Tag Archives: improvisation

An Approach to Studying Written Music

13 Apr

I have recently studied pieces by Beethoven, Bartók and Manuel de Falla, and used this approach. It proved to be helpful. Benjamin Hochman, a great Israeli Classical pianist, once suggested I will l give it try.

The basic idea is simple: for a while, refuse the temptation to play the music on your instrument. Get it ingrained in you in other ways.

1. Spend time reading the score. If you don’t have absolute pitch, you can check notes and phrases on an instrument every now and then. Not too much, though, as part of the idea is to develop your inner hearing.

2. Make note of the various tempo markings throughout the piece. Feel the tempo. You can use a metronome. Try singing the music in the marked tempos.

3. If the score includes foreign-language performance instructions which you are not familiar with, this is the time to look them up in a music dictionary and understand what they are.

4. Notice the appearance of new themes, new phases and so on. Begin to understand what the piece is about.

5. Get physical. You may move your fingers around, approximating the movements that you will later be required to perform.

Get a sense of the physicality of the piece: your hands go here, then they go there, then an immediate quick leap from here to there, and so on. This will supply major short cuts once you will approach your instrument.

6. Listen to recordings or watch videos while reading. This is not a must, and some classical players will advise against it, to avoid emulating others. I personally like knowing what other pianists are doing, and I still do the complete opposite when I feel like it.

7. Begin practicing the piece on your instrument; If you have never tried everything described above, the first moment of playing will most likely be a moment of revelation.

Note for Improvisers:

I have done this with Jazz as well. Learning the written music itself is usually a much shorter procedure then in Classical music; but figuring out ways to improvise on it, is a cool thing to do while away from your instrument.

First of all, it is effective. Singing a couple of solo choruses helps you internalizing the harmonic structure. You can think about improvisational strategies that the given tune may suggest, and become familiar with them.

Second, we all have our improvisational tendencies when we play our instruments. Beginning your relationship with a tune away from the instrument, you become connected to the music on a deeper level. It often provides you the starting point for a more original and genuine improvising approach.

Four Tips for Improvisers

1 Feb

Many have reacted warmly to my Seven Tips for Composers; thank you all!

Here are some ideas regarding the unique art of improvisation.

1. Learn Languages.

If you want to improvise, study what other improvisers do. It is essential.

It’s surprising to see how many young players seem to believe they will be able to get ahead without it. I think that’s impossible. Also,why would you want to skip it? Why not tap into beautiful universes filled with musical ideas that were created on the spot by masters?

Most improvisers want to be original, and look for general concepts that will allow them to shape their own ideas; That’s fine. But avoiding learning the common and/or obscure vocabulary of improvised music (be it in the realm of Jazz or any other musical world) is not practical.

Why? Because you can only create something personal if you know what you’re doing.

Imagine someone who wants to express profound and beautiful ideas using the Spanish language, without having learned Spanish vocabulary, grammar and so on – for fear of becoming less original.

Now imagine a great poet, who, out of her deep knowledge and understanding of the language and its contexts, can eventually create singular, personal and powerful work.

2. Record and Analyze Your Improvisations.

An invaluable process. When you’re improvising, you’re so busy coordinating all the various musical elements, that you hardly get a clear picture of what it is you’re doing; especially in the beginning of your life as an improviser.

If you never record and listen back, there’s no way that you will be aware of everything that was going on; there’s no way you’ll be able to say that you liked what you just played, and be sure.

Listening to recordings of yourself can be cruel, but it’s an effective way to understand – according to your own taste and judgement – what are the things you want to improve.

3. Separate the Elements.

Let’s say you’re listening back to a recording of a solo you just played, and you’re not happy with one of the elements in your playing.


1. Your time rushes when you get excited.

2. You tend to begin your phrases at the same place in the bar.

3. You don’t go out of the prescribed harmony enough, to your taste.

4. You’re not using various dynamic levels in your solo.

And so on and so forth.

Now is the time to work on an element that lacks quality, according to what you hear in the recording.

To do that, the best approach is to begin by working only on that single element.

For example, you practice beginning your phrases in new and unexpected places rhythmically. You work on it, disregarding all other elements.

While you practice this concept, you don’t care about anything else: quality of melodic ideas, using various registers, anything you would normally care about – you stop caring about it for a while. You play as if the only important thing in the world is to begin phrases in interesting places.

Then, when you feel you’ve made progress with this topic, you isolate another element and work on it.

Later you can combine two of these; now you’re worrying about two things – where you begin your phrases, and playing more “out” harmonically, for example. Slowly but surely you bring those improved aspects into your general playing, and actually hear yourself becoming a better improviser.

4. Why are you playing?

This doesn’t have anything to do with music per se. It’s a human, spiritual, existential idea.

Practicing can be a technical activity. The actual playing of music, once you’re performing, rehearsing, or even practicing ‘real’ playing, should not feel technical.

The situation: You are creating music on the spot, on a given day and time, at a given country, city and venue, in front of a given audience, and with given collaborators.

The uniqueness of each event is what lends improvised music its incomparable magic.

It shouldn’t sound the same every night. You are never in the same exact mental state, and if you sound the same, that means you’re ignoring that fact.

Some of your current emotions, ideas, thoughts and so on, should find a way into your playing on a given night. There should be a reason why you’re playing what you’re playing tonight. It has to be that you must play what you’re playing. What story do you have to tell?

When a good friend asks you how you’re feeling these days, you always have something to say. Improvisation can have some of that quality too.

For me, this is crucial in generating a great, even a needed, improvisation.