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  • Improvising communion music -- with or without preparation?

    It's been a busy week due to my being out of town and thus away from the organ for several days. I didn't get home until Saturday afternoon, so I only had a bit of time to brush up on the hymns ahead of the service.

    Before leaving town I had chosen a gospel hymn that I like -- "I Am Thine, O Lord" -- to use as the basis for my communion improv. I typically use a familiar hymn or gospel song at this point in the service, embellishing it with contrasting registrations, a soloed-out melody line, a duet using the SA or ST parts, or a re-harmonization. I'm always prepared (more or less) to play two or three times though the hymn in different styles, mixing it up and finishing neatly at the moment the communion trays are returned to the table and covered (if I'm lucky).

    This morning I didn't have time to even play through it once before the service, but did set a couple of pistons for communion. I was a little bit alarmed at my lack of preparation, but tried not to panic.

    When communion time came, I suppose my brain was "free" of all preconceptions, since I had no idea what I was about to do. I began by playing a stanza as written. Then I switched to the second piston and began making up a new harmonization as I went along, and it sounded startlingly good. On the refrain, I played the melody on the swell oboe, accompanying on the great with my newly invented harmony scheme. I'll confess that my "new" harmony scheme was similar to something I've heard before, but haven't seen on a page. The amazing thing was that my fingers were doing exactly what my brain was telling them to do without much intervention on my part.

    It was so much fun I'm thinking seriously of going to church completely unprepared from now on! (Just kidding.) But I do think there is something to be said for not having things planned out in too much detail.

    Perhaps some of my luck this morning sprang from the additional practice time I've had over the past few months as I've been recovering from surgery. Maybe it's not too late for my aging brain to pick up some new skills.
    John
    ----------
    *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

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  • #2
    John,

    Glad to hear that you are having so much fun with communion hymns. I often will play standards from my own years of church experience which include "Beneath the Cross of Jesus", "Break Thou the Bread of Life", "The Old Rugged Cross", "Near the Cross", and "In the Garden". I often just play them twice - once on the Great manual and then I try to put a solo in or just change registrations. My challenge is always trying to keep it quiet and meditative enough that it doesn't overpower the "solitude" mood that comes with communion time. There are only so many stops you can use that aren't too loud during this portion of the service. I will often modulate into the different hymns, and it has almost always been an impromptu thing for me. I enjoy the freedom of not having a specific arrangement to follow. I get to just play as I feel led, and it is very enjoyable. I also throw in a couple choruses such as "Oh How He Loves You and Me", and a really old one - "Thank you Lord for Saving My Soul".
    Craig

    Hammond L143 with Leslie 760

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    • #3
      Originally posted by jbird604 View Post
      This morning I didn't have time to even play through it once before the service, but did set a couple of pistons for communion. I was a little bit alarmed at my lack of preparation, but tried not to panic..
      Well you say that you weren't 'prepared'. I say that you actually were. You've been preparing for this particular exploration of unscripted improvisation for years. Anyone who improvises relies on a memorized store of patterns and chord progressions and these are based on familiar styles or periods of music history. In my opinion the most effective improvisations do not use the entire melody. Next time you are practicing, try this: play the chorus of "I Am Thine O Lord" to the "draw me closer, closer Blessed Lord... and then start repeating "to thy precious bleeding side, to they precious bleeding side, to thy precious bleeding side, to thy precious bleeding side". Try different things while you are looping that section of text. You can fix and hold a pedal note, and change harmonies above it or you can descend stepwise in the bass as you change the harmonies above it. Sooner or later you come to a harmonic combination that allows you to move on and end the verse. You are practicing, no one is listening, except you. You can mess up all you want, in the messing up you will hear cool things that you may want to use when you are playing in service.

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      • #4
        Good suggestions from you both. Craig, I hadn't thought about that old chorus "Thank you, Lord" in years, but it sure was a favorite of mine in my childhood. I may try to work that into my communion music soon.

        Lei, I appreciate the ideas on improvisation. I will definitely try some of those concepts and see what happens. As you say, we who have been playing the organ for decades have actually been "preparing" for moments like this. No doubt our heads are full of marvelous sounds, chord progressions, variations on tunes, and so on, just waiting to come to us at the right instant. We just have to let all that music in our heads come out through our fingers.

