What happened to improvisation in classical piano music?

Guest post by Phil Best

The great piano composers were all fluent improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and so many others are reported to have improvised to audiences regularly. Beethoven’s improvisation duel against Daniel Steibelt, which he won to become the most lauded improviser in Vienna, proves this point whilst it also demonstrates how many virtuoso pianists of the time were skilled improvisers. So when did improvisation cease to be part of the job description for classical pianists, and why?

First of all, I’d like to consider different forms of improvisation. The piano composers of the past were masters of real-time composition and this is a very particular kind of improvisation. Some people today might hear those words and conjure up notions of free, atonal, arrhythmic music. Perhaps the idea of creating complex rhythmic and tonal music that makes perfect sense over many minutes, without some kind of pre-existing framework seems impossible and atonality appears to be the only outcome of attempting such a thing. Another possible form of improvising is the simple, rather post-minimal and free-form explorations that many amateur pianists do these days – you can hear many examples on YouTube and often to great effect. The fact that this kind of activity is making piano improvisation something accessible and truly self-expressive is wonderful. But Beethoven’s or Chopin’s improvisations would have been far more complex and involved. Of course, jazz musicians do improvise but often around a framework of a song structure, with an outline of harmonic and rhythmic unfolding to guide them. When jazz pianists, such as Keith Jarrett do compose in real time, the results can be pretty spectacular. But what about classical pianists?

Well, there is a handful of famous classical pianists who improvise in public. The wonderful Gabriela Montero is an example of a well-known pianist who regularly improvises, usually creating a pastiche of a great composer’s style and Robert Levin is renowned for making improvisation an integral part of Mozart’s piano music, improvising cadenzas on the spot and fleshing out the barebones writing that is often encountered in slow movements. But this is still not quite the same thing as a pianist-composer creating new music in real time.

I believe this points to one underlying reason for the waning of classical piano improvisation in classical concert halls. Composers began to inhabit a distinct realm, quite separate from that of performing. Perhaps the increasing prevalence of atonality in composition or simply the fashion for hyper-intellectualism that was sweeping through the arts generally made the combined role of composer-pianist less valid. Rachmaninov really had two hats as many artists of the early part of the century did and he famously spoke of feeling uncomfortable at times when performing his own works. Later on, composers who were also great pianists, such as Andre Previn, have crossed into jazz in order to showcase their improvisation skills, once jazz had gained its status as an intellectual equal to classical music. I believe that improvising classical music on the spot may have appeared to cheapen its new brand as a very high status, intellectual activity that was not jazz. This branding also affected the way pianists sounded when they played classical pieces, in my opinion. Natural rhythm and phrasing were replaced by something altogether drier or more mannered-sounding. To play Chopin or Mozart without the perceived rigour of interpretative analysis, simply playing the melodies, harmonies and rhythms with full-blooded, natural expression was left to amateurs or perhaps the highly commercialised artist, Liberace. In this climate, attention turned towards a very different skill set from fluent musicianship: scholarship was regarded as the core of classical music studies, with interpretation, theory and historical or authentic performance knowledge being the key skills.

This competitive world of the classical piano virtuoso was of course dominated by recordings, which could well be another very important reason why improvisation was no longer part of the job of a classical pianist. In their new role as master interpreters of historic music, pianists in the last century had to battle it out for supremacy not only in the great concert halls of the world but also in the pages of music journals such as the Gramophone magazine. Highly regarded music critics would rate interpretations as being more or less worthy of esteem and of course purchase. I remember how my father and uncle would strive to acquire the most definitive interpretations of certain piano works. All of this is a million miles away from the idea of spontaneous music creation. It is much more difficult to offer any authoritative critique of the worthiness of music that just appeared instantly without the hours of careful scholarly study that has become expected!

Perhaps Beethoven’s dual was more like “Vienna’s Got Talent” than the modern idea of a classical concert, but somehow, I seriously doubt that! The dumbing down of classical music to the level of light entertainment seems like a modern phenomenon to me, and a knee-jerk reaction to the ivory tower quality that classical music sadly can appear to have. I imagine that classical music, before the 20th century, was intelligent entertainment for the educated classes and my hope is that it is moving steadily back into that realm once again. If so, I can see no valid reason why classical musicians who have fluent musical skills should not take to the stage and create music spontaneously. The immediacy and excitement of a live improvisation appealed enormously to Beethoven’s, Bach’s, Mozart’s and Chopin’s audiences and I think it can hold the same appeal today.


Phil Best is a pianist, composer, teacher and singer based in London. His artist website is https://philbestmusic.com and his teaching website https://playpianofluently.com.

 

At the Piano with Dr Mark Polishook

What is your first memory of the piano?

My piano journey began more or less when I was 3 or 4 years old. Movers brought a 1932 5’3” Chickering baby grand to our house. It was a gift from my grandparents.

That piano eventually travelled with me from one coast to another in America, which is where I’m from. It came with me when I arrived in the UK 4 years ago.

Last summer I acquired a new Steingraeber Phoenix 205. It’s an amazing instrument. I looked at a lot of pianos in the UK and America  before I selected it. Some of them were very good but none of them had the special, personal “this is the one – this one is it” kind of feeling I was looking for. When I finally met the 205 at Hurstwood Farm Pianos in Surrey it did seem like the one. It’s definitely reaffirmed that to me since arriving in my house.

There are more than a few fascinating lessons I learned looking for a piano which I’ve written up on my blog. Meanwhile, the Chickering has moved to my neighbour’s house for new and more family adventures.

Who was your first teacher and what do you recall about your early days of learning about the piano?

My first teacher was a very nice woman in our town in New Jersey. But after not all that long I mostly taught myself. I wasn’t systematic or organised in what I learned. It was mostly the Chickering was in the house and I’d play by ear.

From the beginning I had an affinity for jazz. I don’t know why or from where or how because I remember hearing Liberace and Victor Borge but not jazz. I also recall trying to pick out bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ after hearing a recording of it. But picking out tiny bits of the ‘Rite of Spring’ was about all I could do.

Do you remember what you liked to play?

The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ was the book that had my interest. When I played the pieces in it with the right spin they sounded like boogie and blues. But I hadn’t yet heard real boogie boogie such as Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson used to play. And I didn’t know about New-Orleans-style piano playing even though ‘The Joy of Boogie and Blues’ had pieces in that genre. And of course I didn’t know of the great jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

My parents and neighbours used to say I had a “nice touch” when I played boogie-woogie-type things. That phrase resonated with me. I could feel what it meant in my hands. And I could hear how that feeling translated into sound.

Who or what inspired you to start teaching?

While working towards a PhD in composition at the University of Pittsburgh I taught courses in basic theory and musicianship, jazz history, class piano, and a seminar on Mozart. Teaching was part of what PhdD students did while working towards the degree. So that’s where I began with students and learning about teaching and how to do it – and finding that I really liked it.

Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?

The important teacher who fastened my wheels to the track was Floyd “Floogie” Williams. I met Floyd in the second semester of my first year at university which was mid-1970s. He had recently moved to the area from New York City where he had been a drummer and a percussionist in jazz and studio worlds.

Learning with Floyd was immersion all things musical. I couldn’t possibly have had a better teacher. He had experience in the world I wanted to enter. Essentially he put one on the path towards that world.

Lessons with Floyd always included stories and more stories, all them colourful, about how this or that musician practiced and learned. And there was always an important point that came out of it all. With the piano Floyd boiled it down to one essential: Practice and practice some more.

What he meant was put in time and effort. Serious time and effort – as a method it was brute-force “put-your-back-into-it.” I spent virtually every hour of the day playing Bach, and Chopin, Beethoven, and Oscar Peterson piano transcriptions or picking excerpts out of the Dover editions of scores.

Another big lesson from Floyd was to the importance of being around great pianists – to see and hear firsthand how the did what they did. So Floyd arranged for me to visit to New York City to meet John Lewis, who had who played with Charlie Parker and later formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. A few months later Floyd sent me to New York City again. This time for lessons with Jaki Byard.

