Sound Field


Why Don't Classical Musicians Improvise?

Bach, Mozart, Clara Schumann and Chopin all improvised as part of their performances. Today, classical musicians rarely improvise. So what changed? Nahre Sol and LA Buckner improvise together while talking about the reasons why classical musicians no longer improvise. It's one big jam, that ends with tips on how to improvise better in your own playing.

AIRED: December 06, 2019 | 0:11:40

- When you think of musical improvisation,

the first thing that comes to mind

might be jazz or the blues.

But the practice of improvisation is actually

a part of many musical traditions all across the globe.

(drums slamming) (gentle piano)

As a classically trained musician,

I've personally been working on developing

my improvisational skills over the past few years.

As you can see from these charts

that detail how I spend my practice hours.

(drums slamming) (gentle piano)

- All right, do it again, do it again, do it again

- Today, classical musicians are know for playing music

as written in the score note for note.

But this wasn't always the case.

This may surprise you, but from the middle ages

to about the late 1800s or so,

improvisation was actually a big part

of music performance and training.

So why has classical musicians stopped learning

how to improvise?

(drums slamming) (gentle piano)

- In classical music, improvisation dates back

to the middle ages.

Soloists would add spontaneous embellishments

over familiar melodies.

And the score provided served as a skeleton

of the melody over which musicians

would add their own variations.

An example of melodic variation today might

be found at a sporting event with the national anthem.

Singers would typically add in variations

and fills while keeping melody

and lyrics still recognizable.

Going overboard with embellishment, however,

is never ideal because it can easily lead

to a distasteful interpretation.

(garbled singing)

(crowd laughs)

- Classical musicians also improvise accompaniments

to melodies.

In fact, the first record of improvisation

in Western music comes from ninth century writings

that detail how to add counter melodies

to Gregorian chants.

Later, during the Baroque era,

this type of improvised accompaniment

became what is called basso continuo.

They used a kind of music notation called figured base

which provides a baseline along with symbols

that indicate what intervals to use,

chord suggestions, and types of voicings.

So a musician, say a keyboardist,

would take this information and would

improvise with and over the baseline.

Probably the most widely known example

of improvisation in classical music is the cadenza.

If you're playing a Mozart concerto back in the day,

towards the end there's always a point where

the harmony reaches a peak then everyone stops

and the pianist or whatever instrumentalist

will do a solo, basically on the themes from the main parts

and traditionally that was all improvised.

(piano music)

- Yeah

- That was your theme.

Maybe you would

(piano playing)

So we're in G major.

(piano playing)

That's the orchestra, the connector goes okay

(piano playing)

- Okay, question, is this improvised right here?

- Yeah, yeah, yeah, you just

- Okay

- Right and then maybe you'll try to make it more fancy

- That was super well improvised.

(piano playing)

- I don't know, maybe you do

(piano playing)

No, I don't know about that.

- Yeah right, every time you play something

really cool you just be like, do, do, do, do, I don't know


You be killing.

- No, no, no.

A few soloists carry on the tradition of

improvising their own cadenzas,

including pianist Gabriela Montero and Robert Levin.

Levin tells us, something spontaneous sounds different

from something that is not,

and the audience benefits from that in a performance.

Whenever I've played improvised cadenzas,

the audience gets very quiet.

For the first time in most of their lives,

they're at a classical concert

where they don't know what's going to happen next.

I feel like as a classical musician

I should be able to say yeah, I can improvise a cadenza.

- You say it's a lost art because

they used to do it all the time.

- They used to, but then now people

just play cadenzas that are already written out.

- I got the theme, y'all.

- Okay.

- Barney theme song.

- Oh, geez.

- The Barney theme song.

(Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on piano)

- No, no, no, no.

- Twinkle, twinkle.

(piano playing)

(Barney theme song on piano)

- Oh, minor?

(Barney theme song on piano)

- And then the orchestra might go

(humming along with piano playing)

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

- Why do you think improvisation disappeared from classical

when like they was the nicest at it in the unit?

- Maybe this is partially the reason why.

- Improvisation?

- Because all the composers wrote

their own versions of cadenzas.

They would write it out and I think back in

the day it was to facilitate and help

performers that were just lesser improvisers.

- Guide them through.

- Uh huh, they wanted to cadenza to be good,

so they wrote one out or several out

and then because they exist performers

would latch onto that and just learn that.

Also during the 19th century the industrial revolution

created the middle class and now more people

with disposable income were interested

in music performance and education.

Rather than hiring professional musicians,

middle class households can now purchase

their own instruments and perform themselves.

Also the growth of published sheet music gave

more people access to classical music.

The priorities of a lot of classical music

performances, recordings, concerts, I think it relies

on a certain kind of rigid exactness.

- Yeah, that's intimidating.

- And I think it wasn't always like that.

When you're playing a piece of baroque music,

even the trills which are meant to be very spontaneous,

everyone plays it

(piano trill)

like that so everyone will then

(piano trill)

but whereas back in the day they would maybe

(improvised piano trill)


(improvised piano trill)


(improvised piano trill)

The 20th century also brought about

breakthroughs in recording technology.

Now, musical performances could be captured

and replayed forever and this new reality

lead to the pursuit of perfection

which inevitably involves less

spontaneity and less risk taking.

Recordings of famous works by composers

such as Mozart and Beethoven became canonized

as museum music with less demand for improvised performances

or as professor Robin Moore puts it,

spontaneous innovations cannot occur in

music which is intended to be more a replication

from 1790 than a musical event of today.

Personally, I feel that improvisation has been making

a sort of comeback into the classical music world

thanks to many modern composers.

And this has certainly been influencing me

as well as looking toward other genres like jazz,

flamenco, and folk music that still embrace

many forms of improvisation.

I think improvisation is a very valuable practice,

very relevant to music making, to listening,

and to experience music in a very spontaneous

and creative way.

For me it's been very fulfilling

to learn how to improvise in these different styles,

try improvising with the band,

do improvisation experiments with irregular pulses

and things like that.

So I really do hope to see more of an emphasis

put on improvisation as a practice

in both formal and informal music education moving forward.

(soft music)

If I were to give myself advice I would say

before you do anything else find friends

to explore this with and friends that

can help guide you and jam with you,

because I spent so much time just on my own

at the piano trying to understand

certain concepts about jamming in general,

but as soon as I started to play with other

people our jam with Adam being one of them,

it opened up a different perspective,

a different kind of understanding about all of this.

- I have my formula of improvisation.

There is inspiration, there's imitation,

and then there's recreation.

The inspiration is what we're inspired by,

it's the template, it's what catches our attention,

it's what gives us that creative feeling.

My second step is imitation, learning exactly what

that template is, learning how to play

that template backwards, forward,

learning it like the back of your hand.

This is where the skill portion comes in, the recreation.

The most important step.

Recreating, adding your flavor to it.

That's like the formula that I use

for improvisation all the time.

(playful music)


- Thank you so much for watching

and if you'd like to see more videos

don't forget to subscribe.

(playful music)

- Yeah.


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