I heard some wonderfully improvised organ music during a Christmas Eve service I attended 2 days ago. It was at an Episcopal church in New York City where my wife was singing with the choir. The music was all beautiful but what struck me most were the organist's improvisations.
The organist didn't feature his improvisations in the way some players do. Instead, he used improvisation to vary the musical textures and harmony just enough to keep things interesting. If a hymn had four identical verses, he might end the first two verses with the written cadence, but then end the third with a deceptive cadence to the minor iv chord which would then launch into a short freely improvised passage before leading into the final verse. Musically interesting and functional at the same time.
I became especially interested in two moments during the service. Each of these involved the organist "filling time" between verses while the ushers or clergy walked up the isle or returned to the altar. As such, there was no way to know how much music would be required. Visual cues are like this. You just have to play until you see it's time to move on.
What I loved about this particular organist was that he wasn't shy about experimenting. Unlike a lot of improvising musicians, he didn't "play it safe." When he improvised between verses on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," for instance, he would take various melodic fragments of the song and play with each in turn. Each couple of phrases might even have a different keyboard texture and harmonic style: contrapuntal, harmonized with triads, harmonized with "modern" sounds, etc. It was true improvisation: "in the moment" and with an element of play/experimentation. Not knowing exactly how it would sound in advance.
I liked how this organist seamlessly integrated improvisation into his overall playing. Very tasteful and functional. True improvisation in the context of a wonderful evening service. This is a good model for all of us, whether we play church music, pop, rock or anything else. Do you want to extend the written improvisation on that pop song you're playing? Improvise a piano solo between verses on a bossa nova? Embellish the melody during the repeat on Mozart's C major sonata? Don't be shy: improvise!
Try these free improvisation lessons to get started. Have fun!