0 Classical piano improvisation? Posted by Spiros Makris on July 15, 2010 at 5:55pm in The Art of Composition I don't have any resources to offer on the topic. In fact I was hoping for some fellow to come by and share with us some knowledge about the matter, be it links, books etc. anyone? Views: 25 You need to be a member of Composers' Forum to add comments! Join Composers' Forum Email me when people reply – Follow
Many great improvisers are known in music history. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, Liszt, Rachmaninoff... It is hard to know whether a small or a large part of their improvisation activity was published in the form of music notes. A musical performance is playing ON an instrument, according to a previously composed plan, while an improvisation is playing WITH an instrument, just like a small child plays with its voice. The child tries and admires the sounds without any plan, sometimes discovering their features which only this child can conceive.
The art of improvisation is more ancient than the art of composition. The most perfect instrument in the world -- human voice, and many artificial instruments have appeared long before the invention of music writing. Paradoxically, the epoch of Renaissance caused a decline of the improvisation culture, which was developed during millenniums. Musical writing has ousted the improvisation just like a manufacturer has ousted the creative trade of an artisan. In order to understand what was lost in this ousting, imagine, for a moment, that the art of oil-painting would be entirely ousted by the art of gravure!
Today the art of improvisation is retained in a few music genres including jazz. The interest towards a musical improvisation is growing. Computerized instruments are used for storing, encoding and editing the performance of the improvisers.
... and probably I am too optimistic in the last paragraph...
The way I improve my improvisation is to focus on adding certain techniques/tricks to my arsenal. Unless you're a music genius, your knowledge of music theory will always be larger than your arsenal of things that you can effectively and systematically apply in your improvisation without hesitation. So whenever you want to improve your improv, just keep taking from your theory knowledge and make it habitual. For example, if you're just starting out, you might benefit from doing some I - V - I - V progressions in the left hand and then try to fit a melody to that. Do that in a few keys, too.
....Eventually you can start getting more and more complex. Perhaps a I - ii - V progression? I - V/ii - ii - V? Keep adding common musical ideas to your improvisation technique. Obviously, start from the most important stuff first, and work your way up.
For example, these days, I'm working on adding fluent mode changes into my arsenal of techniques. But it's been a long road: I put a ton of time into effectively applying secondary dominants, structure/phrasing, modulations to closely related keys, basic chromaticism, and many many other things that I've picked up from looking at scores of my favorite composers.
Whenever you finish one thing, go onto something else you wish you could incorporate better. For example, I feel like I don't use enough modal techniques, and I feel like I should throw the melody into the left hand far more often.
Unfortunately, it's a slow process.
I hope none of that was too obvious. But that's my personal, systematic way of approaching improvisation. Admittedly I'm not sure how everyone else approaches it because I taught myself how to improvise. Perhaps some people would take issue with the fact that I put too much emphasis on trying to apply music theory.
Daniel, that was the "obvious" method (not so obvious however, I find all of that really helpful).
Right now I can almost effectivly apply simple, common progressions, such as I-V-I, I-IV-V-I etc, and sometimes I may be able to add a secondary chord in the middle, or a seventh (or ninth). The scale changes give me lot of trouble, unless it is from the major to it's relative minor and vice versa. Along with that I usually can add a melody, but all this covers about 4 meters of "original" material, and after that all I can do is variate a little, add some passing notes or grace notes. Also I have some big problems on rythms and patterns. How can I develop more the few patterns and rythms stuck on my head?
Also, I think that a major issue while improvising (in any style), is the fact that you want(and need) to create melodies on the fly. You have to sit, take some time and then start playing, with a result that is satisfying in terms of harmony, rythm and of course melody. There is no time to think the matter (unless you make some preperation in your head beforehand), so how can one develop his creative thinking? What mental excercises can be used to help widen your mind, making it easier to spit out satisfying melodies faster?(I don't seek a masterpiece-on-the-go method, don't get me wrong).
As for the emphasis on music theory, since we're talking about classical improvisation, I find it obvious that whenever possible classical harmony should be followed. As always, if something sounds good, but is "wrong" it is more than welcome as far as I am concerned.
Well, consider that (1) you're improvising, and (2) keyboard voice leading in general is murky territory, anyway.
Unless you're throwing in counter-melodies, then "the rules" shouldn't matter that much. Ask yourself: what's your purpose in improvising? Are you trying to facilitate the creation of new ideas, or do you actually plan on improvising in front of an audience? The typical classical composer would overwhelmingly take the former approach to improvisation.... so not only are mistakes permissible since they ultimately don't matter, but I feel you should even flaunt the rules and break out of your comfort zone in order to create new, unique, interesting sounds.
