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When you are learning a piece of music, you have to play it hundreds of times. Over, and over. And over again. The same notes, the same chords, the same fingerings. In one life, you might play the same set of notes tens of thousands of times. I haven’t done the calculations, so it could be far more than that. A million times? I don’t know. But why is this not boring to the point of insanity? Shouldn’t this drive you crazy?

Not if you stay in the spirit of improvisation, even as you try best to learn to play a specific set of notes accurately and consistently.

My goal when playing a piece of music is that it sound as though I am making it up on the spot. Inspiration is improvisation.


Improvisation has traditionally been a part of the Western classical canon. Back in the day, Mozart could perform a 30 minute improvisation on the keyboard to tumultuous applause.  Ditto, Beethoven  Composers from Bach through Paganini could make up compelling music—on the spot.

In “earlier times improvisation was not only encouraged, but it was believed by many to be an essential component of complete musicianship and mastery. For instance, improviser and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837) recommended “free improvisation in general and every respectable form to all those for whom [music] is not merely a matter of entertainment and practical ability, but rather principally one of inspiration and meaning in their art”These days, serious musicians tend to be focused towards either memorizing things note for note or towards improvising as their basic approach. from The Improvisational State of Mind: A Multidisciplinary Study of an Improvisatory Approach to Classical Music Repertoire Performance

There was also a  much more lax approach to the actual notes “allowed” during a performance, and you were even encouragement to make up some of your own bits.

“historical research has revealed that Western art-music composers from Bach, through Mozart and Beethoven and onwards into the romantic era expected and encouraged performers to creatively depart from the score in a far more radical way than is common today, including the insertion of new notes”. *from same article

Most classical musicians these days, however, can barely improvise at all.  Faithfulness to the score, and to the composer’s intentions is almost a religion for some. We’re supposed to play every single note 100% perfectly, with just the right expression, tempo, articulation—every single time. Right? That’s certainly what it seems like. Even if it takes 3 straight years to learn the piece well enough that we can get up and play it perfectly the same exact way as the composer “intended.”

I recommend studying improvisation at least at an amateur level. But even if you are 100% constrained to the notes in the score, you do have a lot more flexibility than you probably imagine. Is it possible to improvise while playing only the “right” notes?  I don’t have a definitive answer to that, which is why I’ve studied improvisation myself. 

My ideal, however, is always to play a piece as if I were making it up on the spot. 

Below is a description of a study that suggests why it’s not easy to do so. Not easy doesn’t mean impossible, though.

Here’s how they designed the study: (Things will get a bit sciencey here but it’s worth it.) In this study the same piece was performed for an audience twice, once note-for-note, prepared in full, and then a second time, with an improvisatory approach.

“Live chamber-music concert performances of a movement from Franz Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock,” were given by a professional trio —voice, flute, and piano, The invited audience of 22 adults had varying levels of musical experience and training. Here’s what they found: The improvised performances were found to differ systematically from prepared performances in their timing, dynamic, and timbral features as well as in the degree of risk-taking and “mind reading” between performers, which included moments of spontaneously exchanging extemporized notes. Post-performance critical reflection by the performers characterized distinct mental states underlying the two modes of performance.Audience members, who were told only that the two performances would be different, but not how, rated the improvised version as more emotionally compelling and musically convincing than the prepared version.” (italics are my own.)

Is this true? If we want to be truly compelling and convincing as performers, this study would suggest that we learn how to introduce improvisation into our memorised pieces— learn to make up things on the spot, add our own notes into the mix, and so on. Beyond trying to find your way back from a bad mistake, need you go that far?

What exactly is interpretation, though?

At some point improvisation is introduced. No way around this. A mistake is improvisation. Playing a passage a bit faster, slower, more forcefully or more slyly—it’s all improvisation. Once again, I would like to think that we can learn to play a “prepared” piece AS IF we are making it up on the spot. Inspiration is improvisation.Within the constraints of a prescribed set of notes, there is so much room for improvising your interpretation. It seems like a paradox, but that is what gives it power. Risk taking gives the music life and breath. It’s certainly my ideal, and this improvisational ideal is why I don’t go crazy when I practice the same piece a million times over. 

Is interpretation improvisation?

There seems to be an “improvisatory state of mind.” Let’s look at this a bit more closely, from the same study.

“Results [to this study perhaps imply the existence of ] an “improvisatory state of mind” which may have aspects of flow (as characterized by Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) and primary states (as characterized by the Entropic Brain Hypothesis of Carhart-Harris et al., 2014). In a group setting, such as a live concert, our evidence suggests that this state of mind is communicable between performers and audience thus contributing to a heightened quality of shared experience.” (italics are my own)

The study suggests that there is a difference between the two states of mind—recreative vs improvisational- in terms of what you are trying to do

In a recreative state, you are trying to perfectly recreate—recite—(re-cite) as in a recital) something prepared, in real time.

In an improvisational state you are trying to “witness” the recreation in a way that you can respond to it more creatively in real time. “In the “witness” state, the improviser is more akin to a spectator of his or her own unfolding improvisation which emerges through implicit procedural knowledge.”

And here’s how that improvisational state shows up in measurments of brain wave activity:

“Complexity increase comes from the right brain hemisphere Following up on our main result, and in agreement with accepted neuroscientific theories, we find that the LZ (signal complexity) increase is mainly localized in the right hemisphere  The right hemisphere is conventionally associated with cognitive processes like creativity and divergent thinking, which indicates that musicians were more engaged in a creative process during the improvised performance, and were less likely to enter the logic-driven and rule-following states usually associated with the left hemisphere. ” (italics my own)

Ok, enough sciencey stuff. What is the takeaway here?

The improvisatory state of mind is more creative, more divergent and less about logic and following rules. It’s about witnessing the music as you play it, and responding to it as it unfolds, creatively, spontaneously.

Can we do that even if we are playing 100% the right notes? I would say the answer is yes, but not if we are actually worried primarily about playing the right notes. If your goal is spontaneity, you might accidentally play all the right notes, but that doesn’t matter to you. It’s the spirit in your playing that matters. The music will sound glorious and improvised whether or not the notes are all in the right place.

But if your goal is only to make no mistakes, you might also play all the right notes, but the spirit of your practicing and therefore the effect of your performance will be different, more dull, more rote, rule-following, constricted. It might be perfect, but it will be an imitation of inspiration, not the actual thing. 

So, what exactly is possible when you are holding this tension—getting all the notes right vs sounding as if you are making it up on the spot? It’s a strange dichotomy, and it’s complicated by the fact that composing is actually “slowed-down improvisation.” (Schoenberg said this)  

The only way for you to find out is is by trying it ——when you practice and when you play for others.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Stephen Nachmanovitch, from his wonderful book “Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts.”

“How does one learn improvisation? The only answer is to ask another question: What is stopping us? Spontaneous creation comes from our deepest being and is immaculately and originally ourselves. What we have to express is already with us, is us, so the work of creativity is not a matter of making the material come, but of unblocking the obstacle to its natural flow.”

Happy practicing!