May. 25, 2016

Improvisation, Part IV

(con't from Part III)
The end of a worship service, ceremony, or big meeting is often the most demanding when it's traditional to play something to show off the organist's technique.
When you're first starting out, it's better not to spend months trying to learn a piece from the repertoire that's very difficult to play, unless you've got the time, of course; instead, playing a variation on some well known hymn tune can be very effective.
You can change the rhythm, alter the harmony, vary the tune slightly, even make reference to other well known hymn tunes.
There are many ways you can add your own personality to a simple chord sequence; the more you use your imagination, the more ideas you're going to come up with.
Improvisation is very similar to written composition except that, when improvising, everything that happens takes place in real time, uninterrupted, without pause to do anything in between, has to sound agreeable from the first try, and has to be within the performer's own bubble of what's comfortable for them.
You're inside certain places when you're improvising, among familiar keys, chord progressions, runs, etc., where you've tried these things before and know what they sound like.
When you're writing you're outside that bubble; you can wander through this space at your leisure, experiment to the fullest, even insert awful sounding chords, wild runs, atonal passages, etc., test them with your ear, and go back and fix them later, if you want to.
In both situations, however, you never create something out of nothing at all.
You start with a musical idea in your head, a theme which can be likened to "the soul" of the music, which you then develop by giving it a body, a shape, a corporeal form, which endows it with life and permits it to move, to "go somewhere."
Your bubble as an improviser starts out small (photo).
Everybody's does.
In time you should eventually feel that bubble expanding to where you're doing more things.
Even beginner musicians can learn to improvise and learn to create music spontaneously; the biggest barrier that currently stands between them and improvising isn't instrumental skill or music theory knowledge or a gift of talent; in fact, the biggest barrier is simply the belief that improvising is something that "other musicians" can do, and they can't.
Improvising isn't a magical "gift;" it isn't some magical prowess bestowed upon a select few by a Muse above; and it isn't necessarily an advanced musical skill; it's a learnable skill, one that can be learned through practice -- and, if we learn it the right way, it's the most fun musical skill we can spend time practicing.
NOTE: Almost any hymnal can be opened to find single melodic lines written in the treble clef which can be elaborated upon, if ever we're stuck for a melodic idea upon which to improvise; one source of such melodies is the Gather Comprehensive hymnal, a hardbound volume containing a mix of classical hymns, psalm responses, gospel acclamations, service music pieces, and contemporary "folk" songs approved for use during the Roman Catholic Mass; the musical material in this volume consists of single note melodies written in the treble clef in various keys which can be read and sung by an assembly with the organist improvising basic keyboard accompaniment; the words to all stanzas are included, but chord symbols indicating harmonies over the notes are missing, and those who desire fuller arrangements of selections need only revert to the choral editions where they exist; these limitations, and the fact that 70 per cent of the melodies are not classical hymn tunes but derive from contemporary "folk" music as one might hear at a guitar Mass, do not make this volume particularly choral-friendly or organist-friendly, but the book offers the student hundreds of melodies, long and short, for practice in improvisation [See blog, What About Bench Position, Part III].
(con't in Part V)