Friday, March 31, 2006

Classical Performers Actually Do Improvise, Part 1

Those essays on why classical performers don't improvise? Just kidding.

Now I’ll flip things around and argue that, in fact, the improvisational aspect of performing classical music, or perhaps better put, the creative element of performing classical music, is alive and well. It’s just gone underground, at least compared to the days of performing improvised complete pieces, improvised ornamentation, and improvised cadenzas.

To start off, I’m going to go out on a limb and take an unequivocal position on an issue that is the subject of much debate. I assert that classical performers are, like it or not, co-creators with the composer in the creation of a performance of a musical work.

That performing someone else’s music is inherently creative is self-evident to many of us who perform. I’ve been using the phrase “co-creator” for many years in my own thinking and occasional philosophical conversations about music. And in reading Bruce Ellis Benson’s intimidatingly titled book The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, I’ve found someone else who uses it (although not with the same insistence as I do). Benson, a philosophy professor at Wheaton College, writes

If composing is a process, we need to examine what delimits the process, at either end. Is the composer the sole creator of a musical work, in the sense of initiating and terminating the process of composition? Or is the composing process rather something that extends beyond the composer – perhaps in both directions – with the result that the composer is also merely a participant in a particular musical discourse or practice. (2)

That’s a heretical statement to many composers and performers, at odds with a philosophy of the roles of composers and performers that gathered momentum as the 20th century progressed. Benson argues that what has become our dominant understanding of the roles of composers and performers is oversimplified and limiting.

. . . music making is a wonderfully complex activity that resists precise definition.

What is clear to me, though, si that the binary schema of “composing” and “performing,” which goes along with the construal of music making as being primarily about the production and reproduction of musical works, doesn’t describe very well what musicians actually do. In its place, I wish to suggest an improvisational model of music, one that depicts composers, performers, and listeners as partners in a dialogue. From this perspective, music is a conversation in which no one partner has exclusive control. (2)

Benson uses my beloved term “co-creator” a couple of times (13 and 18). His analysis of the phenomenon of music making is in all likelihood shaped to a large extent by what I assume, given where he teaches, is a fundamentally theistic point of view, or cosmology (but that's a subject for another essay, or series of essays).

Now whether or not we agree that the composer is the exclusive “author” of a written composition, and recognizing that how we answer that question may ultimately be dependent on whether or not we believe in or perceive some sort of dimension beyond that of individual consciousness, there’s no escaping the fact that when it comes to actually performing a piece, performers make an enormous amount of choices.

Carol S. Gould and Kenneth Keaton articulate this very well in their article “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58 No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts [Spring 2000], pp. 143-148).

While a musical score contains information on pitch, relative duration [i.e., rhythm—EE], and often some indication of relative dynamics, articulation, and an outline of phrase structure, it cannot express innumerable details of a musical realization. These details include precise tempi, subtle fluctuations of tempo, expressive rubato, tone quality, precise dynamics, and the combination of all elements to form a cogent, balanced structure that conveys the emotional insights of both composer and performer.

And this is why I feel confident in making the distinction that performers are co-creators with the composer when it comes to an actual performance of even a fully-composed work. There are innumerable choices that the performer(s) must make. A performer may have thought, fantasized, imagined, reflected, prayed about, meditated on, her understanding of the emotional effect of the composition and the tempi, tone colors, rubati that would best bring the piece to life. He may have tried countless alternatives, and made what seem to be definitive choices. But in the act of performance, many of the precise details happen in the moment. And the best performances take on a life of their own. There’s a synergy that happens. New ideas occur. The music can seem to take on a life of its own. There can be as strong a sense of surrender, of almost taking dictation, as what Stephen Nachmanovitch describes happening in a good improvisation (in which the notes and rhythms themselves are not composed in advance).

A little name dropping: I was at a party some years ago at Janos Starker’s house, and he explained to a group of us that he no longer performed from memory because he found that when looking at the music during a concert, he got new ideas. Certainly there have been few, if any, performers in the history of classical performing as consistently thoroughly and thoughtfully prepared as Mr. Starker. No one has ever accused him of being a willful, self-indulgent, overly-romantic performer. And yet here he was, explaining how he facilitated the process of getting new interpretive ideas during a performance.

And if that’s not a description of some form of improvising, then I don’t what it is.

OK. I’ve participated in a heated debate or two with jazz colleagues who were dismissive of the idea that spontaneously-made interpretive choices that didn’t involve choosing actual notes and rhythms should be defined as “improvisation.” And admittedly it is improvisation broadly defined.

But there’s no question in my mind that the creativity that in earlier eras manifested itself in improvised ornamentation and cadenzas manifests itself today in improvised choices of timbre, vibrato, rubato, articulation, emphasis, etc. As I’ve thought about this, I’ve come to believe that for string players (my own field), vibrato serves the role that ornamentation used did in the days of yore.

And more on this to come.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Leading a Coalition of the Unwilling?

Mike Echo, in a comment on “Why Classical Musician’s Don’t Improvise, Part II," writes,

I think one answer to the riddle you propose is a kind of Zen approach. If a student asks you, "Why should I improvise or compose -- the great masters have already done it much better than I?" the answer could be: "If that's how you feel -- then don't!" Not all classical musicians "should" improvise or compose. Those who find it fun to experiment, who have the time to do it, will naturally just do it. I think it is a mistake to push classical musicians into improvising and composing if they don't find it fun. "Follow your bliss" is my motto as a musician. If your bliss is all about playing from the classical canon, then what's the problem? I think the deeper question you're tackling with has to do with the classical musician who has the spark to improvise or compose, but feels scared, put down, or lost. THOSE musicians are your target audience. But for those who are happy to play in orchestras and not give improvising or composing a second thought -- well, so what? Good for them: we need them.

Very good point. I certainly don’t want to be suggesting that adult classical performers who are not interested in improvisation and composition ought to be forced or shamed or otherwise manipulated into it.

The "classical musician who has the spark to improvise or compose, but feels scared, put down, or lost,” is indeed an important part of my target audience and may well be the person most likely to pick up a book like the one I’m writing. Or to buy Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play, Alludin Mathieu’s The Listening Book, or find their way to a Music for People workshop and/or order MfP’s handbook, Return to Child.

Part of what this project is about is inviting and supporting people who already are classical performers (of whatever level of experience and expertise) to explore and embrace their creativity by making their own music. Musician-to-musician, this is not about what someone else should be doing. I hate it when other people tell me what I should do or who I should be. And I've learned, the hard way, that unsolicited suggestions to someone else about what (s)he "should" be doing are as predicatbly counterproductive as they are unwelcome. ("You're not the boss of me! " in some form or another.)

