Wonderful time

Last Wednesday, I flew to Indiana for a “Post-Classical Symposium” at the DePauw University School of Music — and it was just a fabulous event. Some of the high points:

Hearing classical music students — freshmen and sophomores — play a concert of improvised music

Hearing the first concert of the DePauw New Music Ensemble, with a truly unusual program

Getting to know the terrific people in eighth blackbird, who’re in residence at DePauw

Hearing a concert by the Bang on a Can All-Stars (not that I don’t hear them in New York, but notice what high-quality groups were around during the symposium)

Hearing Joe Horowitz make a fine presentation, and making one myself, which I liked far better than most of the talks I give.

All this was organized by Eric Edberg, cellist and DePauw professor, though of course not without help from several fine colleagues. Eric gets major props, though. He’s a fine cellist, a fine teacher, a fine thinker, and a deeply sensitive improviser. We improvised together, in his office one afternoon, and I’d say that he’s about as responsive, as alive to what’s happening at every moment, as any musician I’ve ever heard. All this is high praise, and I mean every word of it. (I should add that Eric often comments on this blog, and in fact it’s through my blog that we met.)

So, some details. Student improvisation. What other school requires classical music students to improvise? Eric and I couldn’t think of any. The concert showed how much these kids loved improvising, and how fearless they were. They worked out their plans (to hear them tell it) only minutes before they came on stage, and that only seeme  to make them looser, and encourage them to have fun. Apparently they move away from improvising in their junior and senior years. And not all the music faculty are down with improvising. Still — it plainly opens the students’ creativity, and, again, they plainly love doing it.

New music concert. The program was called “The Passing of Time,” and it was a mirror of itself. First a movement from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, then two movements from Astor Piazzolla’sThe Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, then Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel, in the version for clarinet and piano. Then intermission, and then, reversing the order, Pärt (the same piece, in the viola/piano version), Piazzolla (the remaining two movements), and another movement of the Messiaen.

Many new music programs need students with lots of chops. This one — at least in Messiaen and Pärt — taught them to be peaceful, to focus, and to play long, long lines. Very unusual! And then Piazzola made them dig in, and be earthy. Not your everyday new music concert, not by miles, thanks to Carlos Carillo, the composer on the DePauw faculty who programmed it.

eighth blackbird. We had such a good time with each other, the six of them and me. Everyone knows how well they play (or certainly everyone should), but I didn’t know they were so relaxed, and so open. They played an open rehearsal, and invited comments, which they took very seriously. In another presentation, they showed how they stage some of the pieces they play, and again fielded comments, even criticisms, with good humor and grace, and with quiet grit, too, when they disagreed. And they also took part in every discussion led by anyone else. Their feisty flutist Tim Munro called me a “professional troublemaker” on their blog, and I’m proud. (He should know — he reads me here.)

Presentations.  For three days, everyone seemed to agree that classical music, as we know it today, has run its course. That’s heady stuff for any music school. I’m sure some people disagreed, but the presentations — including a lively one by composer  Erich Stem, who runs a new-music record label at Indiana University — all kept saying this. And also a final panel discussion on what music schools ought to teach. Joe Horowitz feels this no less strongly than I do, though our approaches are very different. We complemented each other, and more than once I found myself saying (since my talk came after his) how much I agreed with him. We probably disagree on the remedy, but the more ideas for change we’ve got, the better off we’ll be. My presentation started with the idea that classical music swims in a sea of popular culture, and that this is both a wonderful thing and also the source of classical music’s problems. All this, with musical illustrations. But I’ll summarize myself in another post.

One more highlight. Joe — who invented the term “post-classical” — kindly cited eighth blackbird as a post-classical ensemble. But Tim Munro, in the time for questions and comments after Joe’s talk, rather firmly disagreed. Since, he said, they survive by setting up residencies at university music programs, they’re tied into current classical music institutions, and can’t be called post-classical at all. He didn’t mean to put his group down by saying this (nor do I, by quoting it), but he’s got a point — and he provided yet another example of how honest the eighth blackbird people are. (And of all the reasons I enjoyed talking to them.) This leads into some fascinating stuff about how new music ensembles make a living. But I’ll save that for my next post.


(Note to Seth Rosenbloom: If you’d provide your e-mail address, I could better respond to the latest things you sent me, which seem more like private communications than like comments on the blog.)

