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Learning a concerto (or a Bach Partita, Paganini Caprice, etc.) takes many hours of diligent, solitary practice. Which can be pretty engrossing at times – but also, pretty lonely.

So when I was introduced to chamber music, and experienced what it was like to work together with a group of friends on the same piece of music, it didn’t feel at all like practicing.

Partly, because there were times when we did more goofing off and chatting than rehearsing. And of course there were days when rehearsing devolved into heated arguments about bow strokes and character and how mezzo a particular mezzo forte really ought to be.

But more clearly than in any other setting, trios and quartets allowed me to feel the magic that can happen when a group of people are totally playing in sync with one another.

Looking back, I think part of this magic came from being connected not so much to our parts, but each other. Where there was something new or unpredictable being created. Moments when someone would throw in a cheesy glissando with a wink, or take the fast movement a smidge faster knowing full well that the pianist would probably kill them afterwards.

These spontaneous, unpredictable, improvisational moments could be thrilling, and were often the focus of post-performance reflections (both “hey, nice gliss” and wide-eyed “what were you trying to do to me with that tempo in the second movement?!”).

But there were plenty of times when these unplanned risks didn’t quite pan out. Like when I’d be inspired to try a new fingering in the moment and get stuck in an awkward position…

So on the balance of things, what role should this improvisatory approach to performing play in performances? Is it a good thing? As in, does it enhance the listener’s experience? Or does it result in playing that feels awesome to the performers in the moment, but to the listener, actually sounds a little sloppy?

Two performances in one

A multidisciplinary team of researchers, led by David Dolan and John Sloboda at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and Henrik Jensen at the Imperial College London, designed a study to see what effect an “improvisational state of mind” would have on both the performers and the audience.

To make things as realistic as possible, the researchers set up a small chamber music performance for an audience with varying levels of experiences in classical music. And the evening’s music was provided by a professional voice/flute/piano trio that had formal training and experience in improvisation.

The trio performed each piece on the program two times in a row – once with a more traditional approach (i.e. “strict” mode), and another time with a more improvisatory mindset (“let-go” mode). But in random order, so the audience wouldn’t know which was which.

The two performance approaches

The emphasis of strict mode was on “technical precision, timing co-ordination, accuracy of the score’s details, avoiding risks, while at the same time creating the most convincing and expressive performance possible.”

Conversely, in let-go mode, the musicians were asked to “play freely, as they would do for friends, expressing themselves spontaneously and not putting an imperative focus on ‘no wrong notes.’ ”

Rating each performance

After each piece, the audience was asked to rate the performance from 1 to 6 in five areas. 

The degree to which the performance was:

  1. improvisatory in character, 
  2. innovative in approach, 
  3. emotionally engaging, 
  4. musically convincing, and 
  5. risk-taking

Where 1=not at all/none and 6=totally/completely

So were there meaningful, noticeable differences? 

Six things that were different

To illustrate exactly what changed when the performers adopted a more improvisational approach, the study provides a brief analysis of one of the pieces on the program – Schubert’s Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen  (The Shepherd on the Rock).

There were 6 key areas of contrast between the regular (“strict”) and improvisational (“let-go”) version:

  1. Timbre: There was a wider range of tone and color in the improvisational version
  2. Dynamics: The improvisational version also had greater dynamic range
  3. Tempo: Interestingly, the improvisational version was slower – averaging 88bpm (vs. 92bpm for the regular version). However, when listening back, the performers thought that the improvisational version felt faster – due to more forward movement.
  4. Pulse, meter: Specifically, the lines were longer in the improvised version. Rather than thinking in terms of smaller beats, the pulse was often felt in whole bars, and sometimes over two bars. Which, ironically, is more faithful to what Schubert’s phrasing marks in the score suggest.
  5. Risk-taking: Despite making some clear departures from the written score (e.g. improvising notes that aren’t in the music), the performers were actually more in sync at key moments (e.g. ends of phrases, harmonic resolutions) when performing improvisationally. As suggested by clearer evidence of…
  6. “Mind-reading”: Which alludes to moments in the performance where one of the performers added some new notes, and another performer immediately matched this gesture with some improvised notes of their own.

