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Thread: How to improvise?

  1. #1
    Seaman, Mezzoforte
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    How to improvise?

    I lack a bit of ideas in improvisation. I often develop some choral theme in Bach's style during church masses, modifying the rythm or the structure or the tonality, turning minor to major, or mixing several chorals-parts together, playing the choral-theme a certain interval higher or lower ... But it still seems to me I'm turning around. Whant else could I do? How do you improvise? What are your bases, your sources of inspiration?

    I once participated in a master-class using completeley different style - the played without any care for harmony or nice sound. As a source of inspiration, they used some impressionist painter's work, or some strange phrase, or a modal harmony theme. It was quite funny, there where some people playing with their whole arm and elbows and seemed to forget everything around them. The teacher instructed his pupils in this way: "Imagine a dialogue between this little bird and the girl! What does the bird say her? How does she react?" And the player had to "explain" it on the organ. The result was very open-minded and modern, but rather hard for listeners ears.

    If you have any good ideas how to improvise, I would be glad to read them!

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    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    Hi Stella,

    My inspiration comes from within the organ itself ... at my church, the pipework (seen in my avatar at left) is directly in front of me. When improvising, I become part of the organ itself ... letting myself, my heart and soul to be drawn into the pipework where I then live and breathe with the organ ... the pipes and I become one ... almost a trance like state, and the outside world is then non-existent.

    As a church organist for nearly 50 years, there are unplanned gaps in the service where "fill music" is required ... there is absolutely no warning for when these will occur and it doesn't happen at every service. There is no time to pick up a book, let alone select something to play. What happens next is something that words cannot express ... I just start playing, and a melody and appropriate accompaniment envelops as I go from one note to another, one measure to the next. The amount of time needed for these "fill" spots varies greatly from 25 seconds to several minutes ... (Lutherans dislike silence within worship services - they start squirming in the pews). OF course, I must be aware of what is happening at the altar and be able to stop this interlude within a couple seconds, so while playing I am also composing an end to the improv as well. I can't explain how all that happens .. it just does.

    Improvisation is a learned art ... the more you do this, the easier it becomes.
    Last edited by Krummhorn; Aug-11-2010 at 16:57.
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    Captain of Water Music JONESEY's Avatar
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    I'm working through a distance learning course and one of the subjects is Improvisation.
    This is the scariest one for me as my background has never included improvisation. My old teacher used to say 'just play the music ... don't do your own thing', so now I need to undo that!!!.

    I'm looking forward to improvisation getting easier and one day achieving that state where I can just start improvising at the drop of a hat.

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    Commander, Assistant Conductor Lusaka_Guitarist's Avatar
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    Smile

    Quote Originally Posted by Krummhorn View Post
    Hi Stella,

    Improvisation is a learned art ... the more you do this, the easier it becomes.
    Very true. Its in the doing.

  6. #5
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso wljmrbill's Avatar
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    Yes I agree with Lars on this topic. Durning my years as organist there were many many times i had to fill-in or expland something to make the service run smoothly. I remember at the cathedral with the older Bishop..many times had to cover him.... falls into the old rule again.. Practice, Practice, Practice and it will come to you. I sometimes us imagery/ or desired feelings for inspiration
    ....To play only what is written is the domain of science. To realize what is not written is the domain of art."
    - Jean Langlais

    I wish you the Best for each day, now and always.

    Bill

  7. #6
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Hi Stella

    The techniques you mentioned in your first post are no less valid than any of the methods that rest of us will use because improvisation will always be grounded in derivation, ie, deriving something from what you already know. It's what you do with what you know that can create something new (same with any kind of learning really).

    If I thought I had anything to offer, I'd suggest that analysis of other composers works is of value, because then you can see their own compositional processes at work and apply them to your initial improvised idea. After all, that's what improvisation is, composing "on the spot". Be varied in your selection though, try to find as much as you can on as many different styles as you can - a poet is only as good as the words that he or she knows.

    The notion of becoming enveloped in the instrument is an excellent one too. Also, look around you and find something in your surroundings. I often love looking at the colours in stained glass windows and "playing" them for example, or looking at tall arches and using that shape, or the patterns in a vaulted ceiling, etc, etc.

    The oddest thing about reflecting on this is trying to recall how it happened. I've been told by organists far better than me that I improvise well, but I'm damned if I know why - it just "happened" because it had to in order to fill in those gaps in the service.

    Stella, I note with interest your location is France. For my ears, France has produced the most phenomenal improvisers on the globe. If you are learning and playing there, you will have no shortage of inspiration! (in fact, I envy you! )
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

  8. #7
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JONESEY View Post
    My old teacher used to say 'just play the music
    Hey Jonesey, sorry to say but that old teacher of yours gave you very bad advice! Improvising means you can stop anywhere needed in mid phrase easily, you can't necessarily do that whilst playing a "known piece", people will just know you stopped.

