On the first anniversary of the dedication of the Flentrop Organ donated by William and Loyde Ortel, five students performed on it as part of the Be Lifted Up! event held at the Institute on April 27, 2003. The students, who study improvisation with William Porter here, each improvised on a different theme in a different style. The performance was simulcast in the Great Hall, where members of the Yale community and local congregations watched and listened and partook of an afternoon tea.
Pictured from left to right: Christopher Jennings, Paul Jacobs, Kyle Babin, Jason Roberts, and Jared Johnson
Notes on the Art of Improvisation:
The past fifteen years have seen a significant revival of the practice of improvisation among organists in America. This art, which has survived and flourished among European organists, is once again being incorporated into the education of American organists in our leading music schools and conservatories. Yale has played an leading role in this revival through the work of Gerre Hancock, perhaps the foremost American exponent of the art, who taught at Yale until two years ago, and more recently through the establishment of a graded curriculum in improvisation for organists at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
Now Yale has a three-semester sequence in organ improvisation, in the course of which our students are given the tools to create their own music as they perform. Each week, students are given an assignment designed to build a certain skill, sometimes having to do with particular harmonic procedures, a specific way of setting a hymn or chant, or a particular formal organization. These procedures encompass a wide variety of musical styles, and are designed to reflect as much as possible the stylistic breadth of the repertoire they play.
Our ancestors in the art learned to improvise at the keyboard by studying composition, particularly counterpoint and harmony, as the foundational studies that led to more specific kinds of preparation for specific performances. Those foundational studies, along with analytical study of model compositions, still serve the improviser well today. One then practices – at the keyboard – procedures of composition. “Practicing the procedures” thus lays the groundwork for realizing a particular composition in the moment of performance.
Given this approach, “total spontaneity” is not our ultimate goal, to the extent that this would mean the absence of preparation. Rather, our goal is to help our students build the kinds of skills that, through practice, allow the moment of composition and the moment of performance to become one. Even so, one of the results of such skills is that the unexpected element in performance can then be welcomed, even chosen at the moment. It is this hoped-for element of the unexpected that gives improvisation – indeed, all musical performance – the special sense of the moment, and that moment is all the stronger when it happens within the context of essential coherence that we work so hard to create.
I begin “preparing” my improvisations by giving careful thought to form and harmonic language. Sometimes it is desirable to imitate a particular style or international “school,” but most often it is more important to practice creating something that is a reflection of one’s own style (with the mind that grace and elegance in taste are of utmost importance, of course). If there is an existing theme that I will use I play it though in multiple keys, backwards and forwards, fragmented, augmented, and with various rhythms, then I harmonize it in as many different ways as possible. Or, I compose a new theme and apply the same principles. After I settle on something that seems to work, I develop it a bit more, work out transitions to new sections of the piece, and think about creative registration possibilities. Most of all I try to make sure that each time I play through my new creation it is different, so that I can allow myself room for freedom at the time of the actual performance. Often I will make a recording of various versions of my improvisations, compare them, and decide which elements I can incorporate from each version to have a more cohesive piece.
As exciting as it is to play all of the wonderful music that is part of the literature, the opportunity to be the creator and the performer of music simultaneously is a wonderfully profound and exciting thing that cannot be replicated by reading notes off the page. Improvisation is perhaps the most intimate and passionate display of one’s own true musical self.
As organists, we are fortunate that the tradition of improvisation is kept alive in our vocation. As church musicians, it is invaluable to possess the capacity to respond to the liturgy with an immediate and personal sensitivity expressed through improvisation.
Perhaps my favorite parts of a church service are those that allow or require some sort of improvisation. As much as I enjoy playing hymns and accompanying choirs, to me, there is nothing like the thrill of capturing the mood of a service or depicting a particular religious theme through the art of spontaneously composing music. I think it is that spontaneity that is so exciting—one never knows how a service will proceed, and one must always be prepared to deal with change and surprise. At the same time, as a musician, one can connect with the other worshippers. By creating music impromptu, one can have a conversation with the other participants in the service. Although improvising preludes and postludes (particularly when they are based on chant or hymn tunes proper to a certain service) is exciting, I especially find those “unexpected” moments in a church service the most stimulating.
One of the highlights of my time at Yale so far has been the improvisation class taught by Bill Porter. It has been particularly interesting to experience firsthand the compositional procedures practiced by the great organ composers. Indeed, they would have learned to compose not in a classroom but at the keyboard, and through imitation of their styles we can eventually develop our own. A sensitive improviser at the organ can also add immeasurably to the atmosphere of a liturgy. In my experience, improvisation has helped to create some of the most joyful as well as profound and meditative moments I have ever encountered in a service.
- Jason Roberts
In my four years as a student at the ISM I have had the privilege of studying improvisation with three different teachers: Gerre Hancock, David Hurd, and William Porter. I have also learned an enormous amount from the examples of my talented fellow students. I steal their ideas each week in church! I owe my thanks to all of these people and to the ISM for continuing to develop a strong curriculum in this very important discipline.