Comparison videos and analysis

For more specifics on what exactly the performers did (which I think will make this easier to experiment with in your own playing), you can watch a few comparison videos, and read more of the researchers’ analysis here:

Example #1

3-note flute entrance (mm.7-8)

Regular version | Improvisational version

Read the researchers’ analysis (scroll up a smidge and look for “Example 1”)

Example #2

Continuation of flute solo (mm.8-12)

Regular version | Improvisational version

Read the researchers’ analysis

Example #3

Interplay between flute and voice (mm.165-177)

Regular version | Improvisational version

Read the researchers’ analysis (scroll up a bit and you’ll see “Example 3”)

How did this affect the performers’ experience?

The tl;dr1 version is that in the improvised version, the performers felt a greater sense of connection:

“In the “let go” mindset we all reported a stronger sense of connection between the three of us. We listened better to each other and responded to each other in the moment.”

And they seemed to enjoy a more optimal mental experience as well, noting that:

“the ‘strict’ mindset also resulted in Thibault and I reporting more self-conscious performances, increased levels of performance anxiety and more internal critical chatter.”

Appendix 1 from: Dolan, D., Jensen, H. J., Mediano, P. A., Molina-Solana, M., Rajpal, H., Rosas, F., & Sloboda, J. A. (2018). The Improvisational State of Mind: A Multidisciplinary Study of an Improvisatory Approach to Classical Music Repertoire Performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01341

Part 1: Performers’ immediate responses

Question from author: “How would you describe the differences you felt as performers, before and while performing, between the two mindsets – ‘strict’ versus ‘let go’ or ‘improvisational state of mind’”?

In our written feedback to this question there was a consensus between the three of us. In the ‘strict’ versions we recounted a greater feeling of mental and physical control including trying to control technical aspects of our playing and being more precise about counting and note values. Each of us focused on our individual parts, anticipating and planning the next section of the music. Overall the increased control resulted in a performance in which we played more consistently together within each bar because we were playing more in time, metronomically speaking. However, the ‘strict’ mindset also resulted in Thibault and I reporting more self-conscious performances, increased levels of performance anxiety and more internal critical chatter.

In the ‘let go’ mindset we all reported a stronger sense of connection between the three of us. We looked at each other more and looked at the music less. We listened better to each other and responded to each other in the moment. Kate wrote that she “found [herself] attending more to the meaning of the words, and letting [her] imagination respond more to what [she] heard… [She] could begin to communicate the sense of being in a different place, embodying different emotions, and responding more in the moment to changes in the music, listening and reacting more.” For me the freedom of the ‘let go’ mindset allowed me to create a wider range of colours and dynamics. For Thibault it allowed him to feel more freedom and flexibility in the tempo and performance.

The two mindsets

The most important thing to say about the two mindsets is that the ‘strict’ mindset is not synonymous with performing badly or unmusically. The ‘strict’ mindset can also be thought of as the ‘trying to win’ mindset with the emphasis on the word ‘trying’. This mindset comes when a performer really wants to perform her/his best. The performer puts herself/himself under internal and external pressure and tries hard to control every sound produced and every technical aspect of playing.

Likewise, the ‘let go’ mindset is not synonymous with playing better or more musically. The ‘let go’ mindset allows the performer to take risks and make mistakes without worrying about internal or external pressure. The performer uses the score as a starting point for interpretation of the music. As a performer I often find that the ‘let go’ mindset comes naturally in performances where I have nothing to lose. In this mindset I can step into the room with the aims of enjoying myself and having fun with the music. This can be done to a greater or lesser degree – in an audition a performer can use the ‘let go’ mindset or improvisational state of mind without changing a single note.

A link between the two mindsets?

“In Thibault’s written response immediately after our performance-experiment, he wrote that “I am convinced this close attention for detail allowed our trio to be the most free it has ever been in the second rendition of the Schubert.” One possible conclusion to draw from this statement is that the ‘strict’ mindset can also be seen as a ‘preparatory’ state of mind or an initial step that performers can use to ensure that they can rely on and trust each other when they use the ‘let go’ mindset in performance.

