November 5, 2017


Improvisation and Hymn Playing

November 5, 2017


Improvisation and Hymn Playing


William Porter, notable performing scholar and Professor of Organ at the Eastman School of Music, discusses teaching contrapuntal improvisation and hymn playing with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman.


Professor Porter, thank you for agreeing to this interview. To begin, could you tell us about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the organ, and what attracted you to it?

I began piano lessons at the age of five because I had started to show an interest in the organ. My family was living in Clinton, Iowa, and I was fascinated by the sound of the organ in our church. I learned — later, of course — that it was an organ built by the Moline Organ Company in the 1890s, of 15 stops, and was essentially unaltered at that time. I especially loved the sound of what I learned later was the Diapasons, and I also learned to behave in church so that I wouldn’t be sent downstairs to the Sunday School classes, but also so I would be allowed to be in church with the adults so that I could hear the organ. I didn’t enjoy piano lessons at first, mostly because it took a few years to find a really good teacher. That happened when I began lessons with a fine gentleman named James Winn, who directed the music at the Presbyterian church in town. My piano lessons were in his office, underneath the choir loft. He was also a wise man: he understood how much I loved the organ, and my reward for a good piano lesson was to be permitted to go upstairs afterward and play the organ. The instrument there was a three-manual Skinner, with additions by Aeolian-Skinner, and the happiest days of my childhood were spent playing that organ in that dark stone church, while looking at the jewel-like stained glass windows, listening to the sounds. When I was in the fifth grade I began organ lessons as well, using the Stainer and the Dickinson methods.

We moved to Sharon, Pennsylvania when I was eleven, and eventually found an excellent organ teacher in the person of E. Alan Wood, who had been a devoted student of Arthur Poister, although I also continued with piano lessons. The move to Pennsylvania was fortunate, as it brought with it opportunities that eventually pointed me in the direction of becoming a professional organist. My lessons were at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon, where there was also a three-manual Skinner organ, so my early years as an organ student were shaped by the sound of those instruments. It was always the sound of an organ that excited me at first; my love for the repertoire developed later. I should say also that while I liked the sound of the Skinner organs, there was something about the liveliness of the sound of that old Moline organ in my memory that I found even more exciting. I have often wondered whether my love for the old organs — their sound and their behavior — is somehow connected to that early experience of being enchanted by that singing, breathing, somewhat earthy quality of that instrument.

By the time I was in high school, I was being exposed to a fairly broad spectrum of the repertoire, thanks to the efforts of my teacher; I wanted to play everything, but it is fair to say that I found myself loving the music of Bach most of all. Despite this, I was not sure that I wanted to make the organ and its music my life’s work. This was a somewhat confusing situation: I had been initially drawn to the organ by its sound, but the more I was exposed to the repertoire, and the more I learned about the sounds that helped to give birth to the repertoire, the less I was satisfied by the sounds of the instruments I knew (and I was fairly voracious about exploring the organs in the area in which I lived), and less satisfied by the way they played the repertoire I was increasingly attached to. Then, when I was about fifteen, I had a life-changing experience: the large Beckerath organ arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, not far from where we lived. I went to hear this instrument and was totally overwhelmed. I remember thinking: if organs can sound like this, I want to be an organist! The sound was so unlike anything I knew, but in a strange way it was also like coming home to where one belongs, a sense of being in one’s element. I visited that organ often during high school years, to play and to listen. It was also there that I first heard the Duruflés, Pierre Cochereau, and other fine players. It wasn’t long before I was hooked, and have never regretted it. The Pittsburgh experience, along with masterclasses and lessons with Arthur Poister the summer before my senior year in high school, pointed me in the direction of Oberlin as a place to study, where I spent four happy years studying with Fenner Douglass.

I was so fortunate in those teenage years to have had mentors of whom we would say today that they thought “outside the box,” people who regarded the mainstream with a raised eyebrow, who were critical of accepted norms in musical performance and in instrument making. I am grateful for their iconoclasm and for the ways in which they helped me to embrace dissatisfaction with the way things are as a necessary thing in order to grow.

