Improvisation Initiatives Getting It Together: A Conference on Improvisation and Organ Pedagogy

By Heller, David | The American Organist, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Improvisation Initiatives Getting It Together: A Conference on Improvisation and Organ Pedagogy


Heller, David, The American Organist


THE SUBJECT OF improvisation has become a popular one for discussion throughout our profession over the past several years, and yet, improvisation continues to frustrate, mystify, and even frighten many organists today. It is this sense of fear that often leads them to conclude, "I can't do that! "

In 2007, the AGO's Committee on Professional Education (COPE) recognized the need to sponsor a pedagogy conference to address the topic of improvisation. As discussion progressed, it quickly became clear that we were not talking about a single topic but rather several different topics or styles that were joined together under one large umbrella. The sponsoring institution would need to have both the facilities as well as a variety of instruments in order to address such a vast topic in a thoughtful and thorough manner.

At this point, the Organ Department of the Eastman School of Music and the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative entered the picture. Eastman's wide array of organs from several different historical periods, its annual EROI Festival highlighting these instruments, and the school's long-established tradition of excellence in organ pedagogy made this a perfect setting for such a conference. Of note to COPE was the fact that improvisation was an important part of the curriculum in the Eastman Organ Department. COPE approached David Higgs, chair of the department with the idea, and thus began a three-year odyssey of conversations, e-mails, and meetings between COPE, the Eastman organ faculty (Higgs, Hans Davidsson, and William Porter), and EROI Festival coordinator Anne Laver.

The upcoming EROI Festival 2011 and the AGO Conference on Organ Pedagogy will begin with a keynote address by William Porter titled "Why Is Improvisation So Difficult?" It will underscore the basic premise of this conference, which is that improvisation is a compositional process that involves a variety of techniqxies and styles, thus supporting the idea that one can learn how to improvise. The conference will alternate masterclasses, utilizing students at a variety of different levels, with panel discussions and performances. Topics to be presented during the festival include "Improvisation in 17th-Century Germany," "Improvisation in 18th-Century Germany," "Improvisation in 19thcentury France," and "Improvisation in 20th-century America." Panel discussions will address "Resources for Teaching Improvisation," "Developing an Improvisation Curriculum," and "What Do We Mean by 'Improvisation'? In What Ways Has the Term Changed Over Time?" Some of the most prominent names in improvisation from across the country and abroad will participate and teach at this conference: Jeffrey Brillhart, Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, Michael Dodds, Gerre Hancock, Denise Lanning, Rudolf Lutz, William Marvin, Bruce Neswick, David Peckham, McNeil Robinson, Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, John Shannon, and Daniel Zager. …

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