Norman Harper ( Director of Music, St George’s Cathedral, Southwark) led an active workshop and discussion on Saturday 12 September 2015 at St John’s Goose Green. We thank the St John’s community for allowing us to use the church and the organ, and to John Webber for hosting, welcoming, providing handouts and tea.
Norman described his own thoughts about why improvisation should not be feared. Playing repertoire is much harder, when making it up as you go along has no wrong notes by definition. Making it convincing can be done by having secure rhythm and chord progressions, but not necessarily chords from an academic text book. They can be in any style, anything from the hymn book to more exotic French chords, diminshed sevenths, to dissonant clusters.
Using the organ to demonstrate, he showed how using chord clusters, ending on a single note for the intoning note for opening responses, can be effective, how using the divisions of the organ, including the pedals, to create contrast, can enhance what is played. A few brave souls gave their own demonstrations of Norman’s advice, and everyone was pleased when Richard Pilliner arrived, promptly to find himself at the organ, improvising a Baroque concerto style movement. Click here or on Richard’s photo to hear and see part of the improvisation.
Norman referred to Martin Baker’s ideas on how to improvise and it was encouraging to hear the organ being played afterwards whilst tea and biscuits were being consumed in the vestry. John, Martin and Nicky both assisted Norman by demonstrating described ideas. One such was showing how to create an oscillating pattern with one hand, adding inverted triads in the other, adding / taking away pedal notes. One memorable point made was that, for a young, keen organist, who has yet to learn published repertoire, including famous flashy toccatas, having the courage to make them up there and then, is a very good start to developing a style and technique which is commonly taught in Europe, and part of all jazz traditions. Practising such with no-one around to hear first efforts is a good idea, especially on home electronic organs with the built in recording facility. Norman was pleased to have stimulated lively discussion about his ideas.