But some people, or at least their parents, actually pay me (and other people with jobs like mine) to tell them what they "should" do. Even to force them to study certain things in certain ways.

This happens in my lives as a private cello teacher and a college-level music educator. All music education, including non-institutional, individual applied music teaching (i.e., private lessons), involves the teacher making choices about both curriculum and methodology.

When teaching private lessons, we make decisions about pieces to assign or select for a student to chose from, whether or not to use certain exercises and etudes and method books, etc. Those are curricular decisions, even though private teachers, especially those not associated with institutions, rarely use that term. Then there are choices about how to teach. Do I just give fingerings for the Schumann Cello Concerto to a student, or do I ask her to develop her own fingerings and then engage in a dialogue with her about those fingerings and offer my own as alternatives? That’s an issue of methodology. Do I spend time in some or all lessons improvising with a student? Do we do free improvisation? Do we improvise ornaments in a Vivaldi slow movement? Those are questions of both curriculum and methodology.

On the institutional level, we are, in part, in the standards and requirements business. We constantly revisit the question of what subjects our students should be required to study, and what sorts of experiences we want to make sure they are exposed to. To what extent should improvisation and composition be part of these required experiences?

When a college music faculty, or an elementary or secondary curriculum committee meet to discuss these issues, the conversation is by necessity shaped in part by external forces: educational standards set by national organizations.

The National Association of Schools of Music accredits college-level music programs, and every ten years decides whether or not to reaccredit them. Part of the NASM 2005-2006 Handbook’s standards for “Competencies Common to All Professional Baccalaureate Degrees in Music and to All Undergraduate Degrees Leading to Teacher Certification” state that

Students must acquire:

1. Rudimentary capacity to create derivative or original music both extemporaneously and in written form.

2. The ability to compose, improvise, or both at a basic level in one or more musical languages, for example, the imitation of various musical styles, improvisation on pre-existing materials, the creation of original compositions, experimentation with various sound sources, and manipulating the common elements in non-traditional ways. (76)

[you can download the entire handbook as a 216-page pdf file for free, if you want]

And the kindergarten through twelfth grade “National Standards for Music Education” developed by MENC include, “3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments” and “4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.” (These standards include detailed expectations for each grade level, which can be found from the National Standards main page.)

So all of us teaching music in the United States at one point or another have to deal—at least as a group—with the fact that, like it or not, our national organizations expect us to include improvisation (and composition) in our curricula and teaching methodologies to some extent or another.

In many cases this seems to lead to a “coalition of the unwilling,” or at least a coalition of the un- or under-prepared. And to various states of denial, and avoidance, and hope and expectation that someone else on the faculty will take care of these things. “Aren’t they doing some improvisation and composition in theory class? In class piano?”

This plight we music teachers find ourselves in is a result of the situation these standards and requirements are meant to address. We are being not just asked but in a sense forced to include in our curricula all sorts of things we were not taught (unless we are organists or, more recently, studying “early music”). We don’t improvise and compose, not just because we have made a conscious decision not to do so, but much more often because it was never presented as an option to us, and because our teachers, especially our private teachers, never modeled it for us. We are being asked to teach to at least some extent something we were never introduced to or taught to do in our own educations. I have three degrees in cello performance. I was never required to improvise, never heard one of my cello teachers improvise, and only improvised myself when playing the occasional aleatoric piece, and then didn’t actually realize that what I was doing was improvising.

So another purpose of this book-in-progress, beyond offering encouragement and support to adult classical performers who want to improvise but are hesitant, is to offer some starting points to my friends and colleagues in music education who find that a national organization has put the improvisation gun to our heads, aren’t sure why it is there, and don’t know what to do next.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Why Classical Musicians Don't Improvise, Part II

It is a persistent question, this one of, “why don’t classical performers (for the most part) improvise?” Especially since classical performers used to do it.

In Part I of my ruminations on this phenomenon, I began to explore several possibilities:

  • We just don’t have time to learn how: with 400 years of repertoire to learn, even the time to eat and sleep can seem an irritating distraction.
  • Performance standards are so impossibly high, at least in part because of the expectations created by studio recordings, that classical performers spend a huge amount of time and energy practicing technique and repeating passages to make them reliable.
  • The concept of intellectual property/ownership of musical works is now highly developed, and so it feels like a moral crime to even consider the spontaneous alteration of even some aspects of a composed piece. And most improvised music is a spontaneous variation on, or elaboration of, already existing music.

Here’s another, perhaps more fundamental reason.

Even with all that time we spend perfecting our technique, learning lifetimes-worth of standard repertoire, and endlessly practicing specific passages to make them reliably flawless, we classical performers are nevertheless aware that there are people alive today who improvise and compose. People who, to use Harold Best’s phrase, “think up music.” And most of us at one time or another, if in a theory class if nowhere else, have done at least a little composition.

And that was it. We were, to put it mildly, unimpressed.

Great classical music is so great that our ideas can seem so, well, non-great in comparison.

I may have already mentioned this in an earlier post: at some point in my early twenties, I realized I wasn’t a composer because if I had imagined the music of virtually every composition student I knew, I wouldn’t have thought it worth writing down. The musical ideas which did occur to me seemed banal and not worth devoting my time to. Not when there was so much exciting, moving, incredible music already written, waiting for me to learn it. (I must say that even now that I’m sold on the importance of creative activity for everyone, I tend to be so self critical that I find myself dissing and inhibiting my own improvisations.)

Classical performers are attracted to classical music because we are in love with the great works of classical tradition. And like anyone in love, we want to combine with and become one with that which we love. We give our lives to this music. We ignore financial realities and common sense.

When I’m in love with another person, I want to join with that person. To become one with him or her.

A musician in love with a piece may not just want to join with the piece but to become it.

For many, performing classical music isn’t self expression. It is about self disappearance.

A Beethoven symphony creates a whole new world. A world that is an escape from or a transformation of my everyday world. A world better than this horribly flawed, anxiety-provoking one in which I live. Playing Beethoven (and other great music) takes me out of myself. It takes me away from my daily life. It is like being overcome by the Holy Spirit.

Playing classical music for many of us is like studying the Bible and meditating and praying over a passage is for some others. It’s looking to something extraordinary beyond one’s self, something to surrender one’s self to.

For a lot of classical musicians, the idea of improvising and composing seems like it would be a significant distraction from what is really important. A waste of time. Why improvise and compose crappy music when you could be playing great music? Does a priest write new scriptures? Invent his own liturgy? Or improvise either? Then why should a classical performer improvise or write his own “scriptures,” his own music.

That's how it seems. And so, if I’m a teacher of a traditional classical instrument, why then would I encourage my students to improvise and compose?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Why Classical Musicians Don't Improvise, Part I

There are many reasons that creating music through improvisation and composition no longer has the central role it once had in the education and professional lives of performing musicians. Perhaps the biggest reasons are the development of a traditional, canonic repertoire which young classical performers must learn and master, extraordinarily high performance standards, and a culture in which the great works are so revered, and the concept of intellectual property so well established, that to play anything other than what a great master wrote is considered a moral outrage.

Imagine being a gifted 15-year-old violinist around, say, 1706 (three hundred years ago, as this is being written).

You’d find yourself in the midst of a creative explosion of new music. What we now refer to as Baroque instrumental music was finally flourishing. Antonio Stradivari is in the midst of his career, bringing violin making to its heights. Bach is only 21 and will not be widely known for many years. Vivaldi is 28. Corelli is 53. The practice of writing idiomatic music for specific instruments has been widespread for less than 100 years.

There is fairly little published music. There is no standard repertoire. There is no canon of masterpieces to learn.

It’s all new music. Tonal music, music in “major” and “minor” is still comparatively new, and the possibilities for harmonic tension and release are still being joyfully discovered. There are no long-standing traditions about how the “great masterpieces” should be played, because they are just in the process of being created.

And so of course everyone is learning to improvise and compose as well as perform. It’s much, much more like jazz groups in the first half of the 20th century and rock bands in the second. Large symphony orchestras have yet to exist. The musical idioms are new, being created by the performers. Virtually everyone who composes music is also a performer. Those who participate in performances of music they didn’t compose are almost always performing with the composer.

Notating every single note and every single detail performance nuance of every part of a piece—especially a work to be performed by professional-level musicians—was as foreign a concept to the composers of the Baroque as it is to jazz and rock musicians today.

Present day legal and ethical concepts of intellectual ownership and exclusive authorship had yet to be developed to their modern severity.

You have the time to learn to compose and improvise. You don’t feel you are violating the integrity of the intellectual property of another by embellishing a melodic line with your own ornaments or improvising your own cadenza. The audiences for whom you perform have not spent their lives comparing 100 years of great-artist recordings of the pieces you play in a concert. There are no long-standing traditions and schools of interpretation for you to be an exponent of or react against.

Now imagine a gifted 15-year-old violinist in 2006. You’ve been playing for ten years or so. Over the last 300+ years, a vast canonic repertoire of amount of concertos, solo pieces and sonatas has developed that would take a lifetime to learn. In addition, there are hundreds of standard chamber music works and symphonies to learn.

To learn all this music would take many lifetimes. If you are learning the Tchaikovsky Concerto, for example, there are countless recordings and performance editions to study and compare. Commercial studio recordings are highly edited to produce a product with technical perfection: the wrong notes, finger slips, slightly-out-of-tune notes, etc., have all disappeared. They’ve created among players and audiences alike an expectation for a similar technical perfection in live concerts. So you must practice hours and hours and hours to make the pieces you perform so physically automatic that you will make few if any technical mistakes—otherwise, you will not be hired for many, if any, performances.

The notion of intellectual property is now fully developed, sometimes being carried to extreme degrees. Even music which is now legally in the public domain is still considered the moral and intellectual property of its long-dead composer. These pieces are rightly valued as treasures and monuments of Western civilization. To change a rhythm, a chord, even a single note is viewed as a sacrilege, a moral lapse.

You’ve probably never met the composer of any of the pieces you’ve learned. They most likely were all composed by composers now long dead. They are works of the masters. Your teacher reveres the masters. Your teacher loves the works of the masters. And you, the student, are clearly no master.

You may rarely if ever work with a living composer who performs with you. Or who expects you to make some decisions about what notes to play. Or who tells you that in a particular passage it’s not important that you play exactly the written notes but produce the general effect. Or listens to your idea for changing a bowing or a dynamic or even a note and accepts it.

And it you do, you may well find yourself feeling a bit or more of contempt for that composer who has not told you exactly what to play, who is open to suggestion, who accepts you in some way as a collaborator.

You don’t have time to learn to improvise and compose. You have a five or six lifetimes of traditional repertoire to learn, and especially if you want to be a professional you have to learn to play it all, and perfectly. You are told over and over again that it is morally wrong to change a note or dynamic or articulation in a composed piece. You are never given pieces to play in which you are allowed or encouraged to make creative decisions. And the moral imperative of playing exactly what the composer wrote is so strongly established in you and your teachers that when presented with the music of 300 years ago, that music of Vivaldi and Corelli and others, in which the composer expected and wanted you to add your own embellishments and ornamentation, it simply doesn’t compute. You experience what has been called cognitive dissonance.

And we wonder why you don’t improvise and compose.


Post script: I just found this in Greg Sandow's Future of Classical Music blog:

Students are taught in music school to obey the rules, to learn the officially sanctioned ways to play the music, and keep their creativity in check. Professional musicians say their job is only to realize the composer’s intentions, thus reducing themselves to a servant’s role.
A servant's role. Exactly.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Just How Improvised Is That Improvisation?

I tend to think in black/white, either-or terms. Something is this or that. Part of growing up, for me, has been learning to accept shades of gray, mixed elements, internal contradictions, and paradoxes.

I remember some years ago having a difficult time connecting with the Wagner Ring cycle, because the "good guys" all seemed corrupt, while the "bad guys" didn't seem all that bad. I mentioned this to my friend and colleague Claude Cymerman, who is a Ring fanatic, and teaches a popular course on the Ring at DePauw. That's the point, he explained. No one is all good or all bad. People in power get corrupted. Part of me wanted the Ring to be like a comic book, where (at least when I was a kid) Superman is always and consistently good. Encountering the Ring and coming to this realization, as pointed out by Claude, was genuinely pivotal for me.

(I wrote yesterday about the movie Crash. One of the things I found so engrossing in it was this same, quasi-Wagnerian combination of good and evil in so many of the characters.)

