The Importance of Improvising

Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven and Liszt were all renowned as improvisers.  With the exception of Chopin, these composers performed improvisations in concert settings.  In fact, during the Baroque Era, improvisation was the norm as pianists often had to work out accompaniments of their own based on a series of chord symbols known as a figured bass.   In the romantic era, Chopin generated his compositions by improvisation.  His friend, the writer George Sand, called Chopin’s pieces  “a pale shadow of his improvisations´ , a sentiment that was repeated by many others who heard him improvise.  For Debussy too, improvisation was his most significant creative source and he claimed that his unique harmonies came from “following the law of pleasure of the ear”.  Today, Jazz music is built entirely around improvisation while in the classical music world; there are very few performers who continue the practice of public improvisation. However I believe that this is changing and that there will be a resurgence of improvisation in the classical music arena.  Pianist Robert Levin has been leading the charge in this area for a number of years and is world renowned as a classical improviser.  What I find most intriguing about Robert Levin is that he says that improvisation is a skill that he had to learn. I say this because most people imagine that the ability to improvise is an innate skill.

Robert Levin Improvising Mozart

My formal music education was largely based on classical music and did not include the art of improvisation at all. Nor was it a part of the education of any of my peers at that time.  Improvising was something that I did on my own time without guidance.  I was never encouraged to do it by anyone and as a result, I did not do it very often. Even today, improvisation still does not seem to be a part of many people's musical education.  I feel that this is unfortunate because the benefits of improvising are enormous. First, it is pure joy as it is immediately gratifying. The ability to improvise during a performance and cover a momentary memory slip is a very desirable skill for every musician. The development of the musical ear is enhanced in students and musicians who allow themselves to freely improvise and vice versa.  Less obviously, the ability to sight read is also enhanced. Sight reading is not just a matter of note and pattern recognition.  Sight reading also requires musicians to draw upon their musical intuition to anticipate what is coming next in the score.  Improvising is one of the best ways to develop your musical intuition.  And wouldn't it be wonderful to walk by a piano and be able to sit down and play even when none of the pieces you are working on are performance ready yet?  So when your child is playing around on the piano or digital keyboard and making up his/her own tunes instead of practising what has been assigned to them, do not be too harsh.  In fact, I'd prefer that you encourage this creative outlet even if it means that formal practice is temporarily suspended. For my part, you can expect me to work towards making improvising a regular part of the practice routine of my students and to introduce more tools to help students improvise. Two resources that I am using to assist in the development of improvisation skills are  Chord Play and Pattern Play.