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Thread: What defines a good improvisation?

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    Captain of Water Music
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    What defines a good improvisation?

    So often improvisations by extremely competent organists come across as being an almighty clash of sound, played as loudly as possible and/or as fast as possible.

    What then defines a good improvisation?

    What is the goal of an improvisation, apart from the obvious use in parts of a church service?

    How should one listen intelligently to what can simply seem a clash of sound?

    Where does the ability to improvise begin, and what are the essential stages of development?

    To what degree is a musical imagination a contributory factor?

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    Captain of Water Music musicteach's Avatar
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    Improv was originally a jazz/blues playing style, mostly meant for solos during your typical jazz pieces. Jazz/blues pieces are often considered "free" pieces of music, in that although they might be written in one key, you can basically play it in whatever key you want. When musicians take a solo, they are using improvisation. Although it is a solo, one should attempt to stay within the key of that particular measure or phrase. For instance with a big band, the band is still playing backup, and they're playing in a specific key. If you - as the soloist - stay within that key, it usually sounds better. Have a look at this video, he explains it quite well.
    Last edited by musicteach; May-16-2014 at 02:20.
    Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them-a world of work, culture, intellectual activity, and human involvement. The future of our Nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music. -Gerald Ford

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    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by musicteach View Post
    Improv was originally a jazz/blues playing style, mostly meant for solos during your typical jazz pieces. Jazz/blues pieces are often considered "free" pieces of music, in that although they might be written in one key, you can basically play it in whatever key you want. When musicians take a solo, they are using improvisation. Although it is a solo, one should attempt to stay within the key of that particular measure or phrase. For instance with a big band, the band is still playing backup, and they're playing in a specific key. If you - as the soloist - stay within that key, it usually sounds better. Have a look at this video, he explains it quite well.

    No, it was not.

    The art of improvisation has been around for centuries before either jazz or blues came into fashion. There are contemporary accounts of seventeenth century keyboard players who were renowned for their skill in improvisation. A little later, witnesses writing at that time state that J.S. Bach was a superb improvisor, as was Mozart. Mendelssohn was also known for his ability in this field - even Anton Bruckner, the Austrian organist and composer, had some skill in improvisation.

    Your brief explanation of jazz improvisation does not really work for organ improvisation. Whilst it is certainly true that improvisation forms a vital part of jazz and blues style, this is only one facet of this immense subject; in any case, the explanation which you give is only really relevant to that genre, partly because, as you state, other instruments are usually still playing whilst one performer is improvising a solo or embellishment. With regard to organ improvisation, there are many more rules, strictures, guidelines - call them what you will - to which it is desirable to adhere (at least to some extent), in order to produce a piece which is at least worthy of the listeners' time. A further crucial difference is that, generally, an organist will be improvising a solo piece - that is to say, without the support of any other players.

    Perhaps the most important point is structure. The piece should (ideally) follow some recognised form - unless it is to be in free-form. If the latter is the case, then much care should be taken with melodic or harmonic shapes (and dynamic variations), in order that it does not degenerate into the kind of very loud, very fast wall of sound, as described by Nikam above. However, if a recognised form is to be used (for example, binary, ternary, rondo, sonata, variations, fugue, trio, etc), then keys (and modulations) need to be thought-out in advance - as also do themes or subjects.

    Melodic shape is also extremely important, even if the piece is to be chordal, with a thick texture and mostly homophonic, there still needs to be some kind of aurally identifiable shape.

    As stated, keys (and related keys) are also important, as are rhythmic patterns or motifs.

    In addition - and of great importance - is to have a thorough knowledge of both composed music (in many styles) and even the recorded improvisations of other exponents in this field. (Although this latter point is arguably of lesser importance than the former.)

    All this is just for starters.

    To be a good keyboard improvisor, one must first have a strong and fluent technique. Secondly, one should have a thorough knowledge of keys, acceptable* modulations, the ability to think of good melodic shapes. One needs also to be able to develop a theme (and not simply reiterate it in a related key), both melodically and rhythmically.

    If one is to be a good improvisor, the fingers (and feet) need to be led by the thought process - not the other way around. If one simply relies on hackneyed sequences and recycled music, the end result will be neither convincing nor pleasing.

    The subject of improvisation is vast, and cannot easily be dealt with simply by writing about it. However, I hope that the above gives some idea.



