Oxford University Press

by Jan Overduin

  • It has been said of Jean Langlais that he could teach stones to improvise, and it is true that his own example and his enthusiasm for the art of improvisation were inspiring and contagious. But miracles are as rare in improvisation as they are in any field, and after several decades of teaching improvisation, I have come to rely less on the miraculous, and more on clearly laid out exercises and assignments. The aim of this book is to show the student that improvisation is within everyone's grasp, even those with minimal keyboard skills. To some this might appear like a tiny miracle, but it is achieved by hard work and an encouraging teacher, rather than by chance.

    There are reasons why every musician should learn the basics of improvisation. Improvisation is about the full use of the human imagination. The recognition of and training of the ability to "let go" and trust one's creative powers is fundamental to all creative activity, and perhaps to all of life. But for organists working in churches, it is especially important to be able to improvise. In this technological age there is a crying need for live music, for spontaneity and creativity. Worship services that rely on taped accompaniments and other "canned" music are safe, predictable, dull and boring, compared to services where there is freedom and opportunity to be sensitive to the dynamics of the service, dynamics that may grow and change during a service itself. The most effective way for church musicians to fight the increasing pressure to replace organs and organists with technology and machines is to develop the ability to improvise in ways that will bring life and excitement, meaning and beauty, into the worship services of the church.

    This book is an attempt to summarize my approach to the teaching of improvisation at Wilfrid Laurier University, where it has been my pleasure to have worked with students of widely varying musical backgrounds and ability for 25 years. Prerequisites were not so much an (elementary) knowledge of theory and harmony and technical facility at the keyboard, as simply a desire to learn how to improvise, and a willingness to take risks and be musically vulnerable. It is the author's belief that everyone can improvise, and should be encouraged to do so at whatever level they are capable. To say you have no talent for it is like saying that you have no talent for reading and writing. Many of the exercises therefore are aimed at bolstering self-confidence and getting the student to improvise immediately. The greatest stumbling block is not a lack of musical preparation or pre-requisite music courses, but simply a lack of confidence, a fear of "letting go" of the safety and comfort of the written score. For that reason the first exercises are simple, adaptable to any student's level of technique (and imagination), so that they can yield a high rate of success. The attempt has been made to make the exercises not only simple and useful, but also musically satisfying from the very first. Included are a number of "instant improvisations" that may seem rather naive, but that usually reinforce some basic keyboard skill, like playing IIVVI, while providing an opportunity to use simple materials and techniques in musically creative ways.

    Improvisation boasts a long and glorious tradition. Musicians improvised long before they played other people's repertoire. Even now, it would be logical for it to come first in a musician's training and development. Unless you know at least a little about creating your own music, it is unlikely that you will be able to play another's with proper insight and empathy. The creative spark is more likely to be there if the performer knows something of the struggle of compositional creativity. Fundamental to all music making, whether improvising or repertoire playing, is the ability to enter into the music, to know it "from the inside."

    For it is certain that if there is no real music inside us, the sounds that we make will remain no more than cheap, empty imitation.  (Bill Dobbins)