How to think about Improvisation

Experienced improvisers make it look easy. They can seem so free and fluent in their playing that it looks like a miracle of nature, or a display of freakish, unattainable skill. If you’re listening to Keith Jarrett play, that is indeed the case. But if we’re talking about your average jazzer playing at a jam session, it can’t be that because there are too many of them. The ability to improvise is not a mysterious gift possessed by a chosen few. Tons of people do it convincingly in every other style of music besides classical.

Even musicians of the classical tradition used to improvise all the time, but somewhere along the line it fell out of fashion. Discussions of how and why that happened can be read elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on how modern-day classical musicians can re-integrate it into our lives.

The first thing to understand is that nobody invents music out of nothing. All composers and improvisers carry around a vocabulary of musical patterns that they have absorbed over the course of their lives. If you’ve been playing music most of your life, so do you. The tricky part, if you’re a classical musician, is deciding what vocabulary to work with, because we carry a LOT of it.

For most improvisers there is no such decision to be made. Generally they learn to play in one principle style where a narrow standard vocabulary and improvisation-based frameworks are already in place. A jazz musician spends years immersed in the language of jazz, listening, transcribing, jamming, soaking in the vocabulary and gradually learning to “speak” that language.

In a jazz jam session, players choose from a repertory of standard tunes that everyone knows. It is understood that after the tune is counted off, its structure will repeat itself in a consistent tempo through one statement of the melody, an improvised solo by each member of the band, maybe some trading of short solos between the drummer and other players, and another statement of the melody at the end. So, although the playing might look and sound very free, it is still highly organized and predictable in certain ways.

In many musical styles where people improvise, the players of that style don’t even describe what they do as improvising. In Indian ragas, what we would call improvisation is considered by the players to be simply the performance of standard repertoire. What we would call improvising was referred to by Mozart as “playing variations” on a song or opera aria.

Until well into the 19th century, musicians of the classical tradition went through an education process similar to that of improvising musicians today, absorbing a limited, universal musical language from those around them and learning to create within that language.

Classical musicians today absorb vocabulary too, but a lot more of it. We are exposed to a huge variety of different styles spanning hundreds of years of musical evolution. We play in so many styles that it’s difficult to really internalize any one of them. In each place and time in the history of music, basic elements like chords and rhythms were understood differently by those musicians when compared to other eras and locations.

It’s not surprising that the most common reaction to improvisation, among classical musicians, is “I have no idea what to do!” We have too many choices and we get paralyzed. It’s like standing at the pharmacy in front of a hundred kinds of toothpaste – you have to locate something familiar or else you get overwhelmed.

Narrowing the options by choosing a specific style would be a good approach for a lot of people. It doesn’t have to be 100% of the time, but there could be one style you come back to most often, where you continue to reinforce similar musical patterns day after day. I’ve spent a lot of time working on Mozart concerto cadenzas, and found it extremely helpful to have limits imposed on my choice of themes, harmonic vocabulary, structure, keyboard range, texture and length.

Our second major obstacle is that most of us, unfortunately, didn’t learn to compose or improvise in school. Reading and analyzing music alone doesn’t lead to a capacity to create similar music. The creative process is another thing altogether and it needs to be practiced in order to get any good at it.

So this is where we’re starting from, as a classical musician learning to improvise. If all this sounds discouraging, remind yourself that you’re not trying to be Keith Jarrett. There is still massive value in practicing improvisation even if you never end up doing it in front of an audience.

The composer Hummel wrote in 1838, “Even if a person plays with inspiration, but always from a written score, he or she will be much less nourished, broadened, and educated than through the frequent offering of all of his or her powers in a free fantasy… even if this improvisation is only moderately successful.”