HERE DO IDEAS COME FROM? Can we make up an idea out of nowhere? Or is each of our creative thoughts based on other material we’ve seen or heard? I tend to think that as musicians, we’re products of all the music we’ve ever heard. When we sing, for example, we unconsciously recall the other voices we’ve loved best and discover elements of their resonance in our own voices. When we conduct, our bodies use a vocabulary of shapes and patterns we didn’t even know we were collecting as we watched other conductors direct us in ensembles.
When we improvise, we can’t play what’s not in our audiation—or at least, we can’t keep that up for long. Everything we improvise sounds familiar because it is. But to trace each phrase or each interval back to the day we acquired it would be as difficult as tracing each cell in our body back to the meal from which it was built.
How do we get better at improvising? By building up the library of music in our audiation. How do we build that library? By listening. A wonderful young organist friend of mine who’s wise beyond his years gave me some improvisation tips a few years ago. First priority: listen to lots of music.
It’s great advice, of course, because we acquire music in the same way we first acquired language as babies: by listening. The more good music we listen to, the more we’ll expand our audiational library.
But I contend that for a beginning improviser, not all music is created equal. We need ideas we can emulate, and we can’t emulate what we don’t understand. That’s why it can be frustrating to listen to the masters of organ improv.
If you’re learning organ improvisation, you’ve probably had someone tell you, “Listen to the greats: Olivier Messaien, Marcel Dupre, Olivier Latry….”
The greats are inspiring. Their music is uplifting. I can only imagine how they would draw me more deeply into the mysteries of the Mass if I were fortunate enough to have them playing at my parish (rather than listening to myself so much).
But from a learning perspective, listening to the greats has its limits. Take this masterful improvisation by Olivier Latry, for example:
Wow, right? But as an organ student, can you emulate this on any level? Probably not. It would be difficult even to dumb this down into a template you could use for your own exploration.
This is why we organ students need more accessible masters from whom to learn. We seek organists whose creations are easier to unpack and analyze, and whose artistry seems a bit more “in reach.”
Where can we find these musicians? I’m happy to share that you can sample the improvisations of dozens of organists at OrganImprovisation.com:
Among the site’s many resources are pages that offer profiles of organists from around the world and provide links to their improvisation recordings on YouTube.
Now, some of the organists on OrganImprovisation.com do play at too high a level of sophistication for the student organist to analyze. But many sound more like very polished parish musicians. Spend some time sampling what they have to offer. Bookmark your favorites. And return often for fresh inspiration. Happy practicing!