Jaki is among the great pianists and teachers in jazz. He played like a one-man jazz repertory orchestra, always with allusions to different pianists and styles, all of which he juxtaposed with wit and great humour.

So for example Jaki’s left hand might play in a stride piano style. But his right hand would play over it in very free bebop style – and perhaps in a different key. But the thing was, no matter what Jaki played he sounded uniquely like Jaki and never like he imitating something. Jaki was postmodern long before postmodernism was a style.

Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?

At New England Conservatory I continued studying with Jaki and then I switched over to William Thomas McKinley who’s a composer and a jazz pianist. Whereas Jaki’s approach to the piano was based on play, play, and play Tom’s way – because  he was a composer – was write, write, write. So I wrote excerpts and examples – I filled notebook after notebook – of what I wanted to improvise.

I also took lessons outside of NEC from Charlie Banacos who had his own fascinating teaching niche. Charlie was a great jazz pianist but he gave up performing to focus exclusively on teaching. And he was well-known as a teacher – as perhaps “the teacher. All his students first went through his two-year waiting list before lessons began. Many of Charlie’s students went on to play with fabulous jazz musicians. And Miles Davis said he wanted to study with Charlie!

Most of what Charlie taught was simple in concept – for example transcribe a McCoy Tyner solo. But to do that required a lot of focused work with a tape recorder. Once the solo was transcribed, the next step was to play it at speed.

With Charlie simplicity of concept definitely wasn’t the same as ease of execution. Some  of the “simple stuff” Charlie showed me a long time ago is still among what I practice now.

The big picture I synthesised from all of that which is right at the centre of how I teach is “Experiment: cast the net freely and widely.” In other words explore, explore, explore – as Robert Frost said very well:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I moved to New York City in the early 1980s after New England Conservatory and Boston. New York was exhilarating because it was populated to beyond bursting with fabulously-skilled musicians. If there’s a genre or a style of music anywhere in the world someone in New York is exploring and playing it at some unbelievably high level. Probably along with an entire community of equally-skilled practitioners.

After several years of freelancing there and all sorts of gigs I completed a Masters’ degree in Jazz Piano at the Manhattan School of Music. One of the classes I took there was an introduction to composition. The solo piano piece I wrote for it – along with Tom McKinley’s prescriptions to write, write, write – launched me on to composing.

So I went from the Manhattan School of Music to the University of Pittsburgh for PhD studies in composition and theory. But at the time – mid-1980s – composition there was focused narrowly on serialism through the lens and teaching of Milton Babbitt. Which wasn’t uncommon at that time. But it wasn’t the direction the interested me so I moved on to the Hartt School of Music where there was more plurality of approach and style. That’s where I completed the doctorate.

Beginning in the 1990s I taught composition, music technology, and jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta. From there I went to Central Washington University where I directed the music composition and theory programs. During that period I had short and long-term residencies in the United States and Europe – at the Crakow Academy of Music, STEIM in Amsterdam, the Banff Centre in Canada, and the University of California Santa Barbara, among others. And I was always playing jazz.

How do you teach?

Everyone comes to the piano and improvisation with their own interests, strengths, and abilities. So how I teach depends on the interests and experiences my students bring with them. It’s very much based on what they want to learn.

I’d say what I do as a teacher is help students acquire a musical voice. That means on the one hand exploring what, why, and how we do music- and piano-related things. And being creative with whatever comes back from those questions. On the other hand it’s about building as much technique as we can to support creativity. Creativity and technique are the two sides on the same coin.

Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?

I’m keen on teaching improvisation through Skype to students around the world. What’s amazing to me about Skype is it works without getting in the way. So looking into my studio from a distance literally means looking through Skype.

For me, there’s magic and the miraculous in working with students who literally are all around the world. Because with Skype connections to distant places don’t feel distant.

From time to time I’ll think “Well we’re working together in realtime but there’s a 12-hour time difference between us.” Which to me is mind boggling. I’ve had some improvised, interesting two-piano duets with students on Skype.

