We are musicians. We have spent countless hours in practice rooms refining our technique and nurturing our musicianship. But for so many of us, improvisation, the art of spontaneous musical creation, is not a part of our artistic essence. We all too often equate improvisation only with jazz, and usually instrumental jazz at that. But musical improvisation transcends both genre and instrument. So why is improvisation such a foreign concept in our classical music training? It seems as if this would be the epitome of musical self expression. Yet, the vast majority of classically trained musicians are inextricably tied to the notes on a page, unable to express their musical ideas beyond the confines of the musical staff.
Think about that for a moment. What if we compared this to our mastery of language. What if the only way we could convey our thoughts and feelings were to read passages from someone else’s book? Would we praise a person for their sublime mastery of language if he were only a really good reader? Of course not. The notion is laughable for language, but sadly, not for classical music.
When it comes to language, we are all master improvisers. We can say what we want, how we want, using a myriad of subtly nuanced word choices, sentence structures, and vocal inflections. Every day each of us creates sentences that we have never spoken before, spontaneously, instantaneously, and seamlessly. With language we can converse, responding directly and instantly to others’ questions and comments. It is a marvelous example of our creative abilities at work. More importantly, we take it for granted. We expect everyone to reach this level of mastery, and it doesn’t take years in a practice room to make it happen. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could “music” as freely as we speak? There really isn’t any reason why this can’t be a reality.
Not so long ago, our own classical music tradition once revered improvisation. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, just to name a few iconic figures, were all masters of musical improvisation. Today, the once spontaneous musical outpourings of the past are petrified into preludes, fantasias, impromptus, and cadenzas. In less than one hundred years, the proud tradition of improvisation slowly vanished.
Once improvisation started disappearing from our musical training, its complete disappearance became almost inevitable. Teachers without improvisational fluency didn’t feel comfortable trying to teach it to their students, who then became improvisationally illiterate, and were unlikely to even try improvisation let alone try to teach it. So, as you can see, it really didn’t take all that long for it to disappear. Now, it is high time we reclaim our musical heritage and honor this once proud feature of our musical art.
We must reverse this trend and reintroduce improvisation into our musical repertoire. My goal is raise the importance of improvisation at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music. I want every student in our conservatory explore improvisation during their time at Lawrence. Luckily, we are well positioned to do just that. First, we have a world renowned jazz studies department, where improvisation is foundational and beginning improvisation courses are open to students no matter what their primary area of study. Second, we have Matthew Turner on our faculty.
Matthew is one of the world’s leading improvising cellist and teachers of improvisation. He goes into secondary schools across the country to introduce improvisation to students that have never improvised one note in their lives. There isn’t anyone better suited to reintroduce improvisation into the classical music conservatory. At Lawrence, he is currently the director or IGLU the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University. In this ensemble students can explore improvisation in genres other than jazz. Currently the ensemble has 30 members representing nearly every department in the conservatory. It is a wonderful thing to see students diving in to improvisation for the first time and embracing both its challenges and rewards.
At Lawrence, we are also focusing on introducing improvisation and improvisation pedagogy to our music education majors. This is key if we want our youngest music students to accept improvisation as a natural part of their musical development. Through our educators we have the best chance to reintroduce improvisation back into every students’ musical vocabulary. I will devote another blog to strategies for making this possible, but until then we can keep dreaming of a world where all musicians have the ability to leave the printed page behind and directly convey their musical thoughts and dreams through spontaneous improvisation.