1 improvising plain chant
2 plain chant with drone
3 a drone with a fifth
4 two part counterpoint
5 in three parts
6 hymns --melody alone
7 hymns--elaboration of melody
8 Instant Toccata
9 Theme and Variations
10 simple but effective tricks
11 (extending) deliberately
12 have you tried....?
13 memory and improvisation
Improvisation Corner columns
The following is a series of aids to beginning improvisation
(aimed mainly at church musicians, and largely for 'traditional' organists,
pianists, etc., although there are some overlaps with concepts discussed in some
of the praise band-related articles on improvisation on the
Godmusic home page. I consider it a
beta version for the moment; later on I'll add some audio files with examples,
and probably rework things as needed. The biggest obstacle here seems to be lack
of contact with the 'student,' so any feedback would be appreciated.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) Thanks! And enjoy.
|Improvisation corner #1 (9/1/11)
Improvising plain chant
Many musicians think that organ or piano
music in church is all about taking a hymn and arranging it
somehow. In which case, we are going to start in what seems to
be a strange place: making up your own tune. If you are familiar
with plain-chant (if you aren’t, think of medieval monks, or go
find some on Youtube) you will have noticed just how effective a
single-note melody can be. And that’s just what this is. One
note at a time, nothing else. I’m inviting you to put your thumb
on some white key (you may want to avoid B), spread your digits
out into a 5-finger position (one per white note, for example,
c-d-e-f-g) and create a
moderately paced, a-rhythmic tune (meaning all notes are the
same length, more or less).
A few guides: This will work better at the
organ than the piano (it’s more effective on a sustaining
instrument). Once you’ve chosen an opening note, go up to the
very next one, or down to the very next one, or repeat the same
note. There should be very little jumping around (up 2 or 3
notes, for example. You might want to introduce a leap here or
there for variety, but it won’t sound very authentic if you do
it very often). After a handful of notes (vary the number),
pause briefly. Make the last note of each phrase a little bit
longer than the others. Again, listen to the monks do it. You’ll
get the idea.
More hints: musical
‘gravity’ is formed by having a central pitch---a keynote. Your
thumb rests on the one you’ve chosen. Experiment with having
phrases that end (close) on that pitch of ‘finality’ and those
that do not. However, modern music theory didn’t exist at this
point, so don’t try to make the notes do what your 21st
ears tell you too exactly—be open to things that sound a little
strange. But above all—listen to yourself! Notice what you like
and what you don't. See if you can repeat any of it.
Between now and the next Improvisation
Corner (in two or three weeks), try this exercise about 10
times for a couple of minutes each time you do it (for
example, whenever you first sit down to practice).
Improvisation corner #2 (9/28/11)
improvising plain chant: part two
We’re not going to add very much to what
we did the
last time. But notice how sometimes a very small change
can be very effective. This week I want you to add a drone.
If your right hand thumb rested, say, on an A, then put your
foot (or your left hand) on an A an octave or two lower and
leave it there for the entire improvisation.
Another thing I’d like you to try is to
add a note (or two) to the right hand’s melodic range
immediately below your thumb note. You can also expand the
upper range, going as high as an octave from where you began
(say, A to A).
Don't worry about whether the
results sound 'good.' The first barrier students often
encounter is that they become very self-conscious about
what they are doing right from the start, and this keeps
them from continuing to learn and to grow. Remember, no
one is listening, and not everything you (or I, or
anyone else) make up will please you. Listen and learn.
Keep searching around until you play a short phrase you
like. That will inspire you to go on. Also, if you like
what you did, repeat it—whether it is the last three
notes, or the whole phrase.
And while you are at it, relax and
enjoy the sounds! Plainchant can be very
stress-releasing and meditative.
|Improvisation corner #3
improvising plain chant:
This is our last exercise involving plain chant for a while. And the
only new thing I want you to do at first is to add a fifth to the drone
you were using last time. In other words, if you were improvising with
your right hand thumb on a A, your left hand would be playing an A on
octave below it. Add an E to that. You are now playing the interval of a
A student observed to me the other week the difference between having
this continuous harmony sounding beneath the melody notes and just
having the chant without a drone. In the case of no accompanying
harmony, we are pretty free to end up wherever we want to at the end of
a phrase. But add a drone, and it feels as if there is now a center of
musical gravity toward which that phrase must go. The concept of
resting, finality, and relative importance of some pitches over others
seems to enter the picture at this point. With a two-note drone, the
effect is even more pronounced.