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  1. says

    Regarding improvisation, I can’t point to any particular schools in the United States, but my understanding is that organists who are trained at French schools must improvise as part of their ongoing training and exit examinations in performance. Certainly in the US I see plenty of works on organ programs composed by the performer, and sometimes improvisations by the performer. You might ask some organists what the status of improvisation is in this country.

    Good thought, Lisa. I’ve talked to organists about this. I think improvising among them might be more common in Europe than in the US. But certainly organists are the classical musicians most likely to improvise.

    The imrpovisation at DePauw is something different, though. There I saw all sorts of music students improvising, students who at other schools wouldn’t have been doing it. I can’t imagine a concert of improvised music played at Juilliard, by freshman and sophmore violinists, cellists, flute players, pianists. And not as a special event, but as a regular, frequent part of their musical education. Does that happen anywhere other than DePauw? I’d love to know.

  2. says

    Heady stuff, this. I wish I could have been at Depauw to hear these programs. I remember Eric Edberg from grad school–excellent musician.

    I don’t know of any music schools where improv holds sway the way you describe. It would be fascinating if it were more common. This term I introduced the members of our jazz band to free improv, and it was like teaching them a foreing language. To their credit, they managed to say some pretty neat things in a foreign language!

    Perhaps improv could be a way to begin to reintroduce the students to truth, as the government continues to lie to them constantly. I have heard drama teachers refer to finding the “truth” in acting: the truth like a rock.

  3. says

    Tim Munro is absolutely right when he frankly acknowledges that eighth blackbird survives because of the academic aspect of the classical music structure. The challenge for performers and listeners interested in the kind of music eighth blackbird plays, or that BOAC All-Stars play, is that so much skill and effort and especially TIME is required to master a lot of that music (not to mention memorize in eb’s case) that it can only happen in a setting where someone, somewhere, somehow, essentially pays those groups/musicians for their time spent on individual practice and group rehearsal. Concert fees, ticket sales and CD sales alone are not going to support these guys so who does that leave? Foundations, academic institutions, and the like. I thoroughly agree with the thought that “classical music as we know it today has run its course” but when we say that it can not merely be a provocative line uttered at a music school-sponsored symposium, rather we must fully acknowledge what that means: the gradual winnowing of schools of music in universities not oriented towards more commercially-viable ways to make a living musically….maybe no DePauw School of Music, no job there for Eric Edberg, no symposiums on the state of new music… groups that would want to be like eighth blackbird will have to play music that does not quite push the boundaries of human capacities as far. Not enough time to rehearse it. Maybe no eighth blackbirds in the future.

    We already have a post-classical scene in place; what might be termed alternative popular music, what one finds on college radio stations. Lots of it is wonderful, often created by young people who are still working straight jobs, rehearsing long hours into the night in their spare time. To me and a lot of people very little of it is quite as mind-opening as some of the best music eb or BOAC plays. A few of these groups might make a big enough splash to live from their music for awhile. How long can they sustain that? Will the economics allow them to explore creative byways beyond what they’ve already done, or will the pressures to survive result in continual rehashing of that which had already proved to be appealing? To say that classical music has run its course is to say that asking for a certain something, hoping for a certain something from listening to music, is a thing of the past as well. In that sense, of course, it’s not completely true…there will always be a few die-hard guerrilla listeners and players. But they’ll have fewer players to listen to who can or will play not only Haydn, but Derek Bermel or Julia Wolfe for that matter.

    Thanks, Philip. You’ll be interested to know, I think, that Tim Munro rose to at least part of your challenge. During a panel discussion of music education, he suggested that there should be fewer music schools, teaching fewer students, because in the future there wouldn’t be enough work for the number of students that graduate now. Which of course would mean less income for eighth blackbird, and other groups like them. The Bang on a Can All-Stars make their living in a different way, much less dependent on the mainstream classical music world and its institutions. But, just as you say, playing concerts alone can’t sustain them. I’ll write about that in a future post.

  4. Paul A. Alter says

    Remember the stories of how Cesar Franck used to meander into the church, go to the organ, and improvise for hours at a time, pouring out glorious music? Well, somebody finally got around to examining the organ at the church where he was employed and realized there was no electric motor so, in order for Franck to improvise, there would have had to be six guys in the basement manning the air pumps. So, another myth bites the dust.

    Anyway, I say improvisation is spinach and to hell with it! I also say it serves as a particularly cogent illustration of how — as Wilde put it — “each man kills the thing he loves.”

