AM NOT A GOOD ORGANIST. But I’m learning—and I’m already adept at making the most of my limited skills. As I’ve mentioned here before, I almost exclusively improvise on the Gregorian propers for any given Mass. For Sunday Masses, I practice improvising during the preceding week and typically come in with carefully structured ideas. For weekday Masses (which I play almost daily unless the organ is suppressed), my improvisations are more on-the-spot. I think it’s good to practice both approaches. Creativity demands a certain amount of discipline. But discipline needs to loosen its tie once in a while.
On a recent Sunday, I improvised a postlude based on the jubilus of the Alleluia for that Mass (I recommend this as a low-risk, high-reward approach). It was nothing fancy; I typically use the outline of the melody and try to harmonize in a way that’s appealing without being too “I-IV-V-I.” After Mass, a very kind parishioner who frequently expresses his appreciation for our music program approached me.
“I loved that last piece!” he gushed. “Who was the composer?”
“Thank you,” I replied. “That was an improvisation.”
His face fell. “Ahhh….so I won’t be able to go to YouTube and listen to it again and again. Unless you recorded it?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t been recording much of my playing lately.”
“You should record these things!” he said with a wistful smile. “Because now it is gone forever….”
I can’t just enjoy a compliment; I have to analyze it to death. This brief exchange made me ponder the nature of improvisation.
Should we strive to make improvisation sound like a “piece”? This particular venture, slapdash as it was, really clicked and seemed whole. It felt good to have it mistaken for a composed piece; I would never call that a negative. But one of the things I love about the organ compositions of Charles Tournemire—and especially his L’Orgue Mystique—is that they sound improvised. Which approach is “right”? I’m new at this, but I suspect that improvisation isn’t about striving for anything; it’s about sincerity.
Will recording my improvisations change the way I play them? This question leads me to why I haven’t recorded anything in many weeks. During the long stretch in which our choir wasn’t singing, there were eight low Masses on our Sunday schedule, and I’d often play three or four of them. I’d come in with my improv ideas and hope to record one good rendition of each from any of my Masses. Playing for a recording can feel confining. There’s more fear of making a mistake and less willingness to stretch time or take a chance. My mind is on the product, not the process of adorning the liturgy with beauty. The irony is that most of the recordings sitting on my laptop’s hard drive will likely remain untouched due to my busy life and lack of desire to look back as I try to move forward.
So, should I record improvisations at all? I’m not asking an ethical question here, just an aesthetic one. My first organ teacher loved to remind me that many of the “compositions” we enjoy today were little more than improvisations in their time. Composers didn’t labor over them for months—they banged them out for people to enjoy in the moment. It’s no crime for us to revive them centuries later. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking they’re all superior compositions just because they’re on paper.
Perhaps you or I could come up with something more ideally suited for this Mass and this congregation in this church, right here, right now.
I know there’s nothing wrong with hitting that red button on my iPhone before I begin playing. But music is ephemeral. Perhaps I should let it drift away like incense. If you missed it, you missed it. There will be more at the next Mass, but it won’t be the same. It might just be better.