HAT DOES A CHURCH choir director do with himself when there are no Masses to sing? Per state safety guidelines, our choir at St. Stephen the First Martyr Church in Sacramento, California, isn’t singing Masses right now. Of course, that doesn’t mean I have nothing to do.
Until Ash Wednesday, when the organ went silent for Lent, my primary liturgical focus was to provide organ music at some of our 32 low Masses per week. The spiritual challenge, of course, is to try to remain recollected while playing so many Masses. I explored this topic in my last article, “Spiritual Mass Plan for Church Organists.”
There’s also the musical challenge, especially for me. I’m new to the organ; my degree is in clarinet performance. I later converted to tenor, then choir director, then piano student, and finally organist. Having encountered the King of Instruments, I think I’ve finished converting.
Most people come to the organ with at least a solid piano background and the ability to pick up new repertoire quickly. They may struggle at first with legato technique, and then there’s the pedalboard. But they have a repertoire-first mindset.
I’m just the opposite. I’m learning some good rep, but it’s slow going. I feel much more comfortable improvising, even though I’m hardly world-class at it. Based on the music theory I learned at the conservatory, I can find my way around a key well enough to harmonize a melody. The irony is that even as a baby organist, I sometimes find myself trying to convince far superior players that they, too, can improvise if they just give it a try!
Solid improv skills are beneficial to an organist who plays at a busy parish, especially during a time of no singing (at least in California). So I’ll follow up my spiritual advice from last week with some musical advice this week.
Why Improvise? Four Reasons
There are other good reasons to improvise at the organ, besides the fact that you’re a clarinetist who is still wondering how exactly he got here:
- Improvisation scales well to the liturgy. You can tailor your music to the timing of the liturgical action. Doing so does require alertness, creativity, and confidence. You’ll need lots of musical ideas and the ability to move seamlessly from one idea to the next. And you’ll need to be able to think a couple of steps ahead harmonically so that you don’t get stuck on a strange chord right when it’s time to stop playing.
The timing was one of the hardest things for me to learn. But I found that once I made a certain amount of progress in my playing, I was suddenly able to time my playing much better. So it wasn’t that I couldn’t grasp the timing of a Mass; it’s that I initially lacked the dexterity and confidence to work within that timing.
Improvisation is versatile. Not only can you tailor your timing, but you can create music that suits the feast day, and even the part of Mass, perfectly. Yes, there are times when one finds the ideal repertoire piece for a particular Mass (especially if one can manage Tournemire). But with improvisation, you maintain complete control over all aspects of the music.
Improvisation is intensely spiritual. At least, it is if you’re doing it well. The misconception is that an improvising organist seeks to fill time in the liturgy with pleasant sounds. The reality is that a good improviser is deeply connected to the liturgy and keeps the text of the Mass in mind as he or she plays. (More on this in my next article.)
Improvisation is fun. We don’t play at Mass for ourselves. We don’t even play primarily for our fellow Catholics—it is God Who receives our offering. But harmonizing a chant or hymn melody—or even making up an entirely original composition—on the fly can be exhilarating. And if you have the talent to do this, Matthew chapter 25 seems to indicate that you should share it. I’ve also written about how the organ can be balm when you don’t feel like singing.
Next Article: Practical Tips
I had planned to share today some practical tips for getting started with organ improvisation. But I’ve kept you long enough already with these preliminaries. So I’ll save the tips for next time.
Can’t wait that long? My CCW colleague Lucas Tappan provided Inspiration for Organ Improvisation a few months ago. His article contains links to a handy source of exercises that you’ll want to download right away.