You're known worldwide for your improvisations. How did you develop that skill, particularly in an age where contrapuntally-based and historically-informed improvisation was basically unknown in the United States?

My first efforts in improvisation were — to the extent that they were anything at all — impressionistic, rather than contrapuntal. They were vaguely French and perhaps not very good; this was when I was in graduate school, where I had a wonderful church job, though with an organ I that I really didn’t like. It seemed to me, though, that improvising in that way on that organ actually made the organ sound better than it did when I played repertoire on it. This experience taught me that through experimentation and careful listening, improvising is often the way you can make a given instrument sound as well as it can. This has been one of my goals in improvising ever since: to find the beauty in whatever instrument you are playing by cooperating with it. A short time later, I was fortunate to have a church position with an instrument that was more sympathetic to contrapuntal music; this organ helped me to work in a more systematic and organized way to develop some contrapuntal skills. Listening to contrapuntal improvisations by organists such as Francis Chapelet, Klaas Bolt, and Harald Vogel helped me a great deal, along with analysis of the contrapuntal repertoire. By seeking out instruments that were sympathetic to this kind of music, and through much practice, I was able gradually to improve my skills.

There are many contrasting views of what constitutes an improvisation, such that I suspect most organists have become so afraid that they don’t know where to begin. What is “improvisation”?

What is improvisation? That is THE important question, and a difficult one to answer; I will give it a try, though, and I hope that in trying I may also shed a little light on the question of why so many organists are afraid of it. Actually, the New Grove does it well for starters, I think: "the creation of a musical work, or the final form of a musical work, as it is being performed." But it needs some unpacking. The English word “improvisation” is a word of relatively recent origin, and we use it to describe a wide range of activities, not limited to music, of course, and these various activities may have less in common with each other than we may immediately suppose when we use the same label “improvisation” for all of them. We can now say that the poetry of the Troubador tradition was improvised, for instance, and we use the same word to describe what an organist may do for a brief moment in the liturgy, what actors may do in certain types of theater, what Liszt did in public performances, what Jazz musicians do, what Garrison Keillor does with the news from Lake Wobegon, what a singer may do with an eighteenth-century aria, what performers in non-western musical traditions have done for centuries, what keyboardists did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what Messiaen did with L’Ame en Bourgeon, and what Pierre Cochereau did at the Sortie, to name (not) just a few. Now all of these activities do have at least three important elements in common: they are activities which are NOT performed by reading something written on a page, they are NOT activities performed by memorizing a pre-existing work and then performing it, and they all ARE activities for which we use the term “improvisation”, but they are very diverse activities. The problem is that the word itself is so loaded with baggage that its use can obscure the true nature of what we are describing.

So, let’s try to identify what some of that baggage might be. First, I think we have to come to terms with this idea of spontaneity, perhaps the biggest piece of baggage, the idea that a true improvisation is unprepared, spontaneous, on the spur of the moment. For organists, this idea seems to be put forth by Charles Tournemire, himself a great improviser, when he says in his Précis d’éxecution, that “all preparation is opposed to this special art.” Yet, following this oft-quoted phrase, he goes on to speak against disorder in an improvisation, and to say that to avoid this one must undergo rigorous training in preparatory exercises, and acquire a deep understanding of harmony and, above all, counterpoint. He actually seems to be saying that in order to improvise well without preparing, one must — prepare.

