If you’re like me, you’ve spent most of your time at the piano playing the music of other people. And, with endless music penned by geniuses the likes of Mozart or Chopin, we need all the time we can just to put our hands on a small fraction of the great music composed over the centuries.
This commitment to performing great works of the past on the part of musicians in the present is an important cause, but it has had curious consequences. For one, it narrows our skillsets as musicians, putting the focus almost exclusively on memorization, virtuosity, and expressive interpretation. This leaves out another skill that is at the core of most other forms of music making: improvisation.
What’s wrong with that? You ask. Maybe improvising just isn’t for us (and, besides, even if I got good at improvising, it’ll never sound as good as Chopin). As someone who has spent 30 years avoiding improvisation, I can relate. But recently, I’ve started to turn.
It’s practically a cliche at this point to mention that virtually all of your favorite composers of piano repertoire were world class improvisers themselves. Bach once improvised a 6-voice fugue for Frederick the Great. Clementi and Mozart had a famous improvisation duel, as did Beethoven and the lesser-known Joseph Wolfl. And I hardly need to mention Chopin and Liszt, both improvisers extraordinaries.
This point is often brought up to lament the lack of spontaneous creativity on the part of today’s practicing classical musicians. I sympathize with this lament, but I’m not too discouraged by the cultural shift from creative improvisation to recreative performance.
What discourages me more is the set of musicianship skills that were thrown out along the way here. You see, improvisation wasn’t an end in itself for the great maestros I’ve named. It was the result of a deeper musical fluency, one that allowed musical structures to assemble themselves rapidly in the minds of instrumentalists — whether it was extemporized or written down.
“Fluency” is the key. Mozart spoke music like a language, but — crucially — this was not what made him a genius. It simply put him in the category of tens of thousands of other practicing musicians across Europe, including children, who were trained to make music, not to copy it.
Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Robert Gjerdingen in his 2007 Music in the Galant Style and his recently published Child Composers in the Old Conservatories, a new generation of musician-scholars has emerged dedicated to reconstructing the pedagogical systems of the 18th century. The goal is twofold:
- To account for the startling fluency of rank and file musicians of the period.
- To teach ourselves something about that system, so perhaps today’s musicians can learn a thing or two about how to think musically.
In a nut shell, 18th century music students were taught patterns at the keyboard — cadences, suspensions, sequences, and methods of harmonizing scales — and learned how to transpose them into any key. If you’re ever studied jazz, this might sound familiar.
After years of practicing, not other people’s music, but the musical equivalent of nouns, verbs, and grammatical structures, these young musicians — many of them, like in Naples, still pre-pubescent — felt at home at the keyboard in a way that most of the greatest pianists of today could never dream of.
So, what does this have to do with your goal of learning a Mozart Sonata or Chopin Nocturne? To put it simply, by learning to think in music the way those composers (and their many less talented contemporaries), will allow you to internalize your favorite musical scores much faster, with greater facility and sensitivity.
It’s in this spirit that I’ve been working with the top pianist-scholars in the field to develop a new foundational keyboard musicianship series based on the training methods that proved so fruitful to the canon of historical composers whose music is always on our minds.
So, even if your only intention is to recite the great musical poems of the composer-poets of the past, it’s important to start learning the language they all spoke. And, hey, you just might end up making up a few gems of your own while you’re at it.
–– Ben Laude, Head of Piano | tonebase