classical

Many times the topic of improvisation comes to mind in music, but it’s usually tied to genres like Jazz and Rock, however, improvisation happened long before these two were even a genre.

Musicians like Beethoven and Mozart would sometimes improvise and impress the audience with an unexpected yet natural turn in the performance.

John Mortensen’s Thoughts

John Mortensen, author of “The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation” says:

“Bach could improvise fugues not because he was unique, but because almost any properly trained keyboard player in his day could. It was built into their musical thinking from the very beginning of their training.”

theguardian.com

It’s not that classical music doesn’t allow for improvisation to happen, it’s that there has been a new tradition of following the original composition step by step, and if there is even the slightest deviation, whether by mistake or conscious improvisation, it’s wrong. This takes away a bit of the humanity of music which is to really feel what is being played.

“Those who attend collegiate music schools spend nearly all their time and effort on learning, perfecting and reciting masterpieces from the standard repertoire.”

theguardian.com

“There is something stultifying about a tradition where millions of pianists are all playing the same 100 compositions. The way we’ve developed musicians is falling apart, as it was designed for a very narrow outcome – preserving and perfecting the canonic repertoire

theguardian.com

What it Means Today

Classical

With such an accelerated evolution of technology, it should be no surprise that musicians are in the lookout for maintaining this strong sense of feeling and humanity, and classical music could be the perfect place to find it if the academic system allows it.

Pianist Steven Osborne had some thoughts to share on this topic:

“I largely agree. When I was at the RNCM, I wanted to put improvisation into one of my programmes. My teacher tried to stop me, saying, ‘They won’t take you seriously.’” I was stubborn. There was a sense that improvisation is not serious music.”

“Individuals are pushing improvisation because they recognise how it can deepen musicianship.”

theguardian.com

Of course in classical music, it’s very difficult to improvise but still there are two ways to incorporate improvisation.

First of all, most of the improvisation in classical music comes from the piano, which is the most flexible of instruments when it comes to breaking out of the original structure.

Now there is improvisation in composition, it is possible to just write down all the music and play it but it’s not the easiest thing to do, and neither does it give a lot of freedom. When you sit down and want to make something new, the best way to approach this is to just play, and see where it takes you, in another words, improvise and see how the pieces fall into place until you have enough to polish, write down and modify. However if there is no previous experience with playing an instrument without following any guide, then you’ll probably feel like a child trying to speak a new language for the first time.

The other context for improvisation is during a concert, which is obviously more difficult, as you have all the music written down, a strict method of how you must follow it and little margin for error, but it is possible, with enough practice to add these deviations and touches that alter the original piece and make it one of a kind.

This is the most important aspect of improvisation in classical music, this is a type of music that has so much emotion and feeling to it that sometimes it doesn’t make sense how cold it feels to learn about it sometimes. While it is complex, hard and not easy to master, it’s not about reproducing sounds, it’s about playing music and even more, creating.

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Every instrument gives us a chance to make unique music, and it’s in the hands of the aspiring musician to sort of lean towards a personality or identity behind it. In this case we’ll be going over some tips and thoughts surrounding the guitar.

As any other instrument, frst you have to learn the basics, this means getting used to pressing down the strings correctly, then parcticing scales, a few easy tunes, chords and then for many people there is a diverging point.

An aspiring guitarrist who chose the guitar because he had to choose an instrument in the classes their parents chose for him is very different than someone that begged their parents to buy a guitar. Of course the end result can vary but this usually matter in the end.

After this step, the aspiring guitarrist has an idea of what he or she wants to sound like when becoming a good guitarrist. This will slightly push the person towards a learning method.

Classical Way

For starters, this means using an acoustic or spanish guitar, and using mainly your fingers to play instead of a pick like most electric guitar players.

This path is also a good idea if the sound you are looking for is all about classical complex structures and compositions that require a good amount of practice to read music and play it

In an interview with Brad DeRoche, classical gutarrist Raphaella Smits talks about some aspects of classical guitar playing.

It’s like an orchestra, it’s like a whole story, an entire world. So, it depends on the piece. What controls your thoughts, apart from everything technical, is the piece. That’s what makes each piece so special. And I think you feel more about the music than you think about it. I’ll give an extreme example: If you feel like it’s heaven, you are not thinking about the sky and the clouds and the sun and the stars. That would be nonsense of course. If you think about heaven, that’s something very spiritual. If you think about something earthy, it could be a very primitive feeling. So, it’s never very clear. Somehow music is not very human. How you move your fingers, how you sit, how your memory works; that’s the physical part. It’s like building a house, you know?

