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Loosen Up: Organists need to recapture the old art of improvising

There is no better preparation for learning to improvise than to recapture a child's natural pleasure, curiosity, and interest in spontaneous music-making.

Every organist—including those who work in churches—should be able to improvise. In this technological age there is a crying need for live music, for spontaneity and creativity. Worship services that rely on taped accompaniments and other "canned" music are safe, predictable, and quite often dull and boring. Worship is enhanced when there is freedom and opportunity to be sensitive to dynamics that may grow and change as the service progresses. For example, some contemporary "praise teams" are discovering that choruses, even ones that are uninteresting on paper, can be transformed into much more interesting and worthy music when accompanied with creative freedom by skilled musicians, especially the keyboard player.

Probably the most effective way for church organists to fight the increasing pressure to replace them with technology and machines is for them to develop the ability to improvise in ways that will bring life and excitement, meaning and beauty, into the worship services of the church. Prerequisites are not so much an (elementary) knowledge of theory and harmony and technical facility at the keyboard, as simply a desire to learn how to improvise and a willingness to take risks and be musically vulnerable. It is my belief that all organists can improvise and should be encouraged to do so at whatever level they are capable of. To say you have no talent for it is like saying that you have no talent for reading and writing. The greatest stumbling block to improvising is not a lack of musical preparation or prerequisite music courses, but simply a lack of confidence, a fear of "letting go" of the safety and comfort of the written score.

In learning how to improvise, the traditional comes first, then the modern. You can't develop your own musical language until you're familiar with the language of the past. Improvisation boasts a long and glorious tradition: musicians improvised long before they played other people's repertoire. Even now, it would be logical for this skill to come first in a musician's training and development. Unless you know at least a little about creating your own music, it is unlikely that you will be able to play another's with proper insight and empathy. The creative spark is more likely to be there if the performer knows something of the struggle of compositional creativity. Fundamental to all music-making, whether improvising or repertoire playing, is the ability to enter into the music, to know it "from the inside." It is unfortunate that the emphasis on reading music all too often has had a negative impact on the natural interest in creating one's own music spontaneously.

"For it is certain that if there is no real music inside us, the sounds that we make will remain no more than cheap, empty imitation" (Bill Dobbins).

Getting Started

The most basic requirement for an improviser is to play with a clear sense of rhythm. The meter must be experienced and felt as something alive and breathing, like a beating heart, not as something merely to be obeyed, like a mechanical clock (though it is that, too). One of my favorite definitions of music is "audible time"; if you think of music as being essentially an expression of time, you will have the right idea. Then, if you get into an awkward spot and feel stuck, you will continue to feel this rhythmic pulse so strongly that you will be able to keep going even while you are looking for ways to "remedy" the momentary uncomfortable situation. Images of body movements such as dancing, marching, flying, swimming, and conducting will help you achieve this strong sense of rhythm.

A good way to practice is to count out loud while improvising—not just the beats, but also the measures (for example, in 4/4 time: one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four, three-two-four, four-two-three-four). This is particularly important when improvising phrases of regular length. Do not omit this step, especially if you find it awkward, because that would imply a weak rhythmic sense that needs more training.

Patience and perseverance will be rewarded. The same principles you apply to learning repertoire work for improvisation. When an exercise seems difficult, slow down and simplify what you are doing. "Rhythm ... in all of your improvising will be the major factor of continuity in your music" (Michele Johns, Hymn Improvisation).

Equally important—perhaps merely another way of saying the same thing—is to learn to breathe and sing along inwardly with your playing, to have an "inner connection" with the sounds. It is impossible to play anything well without this ability, and organists are sometimes justly accused of playing their instrument, which, after all, is a very mechanical contraption, in a mechanical way. The aim is not to play complex improvisations but to play musically. There is more value in a simple melody beautifully played than in a dazzling double fugue mechanically played. Improvise at the level and to the full extent of your talent and ability. Studying improvisation, even if it does not result in complex masterpieces, should at least "fertilize" your playing in general and make it more rhythmical, musical, and "personal."

From the very first and with the simplest exercises, make it your aim to be musical. "Make the creation of expressive music your primary goal" (Gerre Hancock). Even the simplest and shortest improvisation (in spite of labels such as "exercise" or "assignment") should be thought of as a piece of music, a striving for something beautiful. Improvisation is like life: it happens only once, and cannot be repeated. When it goes "all wrong," as in life, make the best of it, and pay special attention to the ending: at least that can be good, even if you thought that all that went before was terrible.

It is often said that in improvisation it is not possible to make a mistake. "Salvation is never more than a tone or semitone away" (Gerre Hancock). Any "wrong note" can be turned into an appoggiatura or unessential note of some kind and by a step-wise res- olution be turned into an opportunity to make music—"a disappointment transformed into an  appointment." It is, in fact, a good idea to repeat such an "accident," making it appear to be an intentional feature of your improvisation.