    Improvisation may be a form of artistic fulfilment for musicians and it may — possibly — give pleasure to the cognoscenti, who look on as if transfixed, but I believe (no proof, just hunch) that it leaves the majority of the audience — dare I say it? — bored. Yet, I infer that the sincere music lovers propose that improvisation is a way to draw in audiences.

    This same group also posits, for three days, that classical music has run its course, That may be true, but it is not up to them to say so. The only people qualified to say that are the people who do or do not go to concerts, buy records, download music, listen to the radio, and stuff like that.

    The problem is that all us aficionados sit at our keyboards devising schemes to draw more people into concert halls. But we don’t know squat about that. We need to reach out into the communities and listen to their ideas.

    The ideas we come up with are things that would draw US into the concert halls. But we’re already there.

    We need to get students (high school and college), horny young people, misanthropes, loners, Realtors, empty nesters, and all to tell us how to recruit their peers.

    When the TV reporters asked Eve why she ate the apple, she said, “It was peer pressure.”

    (Oh, and Drew, are you SURE you want to contract “who are” into “who’re”? I mean, it’s your blog, so you can if you want to, but . . .)

    Beck Messer#

    Well, I’m Greg, not Drew, but yes, I do want to contract as you specified. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

    As for improvisation, I’ve heard of a little thing called jazz, where by all reports they improvise quite a lot. To geat acclaim, even.

  5. says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! for bringing the topic of student improvisation to your blog.

    At McGill University in Montreal, improvising clarinettist Lori Freedman has been leading an improvising ensemble for the past few years. It’s not a compulsory course, though, but I believe the group performs.

    At the University of Toronto, I have managed to establish a non-credit improvisation ensemble, after three years of advocating for a class in improvisation (and after teaching it as a compulsory component of the string masterclasses). For the moment, I co-lead the ensemble out of love because I feel strongly that classical musicians, especially (though our ensemble has an equal mix of classical, jazz, ethnomusicology and composition majors), can benefit greatly from distancing themselves from printed page paralysis. I also believe that the skills classical musicians develop have much to offer the world of creative improvisation and musical creation. The musical voice of Western classical performers has been too absent from the many cross-genre musical collaborations that are creating some of the most exciting music in Canada.

    In terms of performance, we collaborate with an umbrella organization, the Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto (AIMToronto – now numbering 150+ members), who host two public improv sessions per week and a monthly series of improvised music and dance. AIMToronto also brings in internationally-recognized guest improvisers for multiple performances with local musicians, and workshops at local universities, including UofT. My goal over the coming year is: to set up a feeder system that will enable the students to perform with the seasoned improvisers; to perform guerilla improvs throughout the campus during Arts Week; and to crack the composition department’s New Music Festival.

    Parmela, thanks in return! It’s good to know about all of this. And I very much agree about how freeing improvisation can be for classical musicians. I’ll have more to say about this in a future post, including one very specific practice technique that involves improvisation, and can help musicians with difficult passages in notated music. My Juilliard students found it very intriguing when I told them about it today.

    You should e-mail Eric Edberg, by the way. You and he would have a lot to talk about, and I know he’d be thrilled to know about what you’re doing.

    I very much agree that classical music has largely stayed out of the genre-mixing that’s taken place in, well, other genres. I talked about that in my talk at DePauw, using a Lucinda Williams song and one of the tracks from the complete Miles Davis “On the Corner” sessions — both as examples of genre mixing that classical music largely hasn’t gotten to yet. Well, except for the work of many young composers. But that’s a development whose full force lies in the future.

  6. Steve Ledbetter says

    If I remember correctly, it was the fine pianist and composer Jeffrey Kahane who told me, 20+ years ago, about experiences he had improvising and his strong feeling that all classically trained musicians should be expected to do it. In his case (or perhaps it was another pianist I’m confusing with him now) he got a lot of experience improvising on his own by accompanying ballet classes (as an early job), where he would be given a meter and tempo for a given exercise and simply start going with that. Obviously that’s a different kettle of fish than group improvisation by an ensemble, especially one of classically trained musicians doing it in front of an audience. But it sounds like an excellent for someone to start creating music all’improviso at any stage.

  7. says

    No question, improvisation is the most overlooked musical skill. It should be part of every music education program but is it something you can teach? There may be a fortune in textbook royalties for the Depauw faculty if they have hit upon the answer.

