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:
- improvisatory in character,
- innovative in approach,
- emotionally engaging,
- musically convincing, and
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:
- Timbre: There was a wider range of tone and color in the improvisational version
- Dynamics: The improvisational version also had greater dynamic range
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- “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:
3-note flute entrance (mm.7-8)
Read the researchers’ analysis (scroll up a smidge and look for “Example 1”)
Continuation of flute solo (mm.8-12)
Interplay between flute and voice (mm.165-177)
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.”
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).
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.
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:
You can also watch authors David Dolan, John Sloboda, and Henrik Jensen talk about improv and the research in a short ~5-min video:
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:
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:
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