Improvisation and classical music

We musicians strive to be creative whatever we are playing. When playing a written piece, it should sound fresh, as if improvised; when improvising, it should sound thoughtful, as if composed.

Benefits of improvisation for classical musicians

  • Improvisation is an excellent tool for working on technique.
  • You can explore ideas or elements in music you are working on by improvising on these ideas or elements.
  • The ability to improvise makes your technique more flexible; if you slip up while playing written music, it is easier to recover.
  • In some styles of classical music, improvisation is required, for example the ornaments in Baroque music. Until about 100 years ago or so, performers often improvised cadenzas for concertos.
  • Improvisation can be used as a tool for composition, in order to create new work or parts of works.
  • Jazz in particular is superb ear training. Improvising on difficult chord change will really increase your ability to hear harmony as you play (or even listen).
  • The ability to improvise allows you to play with people from other traditions.
  • Improvisation is fun.
long haired violinist

What is improvisation?

To improvise is make music up on the spot, within certain constraints. On the other hand, improvisation is not always totally from scratch. Often, an improvisation is building on previous work using the same material or structure. When you improvise, you don’t just play anything. You have to relate to harmony, rhythm, affect, and other players. More important, you have to create music that actually says something (not just a bunch of notes).

Excellent improvisation supports, and demands, mastery of all the elements of music.

Improvisation in the classical tradition

Improvisation is not new to the classical tradition. All of the great composers were great improvisers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, etc. It is only during last 100 years or so that classical musicians stopped improvising.

Furthermore, other traditions from folk, to eastern, to jazz have always influenced classical music.

Think of Mozart’s “Turkish” music, Beethoven contra dances, the Blues movement of Ravel’s violin sonata, eastern influence on the minimalists like Reich and Glass, Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. It goes on and on.

For a fascinating and beautiful example of violin improvisation in a thoroughly classical vein, at a high artistic level, listen to the album by Hilary Hahn And Hauschka, Silfra.

jamming at the Alley Kat with Mike Bitts

Why do classical musicians often find improvisation so difficult?

We play such great music that it is daunting to make something up. Anything that we make up on the spot will sound banal compared to the music that we practice and perform. This situation is exacerbated by trying to improvise in other styles, particularly if those styles have elements that are foreign to most classical playing (less refined tone, very different use of vibrato, focus on rhythmic drive from the bow, less refined approach to intonation, “feel”).

For this reason, I believe it is best not to start improvising by going to another tradition, but rather to develop improvisation as an integral part of your classical playing.

Playing with musicians from other traditions can contribute to this, but don’t start by trying become a fiddler, or a jazz player, etc. Develop by digging into your own roots, including exploration of the possibilities of basic musical elements: rhythm, pitch, harmony, and technique specific to the violin.

This website is meant as a meeting place and resource for you if you strive to become a rooted, improvisational classical violinist—open to all musical traditions.

Can a classical musician play in other styles?

  • There are many, many other approaches to music than western classical.
  • If you want to become a specialist in another tradition, then you have to really dive into that style: listen obsessively , play with people. The subtleties cannot be learned from the printed page.
  • I contend that there is much to be gained (including having a good time) from playing with people in other traditions. To do so, you have to be able to improvise.
  • Any classically-trained musician has a wealth of musical history to draw on that can inform and enrich playing in other traditions, or in creating new music.
  • What is the difference between jazz and classical music, after all? They are two aspects of the same rich tradition, which have enriched each other for over a hundred years.

avant garde violin improvisation with dancers

The challenges of playing music from other traditions than Western Classical.

Playing with musicians from other traditions—particularly if their approach is totally intuitive and ear-based—can be a real challenge.

  • Various traditions are idiomatic. They tend to have a certain “feel.” Some of the aspect of that “feel” are definable (for example, Scottish fiddle playing rarely uses the roll embellishment common in Irish fiddle), and some or more ineffable (the distinction between swing in modern, post bop, and earlier, pre bop, jazz). It is extremely difficult to get these subtleties just right if you haven’t been in the tradition from an early age.
  • People who have played their whole lives in a certain musical tradition often don’t know how to slow it down, break it down and explain; you just have to get it. This forces you to develop your ear and ability to play based on immediate audibility.
  • It is particularly challenging when the music is fast. Jazz in particular can go like lightening.
  • Other styles often counter classical norms, for example:
    • No vibrato
    • Acceptance of bad intonation
    • Emphasis on a driving, relentless beat, with no concession to melodic flexibility.
  • Let’s face it, specialists in traditions can be a little cliquish, especially when faced with a classical musician who may not get all the subtleties of their particular tradition.

The benefits of playing music from exploring other musical realms

  • There is a lot of really great music out there (also a lot of junk).
  • There are other ways to be sophisticated musically than as defined by classical norms.
  • Playing folk dances can help with playing classical dances with dance character. For example, Celtic fiddle styles have a lot in common with Baroque practice: use of bow, ornaments.
  • Playing with musicians from other styles can improve your understanding of rhythm, including:
    • A more rhythmic use of the bow
    • The ability to play in a more dance-like character
    • Improve feel for irregular meters
    • Improve steadiness and counter rushing

For a highly sophisticated rhythmic workout, check out konokol, the South Indian rhythmic system.

I believe it is highly beneficial to play music from other traditions, even if you can’t completely get the authentic feel. I can improvise on a blues progression, but I will never, ever, nail it like B.B. King—so what? I can draw on my own unique sources, and create music that no one else can.