The Organ Pad and the Art of Organ Improvisation
Since 1929, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been performing a weekly broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word, which has become the longest-running continuing broadcast in the world. Week after week, the Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square fill the airwaves with glorious music—for 27 minutes and 56 seconds to be exact.
The timing is extremely important to fit the standard broadcast television half-hour show length. Because of the exact timing, songs are carefully selected to fit not only the length, but specific themes as well. Because the spoken word messages vary slightly in length each time they are read out loud, and song lengths can change based on slight variations in the tempo, the broadcast needs to have precautions in place in order to fill time.
Enter the organ pad—but just what is an organ pad? Organist Clay Christiansen explains: “These days we are all called upon to improvise a short organ pad that can be from 15 seconds to one minute in length and varies from broadcast to broadcast, the time of which can be changed and usually is changed as late as after the final Sunday rehearsal.” Organist Richard Elliott added: “The pad is usually based on musical material from the preceding choir selection. I usually play it in the same key as the choir piece but will occasionally do it in a different but closely related key. My own take on the organ pad is that it is a sort of ‘Amen’ to the choir piece, as opposed to a discrete organ composition. (And it also serves to set a quieter mood in preparation for the spoken word.)”
Elliott also elaborated on additional moments that call for improvisation, saying: “In addition to the organ pad, we also improvise the organ music under Lloyd's spoken word message. And I have improvised a number of organ solos over the years, most recently for the Canada Day broadcast.”
“The other time for improvisation is at the end of the broadcast, where we have to fill time and modulate from the key of the final piece to D Major—the key in which we play ‘As the Dew from Heaven Distilling,’” pointed out organist Andrew Unsworth.
When asked whether the organ pad is ever planned or if it is completely improvised, Christiansen added, “I get some ideas in mind and then improvise for however long is needed. It's never the same twice.”
Each organist figures out approximately how long to improvise during the final rehearsal, when director Mack Wilberg makes the final decision, although the organists keep their eye on the time clock and make last minute adjustments as needed.
Here’s a great story found in the Church History Library about how organ improvisation worked in the past:
Organist Alexander Schreiner told a story of how he was called on to make up for a miscalculation during a broadcast: “Some years ago, Elder [Richard L.] Evans turned to me in the middle of a broadcast and said, ‘I am in trouble, I made a mistake in arithmetic and I am short 2½ minutes. Could you fill in with something?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and he asked what it would be. I said, ‘I don’t know, it will be an improvisation.’ So I played for 2½ minutes and when I finished I listened to the recording, wrote it down, and it has become one of my most popular numbers, ‘Lyric Interlude.’”
Clay Christiansen performs Alexander Schreiner's improvisation, “Lyric Interlude."
Although not an improvisational piece, watch Andrew Unsworth perform his own arrangement of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music: