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Improvisation is one of my favorite ways of performing live. And comparing different styles of improvisation gives some interesting insights to the different approaches the various genres of music use.
Baroque and Classical improvisation is based (these days) on a very strict method of comparing how melody and harmony interact. There are frighteningly thick books on how to improvise correctly in these styles, mostly full of examples that look like simple little ornaments (turns, trills, runs and so on). However where they are placed in the melody and harmony is critical and very quickly turns into something much more complex than just adding ornaments. The way I learned was to go through these books and find examples that supported each and every single note I added to what the composer had written. Every week I would go to my lesson with the page covered in pencil scribbles and my teacher would demand that I support ALL my choices and added notes from one of the 2,000 page books or start over. Then tell me to go add more. Before too long, what I was playing was so different from the original music that other people had to ask what piece I was working on even if they were familiar with it.
Jazz improvisation is also based on leaping off from the melody and/or the harmony but the style of learning is quite different. Students are often told to listen to other players' solos and learn them note by note then try to figure out how those solos relate to the original music. Then compare different solos on the same music and different solos by the same performer. The theory is that after learning enough solos this way, you will begin to be able to create your own in a similar style.
In many ways, Classical works from the outside in by studying exactly where and how to place tiny additions until it builds into something musical. Jazz comes at it from the inside out, learn musical solos until you figure out the patterns and rules that are being used (or broken). One more interesting point is that, back in the day, Classical music was actually studied in a similar fashion to the Jazz approach. J. S. Bach famously transcribed other composers music to learn voice leading. But of course now we have the rules written out, learn them first and worry about making them sound musical later.
In Middle Eastern music (which I freely admit I am less familiar with) improvisation has a different spin. Setting aside the fact that many of the harmonies and scales use micro-tones, there is more of an assumption that the audience will be somewhat musically educated and the performer is expected to make them work to follow their improvisation. This can be interesting when you are familiar with this style but it can also make it difficult for people who haven’t studied this style to get into the music. One form of improvisation from the Eastern style that does intrigue me is to take one note, ornament it more and more then add another note or two and ornament them together. This creates a nice build to the music and often combines well with other improvisation styles.
I find that looking at these and other methods of improvising expands my ability to use them all. I enjoy the way the different styles expand on each other and how they change my view of the musical world they are creating. I may not master every single style I study but I always take new ideas away from them and every new idea changes how I use the styles I am already familiar with and sometimes allows me to use an idea I had trouble understanding before.

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Gwyneth Whistlewood the Feral Flute

October 2012

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