Consider next what Michael Praetorius says about the toccata, which he characterizes as being like a praeludium, which the organist plays ("fantasirt") “aus seinem Kopf” — which we usually translate as “off the top of his head’, but I think here that a literal translation, “from his head”, probably does better justice to what was going on if we consider what would have been in his head. The word “fantasirt” is helpful, because it reminds us that what would have been in his head would have been the many patterns of “fantasia”, those contrapuntal images, many of them imitative and/or canonic, which the keyboardist would have internalized through practice, so that they could be organized and realized at the keyboard at will. We know that this kind of skill was an essential part of the organist’s education in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to memorize and to internalize the techniques we now see preserved in written compositions. So now we can consider dispensing with another piece of baggage, the idea that improvisation is — by its nature — necessarily something different from composition, that is, a different kind of music. If our ancestors were capable of improvising strict counterpoint, what are we to make of our persistent tendency to use terms such as “improvisatory style”, particularly to refer to music which appears to be loosely organized or “free”? I think that if we are going to use the word improvisation to describe what Praetorius is talking about, it is essential to let go of the more recent connotations of that word, otherwise we will get an even more obscured picture of what their process may have been. Or, let’s just forget the word “improvisation” altogether for a moment, and consider that, for a keyboard composer of that time, composition may have been a much more performative act than it is for us today. If we could wrap our heads around the idea that for many of our ancestors the locus of composition was essentially that of playing a piece into being, with the writing down of it being a later process, we would find that the idea that improvised music and composed music were two completely different animals just doesn’t make much sense — at least for keyboard music from that period. Well, think of the implications: if the act of composing is located in the act of playing, then — as a composer — you would learn the techniques of composition by playing them, memorizing and internalizing them in the body. The great classical scholar, Albert Lord, used the term “composition in performance” to describe an analogous process in connection with certain traditions of oral poetry, and I find that that is a better word to describe much of what we now call historical improvisation. Less connotational baggage. But you can see, I think, of how all the baggage about spontaneity and absence of preparation helps to account for the fact that many (organists) are afraid of it. I have often wished that — especially as regards historical improvisation — we could just drop the word “improvisation” altogether, and find a more accurate term; “composition through performance” comes closer. But maybe this would also be the case with other kinds of improvisation as well…

So it’s a tricky word, isn’t it? It is used to describe so many different kinds of creative activity, sometimes inaccurately, and if you buy into the connotations of spontaneity and absence of preparation, you risk depriving yourself of developing the skills necessary to do it well. Similarly, if you pay too much attention to this idea of “improvisatory style,” whatever that is, you may forget that the process of improvisation can produce all sorts of music not at all in an “improvisatory style”. So maybe the term “improvisatory style” only works when you have a limited conception of what is possible through improvisation, of what kind of music it can create. Away with it. The point is rather to expand, not to limit, your convictions about what is possible through improvisation.

Given that, how does one with no background in improvisation begin exploring and studying this art? What keyboard skills are necessary, and what resources are available to help one develop them?

Improvisation is a big room, and there are many doors leading into it; there is no one way. You can start by playing cadences in all keys; you can start by making random motion without regard to anything except keeping the motion going, while you gradually make decisions to give order to the chaos; you can start by harmonizing a melody in two parts. You can do all of this at the same time, and more. What is essential is to realize that all musical skills are there to be internalized in the mind and in the body, and to be remembered in both. For instance, you understand canon, not when you can write one, but when you can generate one by playing it. When you can do at the keyboard all of the harmonic and contrapuntal techniques you learn in a theory classroom, then you have something really important that will make it much easier for you to generate music by playing it. It would be easier still if our schools would teach all of these skills at the keyboard rather than only at the chalkboard. It is possible to learn how to create contrapuntal pieces in performance, but to be able to do this, you have to learn counterpoint at the keyboard, not as primarily a written activity. Imagine what the results would be if, for instance, we tried to teach continuo playing as a classroom exercise with chalkboard and paper rather than as something you learn at the keyboard; we might begin to think that continuo playing was difficult and scary, that it can’t really be taught, and that only a few “gifted” people will be able to do it — just like what we hear said about improvisation. Well, I think it is the same way with other compositional skills. If you learn the techniques at the keyboard and then practice them, improvisation will become infinitely easier.

Many university improvisation courses focus on the vertical more than the horizontal — that is, they favor the study of chord progressions and ways to modulate rather than counterpoint and voice leading. How do you work with someone who has only trained “in the vertical”?

