As a classical pianist I interpreted and performed music composed by other people for an audience. Interpretation was the extent of my creative input into the music because the notes, melodies, harmonies, and form were all predetermined. In this sense, musical notation is like following a set of instructions to make a model. A classical musician interprets music by adding their own nuance and personality to a composition. Altering the notation or improvising is the equivalent of a criminal offence.
Does that sound creative? A little bit. Is it artistic? Maybe, if my interpretation inspired an aesthetic response in my audience. Can you be artistic without be creative? Yes. Am I engaging in deep creativity when I perform the Chopin Ballade No. 1 in an interesting way? No. Moreover, just how many interpretations of the Chopin Ballade No, 1 does the world need?
I left piano playing behind in my mid-twenties to pursue a “serious” career path and support my family. Piano playing went into hibernation.
Thirty years later, I have returned to the piano this time with a passion for improvisatory styles of playing. Not surprisingly, I came back to the piano a much different person than I was thirty years ago. Classical and blues music are two different realms of musical experience. Classical training gave me good technical and interpretative skill. As the principal pianist for a dance school, I was able site sight read most of what was put in front of me. I learned to fake my way through difficult passages I couldn’t perform the first time. Faking what I couldn’t sight read was probably my first foray into improvisation on the piano.
Blues Music Showed Me That I Had Very Little to Say
My initial encounters with blues improvisation taught me that I had nothing to say. I sounded like a classical performer trying to appropriate the blues. And my conversation with the piano had not yet shifted from interpreting notated compositions to improvising something deeply felt. Instead of interpreting someone else’s composition, the blues invited me into the performance as co-creator. Instead of starting with notated music, the blues was more embodied and experiential.
In blues music, you play other people’s songs, but the performance is more like a conversation, not an interpretation. The relationship between performer and a blues song is more intimate because of the presence of improvisation. Blues music is the language of oral transmission. It is embodied. Classical music uses a system of paper-based (visual) transmission. It is intellectual. You learn blues songs by feeling them and then experimenting with them through trial and error. You learn classical songs by decoding notation and translating visual symbols through your fingers into sound. These are fundamentally different approaches to piano playing.
Why was I Never Allowed to Improvise?!
The presence of improvisation in blues music increases the creative depth of a performance. It also increases the thrill and risk of live performance. In the beginning, my improvisations sounded technical and forced. I sounded like a classical player with an abundance of technique abusing a foreign language.
There is a cultural milieu and aura surrounding blues that is important. You cannot just “learn” the blues; they are a life experiences moving through a unique musical language. Ironically, even though modern classical music training ignores improvisation, composers such as Back, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, and others were all master improvisers.
Improvisation was a regular part of live concert performances in the classical period. During a concert, for example, Bach would be given a theme from someone in the audience and then improvise a composition live. We cannot know what he sounded like because recording devices had not been invented. But we know with certainty that improvisation was a vital musical skill.
What happened to it?
As a classical piano student for fifteen years, improvisation was never part of my training. Why? Because modern classical music training is mired in superficial creativity. Somewhere along the way, we lost the creative depth of the classical masters and cast improvisation aside. This is one of the greatest tragedies of modern music education. It is symptomatic of the deterioration of creativity in modern culture. John Mortensen summarizes the problem this way:
“There is something stultifying about a tradition where millions of pianists are all playing the same 100 compositions. The way we’ve developed musicians is falling apart, as it was designed for a very narrow outcome – preserving and perfecting the canonic repertoire. When you say everyone has to play a Bach prelude and fugue, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin nocturne, and we’ll do that until the end of the world, something in our soul dies.”
I cannot be deeply creative by performing Ballade No. 1 because Chopin has already done the deep creative work. At the same time, I will never be able to improvise New Orleans blues like Dr. John or Jon Cleary, nor do I need to. But I can be more deeply creative as a pianist. Jon Cleary advises, “You have to have something of your own to say without music in front of you”.
And then there is the deep creativity inhabited by creators like Keith Jarrett who merge improvisation and composition during live performance.
Improvisation is the Way
John Mortensen describes the disconnect between classical training and improvisation in, “Why today’s musicians should follow classical greats… and improvise.” He asks why classical pianists tend to play the same 100 compositions and advises them to follow the “follow in the spontaneous spirit of Bach and Beethoven.” Here is an example of Mortensen improvising a Fantasia and Fugue on a Theme of Lübeck.
Keith Jarrett is one of the most important piano improvisers of our age. You can explore his music and thoughts about improvisation in, “Keith Jarrett: The Art of Improvisation.
I love the experience of learning to improvise even though it demands suffering through a lot of really bad playing. I follow Jon Cleary’s advice and spend a lot of time “noodling around.” In fact, that’s basically the entire lesson plan these days. Noodling around demands patience because you’ll hear yourself playing sounds you wish you hadn’t, but once in a while a discovery is made and that makes it all worth it.