Well, what has me writing about this today are some thoughts prompted by rereading David Rothenberg's book Sudden Music: Improvisation, Sound, Nature. Rothenberg is a clarinetist, writer, and philosophy professor (from reading the book, I get the impression that he would rank those in roles in that order). Somewhere in the book is a passage--which this morning I can't find--in which he discusses his interest in participating in spontaneous, sudden music rather than composed music. What struck me about that passage (which I'll find eventually and add in here) was that it helped define for me one of the challenges for those of us who play and teach classical music for a living, when we want to learn to improvise. The two seem to represent distinctively different ways of making music and relating to life.

Just as a character in a Wagner opera is neither all good nor all bad, very little music is all improvised, especially music in idiomatic performance traditions. While many of us have tended to think that "improvisation equals jazz," Rothenberg points out that
[t]he philosopher Theodor Adorno didn't especially like jazz because he thought it was not genuinely innovative. What passed for an improvised solo, he charged, was really just a trivial variation on the familiar: one still had to stay within the changes, and never break the rules. He missed the point of the music, but his critique still hits home: when the art is genuinely new, we are uncertain how to accept it. The radical cannot ride the familiar. (105)
An important distinction about idiomatic improvisation, such as most jazz, is that the improvisation is not total. There is a specific musical language which forms a frame of references, and quite often there is a pre-set structure (or set of structures), and often predetermined musical material which is varied in an improvised manner. The performers improvise on something.

In much jazz, that "something" is a standard (or non-standard) tune and its accompanying chords. In classical music we call a series of chords in a piece a chord progression. In jazz and popular music, they are called chord changes. In a performance of a jazz tune by a jazz combo, first the melody is performed, in recognizable if personalized form. Jazz musicians call this the head. Then, each (or most of) the musicians "take a solo," performing an improvisation based on the chord changes. The solo is the same length as the tune itself. The rhythm section (some combination, usually, of drums, piano, and acoustic or electric bass) provides a background for the improvised solo. The other instrumentalists simply wait while their colleagues take a turn doing solos; some may even walk to a different part of the stage.

There's a clear form, there's a clear subject to the improvisations, and the improvised solos have not only a predetermined length but also a predetermined harmonic structure. The "head" and the ending are often rehearsed or at least planned to some extent. So there is a composed as well as an improvised element to most jazz performances.

The same thing exists in Baroque music. A keyboard player may be improvising her realization of the figured bass continuo part. The solo violinist may be improvising ornaments to a melodic line. There's a composed element, and an improvised element. As with jazz, the composed element, and traditions of the idiomatic musical language, shape and structure the content of the improvisation.

More to come on this. I need to go rehearse some (unimprovised) Brahms.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cello Accompaniment Concepts

A reader of and occasional commenter on my blogs, Terry, has supplied the link to this Cello Accompaniment Concepts page as an example of the type of thing he is hoping to read more about here (but is afraid he won't).

The page he refers to has some good references about improvised cello accompaniments in the history of music, especially (but not only) folk music. Eventually, I will be writing about improvisation in earlier eras. We are just waking up from a period of "creative slumber" among classical performers which is indeed a historical anomaly. Until well into the 19th century, competent instrumental performers were trained to and expected to be able to improvise and compose. Terry imagines sitting in on a Bach family jam session--now that would have been something!

Specific techniques for improvising cello accompaniments in folk music is an example of one of the three main categories in my preliminary improvisational taxonomy: improvisation as (part of) a performance art.

How much detail I will go into regarding such idiomatic forms of improvisation is still unknown, even to me. There is an awful lot of information available on the various musical idioms which incorporate improvisation to one extent or another. My mission, as I understand it now, is to provide justification, encouragement, and support to classically-trained musicians who want to develop their creativity. Pointing to non-classical idioms and resources is well within that scope. Writing in depth about non-classical idioms probably isn't.

But I certainly want to be one of the people who help make all sorts of resources easy to find. I'll definitely put Terry's link up on my improvisation links page! And express my great appreciation to Terry for sharing.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Toward a Taxonomy of Improvisation

I wrote in the post about the tradition of organ improvsation about the misconception that many people have that improvisation equals jazz. The truth is that musical improvisation exists in many, many different musical genres, as well as outside established musical genres.

As I work on writing this book about improvisation for classical musicians, and in my discussions of improvisation over the last ten years, I've found it helpful to describe the different contexts in which people improvise. A classification, or taxonomy of improvisation has been developing in my mind.

It is, of course, perhaps the silliest of all subjects about which to attempt to create a taxonomy. What is more unrestricted, more subject to change and growth, less dependent on predefinition than improvisation? Derek Bailey puts it well in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music:
Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analyis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (ix)
That said, there nevertheless is some benefit to describing the phenomenon of improvisation to whatever limited extent is possible. There are three broad categories in which improvisation occurs (at least in my observation). Naming them is helpful, I've found, because the distinctions tend to open up possibilities rather restrict them. Classical musicians do tend to think that improvisation equals jazz, and thus can find themselves intimidated by the tremendous skill and period of learning it takes to become even a minimally competent jazz improviser. And some classical musicians are just not attracted to jazz, not so much because of the improvisatory element, but because they don't connect with aspects of the jazz musical language. It can come as a wonderful surprise that there is much improvisation to be done outside of jazz, and without necessarily developing the skills to improvise in public before a paying audience.

So here's my taxonomy-in-progress. I'm still working on the names--attempts at labeling are often artificial to some extent, and clearly many of these categories overlap. As a matter of fact, rather than representing different types of improvisation, my taxonomy deals more with different purposes for improvisation. While there may be differences in the what, the more fundamental distinctions for me are in the area of why.

First, and perhaps most obviously, there is improvisation as a part of an established performance idiom, such as jazz, or the classical organ tradition. Derek Bailey, in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, calls this "idiomatic" improvisation, and that's a good name for it.
Idiomatic improvisation . . . is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom - such as jazz, flamenco, or baroque - and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called 'free' improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity. (vi-vii)
Bailey makes a good point here. And it is important to note that one thing all these established idioms have in common is that they involve performers who are making music for some form of an audience. This performer/audience relationship is what defines the first of my taxonomic categories, improvisation as a performance art. I propose that one valid way of looking at improvisation is there are performance idioms which include a significant amount of improvisation. Quite often, this improvisation is idiom-specific, other times the improvisation may be "free" and/or combine aspects of many traditional idioms. There are, then, idiomatic and non-idiomatic forms of improvisation as a performance art.

There are two other contexts for musical improvisation, neither of which have performance, especially as traditonally understood (i.e., with performers playing/singing for an audience), as their goal. These contexts are focused on the benefits of participating in the process of improvisation. Each may well incorporate idiomatic and non-idiomatic elements, but the focus of each is more on the process than on the "product" of a performance.