All those things that might be called “vertical” are of course very important, and they constitute an essential part of improvisation studies in just about all styles. But contrapuntal improvisation is not as difficult to learn as it might seem at first if 1) you internalize the common images of contrapuntal behavior (the images of fantasia); 2) you study the relevant repertoire (this is absolutely essential, in order to get the right “language” into the memory, along with its conventions), and; 3) PRACTICE it at the keyboard.

You’ve taught at some of the leading schools for organ playing in the world. How has that shaped how you view and teach improvisation?

It has been such a privilege to work with extraordinarily fine students, people with excellent training, committed to stretching their capabilities, with a deep love for music. And I have heard many of them do extraordinarily fine improvising, at a level that I could never have reached when I was their age. So my view of improvisation has partly been shaped by the example of their accomplishment. It is what I said earlier: it is important to expand, not limit, your sense of what is possible in improvisation. The more you have this expanded view, the more you will find ways to raise your skills. My students have, by their example, done more to increase my own sense of what is possible than I ever could have done on my own; my task is to help them to organize the processes and techniques by which they increase their skills, to cultivate the mindset of a performing composer, and to help them to recognize those moments when they make truly meaningful music.

American aesthetics regarding hymn playing are highly controversial. I recall hearing you play hymns quite a bit differently than many of our colleagues. What is your philosophy regarding hymn playing, and how do you teach hymn playing to your students?

I think you may have the 2016 Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative Festival in mind, when we had a session at Christ Church exploring historic ways of congregational singing with organ accompaniment. It was an exhilarating experience to sing at such slow tempi, breathing as often as necessary, as our ancestors did, with time to “chew” upon the words we were singing, with time to internalize the text as it was being sung. I would never try such a thing on an ordinary Sunday morning, although it is fair to say that I tend to take a somewhat broader approach to tempo than do some (but not all) of my colleagues. I am fortunate to be associated with Christ Church in Rochester, where I occasionally play hymns; the congregational singing there is very strong, due in no small way to Stephen Kennedy’s leadership there over many years. He is a wonderful example of a church musician who listens to the sound of his congregation, and who encourages them to sing through his own playing, which always leaves them time to breathe, and which always provides reliable harmonic and rhythmic support. I am also fortunate to be part of an organ faculty that is committed to helping our students develop their hymn-playing skills to the utmost. To this end, the entire department meets together every week, the Monday evening Colloquium. Each week at least one student has prepared a hymn; the student gives some historical background to the hymn and then leads everyone at the organ in singing it. Following the singing, we all — faculty and students together — give our feedback and advice. We may suggest changes in registration, touch, pacing, or texture, or make suggestions concerning possible alternate harmonizations. I am often struck by the fact that the four professors have such differing backgrounds and personal histories with church music, and we sometimes differ in our opinions about details, yet we are quite united in our view concerning essentials. So when I respond now to your question about philosophy of hymn playing, I think it is safe to say that, in general, we would — all four of us — answer in similar fashion.

Perhaps the most important role of the organist in Christian worship is that of leading congregational song; if we are being conscientious about it, it will often be the element that takes the largest part of our time and thought in preparing for Sunday morning. Fundamental to this role is the ability to facilitate and support strong singing on the part of the congregation. Each congregation has its own voice, like none other, and we need to learn to love that voice and to cultivate our sensitivity in listening and responding to it.

How can we best support that voice? Let’s consider tempo first, because the tempo we choose affects so many other things. The tempo of all congregational music, even before questions of text and “mood” are considered, must allow the congregation to breathe, and to breathe as often as necessary. Without sufficient air in the lungs, the congregation’s singing will be weak and tentative. Many organists, in the interest of being “upbeat”, play too fast to allow really substantial breathing to take place. Often the result is that the organ sounds upbeat, but the singing of the congregation sounds shallow and without strength. We need to remember that congregations are NOT choirs, and the organist should not expect them to have the breath control that we seek to develop in our choirs. We should avoid imposing a choral esthetic on congregational singing; congregational singing has its own esthetic values. Often the result of hymn playing that is too fast is that the focus becomes on the organist’s style rather than on the sound of the congregation’s voice. The congregation also needs time to take in the text, especially if the text is at the bottom of the page, or on another page, and — this is important — to actually sing the text in the time allotted.