At this point, I can think in terms of circle progressions so easily that it's seldom worth my time to utilize them in their most naive form. Unless I'm performing in front of people (in which case, playing it safe is a good idea), I always have to throw in some variation, or else I don't feel I'm getting much out of my improvisation. If I'm playing over a common chord progression I might alter one of the chords (raised fifth, add a seventh or ninth, get rid of the root, etc), or I'll use some unconventional voice leading (7th goes to root of next chord, leading tone goes to the third of the next chord, etc.).
Pay attention to the rules. Make sure most of your 7ths go down and your leading tones go up. Make it so that traditional voice leading becomes second hand. But don't stick to the rules dogmatically, and don't beat yourself up over it when you don't do it. And if you simply are unable to adhere to the rules, don't worry because it will come in time. And just keep this in mind: my most memorable moments improvising are when I break the rules a little bit.
It comes in due time. Making melodies isn't the hard part. The hard part is developing your ideas beyond a 16 measure stretch, modulating your ideas, referencing old ideas, and combining ideas, all on the fly. But the actual process of making a passable melody is ridiculously simple after only a little bit of practice in the art of improvisation. :) Of course, if you're using improvisation as a method for simply facilitating the creation of new ideas and new music, then you don't necessarily have to expand upon ideas on the fly. You can improvise a ton of ideas, and then listen to a MIDI recording of your improvisation and say, "hmm, I like that," and then develop that idea even further on your own time.
(As someone who does often improvise in front of audiences, let me just say this: you don't even really need to develop your old ideas to impress most people. I've wooed audiences by simply playing really fast arpeggios in the left hand and coherent albeit loosely connected melodies in the right hand. I always beat myself up afterwards because my ideas always have no relation to each other and I never reference my old ideas aside from usually returning to the original key, but my melodies are never bad, and the audiences I've performed in front of never seem to mind that I don't develop ideas much, anyway.)
Ahem, excuse my really long tangent... Back on topic: if you're looking for a way to actually get better at it and "it comes with time" is not a good enough answer for you, I guess listening to a lot of Chopin nocturnes and preludes and mazurkas would help? Most of Chopin's works (excluding his etudes) tend to be extremely cantabile and, harmonically and structurally speaking, tend to sound like my own improvisations (the main difference being that Chopin's stuff is obviously much much better). Pay attention to the use of nonharmonic tones and harmonic rhythm. Tchaikovsky's piano stuff will also help, too, since a lot of his stuff is extremely cantabile as well. IMO, you can probably learn how to write cantabile melodies from Chopin and Tchaikovsky more so than from any other composers.
As much as music is an art, a lot of it is very systematic. Get those rhythms and chord patterns into your fingers. Modulate them into new keys. Make it so that it's second nature.
There are several known types of improvisation, among them: on a given musical theme, on a given verbally described mood, and free improvisation (absolutely unconstrained; this is is really IMPROVISATION). In the age of 10-12 Rachmaninoff sometimes run skiing instead of music lessons. When his uncle Ziloti (well known pianist at that time) asked him to play a Mozart's sonata that he allegedly studied, he immediately improvised a sonata in Mozart style. This was the moment Ziloti realized his greatest talent. But it was just mimicking, repeating Mozart's ideas, harmonies, sequentions, chords and themes. Real improvisations lead Rachmaninoff to his unique style and language, and virtuosic Hannon's piano etudes probably made important contribution here. Do not forget that well known improvisers are, or were, first of all, brilliant performers. So, the best advice for an improviser is to study virtuosic elements of his instrument.
In the beginning of last century there was a profession "taper" (I know only its Russian name; not sure the word "taper" means the same in English). This is an improviser, who accompanies a soundless movie in a cinema theater. Many known composers started their careers in this way (Shostakovich among them). They simply played something "about" the scenes which they observed on the screen. Later they applied so developed musical language in their compositions
I never specifically said this, but the way I have learned to improvise is a means by which i have developed an intimate understanding of the relationship between different sonorities. Every single musical relationship in music has a specific sound; it's up to the improviser to have an intimate feel for the difference in sonority between (for example) an authentic cadence and a chromatic mediant.
The spirit of my advice is this: take an idea that you apply in your regular composition, and make it secondhand in your playing. Music is at least partially memetic, and a good improviser will usually take advantage of this fact.
This can be applied to all styles; if you want to go 12-tone, then practice inverting and retrograding various series. If you want to play jazz improv, practice playing different scale patterns and some basic licks. When I mentioned basic chord progressions like I-ii-V, they were just examples of how to approach improvisation. Of course one shouldn't strictly adhere to this. That would be silly and quite limiting. I've been very clear on my stance on "constraining" oneself to the rules of classical harmony; I very clearly stated that "my most memorable moments improvising are when I break the rules a little bit." So I don't think we disagree much in that regard.