They are improvisation done as a focused learning activity, and improvisation done as a modality of human development, healing, treatment, etc.

Learning-activity improvisation includes the improvisation activities done in a music theory class, for example, or improvised etudes on an instrument. Improvisation is used as a tool to explore and learn more, or to develop a skill. The ability to perform an improvised piece (or section of a piece) for other than fellow students is not the goal.

Growth/healing improvisation includes non-idiomatic, free improvisation done alone or in group settings such as Music for People workshops, community drum circles playing improvised rhythms, and, more formally, music therapy.

I'll be writing more about each of these soon.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Links, Links, Links?

By the way, I'm working on developing both a list of online links and a formal bibliography of resources directly relevant to improvisation in the classical-music tradition, improvisation as a mode of learning classical music, and improvisation as a path of personal development and healing. (Basically everything except jazz-specific resources, which are not only abundant but well documented elsewhere.)

Please email me suggestions (eric @, or list them in a comment. Thanks!

Guess What? The Organists Have Been Improvising All This Time

Many of us classically-trained musicians are at least vaguely aware that improvisation used to be an important part of classical music.

The early-music movement has beaten into most of our heads by now the historical fact that in the Baroque period, keyboard players worked mostly from "figured bass" parts, which were essentially chord charts: the bass line and some numerical symbols, or figures, which indicated the harmonies. Everything else was left up to the harpsichordist or organist.

Our early-music friends have also taught us that singers and players of melodic instruments, such as the flute, violin, oboe, etc., added ornaments. And not just the occasional trill or turn, but often very extensive melodic eloaborations, especially in slow movements. Sometimes these added ornaments were planned in advance, it's true, but the best players improvised them.

And we learned in our music history classes that some of the Great Composers of the Past, such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, were as famous during their lives as performers as composers, and that they improvised. And during the Classical and Romantic periods, concerto performers would improvise (or so they claimed) cadenzas.

But most of us assume that with the dawn of the 20th century, all this musical creativity was seized by the Classical Composers Guild of the Western World and we performers were Henceforth Forbidden From Improvisation and Any Other Creative Input.

And, the assumption goes, the improvisational spirit, having died in classical music, was then reincarnated into a new form of music, Jazz. And for the 20th century and on into the next, Jazz = Improvisation and Improvisation = Jazz. (I actually saw that in a book on jazz. "Improvisation equals jazz.") Classical performers who got tired of playing Exactly What The Composer Wrote, Nothing More and Nothing Less would take up jazz. Or painting. Or cooking. Something, anything, that might provide for some creative self-expression.

Improvisation in classical music? A truly lost art.

But, seemingly in secret, as if they were monks guarding an esoteric, secret tradition, one group of classical musicians has kept the flame of improvisation burning these many years.

Who are they? These mysterious guardians of the tradition, these members of the secret Cult of Classical Music Creativty?


Organists? Really? Yes, really. (When I mention this to other classical musicians, those who aren't organists, of course, that's the response I almost always get. A stunned expression and then the word "Really?".)

Our organist friends have not just been improvising but writing improvisation methods and teaching improvisation classes and giving each other improvisation lessons for hundreds of years, passing the art down from one generation to the next. A well-trained improvising organist can improvise in just about any form. The most skilled can even improvise a fugue. ("You're kidding," people tell me. "A fugue? Really?" Yes, really. I came to an relatively early awareness of this, because back in my early twenties I had a boyfriend who could improvise a fugue and who liked to show off the ability. At least in the early stages of our relationship. Did I fall for him or just under his fugue-weaving spell? I've always gone for brilliant musicians )

Now, I understand why the jazzers haven't known about this. Not only has the jazz culture not been exactly the sort of thing to attract church-goers, but if you are playing in a club until two or three in the morning then driving home, you're not likely to make it to a Sunday morning service.

But what about us classical musicians? Maybe if more of us went to church more often, we'd have had a better collective awareness about this. Based on my scientific study (i.e., my recollection of my student days), organists and the rest of us dont' tend to hang out together all that much, so the topic doesn't come up in casual conversation. And even when organists and other musicians hang out and discuss something other than objects of sexual attraction and romantic fantasy (when young) or hassles of child rearing or recipes (when older), musical conversation is most likely to focus on specific pieces and perhaps performances--experiences which the participants in the conversation are likely to have in common or at least have a common interest in. "Did you read that Times article about all the manuscripts being donated to Juilliard," is much more likely to come up than, "I improvised a delightful voluntary Sunday."

The great French organist Marcel DuPré was famed for his improvisations and wrote a two-volume treatise on improvisation. (My long-ago boyfriend had studied improvisation with DuPré, which he made sure everyone knew.) The only currently in print books dealing with how to improvise in a common-practice period, classical style are texts on organ improvisation.

My favorite of these is Jan Overduin's Making Music: Improvisation for Organists. According to the back cover, Overduin is on the faculty of Wilfrid Lauer University in Ontario and has had an extensive performing career. His book is used at a number of schools, including (according to a friend who was taking an organ improvisation course there), the Indiana University School of Music.

Overduin presents a step-by-step approah to developing improvisational skills, or what I would call a vocabulary for improvisation. The chapters begin:
  1. Improvising Melodies
  2. Improvising on One or Two Chords
  3. Thirds and Sixths
  4. The Pentatonic Mode
  5. Bicinium [a composition in two parts, or lines--EE]
  6. I, IV, and V
  7. Harmonizing Melodies
There are 25 more chapters and several appendicies. Many of the techniques he presents can be adapted to other instruments. To the piano and other keyboard instrument with ease, of course, and to the cello and other single-line instruments to a lesser extent.

Gerre Hancock is perhaps the best known improvising organist actively performing in the United States. As his manager's website explains,
Improvisation has long been a subject of consuming interest to Gerre Hancock, who was fortunate to have studied the subject with Nadia Boulanger, Jean Langlais and Searle Wright.

A large part of the organ music for the services at Saint Thomas Church (where Dr. Hancock was Organist and Master of Choristers for more than thirty years) includes improvisation on various themes presented within the course of each day’s liturgical and musical numbers. Mr. Hancock enjoys improvising in the various classical forms, with particular emphasis on contrapuntal forms, especially fugal.