When I first arrived at St. John’s, Bowdoin Street, in Boston, years ago to direct the music there, my approach was to prefer fairly brisk tempi for the hymns; after all, I was supposed to lead, and I think that I unconsciously — but still mistakenly — equated leadership with pushing, with getting the congregation to “toe the mark”, so to speak, with whatever tempo I would set. Well, this was a congregation that loved to sing, and they already did it very well; they taught me a great deal just by being serious about what they were doing. At first, when they seemed to lag behind, I thought that they were not paying attention to the organ, but eventually I realized that it was I who was not paying attention to them. They already knew what they were doing, and at the moment that I consciously tried to find ways to support that, their singing became even better.

Pacing is related to tempo, but not quite the same. It involves a certain amount of flexibility within a steady pulse, especially at phrase endings, again to allow breath to take place. It also involves giving time to the congregation’s tendency to “sing out” at important moments (like the “Alleluia” of “All creatures of our God and King”). This requires constant listening to the sound of the congregation, and responding to the moment; sometimes one encourages singing by giving in to the taking of a little extra time, rather than by pushing.

I also think it is important for the organist to stay out of the way. Simplicity in accompanimental style is essential here. Playing countermelodies that interfere with hearing the tune is often counterproductive. Likewise, any free harmonizations should support the structure of the tune itself, not to mention the text, and should happen only when it is clear that the congregation should be singing in unison. If the congregation is singing in parts and the organist is playing conflicting harmonies, it only discourages participation, and sends the message that the organist doesn’t care about what the congregation is doing. It may seem strange to have to mention this, but I hear it not infrequently as I travel around.

There is nothing quite like the sound of a full congregation singing vigorously with full organ. It takes time to build this in a congregation, however, and is a process that involves many different ways to help a congregation discover their potential as a singing assembly. Simply playing loud doesn’t do it, and the dynamic level of the organ needs to match the size of the congregation, as well as the sense of the text. Many organists simply play too loudly on the hymns, and it is characteristic of many organs that the louder one plays, the less the sound emphasizes the melody line. The ability to hear the melody clearly is paramount, except in the most familiar hymns. The organist’s choice of stops needs to reflect this need.

Singing is something a congregation just does, and there is no intended audience for hymn singing (except God); it is one of the ways in which a congregation prays. So the hymn is not a concertato piece for organ with congregational accompaniment, and therefore is not something primarily to be listened to, but something to DO. To the extent that we do listen, the focus should not be on how an organist arranges the hymn, but on the singing itself. It may be helpful to remember that the hymn is not a product to be consumed, but rather is something that we all do together. If someone says to me at coffee hour, “Your accompaniment was so thrilling that I just had to stop singing and listen,” then I know that, on that occasion, I fell short of the mark. The organist is there to serve the congregation by helping them in every way possible to want to sing (not to make them want to shut up and listen).

While today you primarily teach improvisation and church music skills, you taught repertoire for many years and have served on many international juries in both improvisation and repertoire competitions. Are there certain trends you see, for example, in the sort of players who win first prize? Do juries tend to favor “safe” players or those with a unique voice? What do you listen for when you are adjudicating, and what advice do you have for young organists entering repertoire and/or improvisation competitions?

