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Practicing Improvisation?

January 20, 2010

I am on a mission to become better at organ improvisation, especially hymn-tune based improvisation.  I have some basic techniques down, but I am getting bored with what I am doing, so I want to get better.  I have recently purchased several texts and recordings to help me in that goal.  One that I am going through right now is “Improvising: How to Master the Art” by Gerre Hancock (published by Oxford).  In it he has a great footnote (on page vii)  that speaks to the seeming contradiction of practicing improvisation:

Here a contradiction seems to confront the musician: how can improvised music be spontaneous if it has been practiced beforehand?  The answer is simply that if we must practice the notated music of other composers in order to perform it properly, all them more do we need to practice our own music, even if not previously written down.

Wise words from a world-class improviser.  And now I’m off to practice my improvisations…


From → Church Music

  1. Great quote. David Cherwien wrote in “Let the People Sing” (CPH) on improvisation: “It does not happen overnight, I’m sorry to report. It does take the “P” word (Practice). . . . Bach himself said ‘Anyone can improvise like I do. All they have to do is practice.'”

    Like yourself, I also like to improvise at the organ and piano and am trying to practice it with more diligence.

    What other improvisation texts/recordings do you have? I have the Hancock book and the following ones I’ve used off and on:

    Organ Improvisation by Gerhard Krapf (Augsburg – out of print, but found a used copy on eBay)
    Organ Improvisation for Beginners by Jan Bender (CPH – out of print) — though I purchased a license from CPH to make a photocopy of the book.
    Improvisation for Organists by Jan Overduin (Oxford)
    Off the Page by Donald Rotermund (Morningstar)
    Hymn Improvisation by Michele Johns (Augsburg)
    Let the People Sing by David Cherwien (CPH)
    Paul Manz service playing practicum CDs (AGO)
    Mini Course on Creative Hymn Playing by John Ferguson (AGO)

    • I have the Hancock, Michele Johns, Bender, & Rotermund. I need to get the Cherwien and the Manz CDs, if they’re still available.

      As for recordings, I don’t have any recorded lectures, but I do listen to many recordings of actual improvisations, such as:

      Paul Manz – Hymn Improvisations (1-3), Celebrating the Lutheran Chorale (with Martin Marty & the Valpo Choir)

      Gerre Hancock – Christmas Improvisations, Great Hymns of Faith (with the UT Chamber Singers), Praise the Eternal Light (Improvisations on stained glass windows in a RC Church).

      Pierre Cochereau – L’Organiste liturgique (improvisations played during the Mass)

      Charles Ore – From My Perspective (1-4)

      John Ferguson – Favorite Hymns Accompanied, Great Hymns of Faith 1 & 2 (with the St. Olaf Choir)

      There’s probably more, but that’s why I’m listening to to help me with my improv. Gotta have it in your head before you can play it. And I second Iggy’s comment that it’d be great to hear you on Time Out.

      • Nathan, If you’d like a copy of Cherwien’s book, shoot me an e-mail at lutherankantor at gmail dot com. I have a “spare” copy that’s been given to me and I’d be glad to give/pass it along to you.

        I have dabbled only a bit with recording my improvisations. One of the few that I’ve recorded is a setting of Let Us Ever Walk With Jesus. It has been uploaded to my blog as an mp3. As I recall, I was playing from memory so there may be some “variations” from the “authorized edition”. The organ is a 2-manual Allen practice organ.

      • Chris, I tried to listen to your recording, but the link appeared to be bad. But I’d be interested in hearing it, if possible.

        Secondly, I was digging through some boxes and discovered that I do have the Gerhard Krapf “Organ Improvisation” book. I must have gotten it in college when some professors were cleaning out their collections. So I’ll add that to my list. At this rate I’ll get through all my improv books by about 2020 or so…

      • Nathan: Here’s the “new” link.

        I haven’t perused the Krapf book too much yet — but improvising is a lifelong endeavor and that’s the fun part.

      • That sounds nice. I especially like how you were consistent in bringing the ritornello back; I often have trouble remembering what I’ve played before. The Hancock book is helping me with phrasing, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Chris H: it would be great to hear your improvisations. Are you able to record at your church? Perhaps you could pinch hit for Lutheran Time Out!

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