    My daughter taught in the Psychology dept at Depauw for two years. Loved the school, but Greencastle … not so much.

    No, Greencastle has its merits, but it’s not a destination many people would choose for its own sake.

    Eric is writing a book about improvisation, but I don’t think it’s designed as a textbook. And I’m not sure that improvisation is all that hard to teach. A lot of Eric’s teaching, as I understand it, just involves encouraging the students to believe they can do it. The ability is more or less innate, I think, in anyone who plays music. And even in people who don’t! When I plunged into improvsation over Labor Day, as I discussesd in a previous post, I and the musicians I was working with were joined for a while by non-musicians, with terrific results.Anyone who can make sounds — and listen to others — can improvise.

    So in a way there’s not much to teach. A lot of the learning is about thinking and feeling, in any case. What to do when you think you’re not cutting it, for instance — you just stop playing for a bit (if you’re part of an ensemble), till you’re able to connect again. And of course listening; that’s a crucial part of it.

    Jazz musicians get training that’s a lot more formal. They’ll largely — at least in mainstream forms of jazz — be improvising over chords, so they practice playing scales over every chord in every key. That gives them a repertoire of notes to draw on, in any standard situation.

  8. Karstein Djupdal says

    Could you say something more about how improvising was done at DePauw? Was it completely free, was it in a certain style, what rules were used? I find this interesting, but to say that improvising doesn’t exist in music universities is wrong, I feel.

    I think that the traditional conservatory or music university has focused on the mainstream classical music – music from Bach up to the romantics and including some early 20th century music. This music doesn’t require improvising – in fact it discourages it. It seems in the 18th century it was quite common for musicians to improvise. The composers gradually got more control over the musical work – to the point when composers like Ravel and Stravinsky wanted to decide exactly what should be played, even without room for interpretation of the score. This and the fact that the music got more difficult to play, meant that the conservatories focused on producing musicians that could play the music as exactly as possible. Improvising became unnecessary.

    I am not saying this is only a bad thing – I think that the symphony orchestras we have today are better than ever.

    Improvising however has come into the conservatories in certain «specialized» courses. The organists are already mentioned.

    A lot of new music require musicians to improvise – composers specify for example a set of notes and tell the musicians to play anything using these notes. The ordering of sections can be left to the performer. The minimalist-tradition often require musicians to repeat a sequenze for as long as he/she wants. Or the musical work can be even more open – the musicians play anything, maybe only sticking to an overall form. Think about some John Cage-happenings – the musicians can sometimes literally do anything (not only play).

    The tradition of improvising in baroque music has also been revived. The instruments playing in the continuo group, for examble the harpsichord, improvise all the time, only having the base line as a reference. The melodies are often embellished.

    And finally improvising is well alive in jazz – and of course taught in the conservatories. Incidentally here the improvisation has similarities to baroque music – the chord progression and structure of the piece is given, and improvising is put on top of this according to certain rules.

    Personally I think specialization in music gets more and more important. It is not possible any more to be a «general musician» who can play any style, at least not at a professional level. Probably what is left of the mainstream will also become a specialty so that we get specialists playing baroque/classical, romantic/early 20th-century, and modern music. To play the romantic music you don’t have to be able to improvise – but of course it is possible to learn to improvise in the style of a certain composer or period.

    The students at DePauw largely played tonal improvisations. They’d pick a key, and stick to it. Sometimes that meant improvisations in which the underlying harmony didn’t change much. In one case, when they improvised an opera aria, they seemed to have decided to play a tonic chord for some number of beats, then a dominant chord, and then keep swinging between the two, while the singer made up a melody. They also seem to have planned a final cadence, which they all joined in on. I don’t know how they decided when the final cadence would come.

    I think, on the whole, there was very little planning. So I guess I’d call this free improvisation largely within the sound-world of traditional classical music.

    In the 19th century, singers ornamented their music very freely. How often they improvised, I don’t know. Certainly many of them planned their ornaments for a particular role, and then sang those ornaments the same way each time. They even wrote them down, and their manuscripts have survived, which is one way we know what they did.

    I think the point of teaching improvisation to classical music students doesn’t lie, largley, in how they’re going to improvise in performance. Or at least not in performance of standard classical repertoire. I think it’s about freeing some creative juices, which (I’ll talk about this in a future post) can help playing notated music.

