Classical music greats like Back and Beethoven gained repute at their time, not so much for their compositions, but for their improvisations. A typical concert in their time would involve a full recital of music that was improvised. No wonder their creativity resulted in musical pieces that are still held in awe today.

Mozart Beethoven
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Improvisation was the main tool of composition and  a major practice of almost all great composers and virtuosi in classical music’s heyday.  Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Paganini, Ives, and many many other classical lions were brilliant improvisers and did it every day.  Cadenzas were usually improvised up through the beginning of the 19th century, and many classical music recitals by these great musicians would contain long and elaborate improvisations. Via Joshua Maccluer

Unfortunately, improvisation is no longer the norm among classical musicians. According to Joshua Maccluer, this is the reason why there is very little if any personal expression, creativity and even enjoyment in classical music performance and life.

Classical musicians today are largely creatively constipated, neurotic, terrified of making mistakes, and joyless performers. Just look at an orchestra perform on most nights and look for who appears visibly to be enjoying themselves and smiling. It should be an amazing experience playing the world’s best music together onstage, but genuine onstage joy while performing is a rare sight in classical music. Via Joshua Maccluer

free music
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So why is improvisation no longer a significant part of classical music, particularly the learning process? Classical pianist Alexander Kato-Willis believes it’s a control issue:

He believes the practice died out as people increasingly wanted more control over everything. From a musical perspective, sticking to notation seemed to provide that.

“But it actually gives you less control,” he says. “When you write music beforehand you can’t control it, based on the audience.” Whereas composing on the spot allows you to change the entire piece, constantly. Via RFI

Fortunately for him, Alexander has always been driven by sense of freedom that improvisation delivers. He has a reputation for recitals that involve plunging into the unknown, a habit he picked up at age 7.

piano in the blue
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The good news is that more classical music performers are realizing just how much they’re missing out on by ignoring the art of improvisation. YoungArts is an organization that has been guiding high school students as they decide whether to pursue musical careers.

Daniel Bernard Roumain is a professional violinist and educator who is also a master teacher with YoungArts. He believes that orchestral musicians need to learn how to play with sound as a vital skill.

Roumain is trying to address what he considers a failing of classical music education.

“One thing that occurs to me is that classical music students are told to do just about every aspect of their lives and careers,” Roumain explained. “They’re told what to play, when the concert is, what to wear, where to sit. They don’t have a lot of control, really.” Via SCPR


piano fingers
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Roumain uses a set of exercises he designed on students that get them to riff off each other. Being students of classical music, this does not come naturally to them, with some describing Daniel as having ‘wacky’ ideas. Even so, by the end of the week-long workshop, teenage artists are expected to put up a show consisting of improvised performances.

Their show was a mixture of live film scores, brief, flashy solos, and reinterpretations of classical standards, such as a Bach prelude traded off between cello and tuba.

“They’ve created their own groups and collaborations,” Roumain said. “They’re, in many ways, in complete control, of at least this concert. Certainly they’ve had a lot of say this week.”

Roumain also pushed his students to improvise with each other — a skill that can go entirely neglected for classical musicians. Via SCPR

According to Roumain, improvises allows students to get acquainted with independent decision-making, something they will have to do once they graduate. Additionally, it encourages students to have a say in the future of classical music by deciding what it will be like. It’s a journey of self-discovery that students of classical music should not be denied.

Improvisation in classical music may just be the key to its survival. It will also, hopefully, bring back the joy of creativity and self-expression, that music, at its core, should reward us.

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Teaching classical musicians to improvise

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We’re playing classical music all wrong – composers wanted us to improvise

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Classical music has always been the music of the educated classes, but today, despite the much more equal distribution of education in first world society, it is seen by many as stuffy, irrelevant and unappealing. Via The Conversation