Teaching classical musicians to improvise

Daniel Bernard Roumain
Graham Strahle
| March 30, 2016

There are two reasons why classically trained musicians are sometimes encouraged to play without written music. One is because sheet music sitting on stands can be perceived as a physical barrier that inhibits communication with the audience.

Another commonly expressed view is that being too tied to notation inhibits a musician’s creativity. US violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain (known to his fans as DBR) has an interesting approach to teaching that gets around this. In a series of exercises he gets classical music students to bounce ideas off each other, much like jazz musicians do when they improvise.

Roumain’s aim, according to The Frame’s Elizabeth Nonemaker, is to push young players “way outside their standard recital paradigm”. In one recent workshop he held for 15-18 year olds in Los Angeles, he had them playing “a mixture of live film scores, brief, flashy solos, and reinterpretations of classical standards”.

The wonder is why this kind of teaching is not tried more often. London’s Guildhall School of Music is one place that teaches improvisation to classical musicians. Nicholas Bochner, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s assistant principal cellist, studied at its Centre for Classical Improvisation and Creative Performance in 2009. He believed it was the only institution offering courses in this area, and concluded that his own studies at the Centre “changed the course of my studies dramatically”. Read about his experiences here.

It’s a rare thing too to see classical ensembles or whole orchestras play without any sheet music. The UK’s Aurora Orchestra, who appeared at the 2014 Melbourne Festival, has earned a reputation doing this. So too has Brisbane’s Deep Blue Orchestra, whose concerts also involve lighting and choreography. Wrote one reviewer: “The approach is immediate. Note bound, seated, reverent and retiring these determined, bright-eyed communicators are anything but”. Another exponent is Tafelmusik baroque orchestra from Canada, who have appeared twice in Australia for Musica Viva – another reviewer thought they play with “wonderful energy that’s sorely lacking in most symphony orchestras”.

Of course it does not necessarily follow that discarded music scores always results in better performances. Pianist Stephen Hough has pointed out that the fear of forgetting the notes can induce anxiety, and that using a score can actually liberate the mind “to concentrate on the music itself”.

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