Improvisation and Organ Pedagogy

By Peterson, Jay | The American Organist, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Improvisation and Organ Pedagogy

Peterson, Jay, The American Organist


THREE major organizations and a host of other supporters collaborated to produce an exhilarating conference on organ improvisation from November 10 to 13, 2011, at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, N.Y. More than 200 attendees benefited from informative lectures, stimulating panel discussions, impressive workshops/masterclasses, and brilliant recitals. The conference was organized by the AGO Committee on Continuing Professional Education (their 16th biennial national conference), along with the Eastman-Rochester Organ Initiative (tenth annual EROI Festival), and the Westfield Center.

In North America, organ improvisation and its pedagogy have definitely blossomed in recent times. Virtually all large music schools presently require the disciplined study of improvisation, and the knowledge, skill, and artistry demonstrated at this conference bode well for the renewal and future of this historic practice.

One improvising hero was the Eastman School's (and McGiIl University's) William Porter. Joining many other seasoned experts, Porter provided the keynote address and improvised on three recitals in three distinctly different styles. In his address, Porter reminded us that until about 1750, improvisation, rather than repertoire, was considered the superior form of music making. He encouraged the development of a multiple syntax of music, such as counterpoint, voice leading, figured bass, harmony, form, and style. And he believes that this syntax should become a living, practiced keyboard skill rather than simply music theory and its paperwork.

There were several lecture presentations that offered insights into the early history of improvisation. Michael Dodds (University of North Carolina School of the Arts) shared his knowledge of 17th-century Italian treatises that gave specific procedures for organ improvisation surrounding plainchant. William Marvin (Eastman School of Music) provided a survey of French conservatory requirements for improvisation. Details of Vierne's and Dupré's plans for improvisation were seen as particularly prescriptive. During one discussion period, Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin (Saint-Sulpice, Paris) stated her belief that French conservatory standards for improvisational skills have recently diminished.

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, a scholar of historic improvisation and initiator of modern methods for improvisation, recalled an impressive listing of 18ththrough 20th-century treatises, tutors, and methods. Essential historic and contemporary pedagogical resources on thoroughbass, continuo, counterpoint, and fugue were also considered. Two of the treatises (F. Niedt and J. Mattheson) were even influential upon J. S. Bach. Edoardo Bellotti (Hochschule für Künste, Bremen, Germany) basically views improvisation as an art based largely on memorized patterns. He encouraged the learning and memorization of stylistic cadences, patterns, figures, and schemes with the necessary foundations of thoroughbass and counterpoint. Several 18th-century treatises were suggested as useful primers for our own 21st century.

Bruce Neswick (Indiana University) offered many concrete steps for gaining skills in improvisation and reminded us of a large number of gifted organ improvisers who were primarily affiliated with East Coast churches. It is curious that improvisation pedagogy seems to have entered American academic circles through the artistry of American improvisers who were not primarily affiliated with American music schools. Daniel Zager (Eastman School of Music) explored the use of modes as guides and norms for improvisation and encouraged the study of G.F. Kauffmann's Harmonische Seelenlust (1733-40) as a mid-18th-century German model for improvisation. Tony Caramia (Eastman School of Music) employed his extensive knowledge of jazz and its improvisational techniques to suggest "steps to harmonic heaven" through extended tertian harmonies.

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