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.


Mike Echo said...


I just came across your page now. Interesting stuff! My two cents: Improvisation is a clear-cut cure for burnout in classical musicians. But one reason that classical musicians may not take the time to study improvisation (or take up any other pursuit) is because they want to make music their PROFESSION. They want music to bring home the bacon and pay the rent. In my opinion, improvisation will probably not make a classical musician more employable except under rare circumstances. Let's face it: a lot of classical musicians who have time to improvise probably have a partner who is the main breadwinner in the family. Or they are young and don't have a family, mortgage, or major living expenses. I don't see a solution other than this tongue-in-cheek one: give up the idea of making money playing music! Get a day job! Dissociate "music" and "money." Then, when music is no longer a means to make a living, suddenly all of the joy of music should flood back and there should be a lot more time to explore improvisation and other pursuits. When music becomes a job, everything changes. The pressure of the paycheck is quite powerful.

Eric Edberg said...

Hey Mike,

Really interesting points. You are absolutely right that if someone isn't trying to do classical music for a living there's a lot more freedom (period), including the freedom to experiment and do other things.

Since I make my living teaching music at a small college, I've had a lot of that sort of flexibility. And I've been encouraged and supported not just in improvisation, but also exploring teaching other subjects, not just applied classical cello.

Claudio Parodi said...

I think the main problem between improvisation and audience is that audience can't recognize itself in something unheard. Probably this problem is felt also by musicians. Of course this is comprehensible: everybody feels confortable back at home. To me, the spring to improvise is the wish to create regardless of boundaries. And this could happen in real time, on stage, or (why not?) composing new music. I am now exactly at this point, I improvise as a performer and I compose, using my experiences as a performer to write music that allows freedom to the performers. About making a living from that, well, IT IS possible, I am doing that...

Anonymous said...

I agree a lot with the discussion of the obsession with text. I call it the "Urtext-fetish". Sure, we don't want misleading notation, but what *we* the performers (not the editors) often gets devalued or repressed by this "purification" process.

Anonymous said...

There are those who say that Bach was the greatest improviser.