Have you ever encountered a situation where you call for a player to improvise in a piece, only to have them look at you like a deer in headlights? For most classically trained musicians, improvising is a daunting proposition. Somewhere between the time of Beethoven and now, the art of improvisation left the list of technical skills a concert musician should have. It is now the jazz artist, the rock musician, and other performers of “popular” styles who carry on this tradition.
We do not start that way. After twenty years of teaching, I have yet to meet a beginning student that is not curious enough to try to create something as they play on their instrument. Recently I received an email from the composer/conductor/pianist Tania León. In telling me about her experience with the American Composers’ Forum Bandquest Program, she remarked on this facet many of us find when composing for young players. When the middle school band played the improvisational section of her piece, Alegre:
[The students] were thrilled…. They literally went crazy and became participants in that section of the music. I realized that to give the players the opportunity to become co-creators of that portion of the piece was a successful way to allow them to bring their voices not only in the work but as part of the creative process.
So, what is it that often turns fearless young musicians into self-conscious performers as they mature? What is it about learning to play an instrument in the classical tradition that impairs us from learning to create with that instrument? Do we become paralyzed as we encounter works written by the “masters”? Do we begin to feel that our noodlings will never live up to that Mozart Sonatina or Bach Prelude? Do we encounter teachers that chastise us for “making up things” rather than practicing our assignments industriously? I did.
And, what effect does this have for us as composers and what we write? I have encountered more than one exceptional professional musician that, when given even a structured improvisational section in a piece, must meticulously notate out a rendition beforehand that they always adhere to, regardless of the situation of the performance. It is not that the pre-improvised passage is not good, but I find their need to work this way just disheartening. It is sad that somewhere along the way, in learning how to realize the composer’s voice, they lost the ability to realize their own.