Many times the topic of improvisation comes to mind in music, but it’s usually tied to genres like Jazz and Rock, however, improvisation happened long before these two were even a genre.
Musicians like Beethoven and Mozart would sometimes improvise and impress the audience with an unexpected yet natural turn in the performance.
John Mortensen’s Thoughts
John Mortensen, author of “The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation” says:
“Bach could improvise fugues not because he was unique, but because almost any properly trained keyboard player in his day could. It was built into their musical thinking from the very beginning of their training.”theguardian.com
It’s not that classical music doesn’t allow for improvisation to happen, it’s that there has been a new tradition of following the original composition step by step, and if there is even the slightest deviation, whether by mistake or conscious improvisation, it’s wrong. This takes away a bit of the humanity of music which is to really feel what is being played.
“Those who attend collegiate music schools spend nearly all their time and effort on learning, perfecting and reciting masterpieces from the standard repertoire.”theguardian.com
“There is something stultifying about a tradition where millions of pianists are all playing the same 100 compositions. The way we’ve developed musicians is falling apart, as it was designed for a very narrow outcome – preserving and perfecting the canonic repertoiretheguardian.com
What it Means Today
With such an accelerated evolution of technology, it should be no surprise that musicians are in the lookout for maintaining this strong sense of feeling and humanity, and classical music could be the perfect place to find it if the academic system allows it.
Pianist Steven Osborne had some thoughts to share on this topic:
“I largely agree. When I was at the RNCM, I wanted to put improvisation into one of my programmes. My teacher tried to stop me, saying, ‘They won’t take you seriously.’” I was stubborn. There was a sense that improvisation is not serious music.”
“Individuals are pushing improvisation because they recognise how it can deepen musicianship.”theguardian.com
Of course in classical music, it’s very difficult to improvise but still there are two ways to incorporate improvisation.
First of all, most of the improvisation in classical music comes from the piano, which is the most flexible of instruments when it comes to breaking out of the original structure.
Now there is improvisation in composition, it is possible to just write down all the music and play it but it’s not the easiest thing to do, and neither does it give a lot of freedom. When you sit down and want to make something new, the best way to approach this is to just play, and see where it takes you, in another words, improvise and see how the pieces fall into place until you have enough to polish, write down and modify. However if there is no previous experience with playing an instrument without following any guide, then you’ll probably feel like a child trying to speak a new language for the first time.
The other context for improvisation is during a concert, which is obviously more difficult, as you have all the music written down, a strict method of how you must follow it and little margin for error, but it is possible, with enough practice to add these deviations and touches that alter the original piece and make it one of a kind.
This is the most important aspect of improvisation in classical music, this is a type of music that has so much emotion and feeling to it that sometimes it doesn’t make sense how cold it feels to learn about it sometimes. While it is complex, hard and not easy to master, it’s not about reproducing sounds, it’s about playing music and even more, creating.