Improvisation IS the Classical Tradition

Something spontaneous sounds different from something that is not, and that 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, and despite their familiarity with the piece, they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Robert Levin, Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers

For centuries, classical musicians were improvisers. Not just geniuses like Bach and Beethoven—improvisation was part of basic musical training until the late 19th century. Professional and amateur musicians improvised embellishments, cadenzas, accompaniments, and spontaneous compositions.

Courtesy of Flickr/CelloPics

The practice faded for many reasons including the explosion of published sheet music, recording technology, evolving expectations of composers and audiences, hyperspecialization, and rigid conservatory training. (See Robin Moore’s article, “The Decline of Improvisation in Western Art Music.”)

Listen to pianist and scholar Robert Levin speak passionately about the need to restore risk-taking and spontaneity in classical music. He also improvises stunning cadenzas to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414.

Watch Part 2

Because improvisation and risk-taking aren’t valued in auditions or competitions, many players don’t see the value. Others who are interested in creating their own music are paralyzed by fear.

Why step out of your comfort zone and improvise? The practice will help you:

  • Embrace performance practices of Western art music from the Middle Ages through Brahms
  • Compose, arrange, and perform your own music
  • Learn jazz and folk musics from around the globe
  • Break free from rigid performance tracks dictated by institutions
  • Improve interaction, spontaneity, and imagination in performances of notated music
  • Play 20th century pieces by composers like Stockhausen, Riley, and Lutoslawski, which require players to make spontaneous performance decisions.

If you resonate with any of these benefits, you may find the courage to push through the scary parts.

Additional reading:

We’re Playing Classical Music All Wrong – Composers Wanted Us To Improvise” by Clive Brown

New Masterclass and Free eBook

I’m presenting an exciting new “Initiation to Improvisation” masterclass in February 2016 at Seattle Pacific University and the D’Addario Showroom in NYC. These hands-on workshops will help classically-trained musicians bust through barriers and unlock their potentials as creative musicians.

I’m also working on a new eBook based on the class. You can get a free copy as soon as it’s available by signing up for my email newsletter.

Happy New Year!

– ST

Subscribe to the Creative Music Blog to receive new posts by email