October 2009

Rethinking Improvisation

October 19, 2009 18:01

 I think that improvisation is often overlooked these days by classical musicians.  Classical music is, in many ways, very safe.  Everything is already figured out for you.  Notes, dynamics, key changes, even fingerings are already written down.  As musicians, all we really have to do is get the coordination to play it and maybe add a little of our own artistic interpretation.  Easy right?

Maybe not.  But with so much initial information presented to us before we even attempt to play, the chances of playing a piece "wrong" the first few times is much higher than playing it "right."  This is not an entirely bad thing.  It instills in us a drive for perfection.  To work hard until the desired result is achieved.

But this sense of achieving perfection must be balanced out.  We've all hit ruts at some point when learning one song or another.  Even when the teacher is encouraging, we still think on some level "I didn't play that piece correctly because I messed up some of the notes."  Therefore, it is important to occasionally put ourselves in an environment where every note you play is the right note.

The seemingly open-ended vagueness of improvisation scares those of us used to the strict, comforting structure of pre-written compositions.  It means that there is potentially more for others to judge.  Not only can others judge how you play but also what you play.

But experimenting with this level of creative expression can only help your playing.  It teaches things like how to key change without the help of a visual aid or how to play difficult fingerings on the spot.  And it doesn't have to be an excruciatingly painful process either.  Designate your own boundaries.  A really simple way of doing this is improvising only with one note at a time.  So play whatever rhythm you want with A.  Experiment with different A notes all over your instrument.  There are no wrong rhythms and you already know exactly which note to play.

 

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Teaching En Masse?

October 12, 2009 22:13

I would like to explore the stereotypical school music setting.  From what I understand from talking to friends who teach in this type of environment, students are assigned or pick out an instrument to play in orchestra or band.  The teacher then covers basic, basic technique for each instrument. Students are then highly encouraged, but not always required, to seek instruction from a private teacher outside of school.

Does this work?  Granted, I do not have a ton of experience teaching orchestra in the school setting.  But when I did, it kind of felt at times like I was babysitting with instruments.  To me, this seems like a really frustrating learning experience for everyone involved.  The teacher can't possibly give everyone the individual attention they need.  The students are drowning in a sea of new material. And then the parents get frustrated when they think their kid is being ignored in class.

I kind of have to wonder that if this is the face of music in schools, would children be better off without it?  I would almost rather kids be completely ignorant of the subject then go through life swearing off music because they had a bad experience trying to learn the trumpet for orchestra in grade school.

But I'm on a soapbox now.  I really don't want to be too overly critical.  And I have actually witnessed the results of a good school orchestra program.  What I want to do is try and spark objective discussion on whether or not teaching music "en masse" actually works and/or is a worthwhile endeavor.  Is it better to have a frustrating music experience than none at all?  What does it take to achieve a thriving orchestra or band program?  In general, would you say there are more good programs out there or bad?  Is it possible to create a successful school orchestra when none of the students take private lessons?

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Musical Talent: Nature vs. Nurture

October 5, 2009 17:33

 For the most part, I don't believe in a "musical gene."  I will concede that there is such a thing as a musical genius.  But these people, regardless of the field they crop up in, are more the exception rather than the rule.

A child growing up in a musical family will have a distinct head start in a musical career over children who come from a non-musical family.  I think that examples of this that are seen in history are largely responsible for this notion of a "musical gene."  "Of course Bach was a musical genius.  He inherited all those good musical genes from his father."  Bach's father and all of his uncles were professional musicians.  He was encouraged from a very early age to explore music.  Bach's musical accomplishments were loudly applauded by his entire family rather than discouraged and frowned upon.  How could the young Bach fail to have, at the very least, an interest in music with this kind of environment?

What is sad for me to see is students that are denied a musical education due to their performance on some kind of "musical talent test."  These tests determine a very finite set of skills that are purely the result of previous exposure to music, nothing more.  The skills necessary to be a professional performer are very different from the skills of a music teacher or instrument maker. So long as there is interest and determination, skill can be developed.

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