I’d say what Skype brings out is it’s the creativity and enthusiasm we bring to the learning process that counts. Which is the same for everyone really – without or with Skype. Creativity and enthusiasm are essential.

The biggest challenge with Skype has been managing clock shifts and timezones around the world. So, for example, I’ve since learned some countries – Iran is one and I have a fantastic student there – set their clocks to the half-hour rather than to the hour.

What do you expect from your students?

The first thing I teach is relaxation helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music.

But after that expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can reduce “it-has-to-be-this” to as few instances as possible we’re that much closer to relaxation where music and everything can seem easy. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.

A different example of a removable expectation is the idea that knowledge of theory – scales and chords  – precedes meaningful improvisation. The reality is thinking about theory when improvising is about as helpful as applying theory to playing anything.

Of course later or sooner theory is among the great extra stuff that broadens and deepens how we play. But as a prerequisite to improvisation – and particularly for students who come to improvisation with technique already – it’s not the start point.

What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?

I’m mostly interested in the quality of experience of the individual – instead of the quantity of quality competition judges have to quantify. The thing is, quality of experience doesn’t depend on prescribed skill levels. A different way to say that is I’m focused on processes of music-making – because experience is process.

On the other hand I competed in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition which is the huge international one of the jazz world. I was a finalist in the the Great American Jazz Piano Competition. My Robots-in-Residence installation which I built in Denmark was a prize-winner in a competition in France. I learned a lot by being in those events and I’m glad I had those experiences.

And many pianists know competitions and such to be exactly what they want to enter into. In that case of course I’m happy to assist and support. But to the question of “are competitions and such things fundamentally part of learning to play an instrument?” my opinion is, no, they’re not.

What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?

Being in the moment with the music we’re making. Focusing on right now. To do that we have to relax. Which isn’t a question of “Are we relaxed? Yes or no?” It’s that relaxation is a continuum. Which means we can always bring it to deeper and deeper levels.

Also important is listening to the sound that comes from the piano. Listening to how the piano resonates. How it projects. One way forward with this  play and listen to single, sustained notes – long tones at the piano.

It’s like magic but ears and mind usually then go right to the moment – because they’re listening to the attack, sustain, and decay of each note and then each note after that.

How do you approach the issue of performance anxiety/tension?

We all deal with it in one way or another. I wish I knew how to banish it once and forever. But the reality probably is that’s just part of music making and not really all that unusual.

My approach is to work with it in small increments – instead of looking to conquer or suppress it once and for all. Small increments could mean learning to use specific relaxation techniques of which breathing is one of them.

Breathing meaning focusing on and recognising the importance of breath while we’re at the piano. And of course listening to the sound of the piano. Focusing on sound as it floats out of the piano. The more we focus on breath and sound the more we go to those worlds and then on to relaxation and the moment of “right now.”

Differentiating between “practice” and “performance” mode can be helpful. Practice mode is about working out details and looking to improve “this thing” or “that thing” or both things or all things. It’s intentionally focused to things such as “play these notes” or “perform that passage softly.”

Performance mode on the other hand doesn’t require analytic thinking. It doesn’t require that we try to do something better today than yesterday. It’s sitting down at the piano and being in the moment: Comfortable, and relaxed with the music we make, the sound we hear, the ability we have. Then “letting” everything flow together into a performance. Instead of “making” it flow together into the performance.

Are there any books you’d recommend to pianists or musicians or anyone interested in improvising?

The book for the desert island, assuming the piano’s already been delivered, is The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music by W.A. Mathieu. It has listening exercises and philosophy for everyone at every level of ability and experience.

How can we contact you?

My Mark Polishook Studio website is a blog about improvising, jazz, and all things of interest to pianists. My email address is mark@polishookstudio.com.

Dr. Mark Polishook, a pianist, composer, and music technologist, teaches improvisation in his studio in Leicester and on the internet through Skype. Among his compositions is Seed of Sarah, an electronic chamber opera that was made into a film seen across North America, Europe, and Australia. As a jazz pianist Dr. Polishook has performed with many eminent artists. 

