3 primary chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant) of each key, we can move this commentary of ours to other keys and practice transposition at the same time.
For some, learning to improvise vertically like this with basically only one left hand chord and one left foot pedal note to add to the top, or melody, line may actually prove a bit easier, at least in the beginning, than by trying to think horizontally in terms of 2 independent moving lines, one in each hand, in creating a bicinium.
(con't in Part II)