London revelations (2)

Guildhall School of Music and Drama

I was invited to visit Guildhall, and was greatly impressed by three things:

Every classical music student is required to study improvisation for two years, with two more years optional. 
The only other music school I know of that requires improvisation, for classical students, is DePauw University, in Indiana. If there are others please let me know!
Classical music students work with actors and (if I remember rightly) teachers from the drama school, on their stage presentation.

The school has a research department, which works on important questions, among them:

  • What makes orchestral musicians happy with their work?
  • What actually goes on at music schools, and what are they really for?
Best of all, this isn’t simply theoretical work. Guildhall plans to use the results of the research to make the school better. 
I’ve never heard of any school that does this kind of research. If there is one, again — please tell me!
     Seeing it work

I was invited to watch some improvisation classes, and was fascinated by what I saw. I’ll learn more about the program, and then offer further comments, but — with the understanding that this is simply what I saw, and not the entire program — here’s what struck me.

I watched a viola student improvise with a faculty pianist, David Dolan, who’s the principal improvisation teacher. This was fairly simple stuff — the violist played long notes, following the harmony David improvised. At one point, David asked the violist to listen to the piano, and tap whenever he heard a change in harmony. The violist couldn’t do it! So David suggested he put down his instrument. And then the violist had no trouble hearing. 

Seemed to me that holding the instrument actually got in the way of this musician’s listening! I asked him if that might be the case. And he said it was. That when he held his viola, he expected to be reading music from his music stand. Listening, evidently, became a separate activity, as he more or less unconsciously encountered music. (This conclusion, I should stress, is mine. I don’t know whether he’d agree.)

Then I watched a string quartet, which had just learned the finale of the Brahms C minor quartet. They played it with a lot of vigor, but not (to my ear) with much sense of what was happening — what the separate moments were, how the moments fit together, where the piece was going. 

David asked them to sing the piece, instead of playing it. Or rather for the musicians to intone — act out — their parts together. Now the piece began to change. They began to play what was happening in it. David also asked them, in places, to find the main notes in their phrases — the notes that outlined the meaning and direction of the phrase — and play only them. 

Doing both these things transformed the piece. Now the musicians really played it. Of course, other teachers may work in similar ways. Though maybe not so often, given David’s busy schedule, visiting other music schools, including some in the US. Once more, I’d love to hear of other teachers who do this kind of work. 

It all made me wonder how we’ve gotten to a place — in classical music — where listening seems separate from playing from notation. And where accomplished students can learn a piece without (my judgment; not necessarily David’s, or the students’) quite knowing how it goes. I think what we might be facing here is a tradition — classical music — which students approach from the outside, as something foreign to them. Somehow I don’t think that kids in bands have to stop to figure out the main notes in the riffs they’re playing. 

Which isn’t, I should quickly say, a criticism of Guildhall. It’s a problem with classical music as a whole today — a kind of stagnation, really — which Guildhall is trying to address. (Though once again I’ll  say that this is my interpretation, not necessarily shared by anyone at Guildhall.) 

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  1. richard says

    Many musicians seem not to be able to get beyond reading the music. This can be very frustrating when new music is played. I’ve heard many performances of modern works which were, at best, good examples of sight-reading. The players simply did not “inhabit” the piece. On the other hand, I’ve heard countless performances of standard rep that sounded like it was “phoned in”.

  2. john pippen says

    Wow, so is the research dept really sciency or are the more social science, or what? That sounds really cool.

  3. says

    Improvisation should be a requirement for all music schools! I didn’t know DePauw is now requiring it. I was there when Eric Edberg was starting the improvised chamber music class and he also made the cello majors do it for the studio classes. One of my fondest memories are the active improvisation I did while there!

  4. says

    I did a semester of graduate studies as a pianist at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA. I ended up transferring to a different school to complete my master, but I thoroughly admired the special features and the vision the school had to offer.

    At least one semester of improvisation is required for each conservatory student every degree program there. This requirement probably has been highly influenced by the strong presence of the Dalcroze Eurhythms program there.

    Other school-wide requirements are at least one class in each intro to Dalcroze, chamber music, mind/body (Alexander, Feldenkreis, etc), and “Experiential Education” (a performance outreach training program).

    Here is a link to Longy’s website:

  5. says

    Kudos to David Dolan and Guildhall! Eric Edberg has done some wonderful things in improv at DePauw, but I didn’t know that it was a requirement. Nonjazz improv is required of all music majors at only two universities that I’m aware of in the US: 1) the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (instituted by composer and department head Charles Young; he calls it Musicianship and says it’s about 2/3s composition and 1/3 improvisation and says probably he should flip the proportions; as text he uses Joel Saltzman’s If You Can Talk, You Can Write. Charles sends me CDs ever so often of the compositions of his students and it’s amazing what they do) and 2) at the University of Northern Florida, where Gary Smart (an extraordinary pianist (classical, jazz & nonjazz improv) and composer) has everyone learn to improvise. I’ve had a course for ten years at the University of Iowa School of Music: Improvisation for Classical Musicians (a book came out of it: Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians), but it is not required – I do the course as a labor of love for no extra pay and it doesn’t count on my load, and there’s not enough of me to teach it if everyone had to take it. The course is mostly a mystery to most other faculty, whose experience has never intersected such an outlandish idea as being able to create music on the spot, and they have a hard time understanding the value of anything that is not written down and is fun to boot. Students that take the course, however, often report that it is the most valuable music course they ever had and that everyone should have to take it. I’ve also started an improvising chamber music ensemble (Latitude) for alumni of my course plus us few interested faculty. And I give workshops and concerts at other universities. But it will be a long time before improv is a requirement in the curriculum – more’s the pity. Institutions are like ocean liners – once they get going, it’s very hard to change course…