Resources for Improvisation, Pedals, and Stops
  • I am wanting to improve my organ skills, specifically in the realm of improvisation (for which I am sure I need more theory), pedaling, and how to combine stops. What resources would anyone recommend?
  • JonathanKKJonathanKK
    Posts: 490
    For improvisation: can you play by ear? For myself, I was surprised to find that this is a learnable skill.

    When I was in music school, I discovered that I had no idea about this. If I heard in my head what should come next, I had no idea how to play it; and if I thought of a theoretical chord progression or modulation and played it, the sounds that came out were not what I had wanted.

    I remember doing two exercises, which were helpful in learning to play the harmonies that I wanted. One is to take a chord progression that has struck your fancy, and to play it in all 12 keys, until you have mastered it. The other is to play all successions of two chords, and listen carefully to how they sound. For example, play C major and try how it sounds followed by all 12 possible minor chords. Or try C minor and try how it sounds followed by all 12 possible major chords. Some of the permutations will match up with characteristic gestures that are already in your aural memory, so note those for future use.

    My organ improvising was all self-taught. The easiest is to play softly things that are in imitation of accompanied chant. Then you can go from there.

    One thing to keep in mind about improvising: once you have played a note, you cannot undo it, it has become part of the piece you are improvising. That means that the only way to atone for a wrong note is to alter what comes after to make it fit. There is a story about Dupre, he was playing a Bach fugue, and an "A" pipe began to cipher. He improvised the ending of the fugue to close in A minor, pianissimo. So any mistake can be make to work. This is a consoling thought when applied to life.
  • I would agree with Jonathan about improvising on chant. I am also self taught, and I have found that chant is the easiest to learn to improvise on. If you have enough experience playing or singing in, for example, mode 7, you will find that there are similar melodic figures in a lot of mode 7 pieces. You can use these to help you craft that improvisation. I find this holds true for all the modes. A couple weeks ago, I actually had to extend a gospel acclamation in mode 4 since the procession to the ambo was not finished, but the gospel acclamation was. I just took what I knew of mode 4 and combined the different themes to fill the time.

    If I am improvising an interlude to a hymn I will often end the verse and then transition from the ending chord to the 4 chord (assuming a major key). From that pedal note I will go stepwise up or down the scale. I'll use the pedal note to guide the chord progression in the hands. When I want to end the interlude I will work into a 5-1 cadence sometimes using the last measure or two of the hymn to end it. I find that using the stepwise pedal note takes a lot of thought out of improvising (important for me since I tend to overthink things).

    The only way to get good at improvising is to just sit at the organ, find a piece to improvise on and just play. I am a person that normally likes things to be really planned out, so improvising scared me at first. That only way I got over this mental block is by just making it a part of my practice sessions. Also, I have very little formal training in music theory, so it is not necessary, but can help.
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 284
    Have you a teacher?
  • Are you an AGO member?
    The American Organist has a monthly section on improvisation.
  • To start with, just try noodling around.

    Take a melody you know really well and see how many different ways you can change the accompaniment.

    Theme and variations (of every kind/composer) are great things to imitate as they open your eyes to the myriad of ways a single theme can be treated. Then you can take a different theme of your choosing and try doing each style of variation used by your model yourself on your own chosen theme.

    There are also a few method books about improvisation around if you do some yahoogling. I've seen a few but never used them.

    The biggest help for me was just spending time improvising every day. When I was in undergrad, I would probably spend a full hour of my 2-3 hour daily practice just improvising. Now that I do not spend that much time playing that way, I find improvisation more difficult than I used to, although I still do it daily. All that is to say, it is a skill that needs to be practiced and cultivated.

    I also second the suggestion of trying to play by ear. That, honestly, is probably step one. You need to be able to tell your hands how to do what you hear in your head. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if you don't know how to make your fingers and feet do what you hear, it's all moot unless you're sitting at a piano composing. Get that first step down first, and then the rest will flow naturally.
  • One thing to keep in mind about improvising: once you have played a note, you cannot undo it, it has become part of the piece you are improvising.


    One trick I was taught is that, depending on the mistake, you can actually repeat the motive which tricks everyone into thinking that you've intended it to sound that way. Doing so buys you a little time to work your way out of the mistake. Repetitions of a motif also change the way your ear perceives it so it doesn't seem so odd.

    This trick has dug me out of many a hole. lol.
  • kevinfkevinf
    Posts: 1,112
    Dupre: Method of improvisation. Best out there and rather thorough. Boring at the beginning but you need to do it.
    Thanked by 1youngcatholicgirl
  • I've used "Breaking Free" and "A World of Possibilities" by Jeffrey Brillhart, the organ improvisation professor at Yale. His methodology centers on the modern French style of improvisation (e.g. how to use Messiaen's second and third modes, modal scales, inverted chords, etc.) and he covers various musical forms ranging from Passacaglia to Song Form. Personally, I find them to be a fantastic set of books. If the French style is not your taste, Jan Overduin's "Improvisation for Organists" has an equally thorough grade of development, but with a more "conservative" tonal approach than Brillhart. It even covers some topics Brillhart does not.
    Thanked by 1youngcatholicgirl
  • Thanks, everyone. I do not have a teacher, nor am I a member of the AGO; I inherited the organist position a couple years ago and have never had any formal lessons. I'm excited to spend time just fooling around with some hymn tunes.
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 284
    I have to say – all of this will take infinitely longer to puzzle out on your own than with a teacher's help.

    Improvisation is rather like speaking your own thoughts out loud. You need to have fluency in the language you are using in order for the sounds you produce to have any logic, sequence, or meaning – that is to say, if you want your improvisation on chant to sound like Duruflé's improvisations, you've got to learn to play his music; if you want it to sound Baroque, you've got to learn Bach/Pachelbel/Buxtehude, and so on. Trying to do it without knowing beforehand how to 1) how to efficiently use the organ (physically speaking) and 2) what sounds, figurations, and idioms are effective and workable is really like trying to give a lecture in a language you do not know and have not studied.

    And then as far as pedal technique and combining the stops – both of these can be quickly learned when you have someone to guide you, to help you understand what your particular organ can do, and what you should be trying for. With a lesson a week, by this time next year, you can be completely confident in all these disciplines, but on your own, you'll end up frustrated, possibly sore, and about where you started.

    You should get in touch with your local AGO chapter; very often they have scholarships available for new organists to take lessons, whether virtually or in person. If you're in a really remote area, you could study online. I know the new Sacred Music Institute is offering lessons, and I've seen several organists post on Facebook that they are available to teach anyone anywhere. https://www.sacredmusicinstitute.org/

    Thanked by 1M. Jackson Osborn