Now available:Jeffrey Brillhart's new textbook, Breaking Free: Finding a Personal Voice for Improvisation through 20th Century French Improvisation Techniques. To order: Breaking Free is also available on

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From "The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians":

Jeffrey Brillhart. Breaking Free: Finding a Personal Language for Organ Improvisation through 20th-century French Improvisation Techniques ( Wayne Leupold Editions, Inc. 2011, WL500023), 128 pp., $30.00.

What a treasure this book is! In the interest of full disclosure, I had the privilege to study with Jeffrey Brillhart for one year at Yale; his lessons were always incredibly stimulating and exciting. We used early versions of some of the material contained in this book. In the Introduction, Brillhart explores the idea that improvisation is a mystery and also a search: a search for a personal musical language, a search for musical coherence, a search for personal self-expression, and a search for beauty. (p. 4)
The book is divided into six parts. Part One explores how to practice, how to analyze and develop and theme, and how to create an exposition. Part Two explores harmonization of a theme using various intervals as a basis (perfect fifths, perfect fourths, etc.). Part Three covers Tournemire and Hindu modes, Ecclesiastical modes, and the Bartok mode. Part Four is a twenty-page exploration of Olivier Messiaen's musical language. These four parts explore many musical colors and sonorities that the student will hopefully begin to synthesize into a personal musical language that speaks personally to them. Part Five moves into a discussion of development and specific musical forms: passacaglia, song form, Louis Vierne's favorite structure (a modified song form), scherzo, sonata allegro, toccata, Cochereau style variations, free improvisation, and finally improvising on a literary text. Each form has its own chapter with examples and themes, but presentations are relatively brief and it is assumed in this second half of the book that the student needs fewer examples. These frameworks with minimal examples force the student to do more independent work, as she or he develops a personal improvisatory language. While I found that to be a drawback in some of the other books reviewed here, I think it is appropriate in this book, which is obviously aimed for organists who are already quite accomplished. Part VI contains two very brief explorations (one page each) of the harmonic language of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. A useful bibliography completes the volume.
There is a wealth of information in this book, but the student must be motivated to really spend time with each chapter, searching for possibilities and internalizing the harmonies, modes and progressions. Not an improvisation tutor for beginners, but for those with a solid background in theory and technique, it is a gold mine of information in the French style of improvisation. Themes and examples are chosen with great care and the tone of the written material is patient and encouraging. Brillhart systematically breaks down and demystifies the twentieth-century French sound. Not only will you come away from this book a better improviser, you will also understand modern French organ repertoire in a new way. In the Introduction, Brillhart states, "if you work with focus and a positive attitude - no thinking 'I'll never be able to do this' is allowed - you will grow." I recommend you acquire this book and begin growing in your search for your own musical language!


From "The Diapason", October 2013

This volume by Jeffrey Brillhart, himself a first-prize winner in the AGO National Competition in Organ Improvisation, takes its place in succession with books by other masters of the art, including Dupre, Hancock, and Hakim. The book is well conceived and written, with abundant illustrations and a variety of creative assignments... Brillhart leads us on an adventure in the modern French style, with a goal of helping the player in "finding a personal language." The book provides the ingredients: scales, chords, colors; what's required is "getting this into your fingers and hands," through practice. -David Hermann



"...that Brillhart was the winner was unquestionable..."

The American Organist