Dr. Hancock teaches improvisation at The School of Music of The University of Texas at Austin. He has also taught this art at The Julliard School in New York City, The Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University in New Haven, and The Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He is frequently invited to give master classes or lecture-demonstrations for chapters of The American Guild of Organists and other groups on this subject. Dr. Hancock has also conducted workshops of a more extended nature in a number of leading universities in the United States, and at various Church Music Conferences.

On his recital programs he is frequently asked to improvise from themes presented just prior to this part of the program. His improvisations have been widely praised and on countless occasions have earned for him standing ovations.

Hancock's book Improvisation: How to Master the Art is another excellent work on the subject. While Overduin's is in my view the best starting point for the beginner, Hancock's is essential for anyone seriously studying improvisation in the classical tradition.

Frederick Buromaster
, the organist and choirmaster at Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in Indianapolis, is an artist whose improvisations I have enjoyed many times. Fred often improvises preludes to the communion hymn (my son used to sing in the Cathedral's Choir of Men and Boys and so I had occasion to hear Fred's improvisations many times).

And this brings up another reason why many of us classical musicians have not realized that all this improvisation was going on at the organ console: it's often not obvious. There are, after all, many composed chorale preludes that organists perform before hymns, preludes rarely listed in the bulletin. An improvisation that doesn't disintegrate into collapse, after all, could just as easily be a composed piece.

I first realized Fred was improvising these preludes when I happened to be sitting in the balcony at the rear of the comparitively small histroic building which serves as the Episcopal Cathedral of Indianapolis. I had a good view of the organ console, and I noticed that there was nothing but the hymnal on the music rack. And suddenly I realized that Fred was improvising!

After the service, I confirmed this with Fred, who was both pleased and somewhat amused that I had discovered this. And so there Fred is, improvising away pretty much every Sunday, and most of the parishoners, even most of the parishoners who are musicians, don't know that that's what he's doing. Even some of the choir members, it turns out, didn't realize it.

You see, it doesn't even occur to most of us that a classical organist might be improvising. We non-organists haven't realized there is this incredible tradtion of organ improvisation, and we've assumed that, like us, they just don't do it.

But do it they do! And we have a lot to learn from them.

Expressive Tones: Pick a Feeling, Any Feeling

In the last entry, I described how I approach what we in Music for People often call "one-quality tones" (or "sounds"). An excerpt on the MfP website explains a "one quality sound" as "one note or tone--just one!--that authentically expresses how your feel at the moment you sing or play it."

This quality of spontaneous self-expression, playing music that express how one genuinely feels at a particular moment, is one of the things that makes participating in a Music for People workshop so transformative. We so often spend our lives trying to be what we should be, trying to feel what we are supposed to feel. Giving one's self permission to feel one's feelings--well, it is incredible.

There's another powerful way to approach playing single notes. As with one-quality sounds, this practice involves playing or singing a note that powerfully and authentically expresses an emotion. But instead of being open to and aware of what you are feeling at this moment, you choose, or are given, a feeling to express.

Feel anger and play an angry note.

Feel joy and sing a joyful note.

Feel, oh, I don't know, bemused, and make a bemused sound.

And so on and so forth.

I've found this activity to have (at least) two powerful uses.

First, it is not uncommon in workshop settings, especially with college-aged participants, for everyone to find themselves feeling unsure, hesitant, insecure, etc. And so if we are doing an exercise of taking turns doing one-quality sounds, everyone does similar sounds expressing their discomfort and hesitancy. OK, then. John--make an angry sound. Serena, make a silly sound. And so on.

Second, choosing feelings to feel and express helps us to embrace and express feelings we may avoid. To be expressive and uninhibited improvisers, we need to push ourselves into areas in which we are not emotionally comfortable (yet which we can still handle).

And those of us who are performers need to be able to connect with and express the emotions of the music we are playing. Performing classical music, for example, we need to connect with the emotions of the music and express them. Improvising with other musicans, we need to be able to connect with and respond to the emotions being expressed by our collaborators.

I find these two practices compliment themselves very well. Clear your mind, listen inside yourself, and make sounds that express how you feel at that instant: one-quality tones. Then after a while, choose feelings, feel them, listen inside yourself, and make the sounds that express those feelings: expressive tones.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Playing the Notes That Want to Be Played

Many classically-trained musicians fear, or just assume, they lack the ability to improvise and compose. But as organist Jan Overduin writes, "improvisation is within the grasp of everyone, even those with minimal keyboard skills." (Making Music: Improvisation for Organists, vii) Overduin also quotes the famous improvising organist Gerre Hancock as saying, "The plain truth is that all musicans are capable of splendid improivsation, be it modest or grand." (3)

When I first got a computer that had many preinstalled programs, I'd often come home from teaching and discover my son (7 or 8 years old) at the computer, playing a game or using what was to me a new program. "Where'd that come from?" I'd ask. "Oh," he'd reply, not even looking up, "it was on the computer." The truth is that all of us have an improvisation "program" bundled into our personal software. We may not know the improvisation program is there, and we may not have experimented with using it, but we have it all the same.

Some years ago now I visited a college Kansas to play a chamber music concert and give an improvisation concert. The day before the workshop, the piano professor told me, "I just don't have an improvisation button." "Yes, you do," I replied. "I'll show you where it is and how to press it." Here's how to find that "improvisation button" and press it, how to find and open your improvisation software program.

Even though I've now done a lot of improvising, I find the practice described below the most powerful and reliable way to get myself back into true improvising when I feel stuck. This practice involves playing--or singing--just one note. (In Music for People--see the link at the right--these notes are often called "one quality tones.") Here's how to do it.

First, clear your mind. When I do this, I close my eyes, take some cleansing breaths, go into a quiet place--very much like meditating. Actually, I think it is a form of meditation. It's going into a state of not being absorbed by thinking and trying, but rather observing and being aware.

Next, just listen.

Listen not outside yourself, but inside your imagination. Relax and be patient.

Pretty soon, you'll get a sense of a note wanting to be heard. Worried that you won't hear it? Well, the worry is probably what's blocking it. Relax. Take a breath. let go of the worry. be patient and trust. You'll hear it, I promise.

Sometimes I hear a precise pitch. Sometimes, it's a more general sense, of relative highness or lowness, or perhaps a visualization of the mechanics of playing the note itself on the cello.

The important thing to let the note present itself.

And then play (or sing) it.

The process may be repeated as many times as you wish. The important thing is to clear your mind each time. Notice the thoughts that spring up: qualitative judgements about what just happened, ideas for what to do next, etc. Notice them and let them go. Be still and wait for another note to bubble up from the cauldron of your creative imagination.

