I forget the exact setup, but the standard joke is a musician on the streets of New York asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the reply is, “Practice, practice, practice.” From the research widely publicized by Malcolm Gladwell, we know that in order to become an expert at just about anything, it requires 10,000 hours of practice. While I’m sure I’ve put in at least that much time at the organ, I’m still looking for opportunities to improve and learn more.
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the symposium on French music and improvisation at Rice University. Featured on the schedule were performances by Ken Cowan, George Baker, Tom Trenney, Johann Vexo, and Philippe Lefebvre. Because I had worked with Philippe Lefebvre previously, I was very excited to see him again and to see what new tips and tricks he might have to share with us this time.
The instrument for the class was C.B. Fisk, Inc. Opus 109 / Rosales Organ Builders, Inc. Opus 21. When I was looking for someone to build a French-style instrument for the Cathedral in Albany while I was music director there, I heard a great deal about this instrument, so was delighted to finally be able to see and hear it. It is decidedly well-suited for the French repertoire and offered many tantalizing sounds for the concerts and masterclasses. One of the elements that Philippe Lefebvre shared with us in the final improvisation masterclass was how he searches for new and different sounds at the organ. Most organ stops have very traditional uses and functions, however, he encouraged us to consider non-standard uses and registers. Instead of using the 8′ Harmonic Flute as the solo, why not try the 2′ Octavin played two octaves lower? Or the Quint or Tierce by itself as a solo stop? I have always been attracted to the organ because of the variety of colors available, but Philippe showed us an even wider palette of possibilities!
While many musicians are accustomed to practicing repertoire (after all, how else will they get to Carnegie Hall?), many seem confused at the idea of practicing improvisations. Aren’t improvisations supposed to be “instant music” created on the spot? How can you ever practice such a thing? The truth is that to do it well, those same 10,000 hours of practice are required.
Any one who has attempted to learn a foreign language should recognize the difference between being able to read or pronounce what they see on the page and being able to carry on a conversation. For me, musical improvisation is being able to carry on a conversation. We have to learn the rules of grammar and be able to apply them spontaneously to convey our thoughts in a way that is meaningful to the listener(s). Just as a child learns to spell, we must learn how to spell musically. Which notes will follow in what order to create what words? How do we fit the words together to make sentences and paragraphs? These are all items that we must study and practice if we are to improvise well.
The concert by Philippe Lefebvre at Rice was one of the best organ recitals I have heard in quite some time. He took us through a Sunday at Notre Dame, sharing both improvisations and repertoire that reflected the typical activities of the day. Having heard him play there, I truly felt like I had been transported to Paris for the evening! Thanks to the marvels of YouTube, we can all visit Notre Dame from the comfort of our own homes without any jetlag! Below is a fugue that Philippe improvised for Communion at Notre Dame.
Enjoy the music and keep practicing!
Newsletter Issue 13 – 2014 01 16
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