ITH MY CHOIR MOSTLY SHUT DOWN during the COVID pandemic, the organ has kept me busy. My parish now has 32 low Masses per week, which gives us organists many opportunities to serve the Church. For a relatively new organist like me who needs lots of practice, it’s hog heaven.
In my last article, I explained why I’m more comfortable improvising than playing repertoire and gave four reasons why organists shouldn’t hesitate to improvise at Mass. I also promised some practical tips on how to improvise. Here are those tips.
Don’t Just Play the Organ. Pray the Organ.
Perhaps many organists are intimidated by the idea of improvising for the same reason that most people are intimidated by writing: when there’s a blank page in front of you, what on earth do you say? In writing, it’s helpful to develop a clear topic and then form an outline of how you’ll explain that topic or make your argument. And in improvisation, it’s beneficial to have an idea in mind as you start.
Yes, you’ll want to have a musical idea, but I say it’s even more important to have a spiritual idea. In other words, focus on a sacred text, whether it’s a proper of the Mass, a chant hymn, or a favorite prayer.
Our parish is blessed to have produced a seminarian for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), a young man who holds an organ degree from a prestigious conservatory. He is a professional-caliber performer. More importantly, he has a well-grounded sense of the liturgy and how to support it with organ music. When he’s home on breaks, he’s incredibly generous with his time and expertise. I’d say his name, but….did I mention he’s also genuinely humble?
In the course of the lessons and masterclasses I’ve had with my friend, he has taught me the concept of “praying the organ.” It’s just like it sounds: when you sit down to improvise, you keep a sacred text in mind and create music that matches that text. What the congregation then hears is your prayer actualized as sound.
Do this well, and you can’t help but create beautiful music that moves the heart to prayer. I’m not yet an accomplished enough organist to play the most challenging classics. But in my simple improvisations, I’ve had people tell me that my playing was “prayerful” or even “moving.” You can do the same, or better. In fact, if you’re already nailing the great organ works and you add improvisation to your mix, you’ll be unstoppable.
My Top Three Methods of Organ Improvisation
At this point, you may be thinking, “OK, this all sounds good, but….what do I actually play?”
There are many good guides to organ improvisation. Some of them walk you through all the rudiments of harmony and help you become a better overall musician. Others assume you know this stuff already and give you “tricks” to make your improvisations more interesting and less predictable.
I’m still working through these materials myself. In the meantime, I’ve been using three methods to improvise at the organ:
- Harmonize a chant. I’ll generally use the chant that’s prescribed for each part of the Mass. If it’s a low Mass nobody will be singing them, so the organ can “sing” them instead. As the priest enters, I’ll improvise on the Introit. At the Offertory and Communion, I’ll use those propers. For a recessional, I’ll often use the Alleluia from that Mass, or the Marian antiphon of the season.
- Use the chant as a starting point. This is similar to the above, except that I’ll let the melody go off in a new direction after playing a certain amount of the chant. Sometimes I’ll return to the chant as written, sometimes not.
- Make up an original melody. Although I usually use the chant at least as a starting point, I’ll occasionally do something completely different. It could be that the prescribed chant doesn’t inspire me (perhaps it’s in a mode that I’ve seen too much lately). Or maybe I looked at the text and suddenly got a strong melodic idea that goes with it. Either way, I’ll bring the text to life by playing my own composition. I do a lot of this during the Canon of the Mass, especially after the Consecration. I might make up a melody for the Words of Institution, or for the phrase that follows: Hæc quotiescúmque fecéritis, in mei memóriam faciétis.
For each of these three methods, I’ll use one of two approaches: prepare in advance or compose on the spot. For an upcoming Sunday Mass, I’ll typically sit with the propers several times during the week, playing around with harmonic possibilities. Even if I plan on harmonizing a chant without deviating much from the given melody, I like to plan some harmonic “features,” such as unusual chords or a modulation. But if I’m planning on wandering off from the chant melody or even composing something from scratch, then I’ll put in significant practice. In the true spirit of improvisation, the results will be slightly different each time, but it’s a “predictable different,” one that I know will fit the timing of the liturgy (with slight modifications depending on the pacing of each of our parish’s four priests).
Even if I come up with a composition from scratch, I never write down more than a few notes. I find it easier to memorize. For harmonized chants, I’ll sometimes write down the names of the most important chord changes underneath the chant melody. This approach takes the pressure off of me to perform a composition. Still, it gives me a secure enough framework that even if I make a mistake or two, I know where my improvisation is going.
A few other considerations have come to mind in terms of adding color to improvisations. I’ll share those in my next article.