The first time I ever put bow to string and played without the notes was in a general musicianship class at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1985, and it was genuinely terrifying. It was hard enough playing in front of your peers when someone else had responsibility for the notes – but to have to take that on board as well was almost too much! I had to play a melody over a piece of Baroque piano music the professor played, and I’m quite sure it sounded rubbish. There were other occasions that followed: once in a jazz class, and several times on the influential Performance and Communications Skills course set up by Peters Renshaw and Wiegold. The experiences were very frightening, and yet…maybe the fear was exhilarating; some psychologists might say it was the fear of freedom we all have that was an irresistible pull at the same time. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t leave me alone, and although I had very few chances to improvise over the next ten years or so – studying at the Moscow Conservatoire as a postgraduate, and freelancing in London with orchestras and ensembles – I always jumped at the opportunity when it arose. Most of these opportunities for me were in the community music/education project arena. This is a place where improvising skills are very useful (an excellent tool for developing musical material with students), and as a general approach for running workshops where you can never tell what will happen next. Other opportunities were provided in meetings with musicians from outside the Western classical world, always thrilling and fascinating. In the late 90s I began to introduce improvisations into recital programmes. This was a new kind of discipline, and I made a decision not to plan anything at all (it may sound contradictory, but many improvisations have structures and plans) – and fell in love with the thrill of sitting in front of an expectant audience not knowing what note I would play until I played it. And here is the magic of improvisation: that anything can happen, and that whatever does happen is influenced whatever the musician chooses to be receptive to in the moment. So for the performer, he can retreat within himself, dig deep, and play from a very private place, or he can stare the audience in the eye and be inspired by them, or by the acoustic, the sounds in the hall, the time of day, weather, the last piece of music he heard, or a combination of any of those and many more…
For myself, the journey with improvisation was always one on which I felt like a tourist until I began to work with Indian musicians, and actually practice my improvisation. In 2000 I played with Indian sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan at the Royal Festival Hall. The experience was very positive and I have learnt a great deal from Amjad: over the years I have played and studied with him and his sons in India and around the world. Much of what I learnt was to trust the moment and my musical background and instincts, as well as much about Indian classical music itself, which is a vast world of sophistication and poetry.
Nowadays the improvisations I do in recital are precious to me. They can stabilise me in the hall with the public, and prepare me for the recital ahead, for the repertoire to follow – or else they can take a recital to a completely new place at the end of the evening.
Sometimes the hall feels restless (people rushing in from busy days at work) at the beginning as I come on stage, and I will just take it slowly and ease into the concert with the improvisation. Or if the hall feels sleepy, I will try and do something to wake people up. Improvisation can teach a musician what it really means to be playing ‘in the moment’ – in repertoire, you can go on automatic (although you certainly shouldn’t!), but if you are making up every note as it happens, there is nowhere to hide.
Having learnt this wonderful feeling of being in the present, I have tried to bring it into repertoire pieces – I think it should always be the goal for interpreting written music. I remember Bernstein saying that he felt that he was composing pieces as he conducted them, and I’m sure this is what he meant – you have to be 100% in control of your material in the moment it happens, to be able to let it go and simply listen to yourself, and follow yourself with the music as it unfolds, second to second. While in many ways there are things you can say with improvisation that you can’t with repertoire, at the peak of music making, when you are completely ‘in the zone’, it is all the same. Music is music.
Having been improvising for 30 years now, it is wonderful to see it becoming more and more mainstream, as it once was in the classical music world. Great musicians of old (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and many more) were all master improvisers, and up until the early 20th century, musicians would commonly have a jam, even on the concert platform. But the specialisation culture of being a soloist, and the exigencies of the recording age, and its attendant necessities of technical perfection put a stop to improvisation to the point that it was all but extinct 30/40 years ago with the exception of a tiny number of baroque specialists, organists, and in contemporary aleatoric music. The trickle of those returning to the land of impro, while not yet quite a flood, is swelling very rapidly. In recent years musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, Viktoria Mullova, Maxim Vengerov, the Labeque Sisters, Ilan Volkov, Natalie Clein, Nicholas Daniel and many more have been improvising in concerts. The growth is coming from many sides: the authentic music movement that has seen a resurgence in improvisatory arts from stars like Robert Levin and Richard Egarr, to almost every continuo player in each period instrument band and many others. It has also come from the growth in the numbers of serious projects with non Western classical musicians, from Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road, to the London Sinfonietta and Uzbek trumpeters, and the recent Urban Classic project I took part in with the BBC Concert Orchestra and rap artists from London. And finally the education world, where the highly developed art of music workshop (nowhere more developed than in the UK) has produced many moments of improvised wonder, both for the young participants and for the musicians taking part.
With my group Between The Notes, we researched improvisation for many years. While in Bach’s time, there was a clearly defined (and marvellously infinite) musical language, there no longer is. We have anything and everything in our ears, and this makes certain decisions about improvising difficult. What style do you play in? We wanted to see what it was like outside the music world, and teamed up with great comic improviser Niall Ashdown, for a show called “Note to Tale” where we improvised a whole evening of words and music. We had spent a week in the studio studying acting improvising exercises, and looking for equivalents in form, in music, thus bypassing the area of style. It was quite a revelation, and we learnt that it is all about moving energy, and making that communicate to an audience – music is just the medium to convey energy.
One of the great joys of being an improviser is that I can play with practically any musician in the world. It is like being fluent in dozens of languages: I have just been working with Sufi musicians from Iran, and over the years I’ve played with traditional instrumentalists from Japan, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, many parts of Africa, Colombia, Hawaii, and with rappers, jazzers, DJ’s, pop musicians, and with the UK beat-boxing champion, Faith SFX. It makes the world much smaller, and much bigger and richer all at the same time. In recent years I have done a lot of improvising with my dear friend, pianist Julian Joseph – a master jazz musician. Learning some of the jazz vocabulary of improvising over changing harmony is a huge and wonderful challenge and something I am committed to continuing.
Over the I have run training programmes for many orchestras around the world getting players to improvise – it is wonderful to watch the process of musical emancipation. One of the most rewarding moments was with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie where all 37 members improvised an unbroken chain of solos over a fixed drone – it lasted 50 minutes and one orchestral player described it as the best musical moment in his 15 years in the orchestra. It can be hard at first to improvise when your background is a lifetime of trying to get something perfect in advance. There is often an extraordinary amount of fear, and relief when the first hurdles are crossed. I remember a violinist in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra who had been playing symphonies for 30 years who broke down in tears as she was so overjoyed to be improvising a melody without any music in front of her.
At the start of this article I said that my first impro was rubbish – but of course that is the enemy – the harshly judging internal voice, and fear of being exposed as a fake and a nothing! I always remind people when teaching improvisation, that once upon a time, we all improvised. All toddlers spend many a pleasant hour inventing songs, stories, dances, games, etc. And in fact, every time we have a conversation, we are improvising. It takes time to marry that with our technical abilities on an instrument, and to learn to bypass that destructive inner judge and trust ourselves once again to make it up. Or maybe we should completely re-think the way we train classical musicians from the beginning, so we don’t have to re-learn childlike spontaneity as adults?