Be imaginative with your registration, articulation, and phrasing. Don't just begin in any tempo (probably determined by your heartbeat and breathing). Instead choose one deliberately and consciously, in keeping with what you want to say musically. One of the worst things about many organists is the way they play all hymns in a very similar tempo, like organ-grinders. Each piece of music should have its own tempo—just as it has its own meter, key, mood, and theme.

Rests! Do not forget about them. Think of your improvisations as stories, as rhetoric. Rests are an integral part of any well-told story, perhaps the main part. A common weakness in improvisations is that they are restless, literally. Think of famous examples of silence in music to affirm its importance. Think of the need to catch your breath, and use rests if only for that reason.

Improvising on One or Two Chords

Much, if not most, improvisation is an elaboration of music already composed, using techniques of variation. This includes knowing how to elaborate chord progressions. Focus on one or two chords at first, and be as inventive as you can with this limited material. Since interest will not come from harmonic variety, concentrate on the rhythmic and/or melodic (except when using chord tones only) potential.

Chords can be elaborated in any number of rhythmic and melodic ways: by "activating" any of the voices through arpeggiation; by use of unessential notes such as neighbor tones, passing tones, and appoggiaturas; or by use of any number of other devices, such as octave displacement, repetition, rhythmic ostinati. Experiment and try various combinations (see examples a-g).

Be adventurous in your registration. Establish a mood. Think images rather than thoughts only to imbue your pieces with character. When playing a "March," do not only think "4/4 in march-style." Instead picture an actual event (wedding, funeral, regal or whatever kind of procession), with all its attendant pageantry. Try playing the following:

  • a rose, beautiful but with sharp thorns (unexpected skips, dotted rhythms, and use of staccato)
  • a violet, shy and demure (quiet, mostly step-wise motion, smooth rhythm)
  • a lion, strong and proud (march-like)
  • a lamb (playful, unpredictable, "cute")
  • an old person walking with a tired step
  • a young child, skipping and dancing
  • a drunk bear
  • a firefly
  • a butterfly
  • a desert
  • a storm
  • feeling scared at night in a dark room
  • joyous feelings upon being reunited with an old friend
  • an actual text (e.g. "I love you") or someone's name, to provide you with a rhythmic motif

Keep this principle in mind for all of your improvisations and repertoire playing. Thinking images and/or stories can be very helpful. For example, you will communicate Bach's D minor Toccata, BWV 565, more successfully if inspired by a picture of thunder and lightning than by thinking of dry bones. Try these ideas on children's songs with a simple harmonic language, such as those found in Songs for LiFE (CRC Publications, 1994). Make it a point not to play any of the notes on the page, but instead improvise in the style and mood of the text, using the guitar chords indicated above the music. Include passing tones, neighbor tones, appoggiaturas, trills, and experiment with various rhythmic motives, using triplets, duplets, and so on. If the congregation is singing at all well, and especially if there is a good song leader, the accompanist is free to inspire and encourage, rather than merely "spoon-feed."


Bender, Jan. Organ Improvisation for Beginners, A Book of Self-Instruction for Church Musicians. Concordia, 99-1229, 1975. 71 pp. $8.25. Half text, half musical examples. Chorale-based. Very helpful suggestions, especially in Part I (Chapters 1-6). A number of prerequisites are listed on page 8, and are really necessary. Most exercises and assignments are for two voices only. Emphasis on memorization. The book moves quickly, but is not "dry."

Hancock, Gerre. Improvising—How to Master the Art. Oxford University Press, 1994,163 pp. $24.95. Excellent book by a famous and superbly gifted improviser. The twelve chapters are loosely graded. Practical in content, spiral bound. No index (it's hard to find "modulation" or "sequences"). Very creative, pleasant to read. Uses many examples. Builds on what has gone before.

Johns, Michelle. Hymn Improvisation. Augsburg, 1987. 34 pp. $8.95. Reflects the course outline for Organ Literature 483 as taught by the author at the University of Michigan. Very readable, includes lots of creative ideas.

Krapf, Gerhard. Organ Improvisation: A Practical Approach to Chorale Elaborations for the Service. Augsburg, 1967. Ill pp. $19.00. Very systematic approach, limited to elaborations of (Lutheran) chorales. Sensitive to texts.

Ferguson, John. "A Mini-Course in Creative Hymn Playing." $9.00. Booklet and cassette available from AGO Educational Resources (475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1260, New York, NY 10115).

Manz, Paul. "Practicum on Service Playing and Improvisation." $9.00. Two cassettes on the process of creating a hymn-tune prelude. AGO Educational Resources (475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1260, New York, NY 10115).