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Thread August 16, 2014 editorial: comments

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  • 7 participants
1 August 16, 2014 editorial: comments

Doing it Your Way

Sometimes I feel bad for classical musicians. Sure, they practice like crazy, and most have amazing chops and can read like machines, but take the written music away and ask them to improvise, and a large percentage of them will be totally lost.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to listen to classical, and I admire the brilliance it takes to compose and arrange for an entire orchestra or to play the ridiculously hard parts in some of the repertoire. But for me, music is all about self expression and creativity, not just learning how to play the same thing that everyone else does. 

When I’m playing in a band and we’re learning a cover song, I’m not the kind of musician who plays the part off the record note for note. I like to inject my own ideas into it. Of course, if there are iconic riffs or certain parts that everyone is expecting to hear, I’m fine with learning and playing those, but otherwise, I’d rather just go with what feels right.

I do think it’s useful, from an educational standpoint, to learn the parts of great players. It helps you to understand their techniques, and tends to widen your musical vistas. But on a gig, unless you’re in a clone band where you’re expected to play everything note for note, why be shackled to copying somebody else’s exact part? Where’s the originality in that?

Do you agree? Let me know your thoughts.

Have a great week.

Mike Levine 

U.S. Editor, Audiofanzine

I don't disagree with a lot of what you said, but I disagree with the premise. Why do you think classical musicians can't improvise? All that theory has tremendous improvisation advantages. Heck, if you can identify the scale, you're 80% there. And if these guys know anything, its scales.
Hey fellow musicians,
I have had many students in the English classroom and in the piano classes lament the same issue : why can't i just be myself or add my own feeling to the music ,why can't I play this part piano instead of forte or can I do it this way instead of that and many similar questions. The way I respond to this is all people want to express themselves so write music or write poetry if you'd like. You can even do a variant on a famous piece if you have a good idea to add (playing for yourself is not the same as representing the musical documents of Bach on the concert stage)-but if you are going to read the masterworks of civilisation :Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Edgar A.Poe ,Robert Frost ,Rita Dove or Sylvia Plath or if you are going to play Scarlatti ,Beethoven, Chopin ,Skryabin or William Bolcolm your obligation is first to express as well as you can what they have left us. If you think about it most of us can make stuff ;but even when we get great training as is common in universities and conservatories few of us can be (Chaucer or even Stephen King) as brilliant, imaginative and find solutions as effectively as the creators Western civilization esteems .Tens of thousands of composers graduate every year few of them become Ligeti's or ever win Pulitzer or Grawemeyer prizes in composition or creative writing. If you're not a Bach you can't make the Brandenburgs any better by adding -you are only taking away.
The other issue I hear from non-classical musicians all the time is the respect for "chops" or technique. The better you play the more you can express. Simple as that. When you go to a recital try to hear the music , the musical sentence and paragraph not how many notes are played in a beat :virtuosity is a very limited thing and does not make anything memorable .What we all want is honest,communicative, sharing creativity ! Facility means nothing without heart and judgement. Whether it is writing a short story, painting a picture, designing a building or a symphony you must have control of the tools first. There are many beautiful ideas which are easy to play but the best musician has the technique, training and hopefully enough knowledge about aesthetics and art in general as well as philosophy if he endeavors to be a complete artist to make something vital and alive. everyone plays Fur Elise but listen to Ivo Pogorelich play it and it becomes a MESSAGE a Signal from another world. Most classical and jazz musicians with degrees can improvise -because they have a great fund of models in the ir experience to select from as well as harmony and theory classes that allow them to move easily from sequence, motive ,pattern ,key to another. So ,I don't agree with you there. Improvisation is often not given much time in the universities so a lot of people don't do it brilliantly but I have heard 6 year olds at auditions asked to describe the sun coming up in the morning and with very little training because they had spirit and imagination they have given beautiful accounts. So strive to be the best you can be practice clean even scales and arpeggi and you will have more freedom to play the simplest music more beautifully. What I have said here really applies to any undertaking in life. You wouldn't want or hire a doctor ,architect or plumber who didn't have the required professionalism . So practice diligently,intelligently and mindfully so you can explore all the beautiful art great minds have left us as well as give it to others.
Improvisation is no problem for Indian Classical Musicians.
Of course it is pre practised improvisation but with special rules.
If western classical musicians were left to improvise it would be chaos and that is why the composer is separate from the performer. The complete opposite of the Indian Classical scene!
Hi everybody, from my experience, you have to be able to improvise for many reasons. Of course i practice scales arpeggios modes etc, with a metronome. But when it comes to a live situation all that goes out the window for me anyway. I can downpick comfortably at 170 bpm, but sometimes a drummer gets excited and counts in at about 200 bpm for the same song, so improvisation is required. Or if you break a string at the start of the solo for freebird.. again improvisation. Of course practice helps for these situations. I really respect all the comments up here on this topic., but for me improvised gigs are always the best. To much shredding and jazz chords alienate an audience. An audience needs to relate to the music,to feel like they have an input, and I think the better musicians know how to accommodate that. This doesn't mean that all technical aspects are forgotten about, but in my experience, when an audience appreciates a player, the player feels free to express him or herself a whole lot better, because they are more relaxed. they remember to breath and can relax their muscles and are able to absorb the energy around them easily. I have played at plenty "wakes" here in Ireland - where a couple of dozen family members and friends, gather around the fireside to chat and sing. It`s a very delicate matter believe me. Somebody will start with a line of a song, everybody shuts up and allows the person to sing, to express their feelings through song. So if i`m holding an acoustic guitar, I have to figure out the key and come in softly behind them, to enhance what THEY are doing sympathetically. Beleieve me all the scale disciplines in the world cannot prepare you for this. Tempo changes constantly, and dynamics are the only key element. a few dynamic notes and silences for instrumental parts, is all thats needed. Obviously a burst of arpeggios would be highly inappropriate! Please don`t misunderstand, Irish music (jigs reels ) etc can be very complex pieces, I practice those too. But I do not involve myself in the competitive music scene, where I could endeavor to become an "all Ireland" banjo champion of fiddle champion., where musicians are tested throughout their lives for trophys and such.