    Though I wouldn’t minimize how powerful improvisation could be in playing Baroque music. We all know that there was a lot of improvisation in the Baroque era, both in ornamenting melodies, and in realizing figured basses. But how often have we heard performances where modern musicians did all that? Contemporary reports of Vivaldi and Handel leading performances of their operas show both of them to have been among the main attractions, precisely because of their virtuoso improvisations. In one of the arias in Handel’s “Rinaldo,” there are blank spots left in the score for Handel’s own harpsichord improvisations. How often, in modern performances of that opera, does the harpsichordist actually improvise in those places?

  9. says

    When I was at USC, I believe all the classical keyboardists were required to improvise for class (though probably not for their jury exams, and certainly not in concert), but the De Pauw situation sounds very different very very good–I’d love to see every classical musician learn to extemporize without fear. (Okay, maybe a little fear.)

  10. says

    This afternoon one of my clarinet students asked if he could begin working on jazz improvisation. I said that I thought it was a great idea, and we jumped right into his John Laporta book. He asked me if it wouldn’t “hurt classical playing.”

    I spent the next fifteen minutes assuring him that it would not hurt his classical chops, but would probably help. He seemed to have been unburdened.

    I may have mentioned this before in another context, but I can’t help but think of the excellent albums of Mahler-inspired music by Uri Caine. I always come back to the original versions with fresh perspective and increased understanding.

  11. says

    Glad to see this has started an interesting conversation. I see improv existing as part of an idiomatic, non-idiomatic, or pan-idomatic performance art (i.e., jazz, Indian music, the organ improvisation tradition, or the free-improv movement nurtured by Derek Bailey, who coined the idiomatic/non-idiomatic distinction, and then all the people doing improv which draws on an eclectic variety of styles); and/or as process in which there is no “audience” and which is engaged in as a way to learn (one’s instrument, musical vocabulary, etc.) through creative experimentation; and/or as a mode of free or mildly structured self-expression in which the goal is emotional release or personal healing. This latter category would include all the improvisational activities in music therapy.

    With my DePauw students, who are undergraduates with varying levels of skill, my emphasis is on ways of being and simple points of departure. Being in the moment. clearing your mind and playing or singing what your imagination gives you, rather than “figuring out” what to play. Drawing on what I’ve read about improvisational comedy, “saying yes” to the ideas the occur to you and are introduced by improvising partners. Listening to and responding to others. Leaving space for others.

    We also draw on a variety of simple structures: solos over drones, solos over ostinati, creating counter melodies, etc. Much of the philosophy and techniques I use were developed by the ECM recording artist David Darling and the Music for People organization he cofounded (www.musicforpeople.org).

    There are some wonderful improv groups at other colleges and universities. In addition to those who identified themselves already, David Rudge, the orchestra conductor at SUNY Fredonia, has an “Improv Collective” and Jeff Agrell, the horn teacher at the University of Iowa, has a group there.

    I’m going to put the video of Friday’s concert online as soon as I can (it’s the crazy last week of classes and so I don’t have much free time). There was quite a mixture of styles, from freely atonal to very, very tonal. There was a piece in which a flutist, lying on her back on the stage floor, improvised used multiphonics, and another where a freshmen voice major improvised an “aria” in which he sang the text of the rules posted backstage for replacing the piano cover. And lots in between.

    What is most unusual at DePauw, i think, is that EVERY first-year music major spends a minimum of two weeks doing improvisation as part of our first-year seminar for music students, in which the kids rotate among four professors.

    In addition, I have an improv ensemble, which meets twice a week, and gave the concert Greg mentioned.


    Thanks for the clarification, Eric, and for taking the time to give so much detail.

  12. says

    We also had the great pleasure recently of having Eric Edberg for a concert and workshop at the University of Iowa and it was simply wonderful. Eric is a master musician and improviser with so much to offer. We all came away much enriched from that weekend.

