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Gerald Klickstein

The Art of Spontaneity

July 5, 2012 at 3:57 PM

“At each concert, music is created anew,
according to a performer’s imagination."

The Musician’s Way, p. 112

Whenever we perform, we aim for that “in-the-moment” feeling. We strive to immerse ourselves and our listeners in the emotion of the music.

Yet although we aspire to be freely creative on stage, we also need to be consistently accurate.

How can we unite spontaneous creativity with technical security? Here are 4 ways.

1. Practice Spontaneity
If our goal is to perform with spontaneous emotion, we need to emphasize free expression in the practice room.

Still, because practice involves repetition, staleness can easily creep in.

One way to vaccinate against staleness is to playfully vary any repetition.

For instance, after one clean run of solo passage, upon repeating it, we might tweak our tone and timing. In this way, we open ourselves to impromptu insights.

“Always try to find variety,” urged cellist Pablo Casals; “it is the secret of music.” (Casals and the Art of Interpretation, p. 161)

2. Feel Every Phrase
Although heartfelt expression is our goal, in practice, many tasks are head-driven: we analyze problems, test solutions, etc.

The trick is to make the problem-solving process as emotionally vibrant as it is intellectually engaging.

Personally, I bring a living quality to every sound I make, even when I’m unraveling technical snags. In so doing, my technical command serves my expressive notions.

Then, on stage, my practice habits empower me to give myself over to the music.

3. Embrace Possibility
A mind that’s open to expressive possibilities will find creative potential in any music.

For that reason, I ceaselessly look for new ways to shape the music I play. I never stop exploring, so I discover freshness everywhere.

In The Art of Possibility, the authors write that when we forsake this open mindset, we constrict into a sense of scarcity – we stop seeing options and opportunities.

But when we embrace possibility, there’s no limit to what we might come up with.

4. Savor the Moment
Music exists in time - it unfolds in the present and then contracts into the past.

When we savor the temporality of our art, we stop trying to over-control the future and, instead, celebrate each moment, whatever it brings.

This savoring quality is especially crucial when we practice or perform repertoire that we’ve known for ages.

Singer Tony Bennett encapsulated this concept in a 2005 interview. Speaking of his signature song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, he said, “That song made me a world citizen. And when I do it, it always feels like the first time.”

See Parts I & II of The Musician’s Way for diverse ways to infuse your music making with spontaneity and insight.

A version of this article first appeared on The Musician's Way Blog.

© 2012 Gerald Klickstein


From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 5, 2012 at 4:34 PM
Yes! Yes! Bravo! If the purpose of our art is to express something, then we must practice expressing something. And every time we do so, we enrich our musical expression and add new layers to it. Too many of us get bogged down in technical perfection and accuracy. Just reading the discussions on this forum, it is often distressing to see how much of it revolves around technique, holding the instrument, practicing for intonation -- all very important to be sure -- but how little of the discussion is about practicing to develop artistry. And the key word is "develop".
From Gerald Klickstein
Posted on July 5, 2012 at 7:07 PM
Point well taken, Roy. Thanks for contributing!
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on July 6, 2012 at 11:40 AM
One group of musicians who are well acquainted with spontaneity in their playing are folk musicians, especially those in the Irish and English folk genres. Although most of that music is now in print it is still part of an aural tradition, which I experience myself, learning most tunes 'live' in pub sessions. This is helped by the custom of playing a tune through 3 times in succession (sometimes more), an experienced player make little changes each time.

Last week I recorded at a pub session of English folk music, with a view to later transcription, a tune played by one of my colleagues, whom I'll call 'Chris'. Chris does not read music but has been playing folk music most of his long life. The tune he played was one he had composed himself and had been playing at sessions and festivals for a number of years. It had never been written down, so this was my chance (with his permission, of course). Chris played it through 3 times on his diatonic 2-row button accordion, making little variations each time in rhythm, ornaments and accentuation (you can't do much more on a button accordion), so I had to make a decision which of the 3 'versions' to transcribe. I ended up using bits from each, which is a valid approach in the tradition because the next time that tune is played it will be subtly different yet again.

Speaking about my own approach to spontaneity, I find that when I am practicing the two Paganini Centone sonatas I'm currently working on I naturally insert little ornaments or the like here and there. It works with Paganini (but probably not with Brahms!) and is encouraged by my teacher. The only thing is, I must hold myself in rein when playing in orchestra ;)

I think the broader scope of improvisation should be an integral part of any musician's training. In these modern times improvisation seems to be the preserve of jazz musicians, church organists, and theater actors (for when they forget their lines!).

From Adrian Demian
Posted on July 6, 2012 at 1:25 PM
I have found that memorizing the music liberates the imagination. Our mind is thus forced to see the larger picture and it starts establishing connections between remote segments of the music. Like actors on stage who would not dream of reading their parts in front of the audience, memorizing takes us behind the surface of the piece and puts us where we can start really understanding our part and, when playing with partners, playing within an ensemble, playing with and on what our partner(s) bring to the music.
I also think we should try playing WITH the music. We can start from something as simple as turning the phrasing we decided on upside down. So many times an ascending passage played with a diminuendo instead of the "customary" crescendo can be much more expressive; so many times, an accelerando can successfully replace a ritenuto or a wooden steady pulse.
Finally, in an age when so many recordings are available to us, listening to different and widely varied interpretations can be a starting point, especially for those unsure of their judgment, those still relying exclusively on the interpretation given to them by their teacher. Playing solo Bach for example, we can listen to anything from the Baroque playing of Rachel Podger or Amandine Beyer, to the "hybrid" Mullova recording, to the "old masters" such as Enescu or Joachim, and all the way to Kremer or Hillary Hahn to list just a mere few of the choices we have. Listening with an open, non judgmental ear can reveal to anybody a universe to endless possibilities.
From Gerald Klickstein
Posted on July 8, 2012 at 3:28 PM
Trevor and Adrian - Thanks for sharing such helpful comments. Your insights strike me as right on target.

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