Tuesday, May 21, 2013

In Praise of Improvisation

In her book The Anatomy of Melody, Alice Parker writes:

Think of the difference between a singer who works by ear and one whose allegiance is to the page.  The first is born musical; the other must learn to hear pitches, to tune and count and pronounce and even to breathe.  The two make very different mistakes—but the intuitive singer inhabits the world of sound, and very few page-students do.  In fact, the latter have so many intellectual barriers erected that it can take years of study to break them.

In college, I was taught the basics of Western music history, Western music theory, and Western music performance. What was not taught, that I can recall, was music as art and communication, or music as something in which the performer is seen as co-creator of the music. The unstated message is two-fold: first, that Western music is somehow more important than other music; second, that music is something to be intellectualized and analyzed. What results is the curious musical landscape in Western society today. We now live in what Parker calls a “post-melodic world,” characterized by rap, the unrelenting torrent of three- and four-chord songs, a preoccupation with harmony, and a bias toward pre-composed music.  Parker continues:

What is Ella Fitzgerald’s responsibility to a page of Gershwin? Let’s assume that she first heard the song in someone else’s interpretation.  She might at first imitate that or adapt it, or even go back and see what he actually wrote.  But there is NO responsibility to sing exactly what is on the page.  Why?  Because this is a living language—the idiom is spoken now—so that-which-cannot-be-notated is intuitively supplied.  The beat will swing, the words are to be played with, the specific rhythms may be widely varied.  In fact, she will never sing it as written […].

In other words, our culture’s deification of the page produces some strange results.  When slavish accuracy is taught and valued over musicality, something is wrong.  The eye has triumphed over the ear, and the promise of the sound cannot be fulfilled.

Improvisation is something I’ve spent my life learning, though I was never taught it.  Before I had any piano lessons, I’d put a record on the record player and try to play along with the melody of the songs as they came up. After several years of lessons and a basic music theory knowledge, when I came across music with only a melody and chords, I would play the melody in my right hand and the root of the chords in my left, usually in octaves. As I got more adept at reading the chord changes, I would alternate between octaves and fifths in the left hand to make my life easier. As I learned more about chord symbols and had a working repertoire of simple left hand accompaniment patterns, I filled in the other harmonies and added more rhythmic interest.  And as I learned the characteristic harmonies and rhythms of different musical styles, I would incorporate those stylistic elements into my playing. As I got more proficient, I would sometimes make a game out of pure improvisation: I’d sit down at the piano and force myself to make things up, to simply play whatever melodies and chord progressions my hands would gravitate to.  Then I’d try to add modulations and meter changes.  I’d play for as long as I could until my creative juices dried up.

What does this mean for my musicianship? It helps me listen much more closely to harmonies and their progression, and I’ve developed an unfortunate (fortunate?) bit of snobbery toward music that I find to be melodically and harmonically uninteresting (which winds up being a LOT of pop/rock music these days…). It helps me accompany better; I can leave notes out to make the accompaniment more playable, and I can embellish chord progressions or rhythms that are bland or a-stylistic. It helps me discern between congregational hymns that will work on the organ or that are best played on the piano, and gives me the tools to lead them from the piano more effectively. It has also opened up unique performance opportunities: I occasionally play in a local jazz combo and a local rock band; I play for musicals; and I’m in demand for accompanying and providing dinner and background music for local events.

All of this is not to brag but to illustrate that improvisation—beyond simply ornamentation and cadenzas—deepens the richness of one’s musicianship. It helps to make the difference between music that’s “correct” and music that “sounds good.” But let’s also be clear about another thing: it is no excuse for poor technique, by any means. Improvisation does not baptize bad playing or singing. But it does help to make the musician a co-creator of the music, not merely a performer.  It lets the musician “own” the music, move beyond dullness, develop one’s own style and to, in Parkers words, “inhabit the world of sound.”

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