In Music for People, there's an oft-repeated saying, "There are no wrong notes." And that's true. In free improvisation, there are no "wrong" notes. In my workshops, I often say,"You can play any note. But only the one that wants to be played."

This is, to me, the essence of improvisation. Improvisation is not about figuring out or deciding what notes to play. When improvisation really works, there's a sense that the music is just presenting itself to you. Stephen Nachmanovitch writes in his book Free Play, "My experience of [improvising] is that 'I' am not 'doing something'; it's more like following, or taking dictation." (p. 4)

Improvising can feel like taking dictation, but to me, that doesn't quite capture it. When things are really going well, it's less a feeling of me creating and playing the music, and more an experience that the music is creating itself and, well, playing me. I become the instrument for the music. Nachmanovitch puts it very well:
As an improvising musician, I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. Improvisation is acceptance, in a single breath, of both transience and eternity. To the extent that we feel sure of what will happen, we lock in the future and insulate ourselves against those essential surprises. Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh. (21-22)
There is quite a difference between someone sitting down at a piano and in a silly, joking fashion arbitraily hitting some keys. Sure they are playing "any note" and there are no "wrong" ones, anyway, so why isn't this arbitrary banging improvisation?

It's because while in improvisation the notes are not pre-determined, and no notes are off-limits (unless one creates a game in which only certain notes are used), there's nothing arbitrary or random about the notes which are sung or played. Improvisation is, in fact, very specific. Unlike composed classical music, the specificity is internal and spontaneous. Because it is wholisitc and organic, involving many parts of the brain working together, it often feels natural and effortless.

And sometimes a bit scary--because one doesn't know what is coming next.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Overview and Invitation to Comment

A quick note if you are just joining us. I'm writing a book on improvisation for classical musicians. I'm most comfortable writing short (or shortish) essays, especially ones based on my personal experience. So the book is, most likely, going to take the form of a collection of essays.

As this project starts out, I'm focusing on my observations regarding why it is so difficult for so many classical musicans to begin improvising. And why improvising can be such a transformative, healing experience once some of us do start. It's about reclaiming our creativity. When one starts being creative, when one starts creating, amazing things start to happen. These reflections necessarily have a very personal element.

Soon, I'll start writing about different focuses for improvisation: as part of a performance genre (like jazz), as a way of learning and exploring music, and as a mode of self-expression and healing (often used in music therapy). And describe many different improvisation activities.

Your COMMENTS are most welcome. Just click on the appropriate link.

Correct vs. Creative, or Creative and Correct?

One of the things that makes improvisation so challenging for many classical musicians is that we are so often in the mindset of being correct rather than creative. Especially in the post-WWII period, classical musicians developed a “modern” approach which I call textualist. It’s summed up by the philosophy that the performers purpose is to play (or sing) exactly what is on the page (the text), no more, no less. Sometimes the word “execute” is used, as in, “the performer ‘executes’ the score.”

Execute is an apropos term, because the more rigidly textualist we become, the more we often “execute” (as in officially murder) our creativity.

I am not suggesting here that it is not essential to a good performance of classical music to know the score inside and out, and to be acutely aware of tempo, dynamic, and articulation markings. Nor am I suggesting that any of these things should be ignored.

With the vast majority of composers, however, there is much more to the music than the text of the score. There is the need to use one’s intelligence, experience, and intuition to develop a sense of the human meaning (the emotions, the feelings, the images) the music is meant to express and/or evoke.

Scholars of performance practice argue about these issues endlessly, and this is not the time or place to fight those battles once again. The important point is that many classical players are taught not to put their “self” into the music.

When it comes to interpretive matters, the developing interpretive ideas of students are often “executed” when a teacher dictates an interpretation. The student is not allowed to develop her or his own ideas. Instead, the teacher’s interpretation is substituted for what the student may have been able to develop.

On top of all that is the never-ending quest for technical perfection. Technical perfection is an elusive goal, one that is achieved by a very few people. The rest of us may find we sacrifice our very selves, our souls, in the process of trying to accomplish it.

It’s not unusual for an experienced, burned-out classical player new to Music for People to half-joking announce, “I’m in recovery from my classical training.” My own crises regarding my playing have resulted from trying to play perfectly. (Ironically, my playing usually achieves a higher technical level when I am in good cello shape but not trying to play perfectly, or impressively, but rather to play with imagination and feeling. And I am far from alone in this.)

Technical perfection. Playing correctly. Playing not my ideas and interpretation, but the correct interpretation. Trying to play just like my teacher, or some favorite artist. If playing an orchestra audition or in a competition, trying to play both technically perfectly and in a fairly neutral, yet musical, manner that will not offend any of the judges.

The fear and anxiety these burdens create are tremendous. And when a player’s self-esteem is bound up in how “good” a player is, who she’s “better” than, etc., it is a wonder that more of us classical players aren’t in sanitariums. (Maybe it’s because so few of us have health insurance!)

The “correctness = good, creativity = bad” mindset of so many classical musicians is a soul killer. And it also leads to boring and ineffective music making. Masterful classical musicians not only have plenty of “technique,” but they also play with imagination and sensitivity, with life, with imagination, with emotion, with soul.

In the past 20 years or so, music educators have finally begun to recognize that creativity is essential to the development of young musicians. The National Standards for Music Education, and the National Association of Schools of Music accreditation standards for college-level music programs now both stress the new for improvisation and composition to have central places in the curriculum. But changing a culture, remaking a system, is going to be a slow and sometimes painful process.

It’s not about being correct or creative. It’s about being creative and being as correct as humanly possible—while remaining human.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Acceptance and Surrender

As I began to explore in my first entry, "Sometimes It Takes a Crisis," classical musicians can be blocked from improvising by overly-ambitious standards or expectations.

For me, the problem was that I had imposed a standard of having a tremendous amount of harmonic control, even though I play a melodic instrument. Classical musicians, especially professional classical musicians, often have our self-esteem wrapped up in how well we play our instrument.

So being a beginner, in a sense, on one's own instrument, is frightening and something most of us avoid. Not only do we tend to be afraid to improvise, for fear of not being good enough, we also are often afraid of trying new approaches. Learning to play period instruments, for example. Many mainstream players are dismissive of the entire historically-informed performance practice movement not just because it is so different, but also because the idea of having to relearn one's own instrument, to be a beginner again, is threatening.

In Zen, as I understand it, the "beginner's mind" is prized, as is nonattachment to status and the opinion of others. We Westerners tend to be very different. Our reputation, our status, our accomplishments, our reviews, these all seem to be what make us who we are.