    I have led a semester class at UI entitled “Improvisation for Classical Musicians.” The results of the course can be seen in a (354 p.) book entitled “Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians” due out Dec. 18 from GIA Publications. The book is not a method, but it contains sections on 1) how to improvise (in nonjazz ways) 2) a collection of ‘games’ [500+] organized by categories such as Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Timbre, etc. and 3) Resources with additional information, references, and links to further study. The book may be used by individual musicians, ensembles, or by almost anyone to set up a semester (or longer) course. I’ll be discussing the course in a presentation at the upcoming conference of the International Society for Improvised Music in Chicago. The results from the course have been most gratifying. Students who have spent many years recreating suddenly find that they have voices, and can use what they already know to create music on the spot – a first for most. We give two concerts in the Fall, one around Halloween and one in December – both rich with improvisational possibilities. Players don’t know what they are going to play until seconds before the piece begins . I will usually give them some limitations (e.g. make a piece from the rhythm of someone’s name) and 8 seconds to plan, and then they’re off. Sometimes the piece is completely free. Usually they may float freely between their instrument, piano, voice, or percussion (body, mouth noises, or small percussion and drums). The thought of improvising a concert terrifies them at the beginning of the semester, but weeks before the first concert they just can’t wait to get out there. The results are sometimes chaotic, but most often very interesting, fresh, and original. They are seldom boring (we have one game where the audience starts walking slowly out of the room if they are bored – and the players have to do something, anything, to keep them in their seats. (Imagine if this were applied to other kinds of concerts…).

    There is one place that I know of where every music major is required to improvise and compose: Charles Young at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point has a model program in this respect. All students must take a course call “Musicianship”, which is about 2/3 composition and 1/3 improvisation. Style is up to the student. The textbook is Joel Saltzman’s “If You Can Talk, You Can Write.” The results are amazing. He regularly sends me CDs full of the excellent pieces that his students have turned out. These are just ‘ordinary’ music students who have been given permission and tools to find and express their own voice creatively. They are forever changed and the world is richer for it. Just Imagine – if classical voices could be set free everywhere, if audiences could hear both old and (very!) new mingled in concerts, what composers might write if they could give up some of their territory and write for musicians who could complete the outline – a bit different every time, or if performers had composers who could give them pieces that let them made choices…

    Jeffrey Agrell

    University of Iowa

    Hi, Jeffrey, and thanks so much .This discussion is exploding, and I’m learning a lot. Eric spoke very highly of you, by the way — and of everything involved with his Iowa visit — and if I’d been more alert, I might have mentioned that in my post. I’d love to see your book when it’s out!

  13. Paul A. Alter says

    Hey, calling you “Drew” is nothing compared to the time I told Drew how much I admired the article “his wife” had written — and it was actually written by your wife.

    What’s the French mean?

    OK, I think improvising is great. It has all kinds of virtues for the performers. But I just don’t think that improvised music is going to draw in audiences.

    I think many music lovers verge on the compulsive side. We like having the music follow a set-in-stone score. We like the challenge to the composer of writing for an orchestra comprised of certain instruments, with others — saxophones, for example — brought in now and then. We like to buy tickets to hear performances of specific compositions that deviate in miniscule from other performances. We rely on classical music as a bastion of order in a chaotic world. We rely on the music for stability. I, for one, certainly needed it during the Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, WWII, the Cold War, and all that other stuff going on.

    Most of all, I think we respond to tunes, themes, melodies, whatever. When I was a kid, I’d hear lots of people whistling or humming. That’s gone. I don’t know why, but I think it’s important. Maybe it reflects something that’s missing in today’s music.

    [Can you leave a concert whistling an improvisation? That’s a question — not a wise crack. Can you leave a concert whistling an improvisation? I imagine that what you’d be whistling would be the melody forming the basis of the improv.]

    As for jazz improv, we need to pay heed to Gunther Schuller whose monumental study indicates that it mostly ain’t improv; the performers may improv the first time they perform it, but then go on to perform it verbatim in subsequent performances.

    Music is a language. It’s a way of conveying thoughts and emotions. It’s not precise — so different people receive different messages. But I’m sure it is a thrill to sit down with some good-hearted, like minded, musicians and improvise/converse with them, exchanging ideas, developing arguments, and all else that occurs during conversation.

    But I don’t enjoy listening to it, and I think that many music lovers feel as I do. I remember, during my days at UCLA, going with some hep friends (or, maybe it was “hip” at that time) to hear some highly regarded, far out, bop group at a beer hall in Pasadena. I was bored out of my gourd but, as the French say (fill in the appropriate phrase here). But one couple there put some money in the kitty and asked the group to play their favorite tune. The group did. Some time later, the guy who had made the request yelled, “When you gonna play my tune, dammit!”


    Improvising certainly did draw audiences in the 18th century, and even in our time I’ve seen orchestras advertising Robert Levin as a soloist, with one of the attractions being that he’ll improvise.

