February 25, 2018


Teaching Improvisation, and the English Church Music System

February 25, 2018


Teaching Improvisation, and the English Church Music System


Robert Nicholls, notable English-American organist and former Lecturer at Indiana University, discusses teaching improvisation to students of all levels, and his experience with the English church music system with Vox Humana Associate Editor Kirk Rich.


Robert, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. A few years back, you won the American Guild of Organists National Competition in Organ Improvisation at the 2012 National Convention. Are you tempted to enter any other improvisation competitions?

Since winning the AGO’s NCOI in 2012 I haven’t been tempted to enter any other competitions. This is partly from knowing the subjective nature of judging, and also not feeling the need to compete again having won a major competition. However, I’ve been approached by some other competitions asking for me to enter. For this stage of my career, my neck is high enough above the parapet.

You recently held the position of Visiting Lecturer in Music at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, teaching improvisation to students in the organ department. What was this experience like for you, transitioning from practitioner to instructor? Can improvisation really be “taught”? Can anyone learn to improvise? Do you think teaching others has made you a better improviser?

I was approached by JSOM in 2015 to teach improvisation at the Graduate level. My teachers’ pedagogy and my own practice of improvisation made this a very easy transition. I loved every minute of it! At the start of my career as a church musician, I had no idea if I would enjoy teaching (choristers, choir, congregations, committees, etc.), but it turns out I have a bit of a knack for it. It definitely helped that I am not necessarily a “natural improviser.” I have been guided and taught along the way. I would like to think that teaching students has influenced my own improvising in positive ways, though it has somewhat curtailed my own practice in the last two years. Before each class, I would make sure I could do anything I was going to ask the students to do. It would be bad form to demonstrate weakly or with hesitation in that environment. It was a good reminder of skills and forms to have available for instantaneous application. I found the students to be incredibly receptive and hungry for immediately applicable techniques.

In the last ten to fifteen years, a number of improvisation texts have been written and published. Did you use any of these texts as part of your curriculum at IU? Were they helpful to the students? What are the shortcomings of some of these texts? If you wrote your own improvisation method, what would you include that others do not?

I’m a bit of an improvising treatise magpie, constantly looking for a new angle, perspective, or way of explaining ideas or how to practice. My go-to book for many years has been Jan Overduin’s Making Music: Improvisation for Organists. Jeff Brillhart’s Breaking Free is excellent (I look forward to future publications…) for exploring and understanding the modern French style. The other books I used at IU were Volumes I and II of John Shannon’s Improvising in Traditional Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Harmonic Style. Each of these texts approaches the subject in very different ways. Shannon is obviously geared toward the High Baroque, Brillhart toward finding your own language, and the Overduin a natural bridge that contains elements of both. Students have different strengths and weaknesses. By graduate level, they can play with enviable facility, but few of the notes are ever theirs. I try hard as a teacher to get the virtuosity married to new and more individual arrangements of notes.

As for weaknesses in the textbooks... as always these texts can be a good starting point, but the students must make their own way in the end. I know the difference it makes to play for a live teacher and guide, but there is so much that can be done alone, or with a trusted friend, using these texts.

William Porter has discussed the difference in how music theory and counterpoint was taught in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries versus how it is taught in American music schools today. At some point, we moved from learning these concepts at the keyboard, engaging our whole body and mind, to sitting at a desk and doing it with pencil and paper. Therefore, many organ students may have memorized rules of voice leading, harmony, and counterpoint, but the physical gestures needed to achieve them — the mind-body connection — have never been exercised or developed. Was this your personal experience when you started improvising? And the experience of your students?

William Porter is right on the money in his observations and discussion, as we would expect! My high school experience in England included an A-Level in Music comprising analysis of Bach chorales, lots of aural dictation of melodies, two-part counterpoint, and four-voice chorales. Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music instrumental exams, which are a standard feature of instrumental musical education in various parts of the world, include a lot more requirements for knowing scales and arpeggios than in most American students I have met. When I taught a graduate keyboard skills class, I found that many students have never played all the major and minor scales, let alone regularly drilled them from an early age. In this regard, my upbringing had an element of practicality about certain parts of theoretical knowledge. At Cambridge University, the three year harmony and counterpoint course was geared entirely toward writing a fugue at the desk within three hours. A.V. Jones said in our first lecture that harmony and counterpoint should be spoken and thought of as a single word and concept. As I have delved into improvisations including elements of counterpoint, it has been helpful to have this background available to me.

In teaching at IU, I introduced concepts found in Narcís Bonet’s The Fundamental Principles of Harmony. A student of Nadia Boulanger, Bonet has codified what she taught keyboard harmony to her students, many of whom became some of the world’s most influential musicians. The opening pages of the treatise take away any cognitive and finger fluff the student may bring and gets down to brass tacks about voice leading, harmony, and where it all comes from.

