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The Nikhil Hogan Show

The #1 music interview podcast, hosted by Nikhil Hogan, dedicated to serious discussions of music with masters on the study of composition and improvisation. Past guests have included Grammy, Emmy, Academy, Tony, CMA, and many other award-winning artists.

Jun 14, 2020

My guest today is Professor John Mortensen, a leading performer, scholar and teacher in classical or historic improvisation, Steinway Artist, Fulbright Scholar, and is a professor of Music at Cedarville University.

His new book is “The Pianist’s guide to Historic Improvisation”, published by Oxford University Press.

Kate Boyd, Professor of Music at Butler University reviewed the book by saying,

"This book fills an important niche in the world of piano and keyboard pedagogy. In each of the chapters Mortensen encourages the reader's creativity, simultaneously exposing the musical building blocks used by some of the great composers and allowing the reader to apply those same compositional techniques to improvising in a stylistically-appropriate way.”

Noam Sivan, Professor of Piano Improvisation, Hochschule of Music and Performing Arts, Stuttgart reviewed the book saying,
"Any language study based solely on reading without speaking, would be incomplete. Similarly, the study of improvisation is indispensable for learning music. In this important book John Mortensen wonderfully demystifies the creative process and presents a clear and gradual method for learning to speak the language of J. S. Bach and his contemporaries. Highly recommended!”

It debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Piano and Music Instruction category.


1:41 What was the landscape for books on classical improvisation before the publishing of his book
3:35 How long did it take you to write the book, and did you have to revise the book as new information kept coming out?
4:22 Who is the book written for?
5:37 Does the book lean Italian or German in it’s approach?
7:12 What prerequisites do you need to create a figuration prelude?
8:12 What harmonies do you need to know to start your figuration prelude?
10:01 How do you break up the chord and how many types of figurations that you can come up with?
10:46 The effectiveness of figuration preludes in getting newcomers to creating music right away
11:29 Why is Toccata chapter 2?
12:56 What’s the amount of harmonic knowledge you need to improvise Toccatas?
13:37 Do you teach cadences in the book?
13:57 The Rule of the Octave and how important it is?
16:08 Which version of the Rule of the Octave do you want students to start with?
17:50 CPE Bach’s multitude of Rule of Octave versions
18:51 Diminutions
21:19 What about 16th notes?
22:14 How do you avoid contrapuntal mistakes in improvisation?
23:37 Do you encourage students look at the piano literature and steal ideas?
24:23 Variations
27:48 What’s the way to develop melodic lyricism?
31:42 How do I finger all these examples in the book?
32:36 Friedrich Erhard Niedt and the suite
35:52 Imitation
38:30 Counterpoint
39:57 Is Counterpoint not being taught correctly?
40:57 Partimento
42:27 The benefits of partimento with regular music students
45:09 The overwhelming positive feedback to classical improvisation
46:00 How does the scene compare to 10 years ago?
48:17 Schemata
50:00 Interest in traditional Irish music?
50:51 The parallels between Celtic improvisation and Classical improvisation
52:28 On being denied visiting a University because the top professor could not improvise
53:44 Is a classical improvisation renaissance happening?
54:20 Publishing with Oxford University Press?
55:52 What are your thoughts on hexachordal solfeggio practiced by the Neapolitans as researched by Nicholas Baragwanath?
58:57 Wrapping Up