He who would valiant beHaving played Bach for all of my organ voluntaries for the four weeks ending with Trinity Sunday, I determined to improvise all voluntaries for the summer at both the 9:00 and 11:00 services: piano and organ. I hoped that sustained effort might result in some skill development, sorely lacking at the organ and still much needed at the piano.
‘gainst all disaster,
let him in constancy
follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim.
(John Bunyan, adapted by Percy Dearmer)
The prospect of this work scares me about as much as anything I have attempted musically. How am I going to practice? How can I improvise this much and not drive away the 11:00 congregation? Are they going to put up with my learning curve, which will doubtless be steep? How dare I put my music ahead of the likes of JSB, or Paul Manz, or Kenton Coe, or John Stanley (whose voluntaries would be much easier to prepare for a summer Sunday than improvisations)?
Well. Nothing for it but to give it a try.
Week I, ending with June 18
On this first week, my practice time is limited by preparations for Saturday’s Gay Pride Parade, in which our parish has a float. On the float: the Palm Sunday Marching Band in its second public appearance, having expanded its repertoire well beyond “All glory, laud, and honor.”
For the uninitiated, the PSMB is a group of (mostly) middle-school bandswomen and men. Our group this time consisted of three clarinets, oboe, alto saxophone, trombone, and a band/choir mother walking alongside the float playing recorder. For safety’s sake, we play everything in unison, though that puts the alto sax in a not-so-comfortable tessiatura.
The parade was terrific fun. People cheered, many sang along with us.
But I was not as prepared for Sunday as I would have liked, especially for this first Sunday of my summer’s work. The piano prelude at 9:00 went well; it is here on SoundCloud.
The organ? Not so much. For a prelude, I improvised on the fine tune East Acklam (“For the fruit of all creation, thanks be to God”). It was thoroughly conventional. Dull. And too long for what little imagination there was in it. At least it was soft and hopefully inoffensive. The postlude was better, based on Paderborn (“Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim”). It was lively and had some good moments, though the big ending that was the direction it wanted was about four bars too long. Still, it was a start: big endings are notoriously difficult – certainly for me, but even the Real Composers sometimes have problems.
Week II, ending with June 25
Well. How does one practice?
On the face of it, no problem: I have described my improvisation practicing here, complete with YouTube example. But how does that work out when this sort of practice is all that I am doing, all week – for that matter, all summer?
His eye is on the sparrow:
I sing because I’m happy,This is the piano prelude, for we are singing this fine old Gospel song at both services. It gives me another opportunity to Play the Changes, this time with a longer and more challenging chord structure.
I sing because I’m free,
For his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me.
(Civilla D. Martin)
Perversely, the improvisation seems to want the key of G flat major. I try playing it from the printed version (C major, a fully written out SATB hymnal version with chord symbols) and stumble along with it all week, until in exasperation I write out a lead sheet version in G flat. To make it more fun, I use alto clef, because the tune fits the staff better that way. If nothing else, the week has taught me the value of lead sheets. The written harmony parts are a distraction for this sort of work, and as much as I like the Roman numeral chord designations (I, IV, V, etc.), the letter-name chord symbols are less subject to error in this context. I even discover why the jazzmen often make enharmonic changes that seem strange to a classically-trained player, for I quickly replace the IV chord (C flat major) with B major, totally foreign to the key but something I’m more likely to play correctly on the fly.
After Matins on Saturday, I give it the T. Monk treatment – just shy of two hours. At first it remains cheesy, the sort of backgroundish Baptist communion music that I once could play well. At about the one-hour mark, it becomes more interesting. I find myself in what is almost a bop version, a four-against-three walking bass line with syncopated melody. This is fun, so I stay with it for several variations, but my chops are definitely not ready to do this in public. From there it gets slow and much more dissonant. I find that I can pretend the alto clef is treble and play the tune as C mixolydian, while still playing the G flat chord pattern (well, mostly). Thinking of how much other work lies ahead, I round it off with a final play-through of the tune, soft and meditative. It is good; I hope I can find this place on Sunday morning.
That is one of the problems for the improviser. You find the magic, the unexpected insights into the tune, but the gold is mixed with the dross. How can you get to it when the congregation is not going to patiently listen to you stumble around for an hour or more? How can you play the good stuff and not any of the bad stuff?
The best I can say is that this sort of long-form practicing puts enough material into the Cauldron of Song (with homage to JRRT’s Cauldron of Story) so that the unconscious can work with it through the week – I suspect much of this work occurs as we sleep – and on Sunday we can perhaps be sufficiently transparent so that the Holy Spirit can use us for Her divine purposes.
Another problem is that some of the more bizarre material (such as the bitonal variations) would not make sense to listeners who had not walked the long path to that point in the music. I do not yet see how to get there in the time frame of a service prelude. Perhaps the value of it for practice is that it builds confidence that no matter how strange the material you stumble into, you can do something with it, and that something might be more worthwhile than all the rest of the piece.
