The Baltimore Chapter of the American Guild of Organists is offering a workshop on improvisation on Saturday, October 14 from 9:30am to 12noon at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Glenn Osborne will coach volunteers in improvising interludes and extensions for those times in worship that a piece needs to be stretched to cover the liturgical action. He will also offer tools and ideas for improvising pieces for prelude, postlude, or other moments during a service. All level of improvisers are welcome.
Music is a language. Through it we express joys and sorrows beyond words. Composers across the centuries have given us pieces crafted in the language of music that we perform repeatedly. We trust in their skills and creativity to create the atmosphere or transmit our feelings to others.
In our spoken language however, we do not rely upon great writers to express ourselves. Imagine trying to have a conversation where you could only quote Shakespeare. While we may not be great writers or even great orators like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., we are all capable of putting words together and conveying our thoughts to another person in a coherent manner.
For me, improvisation becomes the ability to converse in the language of music. When we enter the world of music, why do we suddenly lose faith in our own ability to communicate? Everyone learns his or her native language, and perhaps a few others. All musicians should learn not just to recite the music others have provided but to create their own expressions in music. Complex sentences and large structures are not required in our everyday conversations. Why should we consider a good improviser only someone who can make complex music? To improvise well should be as easy as speaking a well-constructed sentence.
For the AGO workshop on October 14, I want to help you learn to express yourself in music. Whether you are an advanced or beginner organist, skilled improviser or scared to death of improvising, I believe looking through the simile of language will offer you ways to increase your improvisation skills. After some introductory remarks, I want to help you convey your thoughts in music. Come with your questions and, if you are willing, prepared to sit on the organ bench. If you can speak English, then you can speak music.
When I began my duties as Director of Music at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in January 2015, there was an opening on the concert series in March. This CD is the program that I played to fill that slot. The program reflects the season of the church year from different musical styles and eras. I also wanted a program that would demonstrate the variety of colors available on the instrument. This was not just to please the audience, but also a way for me to become acquainted with the instrument. As the program came together, I thought of recording the program to share this instrument with a wider audience. I hope the music here reaches the deep longings of your soul, and inspires you to come visit the Cathedral and hear the instrument live.
The recording is also available through iTunes.
Aus tiefer Not, BWV 686
Johann Sebastian Bach
Herzlich tut mich verlangen
Psalm Prelude, Set 2, no. 1 – De profundis
IV. Longing for Death from Job
Dominica in Palmis
Suite in French Classical Style on ‘Vexilla Regis’
Wm. Glenn Osborne
Da Jesus an dem Creutze stundt
III. Crucifixion from Symphonie-Passion
Wm. Glenn Osborne
My last lesson for www.organimprovisation.com featured instructions on transposition and suggested using a piece by Louis Vierne as the transposition exercise and a model for improvising. The piece is a relatively simple piece from the 24 Pièces en style libre: 1. Préambule.
As transposition practice, I played it in C# major, D Major, Eb Major, and started it in several other keys.
After that, I followed the score as a model and improvised some imitation Vierne in F Major and in G minor. There are some hesitations as I searched for similar interesting tonal gestures without following exactly what Vierne did, but that’s why we practice. I decided to make this exercise my prelude this weekend, so there are two more that follow the score less slavishly in A minor and D minor as well.
Organists always love to make lots of sound. Improvisers typically use both hands and feet to play almost all the time while improvising. This weekend, I thought I’d do something a little different and play only one note at a time during the offertory.
Saturday evening, I improvised a slow monody thinking perhaps of a solo cello piece:
Sunday, I decided to aim at something a little more sparkly and bright:
Do you have the courage to improvise only a single melodic line?
Here are two new videos from this Saturday’s 5pm Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
First up is the responsorial psalm for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C. While the chords are triadic in summary, both the right and left hands almost always play only fourths and fifths. The psalm is published in the Audubon Park Psalter.
Next is the offertory. This is a simple improvised piece using the strings and a solo flute. Nothing complicated here. Just a slow pleasant relaxed moment for meditation.
As one of my primary interests is improvisation, I am always looking for ways to include improvisation in the liturgy. Here is a responsorial psalm built over a simple two-chord progression. The refrain melody is composed to fit over the chords, and while there are verses written out in the score, the cantor (as demonstrated here) is free to improvise the melody for each of the verses.
This video was recorded at the Easter Vigil which begins in darkness, so the lighting is very dim. Sadly, my iPhone ran out of memory, so I am only able to share the first verse here.
The music for this composition is included in the Feasts and Solemnities volume of the Audubon Park Psalter.
When I pulled out the hymnal yesterday to practice, I stumbled upon “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Having spent the previous few minutes exploring harmonic color, I decided to see how I could spice up this simple tune.
Thanks to the snow storm, I was able to spend a couple of hours at the Cathedral today practicing. After some more technical exercises, I started flipping through the hymnal and improvising on different tunes. Marty Haugen’s ‘Gather Us In’ is an up-tempo tune that is more often associated with piano and guitars than the organ. I decided to slow it down and spice it up a bit for a more relaxing prelude style piece. Enjoy!
Each conference of The Hymn Society attempts to draw upon local resources for ideas and conference topics. This year’s conference was in New Orleans, so was flavored with a lot of jazz music and discussion about the use of jazz, gospel, and spirituals in worship. Jazz music expects a lot of improvisation from the performers, and one of the workshops I attended looked at how this musical creativity could be carried over beyond the music into how we worship.
A performer in a jazz ensemble has to listen and be aware of what the other players are doing. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago when I compared participating in Mass to driving. Jazz performers often read from a lead sheet, which will give minimal information about the piece of music and will serve as the guide for what gets created. The rest must come from the interaction between the players. The ensemble will fall apart if one of the players stops paying attention to the others.
In order to be able to create music in the moment, it is most helpful to know the other players. To improvise requires making an individual statement. This requires courage on the part of the speaker (musician) and will happen most naturally when there is trust in the room. Do you get nervous when you have to speak to a new group of people? How much more comfortable are you speaking to familiar friends and family? The same idea holds with a jazz group. If the musician knows and trusts the other players (and the audience), then he or she can be free and truly creative in his or her musical expression. An unresponsive audience or group of players can lead a jazz musician back into a comfort zone of trite and unimaginative music that becomes dull and boring for everyone involved.
Singing is making a personal statement. Even if you are not required to improvise, using the voice requires a personal commitment and some level of trust in the room. Instrumentalists can pass problems off to the instrument, but the voice is part of ourselves, so any critics of our sound become very personal judgments. I would guess that most people are willing to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in a group of friends and family because there is trust in the room. What can we do to build trust in the room here at the Cathedral so that everyone feels comfortable singing their faith in worship?
Bulletin Notes for the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen, August 2, 2015