May. 25, 2016

Improvisation, Part II

(con't from Part I)
Once we've become more comfortable with improvising on a given cantus firmus (c.f.) from the hymn book, we might use that same c.f. to create an original piece 2-5 minutes long based upon that fixed melody, or tune.
Here the c.f. might be switched to different octaves or manuals and used in any order.
The improvisor would be free to take the c.f. and shorten it or expand it, use any texture (2, 3, or 4 voice parts, or maybe "keyboard style" where voice ranges are exceeded), rhythm (note durations), meter (time signature), registration (choice of stops and couplers), dynamic level (volume), or form (architecture) to make it interesting.
Pedals are encouraged in these first attempts, but not necessary.
A good thing for the beginner to do is to work toward feeling at home in all 12 positions on the Circle of fifths, or "musical clock" [See blog, Temperaments and Tuning, Part II].
The goal, with improvising, is not to go through the 12 major keys in a fixed time frame, such as one week, but to master (meaning moving the fingers in the key without thinking too much to the scale notes) one key, or region of musical space (photo), at a time.
The first step is to play a very short little melody in just one key with just one hand; we just sit there and let our fingers flow; we just stick to the 7 notes of the major scale and don't alter them chromatically yet.
It's also good if we can give a basic structure to what we're doing; the easiest thing in this case is to try an ABA form, a very elastic concept that we can adapt to our level of knowledge.
The idea here is to have some fun while being able to move the fingers on the 7 notes of the scale, keeping the music flowing without hitting any of the 5 chromatically altered notes (which in the key of C Major would be the 5 black keys within the octave -- C#, D#, F# G#, and A#).
It helps to use C Major at the top of the Circle as a start since we just have to skip these 5 black keys under the fingers, then we can add one sharp or flat as we master the previous scale.
There are also other regions of musical space (12 minor keys and several modes) for the improviser to make a point of visiting as soon as time will permit.
Jazz musicians learn to improvise; classical musicians learn mostly to perform; but in certain places in the world, most notably France, organists learn and study improvisation as ardently as jazz musicians, very seriously.
For all the solemnity and lingering smell of incense in the church, it comes down to this: "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
It's an incredible experience to hear an organist produce out of thin air a harmonization and ornamented variation on some 16th century German chorale melody in 3/2 time, for example, and finish it with a fugue a la gigue that swings, though in a style closer to J.S. Bach than Glenn Miller.
Students of organ performance at the Paris conservatory are required to take improvisation as a side course; more advanced practitioners major in improvisation after passing a competitive examination; thus does France keep alive a tradition that has long made its organ virtuosos admired the world over.
French organist Marcel Dupre, for example, astounded American audiences in the 1920's by improvising whole organ sumphonies on themes listeners submitted before his concerts, a tradition continued by such other French virtuosos as Pierre Cochereau and Jean Langlais on overseas concerts in later years.
World class improvisors from France sometimes make comments along these lines: "Improvisation isn't easy at all; you have to study the whole history of music, assimilate the styles of the various periods, and have a thorough knowledge of harmony and music theory EVEN TO BE ABLE TO START, and not everybody can do it well, even fine performers."
While such well meaning comments are made in a spirit of loving concern, they can have us intimidated beyond belief, even overwhelmed.
It's important to understand that no one lies in their cradle for 20 years learning about the principles of athletic performance before they start taking their first unsteady steps on their feet.
No, we learn to walk in very early childhood at the same time that we begin, simultaneously, to learn what words are all about and make our first awkward attempts to communicate, in a series of stammering utterances, what's on our mind.
The same is true with improvising; we don't have to have it all figured out to move forward [See blog, Improvisation, Part V].
Once we get the basics down, the next step is structure; we may be able to make beautiful sounds, but without shape and form the music doesn't move, or "go somewhere."
Nature teaches us that we don't need to first complete a doctoral degree program in music history, theory, and composition before we can lay our hands upon the hallowed keys of the organ and take our first steps as improvisors; these disciplines can and should be learned simultaneously as we grow, day to day.
In France, it's very common for the organist of a big cathedral or parish church to improvise during Communion and the offertory at Sunday Mass, frequently using a Gregorian chant melody suited to the particular day of the liturgical year to improvise a postlude.
There's nowhere near the same emphasis on improvisation in the American organ tradition as there is in France; in many American churches, improvisation is usually done to provide bridge music at certain points during a church service: cover, if you will.
Nevertheless, the American Guild of Organists, the main professional group for church musicians in the United States [See blog, American Guild of Organists], includes improvisation among the skills needed for certification of advanced ability: nowadays the Colleague examination requires 3 choices, all including modulation, with some preparation time allowed; the Associate examination involves improvising either a hymn/chant prelude or variations on a ground bass; the Fellow examination has an improvised piece in ABA form approximately 2 minutes in length as a requirement, with theme A given.
The two books of the Dupre method are fairly easy to get, but it's probably better to approach his treatise once we get familiar with a more free approach to improvisation.
Dupre wants us to improvise in strict 4 voices using common practice, which makes too many constraints on the beginner (at least too many constraints to enjoy improvising).
There are some who attempt to start improvising using the Dupre method, but for any hobbyist or part time organist, this cannot recommend itself; it's just too complex.
Constraints (like 4 voices, common practice) add difficulty; it's better to start constraint-less.
A simple and nice book for English readers is Jan Overduin's one [See blog, Improvisation, Part III]; doing, let's say, 6 chapters a year we can achieve a good ground in improvisation while working our regular job, raising our family, or going to school.
There are many books around, and this is a good thing.
(con't in Part III)