To the experimental side of sound art Dr. Polishook has worked with graphics tablets, robots, and open-source software. His Robots-in-Residence installation which he created in Denmark was a prize winner in the 2004 International Bourges Electro-acoustic Music Competition in France. 

Dr. Polishook directed the music composition and theory programs at Central Washington University. He’s been a professor of jazz piano at the University of Maine at Augusta and a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Crakow Academy of Music in Poland. Dr. Polishook has been a resident artist in the Aarhus Computer Science Department, at STEIM in Amsterdam and at CREATE at the University of California Santa Barbara. 

He has a DMA in Music Composition from the Hartt School of Music, a masters’ degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and the Manhattan School of Music. His undergraduate degree is from the New England Conservatory of Music.

Guest post: You Can Teach Jazz

by Elena Cobb 

I am very grateful to all who took part in the lively discussions on the Facebook piano teachers forums, made suggestions and offered their opinions on this highly interesting and often controversial topic. Special thank you to Snake Davis (UK), Kay Alexander (Canada), Elissa Milne (Australia), Rami Bar-Niv (Israel), Tom Lydon, the editor of the Music Teacher magazine UK and Paddy Warren.

Over a hundred years ago musical pioneers created a phenomenally popular musical style – jazz! Exciting, rhythmic, harmonious, colourful, toe-tapping and ear-catching, jazz had it all – and people loved it! It was a massive shaking up of the musical world. And, as well, it had something new; something that classical music had never had – it had a swing!

However, this new creation had come from the poor and disinherited in the world; people who had lost much in their lives and had little; people who understood loss, disinheritance, loneliness, isolation – and for many, the associations of these people who had nothing and had lost an enormous amount (even, in the case of slaves, their freedom) meant that the normal music-loving populace could not give the new musical invention its due. Improvisation was not willingly added to the classical musical scene and it is not an element that exists in our current musical exams.  But – why not? Besides watching how excited pupils become playing jazz tunes and how fast they learn to play them, would it be a stretch too far to say they would also be happy to include improvisation in their musical learning?

Judging by the number of children entering the classical exams each year, it’s clear that children can be interested in whatever kind of music their teachers recommend. But, however malleable the pupils might be, teachers tend to believe that you need to be a specialist to teach jazz. They think that children who are eager to focus on it, need to learn sophisticated bass lines and intentional dissonances under the watchful eye of an expert and it isn’t considered to be something that an untutored teacher can offer – disappointing news for the average child.

Of course, classically trained teachers do have the advantage that they can tell pupils how to play each piece appropriately for the chosen composition style to make sure no marks are lost, and this works well for how current exams are structured, but what about the one, very important element of jazz which is different from the elements of classical music – improvisation?

Improvisation is believed to be a spontaneous moment of sudden inventiveness and, in reality, it has been around for as long as music exists. Great composers and performers of all classical styles were very good at improvising. But, somehow, it didn’t make it into the books we use today and it seems that only jazz musicians carry on the tradition.

Here is a quote by Snake Davis who is a great authority on all things jazz: “I’m an improvising musician. Yes I read, yes I learn parts by ear and repeat them, but I am most happy when I “shut my eyes and blow”. But improvising can be very frightening. Nowhere to hide, no safety net, very exposed, like going on stage naked. So it needs to be handled with care, taught with passion and sensitivity. I love teaching it, de-mystifying it, I call it “making stuff up” rather than “improvising”. Should classical students be encouraged to improvise? YES! because it will make them braver, more free, more confident players. Should classical teachers teach improvisation and jazz? Yes, but ONLY if they themselves are confident and proficient improvisers.”

Not wanting my pupils to miss out on such an important musical experience I felt that as a modern classically trained teacher, I should be able to cross boundaries to provide a balanced education to my pupils. So I wrote and published ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ for young pianists, which, unlike normal jazzy piano books (which don’t have improvisation sections), includes elements for young pianists who have plenty of enthusiasm for improvisation.