When developing our musical creativity by improvising, we have to put aside not just unrealistic expectations, but also (at first) pretty much any expectation of what we will do. Actually, putting aside expectation remains key to improvising forever. You can't plan it. You can't practice it. You surrender.

When I started improvising, I was in a profound crisis. I needed emotional release. Angry, conflicted, and anxious, I realized that if what (I thought) I could not do was play notes that made sense together, I could play purposely play notes that did not make "sense." In other words, atonal music. Music that would be much like the aleatoric music I played so much of during my student years. I could express all that tension and anger and doubt by playing wildly expressionistic atonal music, music full of gestures, but not trying to make sense in a traditional tonal sense.

Something opened up inside and tremendous amounts of impassioned music started flowing from me. It was incredible. It was cathartic. It was damned near intoxicating.

It was the music I needed to play at that time.

A couple of years later, a colleague of mine was beginning to explore improvisation. When would improvise, simple, sweet melodies would come out. He was embarrassed to play them for other people because they were so uncomplicated and unsophisticated. Not what a professional classical musician should play. Not what others would expect or want to hear.

These sweet little melodies were what his body or soul or whatever wanted to play.

It is perhaps ironic, or maybe telling, that at the time I finally allowed myself to express my true feelings through music, and accepted what I could and couldn't do, I was going through a similar experience in my personal life. (Does that imply making music is not personal? If so, that's not what I'm trying to get at. Improvising can be the most intensely and intimately personal thing one does.) I was finally allowing myself to express my gay sexuality and accepting the fact that I am gay. Instead of stopping myself from expressing myself as who I am, I was allowing and accepting these intimate feelings, as imprisoned in shame as they had been. This was paralleled by, or perhaps expressed in (or both), my music.

The point here, if you are beginning to explore improvisation, is to let go of expectations, accept your "strengths and weaknesses" as a musican, allow yourself to express your feelings with the musical vocabulary you now have, and surrender yourself to the music which wants to be played.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Sometimes It Takes a Crisis, Part I

Sometimes it takes a crisis to shift one's life in a different direction. For many classical musicians who improvise, it took a crisis to get us started. In this entry I'll start to explain, using my own story as an illustration.

Once I started improvising and discovered the world of Music for People, I found that I was far from the only classical musician to have a burn-out experience and turn to improvisation as a way to recover and reorient. It seemed that, aside from a few college kids with open minds, almost everyone at my first Music for People workshop was middle-aged or older, had undergone some sort of crisis, and was looking for not just a new relationship with music, but a new relationship with ourselves. Each of us who was trained as classical musicians felt he or she had burned out on an overdose of perfectionism.

Perfectionism does not mean that one does everything perfectly, of course. Perfectionism means one does not value an accomplishment or activity unless it is done perfectly. While some people become overt perfectionists, that kind of annoying person who does things "perfectly," others of us are more covert. If we don't think we'll do something perfectly, we may avoid doing it. Or procrastinate about doing it, and then do it too late to do well. And nearly whatever we do, we find fault with and devalue it.

My life had been filled with perfectionistic self-loathing, anxiety, and depression, as well as intense, debilitating shame. Not that there had not been moments of joy, of triumph, and of pride. Those were the exceptions to the general rule, however.

With my cello playing, the cycle would go something like this. a concert would be coming up. I'd be filled with optimism that I would prepare so well, and play so well, that I'd be genuinely happy with the performance and hence with myself. As the performance grew closer, I would practice and practice. And my fear of playing badly would grow. I'd become more anxious about making mistakes or playing out of tune, of being boring, of whatever, and become more tense and self-critical as time went by. During the performance, I'd not only be very self-conscious and hypercritical, but also I'd be projecting these and other condemnatory thoughts into the audience.

No matter how I played--and with all this going on, it was unlikely to have been my best playing--I would find myself disappointed. And not just disappointed, but quite ashamed. Humiliated. A depression would set in that would last for weeks or months.

Yes, I was screwed up, and not just when it came to cello playing. But this is how it played out with the cello.

It was all this perfectionism that had kept me from creating my own music in the first place. I used to wonder why some people were composers and I was not. One day, when I was an undergraduate at Peabody, I was thinking about a piece by a student composer I was going to play. And it hit me: I was not a composer because had this music occurred to me, I would have thought it was not worth writing down. Music did occur to me from time to time, and I always thought it was not good enough.

Same thing with improvising. I had read about Beethoven's legendary improvised performances. Somehow I decided that unless I could do that, improvise complete, harmonically-complex pieces, there was no point.

Much of this was the result of the fact that I dedicated myself to becoming a cellist as a way of being "better" than other people. 32 years later, I now understand that as a 15-year-old I had a compensatory fantasy of being a famous cellist. I was skinny, unmuscular, bad at sports, shy, ashamed, etc. And on top of all that, I was horrified by the growing realization that I was gay--which I desperately want not to be.

After some humiliating remark from a jock, I developed a fantasy that I would become a famous concert artist, and then they'd all be sorry they had been mean to me when we were teenagers. I remember it happening. (Now, of course, I realize that even if I were a famous concert artist, it's unlikely that any of those kids, now adults, would realize it.) This fantasy of being superior was, obviously, my way of compensating for feeling so inferior.

Ah, but how amazingly an adolescent fantasy can create the paradigm for much of one's subsequent life. I didn't recognize it as a fantasy. I thought it was a destiny.

Since the point of playing the cello had now (secretly) become to be better than everyone else, to be beyond criticism, to be superior, a tremendous weight was added to my already emotionally overburdened shoulders. And this fantasy created a new hell. Unless I was playing as well or better than famous cellists on recordings, my playing, and I, were no good.

Now, in essence, I was my playing. If my playing wasn't good enough, I wasn't good enough. And it worked the other way around, too, I'm sure. Because my experience was "I am not good enough" then no matter how I played, I hadn't played well enough.

When you have to be better than everyone else, and play better than everyone else to be better than everyone else, it's an impossible task. And if you have to be better than everyone else so that you are not inferior to everyone else, it's a recipe for disaster, unless, unlike me, you are blind to reality. I did not minimize my mistakes and weaknesses. No, I'm the type of guy to seize upon them, magnify them, and obsess over them.

By the time I was about 35, all this, and other issues, had built up to the point that I had what one might have called in an earlier time a "nervous breakdown." The silver lining in that dark cloud was that it led me to begin improvising. And I'll continue the story in my next entry.