    * Although this will be influenced partly by taste, nevertheless, some adherence to customary practice is desirable.
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-17-2014 at 02:56.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

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    Captain of Water Music musicteach's Avatar
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    My apologies, I certainly did not aim to put out incorrect, inaccurate, or down-right wrong information. You'd think I'd know all of this considering I read the Bible to reminisce .
    Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them-a world of work, culture, intellectual activity, and human involvement. The future of our Nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music. -Gerald Ford

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    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by musicteach View Post
    My apologies, I certainly did not aim to put out incorrect, inaccurate, or down-right wrong information. You'd think I'd know all of this considering I read the Bible to reminisce .
    Fair enough - although I am unsure how reading the Bible would provide any information on the history of keyboard improvisation.

    Whilst I do not wish to offend, I am more concerned by the fact that your pseudonym is 'musicteach'....
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-17-2014 at 02:49.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

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    Captain of Water Music musicteach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pcnd5584 View Post
    Fair enough - although I am unsure how reading the Bible would provide any information on the history of keyboard improvisation.

    Whilst I do not wish to offend, I am more concerned by the fact that your pseudonym is 'musicteach'....
    It was an "I'm old" joke. Yes, I am. However teachers are not perfect, we do on occasion have wrong information.
    Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them-a world of work, culture, intellectual activity, and human involvement. The future of our Nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music. -Gerald Ford

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    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by musicteach View Post
    It was an "I'm old" joke. Yes, I am. However teachers are not perfect, we do on occasion have wrong information.

    I am also a teacher and
    I would agree that none of us are perfect. However, this was a somewhat fundamental error.
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-17-2014 at 09:18.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

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    Captain of Water Music musicteach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pcnd5584 View Post

    I am also a teacher and
    I would agree that none of us are perfect. However, this was a somewhat fundamental error.
    Perhaps and it has been corrected. Is there really any reason to beat it into the ground?
    Music education opens doors that help children pass from school into the world around them-a world of work, culture, intellectual activity, and human involvement. The future of our Nation depends on providing our children with a complete education that includes music. -Gerald Ford

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  13. #9
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by musicteach View Post
    Perhaps and it has been corrected. Is there really any reason to beat it into the ground?

    Reply sent by PM, explaining why I considered it necessary to write my post above.
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-18-2014 at 00:37.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

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    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Part of the problem in addressing the question is that the notion of a "good" improvisation likely to be highly subjective anyway.

    As we've seen from another recent thread, the improvisations of Gert van Hoef have met with much appreciation from some members here, whereas, others prefer the likes of Latry, Cochereau, Briggs, et al.

    Over the years, I recall hearing the word "informed" being used a lot, ie, "It wasn't a very well informed improvisation" and I suspect by that, the critic means that the performer appeared to demonstrate a limited musical vocabulary.

    People have often asked me when and where I learned to improvise and, slightly embarrassingly, I have to shrug and say "I just did it because I had to" which is mostly true. Upon starting a post as cathedral organist, you hurriedly learn that when someone says "Quick! Play something, anything, they're not finished down there yet" that you have to do just that - play something, anything.

    It's then that you have to draw on anything and everything that you know, at that moment, in that instant, and then apply to whatever you've started any developmental techniques that you know. Speaking for myself, I drew (and still draw) a lot on compositional techniques, only applying them in "realtime" as it were, rather than sitting down with manuscript and thinking about it first. I've also found over the years that a sense of awareness is important too, what sort of mood can you capture from the crowd, and could you work to that somehow. And always be thinking ahead

    As with all things, it takes time. And as with most forms of music, whether it's "good" or not will forever be in the ear of the listener!
    Last edited by Soubasse; May-19-2014 at 03:30.
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

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    Vice Admiral Virtuoso wljmrbill's Avatar
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    Soulbasse :Excellent explanation. I have found myself many times in the same situations as you and you "quote" filled in. When I studied many years ago there was not an improv. class as such.. I really learned alot about improv style when taking lessons to learn how to play popular styles of music as in my early studies very old fashioned teachers frond/ did not allow playing anything that was not written in manuscript form in front of you.Now days the students have classes in improvisation. In my old days Jazz musicians were the best at it and a few others as mentioned above by previous posts: but as we all know a composers generally hears the music in his head long before he writes it down. I am sure Bach was one of the best at it among many others. IMHO
    ....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