Basically, you are reliving musical history. From about the 10th century
onward, these innovations gradually (and I mean gradually) crept into
music. It is hard for our ears (or our minds) to appreciate how folks
would have heard things then, or to understand how they thought about
them (and I'm certainly no expert in this area). But it does give us
some useful approaches for diving in and experiencing melodic creation
without a lot of advance knowledge. Someone once sound the best way to
learn conducting is to do it, and I'm going to apply the same thing to
improvisation. The only way to learn it is to do it--a lot. Do
discriminate between what you like and what you don't, but don't stop
playing because you 'can't think of anything good.' Often a mundane
music thought can be made into a good one with just the subtlest touch.
Stick with it.
As you get used to this method of making music, I want you to try a few
--see if you can play the same phrase twice. This requires, not just
making something up, but instantly recalling what you made up so you can
do it again. In the case of a short phrase, it shouldn't be all that
hard. And, you'll need this skill for later, believe me!
--try 'answering' your phrases, not simply by repeating them, but by
starting a note higher and playing them again (sequence). Or try playing
them upside down, or backwards!
--see if you can sculpt a phrase so that, instead of simply wandering up
and down, the music gradually moves higher or lower over the course of
several phrases. One way to regulate this is to start a phrase on a
higher (or lower) note each time, and to limit the range of a phrase or
two so they don't all use every note within range.
--turn off the drone (whew!) Now that you have your left hand free, use
it to imitate what the right hand is doing. Alternate phrases between
your right hand and your left hand. Things are starting to get
|Improvisation corner #4
If you are wondering when the hymn-tune arranging part comes in, just
give it a couple of weeks. While for many Christian pianists that is the
whole point behind improvising, I'm actually trying to do something a
bit more difficult--and broader--than that. One of these major
principles is to use your ear; the other is to be able to 'speak' music
without having to use a pre-existing melody, like a hymn tune.
But we'll spend plenty of time talking about harmonization and
arranging, and playing lead sheets, when we get there. For now, the idea
is to build off of that experience you had simply jumping into the pool
(of improvisation) and swimming around, by adding another voice.
I want you to start by playing two notes a fifth apart (for example, C
and the G above it, or D and the A above it, and so on). Now move one
note at a time (slowly). You can move either the lower note or the upper
note, but not both. And don't move the note more than a couple of notes
away from where it was (a leap) and don't do that very often (much like
when you did plainchant, above). As you play the notes, try saying the
name of the interval. (counting the bottom note as 1, the distance to
the top note is the interval; thus C to E is a 3rd. C to F is a 4th).
The reason for this is to listen to the sounds of the intervals and
experience their unique qualities. The other reason is that if you move
one of the notes to a combination that is unpleasant, you'll be able to
note which ones. Unlike in the previous sessions, you now have the
ability to play some fairly unpleasant combined sounds; the trick is not
(necessarily) to avoid them in the first place so much as it is to know
how to resolve the conflict smoothly. This is a major concept in most
Western music of the last several centuries, but many people don't
notice until they have to create music themselves, any more than you
spend much time thinking about how to put words together until you have
to do it in a foreign language, or take a writing course. So if you find
yourself playing two notes that don't sound good together, dare yourself
to stay on them long enough to make it obvious (in other words, don't
bail out at the first sign of trouble), and then decide which note you
are going to move, and in which direction, to find your way back to
something you'd enjoy hearing. If this seems a bit vague, it is
deliberately so. This is not meant to be a series of simple formulas you
can plug in to get prefabricated results (although we'll get around to
that too), it is a chance for you to discover your own creative ability.
And you have one, trust me. It may not be in league with your favorite
composer, but you have one. If you can carry on a conversation in
English, you know how to use rules to make something up on the spot. But
with music, it will take time to develop. And today we are developing
the ear most strongly. When I improvise, I usually can hear what I am
about to play. So listen to what you are playing, experience the tension
and the relaxation in the various combinations (intervals) of sound, and
begin to get a sense for what interests you. The "grammar" rules will
|Improvisation corner #5
in three parts
Before we take a turn into more familiar territory, I'd like
you to try one fairly difficult thing. You've improvised in two parts,
now I'd like you to try it in three. Take an opening chord, like C-E-G,
(you can split it among your two hands however you'd like) and slowly
change one of the notes at a time. Spend some time listening to the new
chord before going on. For this exercise, don't worry about what label
to put on any of those chords. For example, if you start by moving the
top note up a step so you are now playing C-E-A, I don't want you
thinking about how you are playing an "a minor" chord in first
inversion, unless you just can't help it because you are so fluent in
theory it just happens. Rather, I want you to simply approach the chords
as interesting sounds. Later on we will discuss things from a theory
perspective and then I'd like you to experience the shock of recognition
that comes to a native English speaker who is learning grammar for the
first time: it is something new, and yet you realize that you really
know it already because you have been using the language since birth
even if you didn't know what a noun was. Since many of us learn about
music solely through abstract principles and rules without ever just
sitting down and experiencing sounds like a composer (many of whom have
had some nasty things to say about theory) I'm hoping you'll do that. In
other words, you are experiencing harmony as a raw, unfiltered thing.
