The Dutch organist Sietze de Vries (*1973) absolved his bachelor’s degree in 1994 at the
Conservatory of Groningen with Wim van Beek and Jan Jongepier. He received his Master’s
Degree two years later from the Royal Conservatory in Den Haag, were he studied with Jos van der Kooy. With the latter, he studied contemporary improvisation and church music as well. After winning fourteen prizes in both improvisation and literature contests, Sietze de Vries ended his participation in this field by winning the prestigious international improvisation contest in Haarlem (2002).
Sietze de Vries has an extensive concert praxis all throughout Europe, Russia, the United States, Canada and Australia. His main focus is on the Renaissance, the great North-German Baroque tradition, Bach and improvisation in historic styles. He is also in great demand as a teacher, especially on the subject of improvisation. As an ambassador for the rich historic organ culture in the province of Groningen, he reaches many organists and music lovers all over the world.
Sietze de Vries lives in a former church in a little village near the city of Groningen, where he builds a collection of organs, harpsichords, clavichords and reed-organs. He is also the organist of the choir-school in Roden, that consists of a boys- and girls choir in the English-Anglican tradition. Developing musical skills in children, and bringing the rich organ heritage to next generations, is an important goal for him.
Did you always improvise, from childhood on? Was it driven by intrinsic motivation, or did a
teacher encourage you?
As long as I remember, I improvised. Even in my earliest childhood, I would play melodies on
whatever instrument available: a reed organ, a harmonica, a recorder, a trumpet or even a plastic
saxophone. We had some old organ records and my father could play a few chords on the organ.
This music, but also the instrument itself fascinated me: besides playing, I could sit for hours,
drawing organ facades, looking at pictures and making stoplists. At the age of eight, I could imitate every piece on the old records in ‘my own style’, and when I started organ lessons at age nine, I learned to read music as well. That wasn’t easy in the beginning: the whole system of learning notes was –and often still is- so methodical, unmusical and boring, that I simply hated it. It took me a while to discover that by reading notes, I would be able to learn all that beautiful music that I knew from recordings and the radio, and much more.
This is where my frustration with traditional music teaching started. A child should learn music the same way as it’s native language: first listening and imitate words, than making small sentences. When you can speak the language relatively well, you learn to read and write it as well. To start with methodical reading before you speak the language, is definitely not a very musical, or even a very smart way to go.
Luckily, I did have a smart teacher, who allowed me to keep improvising, and even encouraged it.
When I went to the Groningen Conservatory, at age fifteen, I was very lucky to study with Jan
Jongepier (1941-2011), one of the greatest improvisers that I’ve ever encountered. He especially
made me aware of the fact that improvising is not just fantasizing. A good improvisation should
sound like a piece of literature: style, form, key relations, meter: it all has to be there and
preferably according to the rules. It proved to be essential that when you improvise from early
childhood on, it becomes your ‘native tongue’. That’s why I was able to incorporate whatever I
learned from compositions in improvisations as well, without much effort. Together with the
beautiful old organs in the Netherlands, especially in Groningen, improvising is the main
influence that made me the musician that I am today.
What are your favorite styles to improvise in? How do you experience other styles, like ‚free‘
styles, or improvising with other musicians?
Because of my love for the North-German organ type, the Renaissance and Baroque are my
favorite style periods. Not only the rich sounds of the organs from that period, but also the strict
forms like fugues, trios, partitas and choral phantasies inspire me enormously.
But I actually do like music from all style periods. When I play a large romantic organ, I love to
try a sonata form in 19th century style, or a ‘Regerian’ Choral fantasia. It’s like a birthday cake: you
don’t eat that as your daily bread, but it tastes very good every once in a while.
The same goes for modern ‘free’ improvisation: I loved playing in the Haarlem contest, where you
are expected to play in a contemporary way, whatever that may be. Now and again I improvise
together with a colleague on two organs; that’s also very rewarding. Improvising at the piano or
harpsichord is also something that I like to do. And if I had the time, I’d love to play in a jazz-band
on a piano or a Hammond-organ! The main issue for me is control. I don’t like it when musicians
‘improvise’ by making only creative sounds on an organ. You see this often: virtuous motoric
movements and rapid change of sounds often mask a disability to make meaningful music. You
don’t really speak the language, you only pretend to speak it. I rather admire a Bicinium on a one manual organ in meantone, than time and again the noisy ‘Cochereau-fireworks’ on a huge instrument in a big cathedral. Unfortunately, many organists think that these impressive sounds
are the pinnacle of improvising. Even the famous improvisation contest of Haarlem is heavily
infected with this virus!
Do you have some guidelines how to practice and teach historic improvisation?
My organ concerts normally consists of 30-40 minutes of literature and 20-30 minutes of
improvising. Since I play about 80 concerts a year and numerous excursions and organ demo’s, I
practice mainly by doing. The pieces that I’m currently practicing and listening to, are influencing
the music that I improvise. That, and of course the character of the organ that I have to play,
defines the style of the improvisation. It also enriches me greatly when I teach. By working with
the students, you have to define and redefine what you’re doing when you improvise. That often
brings new ideas, apart from the ones that the students bring themselves.
I already mentioned that starting at a young age is very important. When music comes to you the
same way as your native language, you will learn to play it ‘fluently’. Not the signs on a sheet of
paper, but inner hearing is the main key to make music. Imitate a song first, then harmonize it,
transpose it, make little variations etc. It is exactly the same process that happens in your brain
when you imitate words, give them meaning, make small sentences, learn to say the same thing in different ways etc. By doing this methodically, you really control what you’re playing, and by
adding small steps every time, you will be able to master complicated counterpoint in the end.
Like in chess, you learn to think ahead and oversee all possibilities while playing. It becomes a
kind of ‘instant composing’.
Of course you can learn a language at a later age too. Although it will probably never be as fluent
as your native tongue, you can learn to speak it very eloquently. But in the case of improvising,
you have a burden to carry along when you already play the organ quite well: you know how it is
supposed to sound! That is why organists that can sight-read easy, are the ones that often don’t
like to improvise. Why go to all that trouble of starting from the very beginning again?
You’ll be surprised how many good organists can’t reproduce a simple melody on a keyboard! It
means that, because of our teaching system, many musicians neglect their inner hearing
completely. Their fingers start moving when they see notes on the sheet of paper, but it isn’t
‘processed’ by the mind first. That is why it is a long and bumpy road to ‘re-create’ the inner
hearing again. I always use hymns from the Lutheran tradition and Genevan Psalms to use as
‘training tools’. It’s the same way Bach did it: every child knew the famous hymns like ‘Ein feste
Burg’ or ‘Vater unser’ by heart. Step by step you add difficulties, in a way that you go from only
vertical thinking (chords) to horizontal thinking (lines, counterpoint). The goal is to be able to
follow Bach’s footsteps: make choral preludes like the ones in the ‘Orgelbüchlein’. Once you’re
able to do that, fugues and passacaglia’s are not that far away. And, of course, you can and will
develop your own language and preferences, once you have the basic tools for harmonizing and
improvising. The only thing that can’t be learned, but can be developed, is creativity.
You can already spend a lifetime on refining the voicing and counterpoint in improvisation with
Bach as main example and inspiration.
My teacher Jan Jongepier used to say: ‘you can’t reach the level of Bach, but I’m glad when it was
a good Krebs’.