I think that our prizewinners are increasingly able to play a wide range of the repertoire in a stylistically appropriate manner, performers who are seeking to understand the aesthetic underpinnings of the music they play, and to communicate those values successfully to an audience. This is very good to hear. Your second question is harder to answer: so much depends on the make-up of the jury, whether the competition has a specific purpose, and upon which instruments are used. My experience with “jury character” has always been fascinating, and I always learn a great deal from my colleagues; while we often have a quite unified view of what constitutes a truly fine performance, we often have differing ways of regarding the importance of the specific aspects of such a performance. For instance, I tend to give particular weight to how well a performer manages the instrument at hand, from the standpoints of registration, touch, etc.; on the other hand, there have been occasions when a performer played with such intensity and conviction that those qualities outweighed — in my mind — those other aspects of performance that I normally would insist upon. I suspect that this is true for my colleagues as well. As I say, it is hard to answer this other than in the most general terms. Each situation is different. As far as advice for young organists is concerned, I would say this: prepare for a competition as if your life depended upon it, and at the moment that you perform, realize that your life does not depend upon winning the competition; your life as a musician depends upon a long process of learning how to communicate in performance your best understanding — at that moment — of the music you are playing. Competitions can be of great value in providing an intensive context for your developing your skills in that process.

What are your current research interests and projects? Are you preparing any forthcoming publications?

The 1860 E. & G.G. Hook organ (opus 288) at St. John's Catholic Church in Bangor, Maine.

Well, you know, I really don’t think of myself as a scholar; I am rather a performing musician who is curious about things. I had fine training as a musician, but I have never had the “chops” — the grounding in the techniques of research — necessary to doing sustained scholarly work that some of my colleagues have. For this reason, I want to use what time I have now primarily to become a better performer, to learn new repertoire, and to develop further my abilities as an improviser. Having said that, there are definitely things — some new things — which excite my curiosity, and I want to see what pursuing them may lead to. One specific example is this: a few months ago, I had a wonderful experience re-visiting the Hook organ in Bangor, Maine. This organ is not far from the Schoodic Peninsula, where I have a summer cottage, and over the years I have gone to Bangor to practice. While there this summer, I was struck again not only by the general character of this organ, but in particular by the three fabulous dolce registers in the (unenclosed) choir division, at 16, 8, and 4-foot pitch. Each one is slightly different, and each is compelling, fabulously beautiful, and they form a remarkable pianissimo chorus together. (The Hook for Immaculate Conception in Boston had three similar stops as well.) I found myself wondering what on earth moved the builder to do this: whether there are antecedents somewhere, whether they were built with a specific intention for use, in other words – why? This is a lot of pipe metal to lavish on something so quiet; how did this come about? I have known this organ for years, and I don’t know why it took me so long to ask these questions; I don’t think I would be so curious about this were it not for the fact that the effect of these three registers is so amazingly beautiful. This is a new question for me, and it may be that I will find that someone else’s curiosity has already led to some answers. Or maybe not, in which case there is an invitation...

The 1860 E. & G.G. Hook organ (opus 288) at St. John's Catholic Church in Bangor, Maine.


Widely known as a performer in the United States and in Europe, William Porter has also achieved international recognition for his skill in improvisation in a wide variety of styles, ancient and modern. He has performed at major international festivals and academies, including the North German Organ Academy, the Italian Academy of Music for the Organ, the Smarano Organ and Clavichord Academy, Organfestival Holland, the Göteborg International Organ Academy, the Dollart Festival, the Lausanne Improvisation Festival, the Festival Toulouse les Orgues, the Boston Early Music Festival, the Oregon Bach Festival, the McGill International Organ Academy, Eastman’s Improvfest, and the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists.

Recently retired as Professor of Organ, Harpsichord, and Improvisation (2002–2013) at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Porter has also been a member of the music faculty at McGill University in Montréal, where he lived from 2004 until fall 2015. From 1985–2002 he taught organ, music history, and music theory at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and from 2001–2005 he taught improvisation at Yale University. Porter holds degrees from Oberlin College, where he also taught organ and harpsichord from 1974–1986, and from Yale University, where he was Director of Music at Yale Divinity School from 1971–1973. Now residing in Rochester, New York, Porter is Professor of Organ at the Eastman School of Music, where he guides each entering organ student through three semesters of study at the pedal clavichord.

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