Thursday, October 29, 2015


- its uses within a classical instrumental education.

A guide to greater expressivity and 

confidence in performance.

by Melinda Maxwell
Principal Oboe,
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group & Endymion,
Consultant in Woodwind Studies RNCM

Teacher: Ok, here’s the moment at the end of the slow movement in this baroque sonata to invent a phrase of your own, so, have a go.
Student: I can’t do that!
I have heard this reply often and it applies to so many moments in our music making whether playing by ear or inventing ornamentation or cadenzas or even singing, that I get genuinely upset at the level of, I suppose, fear and misunderstanding.

Let us start at the beginning. Improvisation is an enormous subject but I’d like in a few paragraphs to shine some light on thinking about it in different ways.  One of the comments one hears quite often, particularly when related to jazz, is “Oh if you improvise you can play anything you want. Who’s going to know what’s right or wrong”.  And the answer is: “It makes no difference if the music is free, structured, diatonic or atonal. Improvisation is a skill that has to be learnt and practiced like any other skill and whether right or wrong does not come into it”. This may sound confusing but no true improviser enters the moment without having thought about, practiced and explored the parameters first.  Why is this?  Because there are millions and millions of ways of saying the same thing, and this very process is what makes improvising so very special and exciting. If you know the route you may take you can exploit your ideas to their full capacity.

Over the years I have discovered that this very thought - that there are many ways of saying the same thing - has made me rethink how I perform and practice. Invention is a powerful imaginary tool and when you apply it to patterns and phrases you find other ways of playing something just as powerful and meaningful.

Let’s start with practicing.  What I’m about to talk about can apply not only to students at music college but also to younger players.  We all know that to master your instrument you have to spend hours and hours sorting out and improving many different techniques that span, for instance and to put it simply, soft, slow legato playing to loud, fast, clean articulation. These constitute what might be called the basics of playing that need to be practiced on a daily basis. Even if a player has thirty years experience they always return to the basics because they form the roots of all technical control. The point is that the art of playing changes as you develop. You improve slowly over time and as you improve so your exercises need to be tailored to suit. Here enters the first stage of invention. You may notice that while reading (although even if not reading) certain exercises that they have been digested and your mind starts to wander because it becomes boring. At this point invent an additional idea like a change in dynamic shape, how and when to add vibrato or change the articulation and emphasis, and this can enrich ways of hearing what you do. Ways of hearing and listening are of course paramount to exploring how to improve what you do.  Reading exercises gradually becomes unnecessary because you have naturally memorised and internalised them. Once memorised you can shift and shape them to suit you every day depending on what you need to achieve.  The improvising happens when you think while playing of changing the direction because it feels right. This instinctive feeling gives you confidence in what you are trying to achieve. Playing scales can feel like a real dirge but as we know they are essential for tuning, tone, developing key sense and learning fingerings. There are millions of ways of playing scales, the obvious being to change the patterns of articulation and dynamic shape and of course tempo. What if you didn’t start on the tonic and began on a different note in the scale? This would do two things. You would learn to hear them differently and you would discover modes. You would also really learn how they sound. This might develop playing in cycles of fifths and here we start thinking harmonically which deepens our understanding of modulation and harmony.  You may say, but this is not improvising per se.  To which I would retort, it’s the start of taking control of how you play and this then determines what you play, this being the first premise of thinking freely and improvising with your thoughts.

The next stage is to experiment with melody and here the fun starts. You may feel you know Ab major and its colour. If you improvise a melodic shape in this key with a beginning, middle and end, and it could be as short or as long as you like to work effectively, this process activates your imagination and allows you to find out what’s in your inner musical ear. Once you start tapping into this enormous space the possibilities of expression are infinite. This does many things. It nourishes your instinct which in turn feeds into your confidence which then filters into your standard repertoire whether it’s orchestral excerpts or recital pieces. You may also very well find that you begin not to need to read the music and gradually, step by step, start to memorise. Playing from memory is an extremely useful tool because it makes you listen harder which will naturally improve the way you play.

Which brings me to the first exhortation “I can’t do that!” Well now by this stage having attempted some of the above you can begin. In a lot of baroque sonatas there are moments with pauses usually at the end of movements that need a little phrase from the performer that offers their thoughts on the movement they’ve just played. This musical comment in a lot of cases need only be a breath length. If you have already started to play with your instinct in your practicing as described above, this procedure is not daunting at all. In fact it can be of enormous pleasure. To find the right phrase needs a bit of time and thought, and exploring what it could be through improvising, is the key. It encourages you to think about the material in the movement, to understand the style, and to achieve the right kind of expression. This then leads into styles of ornamentation, not only baroque, but classical. This will also inform your listening of great players that you aspire to, doing the same thing.

The next step in improvising could be your classical concertos that will need little cadenzas, and by this stage you may very well have thoughts on how to modulate from key to key using dominant and diminished sevenths, how to design a form, and how to improvise using the classical patterns in your concerto.  I have written three cadenzas for each of the movements of the Mozart Oboe Concerto and I did this by improvising around the material until my ear was satisfied with how they should sound.

Following on from this you may find that you invent something that goes in a completely different direction. You may take a theme from any piece of music and start moulding, fiddling, playing, and improvising with it. This is the beginning of exploring your musical mind that then empowers your musical imagination and confidence.

I’d like to return to an earlier point I mentioned about the millions of different ways there are of playing the same thing. In performance we take a lot of effort in preparing “the perfect” interpretation. Yes there is a sort of ideal way of playing something, but I believe there is no such thing as a perfect performance. Music is a living art and in performance little things may not go in quite the direction that you intended. This can be due to intangible things out of your control like the light, atmosphere or certain conditions. This can be off-putting and frustrating and there is a sort of feeling of resigning to a negative or insincere delivery because how you wanted it to go has not happened. If on the other hand you have internalised the music and prepared many versions that may differ in small details of how you think it should sound then this approach is a much more musical, enjoyable and of course daring way of performing. You can tailor the performance to suit the moment. It also gives the music energy, spontaneity, drive and commitment. This way of gently improvising as you go brings you much closer to what performing is really about.

Needless to say this is now getting very advanced and the one thing to remember is that there should always be ample and regular time to explore all these stages. These processes cannot be learnt quickly. It takes time and patience and can go on for the rest of your playing life. The wonderful thing about it is that it gives you the freedom to find out what is your artistic voice and after all, this is the beauty of learning an instrument. It mirrors your personality and who you are. Improvising gives your musicianship integrity by furnishing your musical mind with tools that will enhance your listening and your performing.  


published by Emerson Edition

for oboe & drone


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