Back to top

10. Prelude and Fugue in E minor from Book 1





 HEAR THE MU-SIC FLOW-ING          Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject

Improvisation is something that we all do every time we have a conversation, every time we answer the telephone, every time we go into a shop. It is a fundamental part of normal human experience. So what is it that happens when as a teacher you ask many ‘classically’ trained musicians to improvise? The panic which often ensues suggests that they might have been told to stand in front of the class with all their clothes removed. To some people who have learnt music from the ‘dots’ on the page rather than by ear the instruction to improvise undoubtedly starts alarm bells ringing in the head. The demons of terror are let loose, the inner critic is laughing with scorn before a single note is played, the hands become paralysed with fear. Fear of ‘getting it wrong’, of not being good enough, of not being in control, of being laughed at, of being put down… And yet sometimes within fifteen or twenty minutes these same people are happily and successfully improvising with a pentatonic scale with their right hand while I play a simple chord sequence underneath. They are amazed to find that they really can improvise after all. So what has changed? On a physical level there is no doubt that there has been a relaxation of tension – the chronic tension which was preventing flow has relaxed sufficiently to allow flow to happen. And preceding this there has been a mental shift, a shift in thinking which has allowed a ‘solid’ problem to dissolve. The way of effecting this shift can be as simple as breathing – when in doubt, breathe out! Some other pupils – those who have learnt music much more by ear – improvise so naturally and easily that to begin with there is nothing to teach. Yet sometimes here the panic arises if I suggest that they might play from some written music. I have seen and heard wonderful flowing musical players become like wooden statues when attempting to play from written music. Their natural musical confidence is knocked aside and replaced with the fear of getting it wrong, of not being good enough, of not being in control etc. There is no reason why someone cannot be a good ‘reader’ AND a good ‘improviser’. These are not either/or abilities but both/and abilities like reading a language and speaking it. If we think of many of the great composers of the past – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt – it is immediately apparent that they were equally at ease with reading and writing music and also ‘speaking’ it through improvisation. A good teacher needs to have worked through their own demons of fear in order to help pupils work through theirs. The musical benefits of working in both directions are great – a balance of freedom and discipline, an increased sense of presence in the sound, an increased sense of opening mind, heart and body to the experience, and engaged sound which draws an audience into a performance. Both the journeys from confident improviser to confident music reader and vice versa depend on an increased appreciation and understanding of musical structures. To read piano music well you need to understand about chord structures. Then you find that you do not need to read every note individually. To improvise well you need to understand scale patterns. Then you find that you do not need to register every note that you play as an individual entity. The resulting flowing whole is always more than the sum of the parts. Enjoy!