That is all the guidance I'll give, except that if you are familiar with
Bach's Prelude in C which opens the first book of the Well-Tempered
Clavier, after you have spent several days doing this exercise, get it
out, and play it. Then try blocking the chords--in other words, play the
first five notes of each measure at the same time to produce one solid
chord. Do this all the way through the piece. Does it strike you that in
some ways Bach was doing the same thing you've been doing this week,
only in five parts (Bach the overachiever!)? This is the power of
harmony, for those who are affected by it.
|Improvisation corner #6
Working with hymn tunes--melody (part one)
So far we haven't been doing any work with any written notes
(congratulations!). This time, we're going to head for more familiar
territory and finally crack open a hymn book* (whew!). One of the
difficulties I've encountered with students, oddly enough, is that it is
impossible for them not to play the notes, all the notes, and only the
notes on the page. I'm going to try to get you to break your oath to
written notes today, and I'm going to do it in the simplest way
possible. Instead of adding notes, I'm going to take some away.
Just play the melody. No kidding. Ignore the other three parts. Take
your favorite hymns, or just go through the book, and only play the
tune. If you've never done this before, you may have a rough time
ignoring the other parts, and even feel like you are transgressing
somehow, so I wanted to give you a chance to get used to the idea. If
you find this is not such a struggle, then you'll have to wait until
next time to be really challenged. But in the meantime, here are some
other things you can do:
play just the bass. Or just the alto. Or just the tenor.
Or try the tenor in octaves. Or--hey, why not?--The melody in octaves.
In the bass! Or play the bass in the treble! Woah! That's crazy talk!
Let's not get carried away here!
When I play a hymn during a service, I rarely play only or all the notes
I see on the page. I might do that for a verse or two, but I usually add
things, subtract things, change things, for variety, for support, to let
the choir and congregation shine when they can, and to help when they
need it, and for a lot of other reasons. The notes I see function more
like suggestions than ironclad mandates. And my point here is to help
you to see them this way, too: to have a more permeable boundary between
the seen and the unseen, between the notes as they are given and the
notes you decide to play by creative choice. Start to have a
conversation with what you see on the page. Start talking back! Next
time, we'll start adding notes of our own.
*note: I'm assuming a 'traditional' hymnal with four-part harmonizations
|Improvisation corner #7
working with hymn tunes--melody (part two: elaborating the melody)
Improvisers don't just get their ideas from outer space; sometimes a
great deal of what they do is a reworking of something else--variations
on a tune, expounding on a musical riff they picked up somewhere; an
idea from another piece of music (perhaps in the same service) with a
new bent, an attempt to dramatize a story or poem or paint a picture, or
just to make something more interesting or put it in their own musical
So today we start to alter things that already exist. In this case,
taking a familiar hymn tune. Do you know any so well you can play them
from memory? If not, spoiler alert, I'm going to start suggesting you do
things like that. Just taking the melody line of a favorite hymn is a
good place to start--it's short, you know how it goes already, you just
need to transfer that information into your fingers and be able to play
it without looking at the hymnal. If it takes a few days, let it. Then
come back. I'll still be here.
Ok. We've got a tune. Now we're going to change it. Not radically--we're
going to add ornaments to it. Consider the tune an outline, and you are
going to embellish it a bit. If you are the type who thinks you're not
creative, and can't do this, I'm going to come as close to giving you a
simple formula as I can without actually telling you what to do in
If you see un upward skip in your melody somewhere, say from an E to a
G, fill in that space with an F. In other words, suppose you have a
quarter note E followed by a quarter note G, play two eighth notes in
place of the first quarter note so that you are playing the E and the F
like a pair of eighth notes on the first beat, followed by the G as it
appears in the music.