The main benefits I have found that jazz improvisation brings to classically trained children include:

  • an increase in confidence and self-esteem
  • a more positive attitude to home practice
  • improved sight reading and eye-hand coordination
  • improvements in the ability to maintain the beat and think on the go
  • greater creativity in the lesson with increased development in independent thinking
  • a sense of achievement for something that is considered difficult by others
  • and last (but not least) let’s not forget the ‘cool factor’ – with lots and lots of fun!

If you’re a classically trained teacher and you find yourself confused as to whether to introduce improvisation to your pupils or not, you could find the following improvisation exercises very useful as a start. There are both rhythm and notation exercises and you could practice them with your pupils from memory or by looking at the sheets associated in this magazine with this article.  Hopefully, you’ll find the exercises logical and easy to remember – and it will be fun for both you and your pupils.

1  Rhythm exercises

Tip – Count aloud  

Remembering that every crotchet consists of two quavers and we are getting ready to ‘swing’ them, tap the rhythm on your thighs and count aloud one and, two and, three and, four and.  Get your pupil to start slowly and repeat each exercise until they are ready to move on to playing. Note that the left hand always taps crotchets.

EC pic

2  Notation exercises

Tip – Know your notes and fingers  

The blues scale is very special and if you play the notes from it you create a ‘blues sound’. The exercises below are based on the blues scale on C and for your pupils to play them effectively, make sure they find the notes on the keyboard first and then stick to the fingering for the right hand of:

– 1st finger for C

– 2nd finger for Eb

– 3rd finger for F

– 4th finger for F#.

Transpose the exercises into any key and let your pupils use them for different pieces or just for enjoyable practice.

3 Putting it together

Tip – Count the bars  

Take a look at the sheets with the article and you’ll see that there is colour in the bass clef notes. C is in the usual black ink, but F is green and G is red. Make sure your pupils memorise this colour usage and when they’re playing, make sure they count the bars (as below).

(4 x C) + (2 x F) + (2 x C) + (1 x F) + (1 x G) (1 x C) + (1 x G) = 12 bar blues

‘Super Duck’, one of the tunes in the ‘Higgledy Piggledy Jazz’ book, is a twelve bar blues and we can use that tune to start off with. It would be most suitable for a pupil already working on Grade 1 (and above) classical piano. From bar 15 you’ll notice that your pupil has the chance to play what they’d like with their right hands – they can play it as it is or they can use that space to improvise and make it into a solo.

Get your pupil to start practising by playing the entire solo, repeating one bar from the notation exercise in the right hand. When they’re feeling confident, tell them to try mixing the notation exercises up. When they’re feeling very confident and ready to go – let them use their own ideas. Tell them to remember that they are improvising and what they thought was a mistake could well be a real gem of a find! And finally, like a pro, get them to create a fantastic ending by adding pedal to the last chord and playing it on tremolo.

Certainly, jazz improvisation can be a little tricky initially and not everything will come easily. But it will be invigorating and rewarding to watch your pupils turn dreams into reality.

Download the Exercises (PDF file)

Elena Cobb is a classically trained and highly experienced pianist, teacher and composer and she believes that ’the child who is stuck in front of the music is an unhappy child’. She composed jazzy, child-orientated tunes for her piano pupils to increase their pleasure and inspire them to practise at home – and they loved them! Able to understand the issues for both child and teacher, she has created an approach which is developing children’s eye-hand co-ordination and muscular memory, eventually enabling those tasks to become easy and carried out without conscious effort.

Elena believes that general process of thinking can be improved by adding jazz and blues to the traditional repertoire.  She will be presenting improvisation workshop for classically trained teachers at the MusicExpo 2014 in London’s Barbican Centre. http://www.musiceducationexpo.co.uk/seminar/improvising-for-the-classically-trained-pianist/

Elena’s books from the Higgledy Piggledy Jazz series for the piano with CD, alto sax with CD, classical guitar ensemble and ‘Blue River’ for aspiring pianists are popular with teachers and pupils in the UK, Canada, USA, Australia, Europe and Hong Kong. For more visit www.elenacobb.com.