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?


Mike Echo said...

Eric -- GREAT POST! This is going to be a great book. 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.

Terry said...

I am reminded that when the movie Fantasia came out in 1940 or so, some classicists were appalled that Disney made cuts and omitted repeats in the Holy Scriptures. Nevermind that those musical pieces were reaching new audiences. Ack! You might as well be making cuts in the Bible!

To a point, isn't that sort of Fundamentalist personality required by schools from music performance majors? I remember from my college days, the non-music and music Ed. majors definitely had more fun.