A few students have been very frightened and anxious about improvising, especially if they looked at the requirements for the final exam too early in the semester! Others had almost never played a note they had not read from the page. In the end, all were often producing beautiful music.

As you know, many fine improvisers aren’t effective improvisation teachers. Why do you think this is the case? Were you a “natural” when it came to improvisation, or did you have to really work to develop fluency? Do you think your own background and development, successes and failures, have made you a more effective teacher?

I have to tread carefully in reply to this question, but it does seem that some amazing improvisers might have trouble getting movement in students, perhaps because certain aspects of improvising came to them so easily, or appear to have. Consider learning a foreign language. I learned so much more from a French teacher who was not a native French speaker. The native speaker couldn’t understand why I didn’t “get” the subject at hand. The non-native speaker had struggled with the same concepts and knew where to help and cajole the student for whom a new language did not come naturally.

I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a “natural” when it comes to improvising. I would get bored with the piano music I was learning and start to change it, normally by trying to play it in the opposite major or minor mode. I was also mesmerized by the organists at Westminster Abbey who would often improvise the procession for the start of daily Evensong. In private I have never been frightened to play. Nowadays, I improvise in styles that sound good to my ear.

As an improviser, I have had what feels like much more failure than success; it rarely feels as if an improvisation goes exactly how I wanted it to go, or the way I practiced it! Having been to many improvising workshops, I’ve picked up plenty of ideas along the way to encourage students to take the next step, or even the first step, to improvise. There’s nothing like seeing what works and incorporating it into your own teaching, sometimes years later.

The American system of organ pedagogy in universities continues to put the primary emphasis on learning (and often memorizing) repertoire from all periods, studying performance practice, and maybe studying harpsichord as well. Since I began organ lessons in the late nineties, it seems that interest in organ improvisation in America has really exploded. Several schools now require or at least encourage improvisation study of organ majors. When I see job listings through the AGO, it seems that more and more churches are even requiring improvisation skills from potential candidates. Is one semester, or even a year, of improvisation study, enough to prepare one for the demands of these positions? Considering your educational background in England, where more emphasis is placed upon learning anthem accompaniments, developing sight-reading skills, and working with choirs, do you think organ departments in the States are adequately preparing their students for the “real world”? Could we find a happy medium between the two systems, and how would improvisation fit into such a curriculum?

The English system is sink or swim. Though I wanted to play the organ from an early age, it was not encouraged until you had at least Grade 6 piano with a perfect score in sight reading. I’m guessing for many of us that coincided with being able to reach the pedals. My first experience of conducting (age 14) was to be pulled from the choir and told to conduct: sink or swim! My first experience of accompanying an anthem was with an unfamiliar anthem (sight reading!) on an unfamiliar organ, with a conductor who expected it to be right: sink or swim. At the Cambridge organ trials, “here comes the choir — play them in!” Also, “I see your closing voluntary is in A — transpose the closing hymn down from B flat to match (as the choir is standing up to sing it!).” You’d be right to think that these were uncomfortable experiences. However, the next time I was asked to do one of these things, I had short time to prepare, and I already had a sense of what my strengths and weaknesses were and so made best use of the time available. Our church musician models were formidable musical polymaths — they were choir trainers, organists, often composers, editors, and arrangers, and when in front of an orchestra made great things happen. Think of David Willcocks, Simon Preston, or Christopher Robinson.

Getting back to comparison with the American system and a resurgence of interest in improvisation, I think it’s going to come down to time and money. I wish that instead of a single semester, that the IU improvising course were two years, or at least one. It felt rushed and packed in a single semester. I saw my job as planting seeds of ideas and techniques that can be explored for the rest of a career. I think that, as church musicians, we are going to need to be more and more flexible in what we can do: playing from lead-sheets, transposing, making hymns sound “new again” on-the-spot, playing jazz, etc. How wonderful it would be for each of us to know our own voice and sound world so that we don’t have to wait for lightning to strike. In England, we just had to get on with it. In America, we have the luxury of learning and studying how to do it.

On a final note, I seek out improvising wherever I can find it on recordings, YouTube links from friends, and, of course, live performance. Hymn festivals by the big names and all sorts of conferences are packed with improvising. Sometimes I am in awe, and sometimes I feel I have heard it before, because an artist is using the same now-stale formula. Of course, if you are hearing the formula for the first time, it can be a mountaintop experience. Perhaps because a student will often do something just as wonderful after a few hours’ practice, it means we established practitioners need to raise our game.


Robert Nicholls is a former lecturer in organ at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. In addition, he is director of music and organist at First Presbyterian Church in Evansville, Indiana.

He began his musical training as a chorister at Westminster Abbey in London, England. As an undergraduate, he sang in the Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University, and after graduating, in the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. His compositions have been performed and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

He is a strong supporter of the Royal School of Church Music in America. He was the first-place winner in the National Competition in Organ Improvisation in 2012 and has served as sub-dean and dean of the Evansville Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.