Step two. If you see a downward skip, do the same thing as in the above
paragraph, but in reverse (G to E becomes G-F-E)
Step three. If you see a repeated note, add either an upper note, or a
lower note in between the two. In other words, D to D becomes D-C-D, or
These are fairly basic, and really, there are several other things you
could do, such as:
repeat a note extra times in some sort of peppy rhythmic gesture
trill on a note
add several notes above or below the one you are on, making sure to
arrive at the next note on time, or
don't--that is, don't worry about sticking to every note in the
melody; a few of them might actually be replaced with your ornamental
notes. If you do this frequently enough, the original tune will start to
become unrecognizable, but you may have created a new tune.
We'll be doing more with this in the weeks to come. Remember, you are
still playing a single note at a time with only one hand (although, if
you feel like adding a drone or something for harmonic interest, I won't
stop you). Something else that we will be doing over the next several
weeks is getting to know every key from the inside out. Instead of
simply playing a D major scale, or a Bb major scale, you will begin
playing around making tunes in those keys so your hand really gets
comfortable with how they feel, and how to 'think' in those keys on the
fly. This will take some time (I'm thinking of trying a key a week, and
going in circle of fifths order). If you find your inability to do this
right now is interfering with your being able to add notes to tunes in
the current lesson, try picking a tune in C major so you don't have to
think about which notes have to be sharped or flatted. We'll be getting
to that over time.
|Improvisation corner #8
If you've made it this far, congratulations! Being able to stick
with learning anything for an extended period of time is too big a
challenge for many of us, and the lure of instant results gets in the
way of real, sustained progress because people think that if they can't
play up a storm right away it's just not worth it. All of those
single-note melodies and slow moving chord progressions just aren't that
Well, surprise! This time you're going to learn to create an entire
piece of music in about five minutes. And it will probably sound about
as good as much of the music that comes out of a lot of those church
organ magazines or collections of organ pieces from the church
publishing houses. Which means that if you learn to do this sort of
thing well you will save a lot of money and practice time. It also
means, incidentally, that there are a lot of people making money writing
out things that are not that hard for people to make up for themselves.
Your congregation may well be impressed, and you ought to be proud of
yourself. But it's not like you are going to climb Mount Everest. This
is only lesson #8!
So here's the deal. We're going to take the hymn "O, for a Thousand
Tongues to Sing" because it works particularly well for this sort of
thing. First play the hymn tune alone. It's in the key of G in our
hymnals, so next, I want you to play it in the key of C. (which means
you start on a G). This will actually make the rest of the procedure
easier, and, incidentally, get you to transpose a little.
Next, we take a pattern of 4 sixteenth notes , say G-down to D-C-D_back
up to G
you can make up others) and repeat that pattern over and over. Now you
are going to play the hymn tune in the left hand and the repeated
pattern in your right.
Unfortunately, that only took about 20 seconds. So what do we do next.
Here are some possibilities for the next verse:
Flip the hands around. Play the hymn in the right and and upside down
version of the pattern (example) in your left.
What next? How about one of the following:
Add a drone (note: you can do this by strategically stomping on a low C
in the pedal at various times throughout the piece for a little
Play the melody with ornaments as we did in lesson #7.
Play just the outside voices (soprano and bass) as shown in the hymnal.
Play harmonies to go with the melody, for instance, follow the melody up
and down in thirds. (example) This can be done in both hands for more
sound, and moving in the same direction is always easier than going in
different directions. You don't really need to think about what the
names of the chords are; just do it. It's not as hard as you think.
After a few verses, you may want some relief from the tune. Here's a
simple way to make a short transition section: take the third phrase
(G-G-E-E-C-C-A-A) and make a short sequence out of it. This means you
will first play just what I've shown you, and then repeat it starting a
note lower (or higher) as in (F-F-D-D-B-B-G-G), then repeat again
starting the chain a note lower again (start on a E) and then once more
on a D. Then you can tack on the last phrase of the hymn, and go
straight into the last section, which I would make identically to the
first thing you did with the patterns in one hand and the tune in the
other to give balance to the piece and a sense of purpose. Otherwise
your efforts might sound like somebody who didn't really know where they
were going. Improvisation done well does not sound aimless; it is really
a high compliment if your congregation can't tell whether you are making
it up or playing something that has been written down from memory.
Some other hymns you can try:
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (D-B-G-F#-G-B) 5 notes to a beat pattern
All Creatures of our God and King (F#-G-F#-D-B-D) 6 notes to a beat pattern; or
BG-GD-GD-BG (4 note pattern)
Lord of the Dance, with a dominant trill throughout