        Best preparation is to have the music in your heart and soul, and know your organ and its stops, then let the Holy Spirit guide you to blend the music with the tones!
        John
        ----------
        *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

        https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

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        • #5
          I am pretty sure my best church moments have been improvised. I absolutely love it the request comes in to "play a little of this or that song" while people meditate, watch a video, etc. Even better. "Oops they didn't pick communion hymns, get off the Roand and get moody on the piano!"

          A little on my background: started off learning traditional/classical as a young one, heavy emphasis on theory. Around 10 because of a move I picked up a new teacher, who taught me to play out of fake books. (Oh yes, I'm 42 now)
          I play a mix of traditional hymns and praise. I used to be the keyboard player for the praise service at my current church, but we have combined the two services so now the music is a mix. (Unlike most church players, I love BOTH sides of the fence. I even make sure to play a little pipe organ every week)
          I play blues, rock,and jazz in the bars and restaurants. So I have no reason to panic at being 'unprepared' as I play a lot of off the cuff music.
          The nice thing is, you can focus much more on playing the feelings. You don't have to keep up with anyone, you don't have to lead anyone, you don't have to sweat that tricky bar that you play wrong half the time. Also, as stated above, you usually pick a selection that you are familiar with. It's much easier to set the atmosphere where you can hear a pin drop.

          In spite of the fact that I love improvising, I am a HUGE believer in showing up prepared. Slacker musicians fumbling through gigs and services after they clearly did not glance at their music drive me NUTS! And if you tell me I need to play for a 2 minute video, I will have an outline of what songs I am going to use, even if I don't come up with an arrangement.
          Hammond CV, Leslie 145, Nord Electro, Rhodes MK I stage 73, Yamaha SY-85, Hohner Melodica, Ye old Wheezy Wurlitzer accordion, Roland Rhodes VK-1000

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Leisesturm View Post
            Well you say that you weren't 'prepared'. I say that you actually were. You've been preparing for this particular exploration of unscripted improvisation for years. Anyone who improvises relies on a memorized store of patterns and chord progressions and these are based on familiar styles or periods of music history.
            That's a really important point. Many people mistakenly see improvising as an inherent musical gift which consists of spontaneously creating music on the spot. It'd be better described as partially spontaneous organisation of practised musical fragments and ideas. The school I did my masters at had a respected jazz programme, and part of their training entailed transcribing music from jazz greats to learn their musical language. It's understood that you learn and practise a musical vocabulary which you then draw on in a somewhat improvisatory manner, rather than creating music out of thin air.

            With that said, I'm not a big fan of improvisation. It's been a part of my musical life for a long time and I have improvised plenty of communion music 'on the spot' or with some basic preparation before the service, but I feel that more prepared music always has the potential to be better and so I strive for that.
            Viscount C400 3-manual
            8 channels + 2 reverb channels (w/ Lexicon MX200)
            Klipsch RSX-3 speakers and Klipsch Ultra 5.1 subwoofers

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            • #7
              For this morning's service, one of our choir members who plays the flute at a near-professional level was scheduled to provide the prelude. She arrived about 30 minutes before the service, just as I was turning on the organ, and asked if I would play something with her. I was of course delighted to do that, even though it would be off the cuff for sure!

              She had printed out a simple arrangement of "Morning Has Broken" and after we looked at it for a minute we agreed that she would play a stanza of the song once without accompaniment, then twice more with me improvising something on the organ, loosely based on the chords and harmonies in the sheet music. Then at the end she would play the last line one more time without accompaniment. We ran through it once, and I made mental notes about what stops and what notes seemed to complement the flute best. But what we did when the service began was of course something different. We made it through, and the congregation was appreciative. Sometimes you get lucky!
              John
              ----------
              *** Please post your questions about technical service or repair matters ON THE FORUM. Do not send your questions to me or another member by private message. Information shared is for the benefit of the entire organ community, but other folks will not be helped by information we exchange in private messages!

              https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birds...97551893588434

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