    Improvising is a gradually learned skill, I disagree with the theory it can't be taught, however. The organist at Christ Church St. Laurence (Anglo-Catholic) teaches improvisation to his students, they start off rather gingerly but those that really take to it acquire it progressively, this has been my experience. Apart from church organists, who should be able to improvise (very helpful when the rector stumbles when ascending the pulpit and you need some fill-in music) are organists, jazz musicians and ballet pianists.
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

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    Ensign, Principal
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    Hi Stella,

    I would recommend doing a search on Utube. Plenty of inspiration there. As for learning how to do it, Yep, practice practice practice. I would devote a good 10 15 minutes at the organ/piano each day. As for how to go about it developing your own stlye...

    1) make use of the organ's strengths - sustained notes. As a starting point, try holding down a pedal note and a chord in the left hand - not a triad, but maybe 4ths or 5ths or a pleasing 'cluster' and then try putting fragments of the melody of a hymn that you know well over the top of it.

    2) Use modes rather than scales and I,IV,V harmony

    3) If you haven't already, take a course in harmony, then promtly break all the rules you have learned! sounds daft, but it works!

    4) never be afraid to repeat ideas/phrases. The biggest error made by learner improvisers is to feel that every note must be origional.

    5) As you become more confident with your harmonic style, think about form. If there is one thing that makes me wince is an improvisation that wanders to no perpose. Even when covering those little gaps in the service, form is still possible and desirable

    6) Originality is good but I bet all the improvisers on the forum have there favourite little phrases and harmonies that get dragged out regularly (me included) SS Wesley was a famous English improviser. When he impressed a visotor at Gloucester Cathedral (I think) with an improvised fugue, it was quietly pointed out that it was a theme that he used regularly

  10. #9
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Some excellent advice from QFE ...
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  11. #10
    Seaman, Mezzoforte
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    So interesting reading, and so many good tips!

    Thank you for reminding me to search inspiration from organ itself. Playing too often on the same instrument, I forget to listen to it really.

    Soubasse - I like a lot how you described your way to improvise, the result must very poetic! Do you have any recordings online?

    Jonesey, Contratrombone, Wljmrbill - it IS in the practice, I totally agree. Is it possible to teach it? It reminds me another saying whether it is possible to teach improvising or not - a very good theatre professor said once in his lesson: " It is possible to learn how to improvise, but I'm not sure that it is possible teach it."

    Soubasse - if only the localization could make the miracles But it's true that there are many good examples to follow in France.

    QFE – very good recommendations. Would you mind to explain what do you mean exactly by “think about form” ? Is it like to have a sort of build-up plan, a certain direction where you want to reach when you improvise?


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    Captain of Water Music JONESEY's Avatar
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    David - I now realise that the advice she (my old teacher) gave was pretty bad on improvisation, I guess for the classical piano it was pretty valid at the time, but it's 10 times more difficult to "unlearn" it.

    Still, I now have a weekly slot on the organ at the new Church I'm playing at, so improvisation practice starts tonight.

    Wish me luck!!!!
    Tim.

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    Vice Admiral Virtuoso wljmrbill's Avatar
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    GOOD LUCK TIM.. you will get it......
    Bill
    ....To play only what is written is the domain of science. To realize what is not written is the domain of art."
    - Jean Langlais

    I wish you the Best for each day, now and always.

    Bill

  14. #13
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Best of luck, Tim. Look forward to hearing your sagas from the console ...
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  15. #14
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Stella Maris
    Soubasse - I like a lot how you described your way to improvise, the result must very poetic! Do you have any recordings online?
    Sorry, not feeling quite brave enough yet! . I have recorded a few though, so I may give them a listen and see if I feel like letting them out.

    a very good theatre professor said once in his lesson: " It is possible to learn how to improvise, but I'm not sure that it is possible teach it."

    The same has been said of composition and the two are of course very closely related. The most valued mentor I ever had in composition (the inestimable Tristram Cary) basically said exactly the same thing when we started: "It can be learned, but I'm not going to be teaching you how to compose."

    QFE, Would you mind to explain what do you mean exactly by “think about form” ? Is it like to have a sort of build-up plan, a certain direction where you want to reach when you improvise?


    At the risk of second guessing QFE, I'd hazard to say that's exactly it. I've been guilty myself of exactly the thing he said in his post about "rambly" improvisations and it's made me cringe (not to mention bored) when I've listened back, I've heard it from plenty of other organists too, we're probably all guilty of it at some stage (but it's a part of learning too!).

    Even the simplest of forms like Ternary or Rondo can help shape the direction you head in, even if you're not sure where that may be when you start.

    Another facet worth giving thought to is dynamic shape and tonal colour. This is doubly important at the organ because there is such an array of colours from which to choose. Sometimes, even just drawing a graph can be enough, in order to map where it's going to be soft, where it will build up, fortes, decrescendos, etc, etc, and also, jot down which stops you might like to use (Cochereau would often do this)

    A graph can also map for you how long you want to take to do things too. That can often be an issue - the loss of time. I always tend to take off my watch when I practice anyway, but I'll usually put it where I can see it so that I'm aware of how much time has passed and decide on whether it's time to change what I'm playing (ie, modulate, slow down, speed up, etc).
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

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    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    The trick of course is remembering A when you wander off to B and then head back to A again... (binary form and improvisation I'm talking).
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

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