    But in the discussion here, I don’t think the emphasis is really on improvising for any audience. It’s more about what improvising in private can do for musicians.

  14. Sarah Wachter says

    First off, I’d like to thank you for writing so enthusiastic about improvisation at DePauw. I am a flutist, a member of DePauw’s Improvisatory Chamber Music class, and I had no idea we were doing something so radical here (thanks to Dr. Edberg)…knowing this will add a degree of pride to future improvising I do at school.

    You said:

    “In one case, when they improvised an opera aria, they seemed to have decided to play a tonic chord for some number of beats, then a dominant chord, and then keep swinging between the two, while the singer made up a melody. They also seem to have planned a final cadence, which they all joined in on. I don’t know how they decided when the final cadence would come.”

    Actually, we had no plans of a final cadence at all. We had lyrics for the singer, picked a key, and waited for music happen. There is often an unexplainable sense of “what to do” when improvising in a group. We happened to lock into a I-V-I pattern by chance. I found this hilarious myself, because our style of improv. is not usually based around any particular harmonic structure. To hear ourselves pouring out pre-composed sounding music is definitely a trip, but it happens more often than you’d expect, and is one of the rewards of improv.

    As for the question, “What does improvisation do for a musician?”

    For one, it gives me a break from tackling my wrong notes, distasteful vibrato, and being torn between interpretations in the practice room. There are no wrong notes, no wrong inflections. I wouldn’t say that a note during improve with “distasteful” vibrato/intonation/whatever was necessarily done on purpose, but was made in the moment and without expectation. There is something very freeing and empowering about this. What happens on accident- a cracked note, or a gasping breath, can turn into inspiration for what is to come.

    At the same time, I can tackle my classical music troubles through improv. Lately, I’ve had issues with controlling the style of my double tonguing. I’ll start moving my fingers, with no regard to scales or my piece, and focus solely on my double tonguing. This allows my mind to be entirely focused on the production of my tonguing, because I am not going to be distracted by the fingers in an awkward passage, or by the monotony of scales.

    When I improvise, it is something of an unconscious experience. I breathe in and hope for the best. Sometimes I will plan- “Start with some quirky extended techniques, go into a melody, and end on this particular note,” but any motives or themes that surface in my playing I am totally unaware of until I hear them myself. I am more involved with the “now” rather than thinking about what I am about to play (big contrast to performing classical music). I’ve had someone say “I don’t know how you think of this stuff…” Me neither. I don’t think of it and therein lies the magic of improve. No thinking, no planning, no worrying. Just Music.

    Listening to other students, I also find improvisation helps a lot with intonation. I expect this is because with a score, the student looks at a note, and goes on auto-pilot, fingering and playing the note as they always do. In improv. you are often unaware of what note you are on- but totally aware of the sound. Not only does it help with awareness in intonation, but general awareness in group playing. Group Improvisation involves a lot of picking out motives other performers create, and transposing them in your own way onto your instrument. It is possible for a string quartet with music in front of them to pick a tempo, start together, and finish together, without really listening to eachother. It is NOT possible for improvising players to create any kind of music without listening. When is one more aware of other players than when there are no notes and no memory problems to distract??

    Improvisation for me is always more of a release than something I actually practice- but I consider it central to my music education. Without it I would be too wound up over not sounding “perfect” to enjoy my flute. It’s like recess:

    After enough running wild for long enough, a little structure is welcome, and I can go to the woodshed on my composed music with a free heart and mind.

    My Question about Improv:

    Why have I been the only girl taking DePauw’s Improvisatory Chamber Music course this past year? Is this a fluke? Have any other people noticed a greater willingness to improv. amongst guys?

    Sarah, thanks for writing this! I remember you very well from the performance, and not just because you were the only girl. (I wondered about that, too.) But how could anyone forget the way you did your solo improvisation lying down? And the music you played — were those multiphonics at the beginning? I wondered about that, whether you’d studied multiphonics (extended flute technique), or if you found them for yourself. Either way, it sounded terrific.

    Thanks for explaining how the opera improv happened. That makes the way you all played even more impressive. Much as I liked you all, I can see I underestimated you. I never wouuld have guessed that the chord changes happened spontaneously, or the final cadence.

    I hope everyone takes what you’ve written to heart, about what you get from improvising. You described it all very powerfully, and we can all learn from it. Thanks again!