Recitalists Recite, Musicians Play


The performance of a piece of classical music can resemble the exhibition of a museum piece. Each tiny detail has been worked out in advance and each performance is an exact replica of the last. This is in contrast to other styles of music, in which improvisation is emphasized, and only the most minimal details are worked out in advance. Interestingly enough, most of the “classical” music that we play was written by musicians who did improvise, and who did not often perform the same pieces of music over and over again. In addition, these composers played mostly music that they themselves had written. Somewhere along the line, the demands of simply playing the instrument and approaching the huge and complex repertoire separated those who compose (and improvise) from those who perform. The positive side of this is that virtuosity has been developed to an amazingly high degree, and achieving a moderate level of playing is accessible through focused study. However, without giving attention to the creative element of music-making, we become incapable of saying anything meaningful, in spite of having developed a huge vocabulary.

There is an inherent paradox here, as we are drawn to the repertoire, and it takes a tremendous amount of hard work to be able to play a piece clearly. In addition, the structures of even the simplest piece of classical music are very well defined in the composition: exact pitches and durations, articulation and dynamic markings, phrasing, tempo, etc. It seems as if the composer has given us perfectly exact and detailed instructions as to how to replicate his idea. It is indeed very important to pay attention to these details, and to learn them and execute them. Yet, it is precisely this kind of approach that encourages us to build a “museum piece,” which we will attempt to dust off and display in performance. How is it with this approach that we can make music and be connected to the experience in real time, as it is happening?

Think about the tools we have to invite contrast and change into performance. Tone color (sweet to harsh), dynamics (soft to loud), articulation (short, accented, separated, legato, long, etc), and phrasing (pushing and pulling, tempo choices) are devices that we use individually and in combination to keep the listener interested in what we are playing. These details can, of course, be worked out in exact detail in practice, based on sound decisions and informed musical logic. How boring this is, especially when we can experiment with them during performance! These are the classical musician’s tools for improvisation.

Take a phrase in a piece of music that you are working on, and try to find at least three different ways to play it, each of which is pleasing to you. Use changes in color, dynamic, articulation, and phrasing to find exciting possibilities and new ideas. Set a timer and make yourself improvise for at least a minute. Play anything. Pay attention to how it feels to be “in the moment” and try to bring that connectedness into your playing. In your next lesson or performance, experiment and play.

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