March 16th, 2017

If a non-musician walked into a chamber music rehearsal, I think that they might laugh. We have arguments over the smallest things. Does the crescendo go towards the third note? The fourth note? Somewhere in between? I imagine this only takes place amongst classical musicians. Are we the most anal of all musicians? Is it because we are always so concerned about getting it just right?

Jazz musicians are notorious for their skilled improvisations, and we classical musicians are often in awe of their abilities. In jazz, artists are able to depart from the written score and add their own side notes and embellishments. Classical musicians are not known for improvisation, but not because we lack the technical skills. A jazz-style of improvisation requires an entirely different skill-set than the “read, repeat, memorize” that classical artists are familiar with, and the idea of improvising often makes us nervous. Classical musicians are faced with intense scrutiny during training. God forbid you miss a note (or worse - a series of notes!).

Even so, every musician improvises - just not in the same ways that jazz musicians do. Classical musicians improvise not by changing the notes, but by manipulating the energies that nestle underneath the notes. We improvise by making conscious choices about our dynamics, phrasing, shading, layering and breath. If you have seen me perform multiple times, you have certainly heard me make different choices for the same piece of music depending on what I feel like that evening. I have probably performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini over 100 times, and I can guarantee that no two performances were alike.

This was especially the case when I had the opportunity to perform the piece with Maestro Lorin Maazel five times over a period of a few months. Maestro Maazel was the type of conductor that loved to “improvise.” Night after night, he took on a different tempo - some were almost double the speed! It was like riding a rollercoaster, hanging on to his gnarly twists and turns and trying to survive every surprise drop. It was so exciting that I even tried throwing in a few spontaneous ideas myself (though once I did go too far and received a stink-eye from the Maestro in return).

After the third performance I was catching my breath and coming down from the adrenaline when I heard a knock on the door of my dressing room. It was Maestro Maazel! I froze, wondering What did I do wrong? Why would he be here? Am I getting fired before tomorrow's performance? To my surprise, he looked at me and said, “We achieved freedom today. Good.” 

Being able to improvise takes bravery. You have to be ready to fall on your face and endure a sour moment when it ends up in a place of no return. We classical musicians strive to not only play the “right notes”, but through improvisation of tempi, temperament, and phrasing, we try to illuminate the voice nestled within the masterworks - we are the tour guide of the greatest musical landscape of all!

Next time you go to hear a live performance of an artist whose recordings you love, listen for the differences in their performance. I promise, they will be improvising!