A lot of pianists are frightened of ‘improvisation’ because the term is widely (mis)understood to mean that you play a chord with your left hand and wait for God to tell you what to do with your right. It’s seen as a gift, or – even more damning – as a sign of liberation from the constraints that hold lesser mortals (like you or me) back. But this is just wrong. Improvisation is all about working within conventions and constraints. That’s why I haven’t even mentioned it until now – how can you improvise if you’ve got no models to work with? The appearance of spontaneity is the result of years of enculturation and practice, some of which looks much more like ‘composition’ than improvisation. For more on that, read Peter Martin’s excellent chapters on improvisation in Music and the sociological gaze.
The line between composition and improvisation is fuzzy: composers try stuff out in an improvisational way before working that material into something more studied; improvisers privately use compositional models and techniques to develop material that they’ll use ‘spontaneously’ in a performance. And contrary to our modern concept of composition as drawing inspiration down from heaven to create something completely original on a blank sheet, 18th century composers learned their craft in a way that looks more like what we’d call improvisation, working with models to create music within the conventions of a recognisable style.
18th century composition manuals offer wonderful lessons in how to ‘improvise’ for class, because they draw attention to the mechanics and processes involved in conventions that are so conventional it’s hard to see how they’re constructed. My favourite is Riepel’s Anfangsgründe zur musicalischen Setzkunst (Fundamentals of Musical Composition), which is a written-out conversation with a student on how to write a minuet. Even better than the original is Stefan Eckert’s article on it, So, you want to write a Minuet?” – Historical Perspectives in Teaching Theory, free to read over at Music Theory Online.
One of the first thing that Riepel teaches you is about the phrase construction of a minuet – ideally, two zweyers and a vierer (two two-bar phrases and a four-bar phrase). Don’t screw this up, he says (well, in so many words), because this is what makes a minuet a minuet. Then Riepel has all kinds of advice about how to construct melodies in this framework, using an imaginary student composition as an example, pulling it apart, improving it according to rules and procedures, until it begins to look like a minuet you’d buy in the shops.
Look at your average plié exercise, and you’ll see that this, too, is built on the same pattern (two demi-pliés and a full, 2+2+4). Most of what goes wrong with music for pliés is when the phrasing can’t breathe with the exercise, and all you need to get it right is to think like Riepel about whether you need zweyers or vierers. And if you think you can’t improvise, then this surely makes it easier – it’s two things, another two things, and then four things. If you think you can improvise, don’t think it’s all about ‘breaking convention’. Some of those conventions help the dancer to phrase their movement.
Another fascinating insight into the improvisational and artisanal character of composition is in the use of Gebrauchs-formulas, described by Robert Gjerdingen in his article of the same name. That article is behind a Jstor paywall, but you can view his translations of composition manuals at the wonderful site, Monuments of Partimenti.
And on that subject, a big round of applause, please, for Simon Frosi, whose bacherlor’s dissertation (The Improvisation of Structured Keyboard Accompaniments for the Ballet Class) is probably the first and only place that you’ll see a discussion of the relationship between partimenti and ballet class improvisation. It’s free to read – press the ‘download’ button.
Update on 16th Feb 2013: If improvsation and the baroque interests you, you might also like this article just released from Music Performance Research online: Incorporating long-range planning into the pedagogy of Baroque-style keyboard improvisation (Vol. 5, 59-78)