Self-Taught or Non Academic Teaching

While it’s not a necessary rule, self taught guitarrists tend to lean towards rock, blues or even some forms of jazz. This is mainly because of the nature of these types of music which have an emphasis on feeling, and strong imposing sounds rather than highly trained technique.

There are many good examples of this. Brian May from Queen was self taught, and while his first guitar was a classical acoustic guitar he then built his own first electric guitar because it had more sense with the type of music he wanted to play.

Kurt Ballou from the Metal band touches the subject of self taught musicians saying:

“I never had guitar lessons (…) My dad played a little bit of guitar, he never really taught me anything, but he did give me a chord book. I had played saxophone and piano prior to it, so I sort of transferred my musical knowledge over to guitar. We’re all just students of the artists we like who we spent listening to while we were younger and attempting to mimic what we heard on these records.”

He says that being self-taught made him appreciate some things a bit more than musicians who take lots of lessons and tend to be more technical. “Lessons seem to focus more on the dexterity of playing, whereas people who are self-taught have to use their ears more to decipher what they’re hearing,” he continued. “I think you become a more observant player that way and you also start to learn how an ensemble interacts with each other.”

Both ways are good, they are just different approaches to learning how to play guitar but the best idea would be to experiment wth both ways to some extent, and think that the first one grants you better tools, and the second one helps you express yourself in a more open and welcoming way.

In the end there are no laws or rules, but the experience will be different and this will ultimately affect your identity as a musician.

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There is nothing like a live performance, while making records and streaming music is usually the way that music gets to a large amount of people, there is something about it being played and heard in the moment that makes a deeper bond and greater connection with the audience.

Jack White has an interesting “rule” when it comes to playing live. Live performances usually follow a setlist, which is the order of songs to play during the show, however Jack White doesn’t follow this structure, and the reason behind it is that he believes that the crowd and the player sometimes feel a certain way and other times react differently, the way he does it is that depending on how the crowd reacts or feels, he will then react with a song.

I want the show to be alive,” he says. “And I want each show to be different so that the crowd is in control of what’s really happening onstage, whether they know it or not.

Jack White

He thinks that there is a connection that arises during shows on stage that makes musicians feel in sync even if they don’t know eachother very well.

Maybe one day, it’d be interesting to do a tour where none of the musicians are allowed to speak to each other. They only see each other onstage. That would be an interesting experiment.

Jack White

This makes the experience even more unique as the musician and the crowd interact in the same way a band reacts to improvisation.

Live Performance and Improvisation

Improvisation is also an important part of the live act, not just as a planned part of the show but also as a way of dealing with unforeseen events such as a string breaking or tumble on stage, or some sound malfunction. The idea of going prepared and with specific orders in mind can only take you so far, there is a whole other reality when everything is happening.

Of course depending on the music genre, there is a different approach to these situations, for example, Rock is a lot more malleable and free in terms of improvisation and “going with the flow” but on the other hand, a string quartet has to follow a strict pattern in which every sound and every movement needs to line up. The way a Rock band deals with a broken string could be with humor, rage and even keep playing without any concerns whatsoever, but in a string quartet, if a string were to break (which is highly unlikely) the piece could not go on. That is not to say that one live experience is better than the other, it’s just a different thing

It is important to remember that classical music once welcomed improvisation into their performances, mostly piano composers, but why isn’t it a common thing now?

The great piano composers were all fluent improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so many others are reported to have improvised to audiences regularly. Beethoven’s improvisation duel against Daniel Steibelt, which he won to become the most lauded improviser in Vienna, proves this point whilst it also demonstrates how many virtuoso pianists of the time were skilled improvisers. So when did improvisation cease to be part of the job description for classical pianists, and why?

Phil Best

The reason is not really a strong one, in reality what happened was a combination between the separation of composer/performer and the idea from the 20th century of bringing all the music to the most faithful interpratation possible.

While there are still some pianists such as Robert Levin and Gabriela Montero, it’s not a very regular thing to happen today.

There is much to talk about when it comes to live performances, but it’s good to remember that some of the things that happen in those situations cannot be reproduced or copied, every show, every event is a one in a lifetime thing.

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