Just Hum a Few Bars and I’ll Fake It

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.

3 thoughts on “Just Hum a Few Bars and I’ll Fake It

  1. elandau

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. All of my undergrad classical training (flute at Oberlin) seemed designed to train my “voice” to channel the composer’s intention as purely as I could. And Music Theory and Aural Skills were separate classes and did not have coordinated curricula. At no point was I encouraged to create my own music, because I was a classical flute major.

    I remember the first time Citywinds was given something free and improvised to play; the general sentiment in rehearsals was one of panic, and there were desparate cries of “Just tell me what to play and I’ll play it!” It was as if until this point we had spoken only from a script and someone was asking us to have a normal conversation for the first time. Of course, over time we became comfortable with improvising and ultimately came to really enjoy it tremendously.

    I think performers respond best when composers give us clear parameters, particularly if we are totally new to improvisation; boxes of optional musical material, for example, can help a lot, and general suggestions for how we might vary the material. Otherwise, just indicating that someone should improvise for a while in the middle of the piece will probably not get you the quality result you are looking for.

    But the longer term solution for the improvisation problem is to change the way people are trained in theory and ear-training. Until I started working (as Development Manager) for The Walden School and learned about its organic approach to teaching musicianship, I didn’t know there could be another way to learn theory. Kids at Walden, even at the most beginning levels, learn to identify, notate, sing, play and COMPOSE (gasp!) with each new set of material. It’s revolutionary in its obviousness, and it works really really well.

    I wish more schools could take up even just the philosophy behind The Walden School method, that people will learn concepts more thoroughly when the concepts become tools of self-expression. Then musicians like me would not freak out when handed a piece that uses improvisation – they would simply get down to business.

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  2. mdwcomposer

    I don’t think it’s completely true that improvising is absent in the concert music world. Take organists. Many actually study improvisation as part of their training and certainly most end up doing it to some degree, whether they’ve studied it formally or not. Uh-oh, the choir is only half-way down the aisle and I’m coming up on the last verse of the hymn . . . better noodle a bit before I hit that last verse . Early music keyboard players are often forced away from the printed note, in part because there may be none (figured bass) and what does one do with the second movement of Brandenburg #3, anyway? So might organists and harpsichordists be good resources for starting down the improvisation road?

    But two points from above seem worth emphasizing: first, Belinda’s point that all of us as beginning musicians made up stuff or “fiddled” with the sound on our instrument(s). It’s always a skill that’s there in the beginning, but it just isn’t nurtured enough as part of our training. At the very least, when any of us find ourselves in a teaching situation, we should do what we can to encourage the exploration of a student’s instrument or voice apart from the written note.

    Second, the communication and involvement of the composer can completely make or break improvisation for the performer. It may not be obvious from directions on a page that the composer is really inviting the performer to be a co-creator, that a composer really wants the performer’s voice to shape a piece. But if the composer is right there with the performer, explaining that fact, supporting the performer and telling them it’s gonna be ok – the personal involvement and presence helps.

    Related to that is elandau’s comment “performers respond best when composers give us clear parameters”. Harpsichordists at least have the figures, jazz pianists at least have the chord changes. Again, citing how organists study improvising, “free” improvisation (i.e. no chorale, no theme, no nothing) is the last thing they study. Setting up a rhythmic context, a pitch context, register, range, gesture, etc. will not only raise the comfort level of the performer but makes the musical fabric in question a genuine collaboration – and that can result in some wonderful air vibrations you just can’t get any other way.

    One final thought (donning my performer hat). In my experience, improvisation has to be practiced. It may not be the same kind of practicing as what I have done for written material, but it needs woodshedding as much as anything else, and when I’m out of practice, my improvised work is much more lame than when I’ve been regularly incorporating it as part of my practice time.

    — Mark Winges

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  3. jhelliott

    improvisation for classical performers
    As a composer, I feel that my “sideline” as a jazz pianist has greatly helped me creatively. As an educator I encourage many of my students, some of whom are excellent instrumentalists, to take basic jazz improvisation classes. I am always amazed at the fact that many superb players think that they can’t improvise. One renowned pianist I know once told me “I can’t play anything that is not written down.” Naive as I might be, I was totally surprised by this. Improvisation trains one to think “in the moment.” Yes, it must be practiced. And one certainly needs good technique. But it frees the mind and enhances one’s ability to conceive of phrasing, shading, and all those elements that encourage better interpretation. I am sorry that improvisation is no longer a part of most conservatory training; it seems that players miss a vital challenge by avoiding it.

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