Daniel Reeves said:
There are two things that have greatly hindered improvisation by traditionally trained (read: classical) musicians:
1. Creativity is systematically excluded from music education from early on. You play in a band or sing in a choir and perhaps later play in a youth orchestra, but you never receive training or encouragement in exploring music on your own, discovering your own voice. The reason is that creativity is messy. Tricky to teach, hard to grade (less tricky to teach if you don't have to give grades, but we have to grade everything...). It's easier just to learn a system of giving and following orders. A small % play in jazz ensemble, but many just read charts and don't improvise, and the great majority of student players never have this experience. This is also the second part of the problem:
2. Definition. Almost everyone thinks improvisation = jazz, jazz = bebop = 16th notes at 220 BPM, not happening, no way. More exclusion, more hindrance.
To make improvisation easy and natural, we need a new definition. How about this: improvising means you get to choose the note you play.
Use what you know right now. Stay comfortable, gradually expand and explore. Don't worry about harmony for a good while. Start off with creating interesting rhythms (one pitch is enough at first). Then mess around with melody. Timbre. Texture. Improvisation is not about virtuoso playing, it is about virtuoso listening. It's like conversation: listen to what's going on, contribute what you can. You don't have to be an auctioneer. You can (and should) be silent part of the time. You can play stuff that is difficult to write down - because none of it is.
I've had an Improvisation for Classical Musicians at the University of Iowa for almost a decade now and that's how we start. Students (the few brave ones that even dare try) are terrified at first, but then quickly find out that it's both fun and easy. They give three completely improvised public concerts a semester and the results are remarkable. I put together the first five years of the course in a book (Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians) published by GIA. So there is now a guide for those who happen upon it. David Darling has been doing similar things for over two decades with his Music for People; James Oshinsky has set down a lot of it in Return to Child. There is ISIM: International Society for Improvised Music, mostly nonjazz; it has annual conferences where all kinds of folks get together to talk and perform and inspire one another.
One other thing that has been of great use in our class: Soundpainting (see www.soundpainting.com and www.soundpainters.org, also YouTube videos), a gestural system of improvisation in groups, invented over two decades ago by NY composer/conductor/jazz player Walter Thompson (who lives in Europe half the year - the Europeans can't ge enough of SP). Although there are a thousand gestures in the complete language, you can teach anyone a couple dozen gestures in an hour (I've done concerts with 5th and 6th graders after only 2 rehearsals and they were a big hit). The SP web site offers a manual and DVD of 40 basic gestures, which is plenty to give a concert or inject into a class. Composers could make use of SP in their pieces easily enough (Walter has done this) - SP is easily injected into written compositions. SP can also use dancers, actors, and even visual artists, and involve the audience as well. It's a terrific tool for performers, improvisers, composers, educators. There are several SP orchestras in NYC - check them out if you have a chance.
There are very exciting new realms of music and sound possible if 1) performers learn this kind of nonjazz contemporary improvisation and 2) composers can give up controlling every aspect of a composition and make the performer part of the piece. My pianist collaborator and I have done this - we're both composers, both performers. You don't have to write that much - a page or two max, let the performers create the piece anew every time from any of a number of possibilities: melodic motifs, the mood of the piece, chord progression, etc. You can specify something new for the improv part if you like (in my Two Winters I add a two minor chord vamp - 4 bars repeated 4 times per solo). Repercussions was a rondo - ABACADAEA - the ritornello was 3 notes (taken from the opening theme), the episodes were improvised on melodic fragments and mood. Lots of ways to do it. One of my pieces, September Elegy, has more or less entered the standard horn repertoire; it has 4 sections, 3 of which are completely improvised. It's been recorded by me and someone else; the two versions are distinctly different. It's been widely performed - every performance is the same in the mood, but different in the details, even by the same performer. It's been written about in at least one dissertation. The performer is the partner of the composer. This one is easy for classical performers to adopt/adapt to - it's very slow, and the performer gets to choose the notes (including extended techniques).
You could do the same. It means giving up some power and control, but take me word for it that it is exciting to get to hear the different versions - performers come up with stuff that you have never dreamed of. Yes, you take a chance that they might do things that you wouldn't do or don't like. But that's rare. And very worth the great blossoming of creativity that is possible when everybody is a composer.
One reason that classical music seems moribund is not that we need better compositions. We need to make everybody into a composer. It's healthy for people and healthy for society if everyone realizes they have a musical voice, not just a tiny group of elites. Just like it's good that everyone - from childhood on - does athletics or sports. Only a very few become pros at it, but the activity is good for them and they often have a lifelong interest in the sports - which later supports the pros. Just re-creating music in band, etc. is not enough - kids join that because their friends are in it and later quit in droves. If you make them composers and improvisers from early on, they have some ownership of the process and motivation. And if they're all composers, they will look up to and support the pros later on, a life long.