Part 2: Responses when listening to and watching the audio and video recordings 20 weeks later.

“Question from author: “Please, could you share your thoughts about the performances and how you feel about them when you listen to the performances now, 20 weeks later?”

“There was a strong consensus between Kate Smith, Thibault Charrin and I when listening back to the ‘strict’ performance. We each wrote about listening to individual performers one at a time and reported having very little sense of connection between the performers. The ‘strict’ performances were very precise and together (I reported counting along to the music). Kate wrote that she “found [herself] listening to the minutiae of the music… [She] was drawn to accuracy rather than [to the] story.”

“When listening back to the ‘let go’ performance all of us responded to the video by saying that the performers were more integrated – there was a greater sense of connection and the ensemble work was more convincing. We all reported a greater range and variety of timbre, dynamics and colours. Kate and I wrote that as listeners we were more engaged: the ‘let go’ version was more exciting because of the unexpected moments including some where the performers were not together. The longer musical shapes allowed us as listeners to relax and we were able to see that we – the performers – were having fun!

“All of these responses mirrored what we reported immediately after the performance.

Influence of the experiment on subsequent performances

On further reflection since the experiment, all of the freedom that the ‘let go’ mindset allowed me individually was the result of one thing: a deep sense of trust. Trust in my own musical instincts and the capability to complete the task, trust in my knowledge of the piece that I was about to perform (preparation), and trust in the performers with whom I was sharing the stage.

Trust between performers is imperative for being able to apply an improvisational state of mind (the ‘let go’ mindset). It allows the performer to be brave and to know that the others will be there to catch her/him when (s)he tries something new in the moment. If the trust isn’t there between performers it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in the ‘let go’ mindset and much easier to revert to the ‘strict’, controlled and anxious mindset. The ‘let go’ mindset gives the performer a freedom to trust herself/himself and her/his fellow performers. It allows the performer to escape the internal and external pressures associated with performance.’

How did this affect the audience’s experience?

So, the improvisatory mindset certainly seemed to enhance the musicians’ experience of performing.

But what about the audience? Did the “let-go” performance make any difference in the listeners’ experience of the performance?

Indeed it did!

Despite not knowing which performance was which, the audience rated the improvisational performances as being more “emotionally compelling” (3.8 vs. 2.6 out of 6) and “musically convincing” (4.1 vs. 3.2 out of 6).

Take action

I imagine that formal training in improvisation and composition would help facilitate and provide concrete tools for cultivating this improvisatory state of mind. But I think this is something anyone can play around with, wherever one’s music theory chops may be at the moment.

After all, whether it’s sound, color, dynamics, pulse, phrasing, and so on, these are all the things I remember spending a lot of time experimenting with (and arguing about) in chamber music rehearsals. Which was not only fun, but in hindsight, gave me a much greater understanding of how to approach my own solo repertoire too.

Additional resources

There’s actually a lot more to the study than I was able to include here – like EEG stuff, motion capture, and more. You can read the full paper here: 

The Improvisational State of Mind: A Multidisciplinary Study of an Improvisatory Approach to Classical Music Repertoire Performance

You can also watch authors David Dolan, John Sloboda, and Henrik Jensen talk about improv and the research in a short ~5-min video:

Improvisation in Classical Music

If you’d like to go a little further down the improvisation-in-classical-music rabbit hole, here’s a ~5-min video of pianist Robert Levin on taking risks in performance:

Pianist Robert Levin on taking risks in performance

And if you’re really intent on putting off today’s practice for a bit longer, here’s Robert Levin giving a 1-hour+ talk/demonstration, where he illustrates the case for improvisation in Mozart:

Robert Levin: Improvising Mozart


References

Dolan, D., Jensen, H. J., Mediano, P. A., Molina-Solana, M., Rajpal, H., Rosas, F., & Sloboda, J. A. (2018). The Improvisational State of Mind: A Multidisciplinary Study of an Improvisatory Approach to Classical Music Repertoire Performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9:1341. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01341