Improvisation is one of my favorite ways of performing live. And comparing different styles of improvisation gives some interesting insights to the different approaches the various genres of music use.
Baroque and Classical improvisation is based (these days) on a very
strict method of comparing how melody and harmony interact. There are
frighteningly thick books on how to improvise correctly in these styles,
mostly full of examples that look like simple little ornaments (turns,
trills, runs and so on). However where they are placed in the melody and
harmony is critical and very quickly turns into something much more
complex than just adding ornaments. The way I learned was to go through
these books and find examples that supported each and every single note I
added to what the composer had written. Every week I would go to my
lesson with the page covered in pencil scribbles and my teacher would
demand that I support ALL my choices and added notes from one of the
2,000 page books or start over. Then tell me to go add more. Before too
long, what I was playing was so different from the original music that
other people had to ask what piece I was working on even if they were
familiar with it.
Jazz improvisation is also based on leaping off from the melody
and/or the harmony but the style of learning is quite different.
Students are often told to listen to other players' solos and learn them
note by note then try to figure out how those solos relate to the
original music. Then compare different solos on the same music and
different solos by the same performer. The theory is that after learning
enough solos this way, you will begin to be able to create your own in a
In many ways, Classical works from the outside in by studying
exactly where and how to place tiny additions until it builds into
something musical. Jazz comes at it from the inside out, learn musical
solos until you figure out the patterns and rules that are being used
(or broken). One more interesting point is that, back in the day,
Classical music was actually studied in a similar fashion to the Jazz
approach. J. S. Bach famously transcribed other composers music to learn
voice leading. But of course now we have the rules written out, learn
them first and worry about making them sound musical later.
In Middle Eastern music (which I freely admit I am less familiar
with) improvisation has a different spin. Setting aside the fact that
many of the harmonies and scales use micro-tones, there is more of an
assumption that the audience will be somewhat musically educated and the
performer is expected to make them work to follow their improvisation.
This can be interesting when you are familiar with this style but it can
also make it difficult for people who haven’t studied this style to get
into the music. One form of improvisation from the Eastern style that
does intrigue me is to take one note, ornament it more and more then add
another note or two and ornament them together. This creates a nice
build to the music and often combines well with other improvisation
I find that looking at these and other methods of improvising
expands my ability to use them all. I enjoy the way the different styles
expand on each other and how they change my view of the musical world
they are creating. I may not master every single style I study but I
always take new ideas away from them and every new idea changes how I
use the styles I am already familiar with and sometimes allows me to use
an idea I had trouble understanding before.
February 1, 2012
Posted by Gwyneth Whistlewood the Feral Flute
What happens when a Classically trained flute player runs off to write music in the woods and improvise music at Renaissance Festivals? She's gone Feral, that's what! Flutes, whistles and all things that turn air into art.