Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Music as Improvisation

Improvisation is about finding a path to get to the right note at the right time.  Composers like Beethoven improvised all the time, and managed to write down some of what they created.  When we play those compositions, they should sound as fresh as when they were written.

Too often, learning music seems to be about perfecting the playing of the sequence of notes written by a composer.  It really should be about appreciating the composer’s way of arriving at his musical destinations–the next beat, next phrase, next theme–his or her way of making musical statements.

Maybe you can help your students identify the important note destinations in a musical passage, and blank out the other notes.  Ask students to invent their own pathways between those notes.  Maybe they’ll come up with something intriguing, maybe not.  Either way, they’ll better appreciate the choices the composer came up with, and better understand the musical point of the passage.  They will find it easier to learn and memorize as well.

Sometimes I feel that to focus on the perfection of each note is like focusing on each letter that spells each word as you speak.  Ultimately, you want to spell well, and say everything the way you want it to come across, but getting each detail right is not the first priority.

Similar situations occur in other arts.  For example, in drawing, artists learn to sketch the big shapes first and fill in the details in the proper context afterwards.  Those who try to draw details first find themselves trapped in distorted drawings where certain key features are overworked and oddly sized, compared to the overall image.

In music this happens when we learn detailed passages where the composer meant to add color or texture to an overall statement.  For example, grace notes look complicated on paper and can attract more attention than they should.  They are supposed to decorate the main notes, not steal the spotlight for themselves.  And yet, many detail-oriented learners will focus their attention wherever there seems to be more stuff to worry about.

Whether in music, speaking, or art, communication is about priorities – getting across what we’re trying to say, and placing the details where they belong, to support the big picture.  As teachers, and as practicing students, we all have to juggle priorities and make sure the important ones come out on top.  We improvise every time we speak, every time we sing or play an instrument; as teachers we can make sure that improvisation is a natural part of music.  It’s what makes music a communication from the heart.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

3 Comments

  1. Ian

    This is right on, and I agree about priorities in music. If a performance doesn’t come from the heart, it won’t come across well.

    I was reminded of this yesterday when I looked up Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock. His playing is oftentimes as sloppy as it gets, but it’s brilliant nevertheless!

    I couldn’t take my eyes or ears off of the performance. When I contrast that with some “perfect” performances of classical music that I can barely sit through (I’m a classical singer), I wonder where the disconnect is. I feel the same when I see performers who were obviously influenced by people like Hendrix who have incorporated the sloppiness but not the –for lack of a better term — brilliance.

    Maybe he just had his priorities right.

  2. Playground Music

    Great post!

    I think we tend to fall into this rut because it is so much safer. There’s a great line in Unbreakable after Bruce Willis’ character has learned that he has superpowers, and Sam Jackson’s character has finally convinced him to use these powers for good. Jackson’s character says, “It’s alright to be afraid, David, because this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.”

    I think we think we find comfort in those staves. They insulate us from the unknown.

  3. Piano Lessons by QM

    As someone who teaches piano improvisation, I find this article both informative and spot on. Good post!

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