My almost-two-hours complete, I am exhausted. “We come to practice as warriors,” says Steven Pressfield. It is time for an Alexander lay-down exercise. A re-exposure to the Alexander Technique by means of an AGO chapter program this spring and the book I read after that taught me the importance of the exercise at this point, after practice. The authors say to practice twenty minutes, then do the lay-down for twenty minutes. I have trouble imagining any professional musician with enough time for that, but I have this spring and summer made it habitual to do a five or ten minute lay-down after each hour of work. Or in this case, longer – that is part of why I am so tired.
On this day, I make it a full twenty-minute laydown, followed by Second Breakfast, a hobbitish custom I happily embrace. It is well over an hour before I am ready for another round.
He who would valiant be:
This week’s hymnody puts the question to my premise. There is a fine setting by Leo Sowerby of St. Dunstan’s (“He who would valiant be,” the opening hymn at 11:00) which I could play for a prelude, and it would be superior to anything I could possibly improvise. Worse still, the closing hymn is Ein feste Burg (“A mighty fortress”). That one puts me in competition with the whole array of German Lutheran composers, up to unplayable (for me) masterpieces such as Max Reger’s fantasia on this tune. More practically, there is a setting by Michael Praetorius that I have played many times. It likewise is superior to anything I could improvise. Right up to the bulletin deadline, I ask myself: Am I really going to do this? Shouldn’t I give up, and play the repertoire based on these tunes? That would put me right back to where I have been all these years – scrambling from one week to the next to prepare repertoire, always wanting to improve but never having sufficient practice time for something that is clearly optional to my work.
This fortnight, I have applied the same improvisatory practice techniques to these hymn tunes at the organ, but it became quickly evident that the music must go in a different direction from what it would be at the piano. The organ seems to demand more counterpoint. It is coloristic, more perhaps than the piano but in quite a different manner. One thing that is requiring work is to think ahead about registrations. I find myself playing with one hand while setting a registration on the other manual for music that has not yet come into existence – that is, I have only a vague notion as to what I might play for the next bit. But the registration helps create it when the time comes. That too is a surprising insight.
After initial work early in the week on each tune separately, I am finding that on the final days it is well to simply work through the 11:00 service, beginning to end. This Saturday, I improvise on St. Dunstan’s for a half-hour or so, then recall that I was intending – and had practiced and intended all week – to work Wer nun den lieben Gott (“If thou but suffer God to guide thee”) into the prelude as a contrasting theme, so I do – in this case as a coda of about twenty minutes.
After all that, playing St. Dunstan’s as the opening hymn is easy; I need only stay in the printed key and keep the tempo slow, probably much slower than I am thinking of it for improvisation.
Following a brief Alexander break, I work through the other hymns and service music, experimenting with an improvised introduction to Wer nun den lieben Gott. That too becomes easy after having worked with the tune at length through the week.
I finish the “pretended-service” with the congregational version of Ein feste Burg, and launch into improvisation on it. Again, the good stuff does not arrive for about twenty minutes.
June 25 - Sunday Scorecard:
The piano improvisation on “His eye is on the sparrow” is here.
Some of it is pretty good. I particularly like the “bass” solo on one of the stanzas, and the final time fully through the tune, taking a lot more time with it. As with last Sunday, I should have stopped four bars sooner.
Perhaps the real benefit of working on this one tune so much, probably four or five hours this week, came not at the 9:00 service where I improvised on it, but at 11:00. I lost count of the stanzas (a constant danger, especially for hymns that finish with a refrain or chorus) and kept playing after the congregation was done. It became clear that I should continue, as a coda of sorts. People started humming along, and it was absolutely right, the thing that was needed for that moment in the liturgy. I would not have played it as well without the practicing.
Both of the organ improvisations went well. I kept them fairly simple, conservative and brief, and they were more interesting than the ones from last week, though a bit sloppy in places. I will take “sloppy” over “dull” (e.g., last Sunday’s prelude) any day. Here is a SoundCloud clip combining the prelude and postlude.
[a technical footnote: There is a brand-new computer in the music office, running Windows 10. But Microsoft has done away with Windows Movie Maker, which I used to make MP4 clips to post on YouTube. I do not know how to work around this, so my YouTube channel may be finished. It is for now, anyway.]
1. This work will make me a better organist. After a mere fortnight, there is considerable improvement. Were I to practice every hymn in this manner, every week, my hymn playing would be transformed.
2. Improvising is not a shortcut. Yes, I can sit down at the organ or piano and play something without preparation. The results are not dissimilar from what would happen if I sight-read my normal preludes and postludes without working out fingerings and practicing them.
3. It pleases me that I managed to play the two organ pieces without sounding – well, like anyone that I can think of. There is certainly influence from a great many sources in these things. But I cannot readily say “This sounds like [fill in the blank].”
4. I have little sense as to where this will lead.