Learning to improvise

by Brigitte Harris

This page accompanies the book Assist our Song: Ministries of Music in the Local Church, Douglas Galbraith (Saint Andrew Press, 2021): ISBN 9781800830103, £19.99; also available as an e-book.

What is improvisation?

Singing in worship, by congregation or choir, is led and supported by musicians. Organists, pianists, or instrumentalists do not just accompany hymns, songs or other settings of words but also ‘accompany’ the whole act of worship. As well as song, there is movement and ritual, and sometimes these moments can be helped or enhanced by music. Sometimes also there are gaps where the next part of worship is delayed and music can help weld together what came before with what is to continue. Because these different ‘events’ can be of varying lengths, written pieces may not be suitable and players have to create the music ‘on the spot’, beginning and ending to suit the moment. This is what we mean by improvisation.

For those who have not been introduced to this skill, it is rather like skiing off piste. To strike the first sound and continue without the safety of a score can be terrifying; what if I run out of ideas, what if I cannot find a way to stop and everyone starts to look at me, what if I fumble the notes?

This course is intended for novices in improvisation. No prior experience of improvisation is needed. The course begins with simple melodies, then moves on to two-part playing, the addition of chordal patterns and the use of rhythm.

About this series

The author, Brigitte Harris, who believes that anyone can improvise their own music, is a leading Edinburgh organist and choir director and a lecturer in Harmony, Keyboard Skills and Improvisation at Edinburgh Napier University. She has an extensive Organ Teaching practice in Scotland.

The series first appeared in Different Voices, an ecumenical magazine for church musicians published from 2008 until 2011 by the Church of Scotland and edited by Douglas Galbraith.

The three-part course may be viewed or downloaded from here:

Improvisation: three practical lessons

1. Even single melodies make interesting music

2. Adding a second part 

3. Putting it all together


© Brigitte Harris