Dumfries Improvisation Workshop with Brigitte Harris
11 September 2004

Review by Jeremy Suter

For the second year running, ten organists from South West Scotland joined eight CSO members to study the art of improvisation. In her introductory remarks Brigitte Harris described her background as an organist in her native Germany, where church musicians undergo a highly structured three year course which includes the subject in question. Since settling in Edinburgh she has devised her own unique method of teaching students how to improvise, not through the study of harmony but rather by understanding and using simple structures.

The secret lies in building confidence by mastering extremely simple techniques. As the class conducted a slow 4/4 pulse the first candidate was asked to play a chord of C major on the first beat of every bar, obtaining variety by placing the notes in a different part of the keyboard or on another manual. V-I progressions were then explored, using the anacrusis as well as the main beat. Another candidate "composed" a stepwise melody consisting of four short related phrases. Using the popular French carol Noel Nouvelet Brigitte demonstrated how certain hymn tunes can provide the inspiration for creativity, using a simple pedal drone, extending phrases through repetition and ornamentation, and combining it with a simple ostinato accompaniment. Another hymn tune Martyrs was turned into a rousing toccata with broken first inversion chords in the right hand alternating with broken octaves in the left. Key symmetry is another useful technique, whereby the white notes EGAC can be used in alternation with the black notes B flat C sharp E flat F sharp, resulting in some highly Messiaenic harmonies!

The secret lies in building confidence by mastering extremely simple techniques. As the class conducted a slow 4/4 pulse the first candidate was asked to play a chord of C major on the first beat of every bar, obtaining variety by placing the notes in a different part of the keyboard or on another manual. V-I progressions were then explored, using the anacrusis as well as the main beat. Another candidate "composed" a stepwise melody consisting of four short related phrases. Using the popular French carol Noel Nouvelet Brigitte demonstrated how certain hymn tunes can provide the inspiration for creativity, using a simple pedal drone, extending phrases through repetition and ornamentation, and combining it with a simple ostinato accompaniment. Another hymn tune Martyrs was turned into a rousing toccata with broken first inversion chords in the right hand alternating with broken octaves in the left. Key symmetry is another useful technique, whereby the white notes E-G-A-C can be used in alternation with the black notes B flat-C sharp-E flat-F sharp, resulting in some highly Messiaenic harmonies!

A superb communicator and persuasive teacher, Mrs. Harris encouraged beginners to have the confidence to create their own music and also challenged those of us who are content to waffle aimlessly as the choir processes into Evensong to be more disciplined and imaginative.

We much enjoyed our visit to Maxwelltown church. The organ has a detached console with sufficient space round it to accommodate the course comfortably in hearing distance from Brigitte and the players. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. Brown, the organist, and his wife supplied their home made "goodies" both before midway through the seminar.

One purpose of the event is to encourage organists in Dumfries and Galloway to start their own society, and to this end our chairman invited written comments on the subject. However, only two comments were returned, both doubting the possibility because of a sparse and scattered population, although around 120 organists were circulated for this event.


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