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    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Have just been re-reading some of the other questions raised by Nikam
    Quote Originally Posted by Nikam View Post
    What is the goal of an improvisation, apart from the obvious use in parts of a church service?
    Unsure as to being able to specify a "goal" as such, but I'm aware that sometime in the past, Improvisation Competitions used to be held, but I'm vague about the details. A former teacher of mine once presented a radio programme on that very topic, entitled "Duel for Organs." Two popular organists would meet in the same venue and have a "play off".
    Improvisations have featured (and of course do still feature) in concert recitals by organists around the globe (even theatre organists will include an improvisation as part of their concert programmes). This can often be as a further showcase of the organist's talents. Latry, Briggs, and doubtless many other luminaries (Wayne Marshall I think did at some stage?) regularly feature an improvisation at their recitals.
    I have a mildly amusing story about improvising at a recital. I did one earlier this year quite by accident. I was doing a recital for the local Organ Music Society and to my shock, despite my usually careful preparation, after arriving at the church I discovered that I could not find one of my scores anywhere in my case, or even the car. The only way to fill in the required amount of time was to improvise (the audience at least got a good laugh during my preamble!). So after requesting a random number from the hymn-book, away I went, and it was thankfully rather well-received.

    How should one listen intelligently to what can simply seem a clash of sound?
    Again, I'd argue subjectivity on that one. I've heard similar criticisms levelled against improvs by Cochereau, Lefebvre, Latry, et al. An understanding of their own musical language would be fairly important to gain an appreciation of what they do tonally during during their improvisations. Not forgetting the colourful French traditions of tonality, from Tournemire through Dupre, Durufle, Langlais, Messiaen, Alain, etc, etc. If nothing else, to listen "intelligently" as you put it, I guess the simplest thing to do would be to accept the "clash of sound" as an intrinsic part of their musical language at that moment, and put up with it - or, also, perhaps tie it in to whatever conceptual theme the improvisation may be based upon.

    Where does the ability to improvise begin, and what are the essential stages of development?
    As pcnd has already pointed out, a strong performance technique is basically essential. In terms of developing, (again as pcnd has said) an appreciation of compositional techniques, any and every device you can use, even if it's a way of making the most out of a two or three note motif (transposing, retrograding, inverting, augmenting, , etc, etc) Think on that spectacular improvisation that Latry did after a special service at Notre Dame dedicated to the Emergency service personell of the city - Latry improvised on the two note emergency siren call!! It's on YouTube somewhere.
    From my own experience, another important stage of development includes the following: listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, and listen ... and then after that do some more listening - to any and everything, be open to being influenced and inspired by it

    To what degree is a musical imagination a contributory factor?
    In relation to all of the above, you could be the most knowledgeable player, armed with every clever trick from a thousand books or as many teachers, but if you don't have an imagination to put it together in a creative and interesting way, listeners are possibly likely to get bored!
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

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  19. #13
    Captain of Water Music
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    The lengthy responses by pcnd (16.05.14) and the two above by Soubasse give much food for thought and are appreciated. Thank you.

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    Administrator Krummhorn's Avatar
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    I too will be tasked to 'play something quick' in my services. Just this past weekend, after my prepared piece Rhosymedre by RVW, I needed about two minutes of "fill" while the clergy was finishing up communion and putting all the elements away. Lutheran's hate silence, at least in my parish ... so I often improvise something on the spot ... actually did a little musing from the beginning of the preachers sermon when she described the kids tune, Twinkle, Twinkly, Little Star ... I played a v-e-r-y reverent and v-e-r-y slow rendition of that song ... the pastor caught on and so did a couple of choir members, but the rest of the congregation only thought it to be 'very lovely' ... and after the service asked what it was that I played after the prepared piece ... .

    I love to sit and just improvise at the console ... and I prefer 'creating' using the softer palettes of the organ stops.

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    Chief assistant to the assistant chief JHC's Avatar
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    It seems to me that the organists are talking ofimprovisation in the sense of making up a piece from scratch but in jazz itmeans to improvise around the melody that is the basis of the piece beingplayed (variations ?? not really)this is in the jazz that I played and understood, in today’s ‘freejazz’ improvisation may be more simular to the organists method. Just mythoughts.
    Last edited by JHC; May-19-2014 at 23:37.
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