Traditions II: Improvisation

Jonathan Bellman

In my last blog entry I wrote about the pianist-composer. A related and similarly eclipsed activity for concert pianists—or at least classically trained-type pianists—is improvisation. “Although kept up for a while by such late composer-performers as D’Albert and Busoni,” wrote Dennis Libby in the old (1980) New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “it eventually preserved a tenuous existence in the certain artistic limbos: the dance class, the organ loft, etc.” Today, improvisation among pianists is often considered synonymous with Jazz, as if improvisation in any other style is either impossible or irrelevant. I like thinking about artistic limbos, myself, because I occupied one (the dance class) for a long time and they generally don’t show up in music history texts. Just in musicians’ lives. (When was the last time you saw a serious study of what the years of café piano playing contributed to Erik Satie’s compositional personality, and what that in turn meant for Debussy and Six? Another “artistic limbo.”)

Certain circumstances both foster creativity and crush it—an observation I offer from experience, and in the spirit of neither judgement nor endorsement. In church, a suitable mood, an ever-variable length of time to fill, and not too challenging an idiom (one wonders how contemporary congregations responded to J. S. Bach’s multivalent musical commentaries) are requirements—or you may be assured that the Consistory or Hiring Committee or Worship Team or whatever will find someone else who doesn’t annoy the parishioners who liked it better the way the last organist did it. Yet on the plus side, the organist must come up with stuff, now, to fill the time, mixing familiar and unfamiliar in just the right proportions—a formidable challenge to any spontaneous composer. There are places in Europe where fugal improvisation, for example, is still taught. The one trained improvisor I have heard in formal performance (within the last few years, in a local church) was German-trained, and monumentally unimpressive. On the other hand, I brazenly asked a grad student at UCSB (when I was an undergrad) to improvise a fugue for me, and…he broke off his conversation, and did, then provided me with a critique of the subject we had given him. I was just trying to get my jaw off the floor.

Imagine being paid to improvise, which I was as a ballet accompanist (sometimes, dear God, for seven hours per day…and I’d go practice my own repertoire in the evenings!). Chérie Noble, the teacher who trained me, was wonderful (I even did a couple of CDs of my own ballet exercise-compositions with her, later, which can be found here); throughout my time in the studio there were three or four others who really responded to what I did. Most of the teachers, though?  Forget it. Difficulties counting to four or eight, sometimes, and an unwillingness to deal with anything imaginative. One might say that the stereotypes instrumentalists usually have of singers seemed to hold double for dancers. (“Now, girls, you have to think mentally!” was the funniest remark that I ever heard attributed to a teacher, a former ballerina.) So the moment you got too creative, the teacher would get an irritated look and say “we’ll need a clearer beat…” though in my experience it was never the girls who got confused; always the teacher. In any case, ballet accompanying can be a fantastic opportunity. It can also be soul-destroying slave-work, truly (as I always called it) blue-collar piano. The composers I knew who did ballet accompanying soon quit, because they found themselves only able to compose waltzes and galops after a day of grinding it out in the corner of the studio. On the other hand, more than one composer has spoken of the benefits, in terms of discipline, of ballet composition for young composers; I’m thinking, here, especially of the stories of Virgil Thomson composing The Filling Station for Lew Christensen and the San Francisco Ballet. Christensen would tell Thomson how many bars he needed at for a series of steps, and Thomson would compose it on the spot. Discipline indeed!

One could also work on technical challenges in the course of one’s improvisations: octaves, legato, chromatic runs, etc. Sadly, concentration throughout a 5-7 hour workday, five or six days a week, remains consistent for only the rarest pianist—yours truly not included. The lesson one learns from this kind of occupation, though, is that most of improvisation is formula—one assembles a composition, spinning out one’s licks, not note by note but rather gesture by gesture. Sometimes new things happen, and the good ones stay (and the other ones disappear forever). If I’m not mistaken, Jazz musicians say the same thing. So the idea is that however brilliant you are on your best day, your preparation will be sufficient for your worst day not to be all that far below it. Improvisation is thus more a matter of craft than inspiration, a craft built of repetition and hours of service.

Like performance.

Or composition.

So the essence of this all-but-lost tradition is not any kind of alchemy or inspiration, just hours behind the keyboard with nothing on the music rack.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Traditions II: Improvisation

  1. Lorel says:

    I loved reading this! I am an accompanist for ballet! I love the mental challenges it provides when I decide to improvise or, in some situations, have no choice, BUT to improvise! No time and something brilliant required ASAP! I will be the first to admit that I have much to learn yet. For, as I am learning, the better you can develop a piece off the top of your head, the more you realize the potential and possibilities available to you. You realize yet again that there is so much more at your fingertips than meets the ear..

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’m struggling to suppress the urge to tell you to run for your life! All these challenges are indeed present, and worth addressing. Make SURE you are well treated, respected, given medical coverage etc. etc., though, and give special attention ALWAYS to playing correctly. The ballet pianist’s gig is basically a career-threatening injury waiting to happen, particularly on the kinds of pianos we are often called upon to play.
    If I were still doing this, I would force myself to listen to all kinds of new music much more often, and force myself to aurally analyze what is going on so as to generate new ideas and possibilities and vocabulary for myself. I actually have gotten much better at this since being an academic, but don’t use the skill at the keyboard much now.
    It’s also worth listening to everyone else’s ballet CDs, at least cursorily, which (forgive me for this) can serve as a boost to one’s OWN ego.

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