The Power of Improvisation

Do you improvise? Join the conversation in the comments below and if you are in Berlin on the 10th, join Maria for a Free Improvisation Workshop!

Musical improvisation used to be one of the highest accomplishments a musician could aspire to have. In the last century though, it has become less important, the perfect execution of a piece taking first place.

Still, today some classical musicians embrace improvisation as part of their career. For example, among our HELLO STAGE friends, there is the pianist Gabriela Montero, Igudesman & Joo, Fazil Say... Equally, many classical musicians love to improvise on a regular basis.

But nowadays, students are not always put into contact with improvisation. That depends more on the teacher than the curriculum.

The German pedagogue Heinrich Jacoby put it quite eloquently, saying that we first learn how to speak before learning to recite poems, and that in music it should be exactly the same: that a child should be able to express itself musically before learning a piece.

That's where improvisation comes in.

I talk here about free improvisation: free sound and free musical expression, without having to adjust to any particular genre or musical rules. It's about how you feel in the moment and about expressing it with sound.

How to begin? Starting from stillness, play or sing one open, free sound. Stay with it, repeating until the sound is fully free. Then, see whatever sound wants to be played or sung after, repeating that second sound until it's vibrant and alive. And so on. Follow one sound after the other, and "play the music that wants to be played" (Eric Edberg).

You can try rhythmical patterns, textures, or just following along and let yourself be inspired by your own sound.

There is only one rule: don't plan what to play next.

Don't get yourself thinking "what could go well with that?" or "oh, this wasn't too fantastic". Thinking isn't useful here. The whole point is to feel and not to think, it's to follow the flow of the music.

Here is how you could translate improvisation into your piece: Practice as if you were improvising it. You can experiment with sound textures, with timing, with dynamics, with rhythms... Let yourself be captivated by the sound and let the piece unfold.

Another possibility is looking for playful or story elements in the score. Where did the composer surprise himself/herself? Is there a narrative?

You can also take the piece and change it as you go, so that it becomes a different piece altogether, so that it becomes your starting point of a new improvisation.

The best way to learn something is to teach it. So it's of great benefit to you and your students to try out improv with them.

Children really enjoy improvising in groups or with their instrument teacher. For example, out of silence, someone starts playing one note. The other person plays the second note to it. Now you have two notes, and you hear how they form one sound. Then, one person changes thier note, and it becomes a new sound altogether. Listen to how changing one note modifies how you perceive the other note and the overall sound. And so on.

Or, the 'wild' approach: you offer your student a simple rhythmical pattern, saying: "let's just play something, whatever". Then, let them join in and see where it takes you.

Interesting and exciting when improvising with others: every player can lead and follow at the same time: offering their own expression, and still open to possibility.

Pass it on. Discover for yourself and your students this world of personal expression, without judgement, fun and playful.

Finally, there are some internet curiosities about improvisation that I want to share with you:

Pianist Gabriela Montero improvised, live, the entire music score to Murnau's epic silent film "Nosferatu" (Berlin, 2014). I was lucky enough to be in that audience - that was one intense performance. (What you see on her music stand is actually a small screen from where she was following the film.)

Violinist Hillary Hahn recorded an entirely improvised album with German artist Hauschka in 2012, "Silfra". The teaser video gives you a good feeling about their adventure of recording this music.

Eric Edberg is a cello professor of Depauw Music University, Indiana and has some great short Youtube videos about how to start with what he calls "self-expressive improvisation". The first video is called "No wrong notes".

Dr. Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician has written about the importance of practicing improvisation from an early age (with scientific studies) and about how good sight-reading is related to good improvisation skills.

Enjoy watching and reading, and if you have an interesting link, thanks for posting it in the comments.
Let's add improv to the #classicalbuzz!

Maria Busqué will be teaching a Free Improvisation Workshop in Berlin, Germany, on May 10th 2015.
You can find out more at www.mariabusque.net. You can also follow Maria on HELLO STAGE!
Author: Maria Busqué / edited by Nina HELLO STAGE
Comments [2]
Brigitte Ulbrich - 2015-05-06 09:09
Hi Maria, congrats, great article! I love improvising:-)! Will you also be in Vienna this spring? Best, Brigitte
Maria Busqué - 2015-05-08 11:35
Thanks Brigitte for your comment. I will definitely let you know when I'm in Vienna :) I also enjoyed your article about breathing and singing. It really resonated.
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