Improvising by Dr Michael Spacie

It is a huge joy to pick out a tune and harmonise it using an array of keys and chord patterns and playing it in a range of styles and understanding how the music works from the inside out. Playing tunes that people enjoy but in one’s own style, putting an organ twist on each tune showing the versatility of the player with a bit of humour and fun involved is a good test of musicianship and a connection with the music. It is not about playing every note that may possibly be on a page of music, but sometimes adding or subtracting notes to create the effect that the music will have in performance. Improvisations can include changes in register, changes of mode and key, unpredictable modulations, additions of accompaniment patterns, modifying a left hand passage and composing a new right hand, simple to complex variations, clusters, glissandi, chromaticism, cadential progression, unexpected swerves of harmony, rhythmic complexities, scale passages etc.. This leads to a vibrant discovery where the nuts and bolts of music construction becomes a reality without necessarily being preoccupied with exact movements of the fingers, although a general overall ‘map’ of construction is often helpful if not essential.

Improvisation and harmony can be encouraged through eighteenth-century performance practice – the recognised fact that in the eighteenth-century performers were also improvisers and vice versa. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin et al were all keen and skilled improvisers. However, this skill of improvisation in classical music disappeared during the nineteenth-century with the general growth of printed music and printed tutor books for learning an instrument such as the piano.

Improvised creations have to be produced on-the-spot in real time, unlike a composition per se. When improvising, musical knowledge and technique reinforce each other as a unified whole. And in order to improvise satisfactorily, rhythmic precision, knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, a sense of form and structure, an awareness of texture and tonal quality and not least, proficiency on the instrument all have to be in place. The art of improvising demands intensive listening and a working through of material in the mind which can then be transferred to sound – to hear everything you play before you play it – just as music notation should be ideally heard before it is played, along with a skill to imitate a particular style of music whatever that may be, and then aspects and features of musical technique and knowledge do reinforce each other and the end-product is a synthesis of these elements of melody, harmony, rhythmic pulse etc. to form good improvisational skills.

There are no short cuts to developing improvisational skills but they are essential to excellent general musicianship and where there are no technical concerns as they are well mastered, the improviser can really enjoy the shape of the musical line, the harmonies, style, character and mood. Scale passages and broken chords, quirky melodies and various sonorities etc. all play a part when improvising and where, for example, long trills can help to establish a contrapuntally-charged theme or perhaps a stylistic allusion and to provide opportunities for extension and modulation and hance various colours of musical sound. And the production of that sound begins internally with our own inner selves through freedom, coordination, control and a sense of personal achievement.

Music performance is all about taking risks and improvisations can be somewhat vibrant and effective with some freshness and containing verve and poignancy. Arrangements can be a re-composition with interesting deviations of melody, pulse, harmony, rhythm and articulation and also adaptations and additions which may well be basic but effective, or sometimes luscious and more difficult and complex with at times the use of music from more obscure composers.

The real joy of improvisational creation is the lack of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and the ability to play regardless of rules and techniques, although these do of course have to be assimilated in the first instance for a quality on-the-spot own composition. Improvisation essentially enhances and develops advanced musicanship by a connection with the music, transferring something in the head of the musican into sound, character and individual style.

  • Performers and composers of the past were adept at reading music, but they also understood musical patterns and structure and were able to use these to improvise and compose effectively.

Dr Michael Spacie