Spontaneity in Music

StephenHoughOver on the Cross-Eyed Pianist’s blog, the wonderful pianist Stephen Hough said something in his interview that has really resonated with me: “study the score intensely then play as if you’re improvising”.

I’ve written previously about improvisation, or spontaneous composition as some like to call it. Despite being primarily associated with jazz, its routes are firmly grounded in classical music. Baroque performances were filled with opportunities for the performers to demonstrate their skills at extemporisation and ornamentation and some of the great classical pianists such as Bach and Chopin were renowned improvisers. Although it is rare in the modern world, there are still classical musicians who improvise regularly, and even those who are not natural improvisers would do well to practice it, as being able to improvise briefly and persuasively may be the only way out of a tight spot in a concert when a sudden memory lapse strikes!

However, classical improvisation has undoubtedly become a rare treat. Twentieth century composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky were publicly scathing of improvisation and interpretation, and required performers to adhere strictly to the exact instructions of the composer as detailed in the score. Compounded by the development and rise of recorded performances over the last few decades, this sentiment has pervaded classical music to the point where minor interpretive differences between near identical performances are now the focus of musical critique.

However, I don’t think improvising per se is quite what Hough had in mind when he made his comment. Rather, he is referring to the need for musicians to bring a spontaneous quality to their playing, in spite of many hours of hard labour spent doing meticulous and precise practice. Classical musician in particular spend an enormous amount of their time learning repertoire to extremely exacting standards – notes, rhythms, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, harmonies, structure, etc. This involves many hours pouring over a score, listening to recordings, and doing highly repetitive practice to get a piece to a state where it might eventually be ready for public consumption. Nonetheless, we value creativity and originality in our performers, and relish live music for the potential novelty it offers. How then do we add a fresh, improvisatory feel to a piece, as if – like many listeners – we are discovering the magic of the music for the first time?

One of the reasons many people play from memory is that it gives the performer more freedom, both physically and mentally. In 1915, Edwin Hughes wrote that “performing with a bundle of notes obstructs absolute freedom of expression and the most direct psychological connection with the audience”. By releasing ourselves from the tyranny of dots on a page, we can truly listen to the music and find new meaning. We can stretch time, emphasise different sounds, and bring familiar music alive with new ideas.

In Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding*, renowned music psychologist Aaron Williamon wrote that “many performers agree with this view… that performing from memory frees them to create and communicate novel musical interpretations, and allows them to cast aside the unnecessary mental crutch and musical security blanket of the printed page”. In an interesting experiment, in which audiences were asked to rate the expressivity and communication of otherwise identical performances with and without the score, Williamon was able to show that “audiences rate the memorised performances higher than non-memorised” one. In the same volume*, Peter Hill writes that “we need to recognise that practice may blunt our creative intelligence” and we must take steps (such as mental study prior to physical practice, espoused by Hill) to “liberate our musicality”.

Nearly 300 years ago, in his Essay on the Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, CPE Bach wrote that we should “play from the soul, not like a trained bird!” This same sentiment still holds true today – although musicians must invest enormous energy in studying the score and playing the notes as the composer intended, they must also strive for a level of creativity in performance that more closely resembles improvisation. If playing from memory can help achieve that lofty aim, surely all musicians should at least give it a try?

* Musical Performance, A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge University Press, 2002)


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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4 Responses to Spontaneity in Music

  1. Hi Caroline. First, thank you for the link to my interview with Stephen Hough. In his programme for Radio 3 The Practice of Practising he talks about the difference between practice and performance: that we need to be uber perfectionist in the practice room, but once on stage we should be “bohemian” and give ourselves permission to let go. This kind of mental approach gives us permission to be slightly less than perfect while being able to produce a performance full of flair, expression, communication and so on….. Easy to say, harder to put into action, especially for younger/less advanced students who seem hell bent on playing without an error, at the expense of expression

  2. Heckety says:

    Now this is very interesting. Since I work with primary aged children in small concerts I am coming from a totally different angle, but for performances I always have them learn their work ‘off by heart’. The last ten days in the run up to a performance (choral mostly) we work without any visual cues except for the conductor, therefore they have to remember everything including performance notes. I have found that in this way they can hold together a performance even when it goes less than well, having the confidence to make mistakes and keep going. They also have confidence in each other, ‘own’ their own contribution, and have developed great musical memory skills. From an audience perspective I am told their performance is always ‘fresh’ but whether that is a compliment or a polite way of saying they leave a lot to be desired, I couldn’t guarantee!
    Certainly I believe that memorisation is a useful, practical skill, and adds a lot to performance.

  3. Great article . thanks for sharing with us .

  4. CW says:

    The one area of classical music in which improvisation is still very much alive is organ playing. Most church organists aspire to be able to improvise and improvisation is widely taught, examined and performed. The St. Albans International Organ Competition includes an improvisation section. French organists, in particular, have a great tradition of improvisation – the organist of Notre Dame Paris, Olivier Latry, recently gave a demonstration of his improvisation skills at the Royal Festival Hall.

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