My feeling is, that the most technical any musician can be, is to understand the frequency and dynamics of another performer, and to play with that "vibration" in the same way harmonics work. Music is only perceived vibration in its purest state. How many times have you been starting a song, and one by one the musicians come in, creating a big sound, only to be ruined by a Hawaii 50 drumroll or shredding guitar run. "but thats what they do on the record" is always the answer.
I'm sure your musicianship is on the level of world class classical musicians Don't confuse lack of technique with creativity.
The wonderful thing about music is that it accommodates not only unbounded creativity but unlimited subtlety.
It's true that the musical fabric of most classical music will unravel if the timing and frequencies of sounds generated by each instrument in the ensemble depart significantly from one another. Nonetheless, even when the notation is adhered to exactly there is still plenty of room for more subtle variation of these parameters. It's called interpretation as opposed to improvisation, but the difference between these two forms of musical freedom is really only a matter of degree.
Consider also that most jazz or jam band improvisation styles employ adherence to a basic chord sequence to protect the musical fabric. Psychedelic styles can be even less structured but at a cost. In my experience if the basic root motion is not formalized it will either default to one-note modal or a muddled mess. It can sound great of course but places a great burden on the listener which can become wearying if continued indefinitely. The best psychedelic ensembles will usually intersperse full bore improvisation with more formal compositions. Or they will have an outside source of form such as a film which is viewed by the performers as they play. In the case of Gamelan and other Indonesian styles, a dancer or dancers may provide a visual form and context which is interpreted by the ensemble.
In short, every style incorporates some degree of restriction and some degree of freedom. To better appreciate classical performances it can be helpful to listen to two or more different interpretations of the same piece. The musical effect can be wildly different even though both performances will be perfectly correct as far as the score is concerned.
Thanks for all the thoughtful responses to my editorial. You all make very valid points. I do get the concept about interpretation being the improvisational aspect of classical music. It's also true, as Amzel Electronics' post so accurately points out, that other musical styles have their own structures that are limiting in their own ways. What's more, there are snobs and strict traditionalists in almost all genres. I didn't mean to make this all about classical music. The main point I was trying to make is that I prefer the freedom to inject my own musicality into something I'm playing, rather than to try to exactly copy what somebody else did.
That's a valid point you make about wanting to inject your own musicality rather than play, not for note, what someone else has composed. The difference, I believe, if I may be so bold-- and without intending to insult you-- is that the classical musician is performing a classic piece of music, whereas you're just dickin' around. (It sounds more insulting than I mean it to, but I'm sure you don't think you can compare your spontaneous musicality to a timeless classic piece of composition. So I hope you know what I mean). They both have a place. But anyone interested in hearing a live performance of a great piece of work must necessarily forego the musicians personal sense of musicality. Otherwise, its just another backyard jam, as it were.
But anyone interested in hearing a live performance of a great piece of work must necessarily forego the musicians personal sense of musicality.

Bingo, you just made my point for me. We’re talking about a very different role for the musician. I prefer a situation where musicians can express themselves in the form of improvisation. And I say that both as a musician and as a music listener. I’d prefer to hear a recording of Charlie Parker or Oscar Peterson or Duane Allman or Jimi Hendrix improvising than of a symphony orchestra playing music that's completely written out. But that’s just me. If you'd rather listen to the orchestra, more power to you.