This year, AYO National Music Camp participants were introduced to the world of improvisation by working with William Barton and Dean Newcomb. Words About Music participant Helena Maher talked to them both about the importance of this skill to classical music-making.
Didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton describes himself, primarily, as an improviser. He prefers to improvise rather than read from a written score. Even when he does use a score, he prefers to see it as a guide rather than a set of hard-and-fast instructions. He will add his own musicality and interpretation while keeping the composer’s intentions for the piece at heart.
William has emphasised the importance of going through the work required to become technically proficient on your instrument. He stated that we, as young musicians, are required to practice scales and studies to build technique. Once a musician has more expertise on their instrument, they can begin to “feel” the music and they can implement all of these base techniques in their improvisation. This way they can bring their own intention to a performance.
Dean Newcomb, principal clarinet of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, ran a workshop at Camp that provided insight into how a classical musician can implement the art of improvisation into their everyday playing. There are three key elements to improvisation: listening, reacting and responding.
Everything that we do in life, to a certain extent, is improvised – even in our everyday conversations! In the music that we, as classical musicians, perform there can be an element of improvisation; from unmarked ornamentation in classical music to the way we react if we come in at the wrong time.
In order to portray a convincing performance, we often have to act like everything that goes “wrong” in a performance is exactly what we intended.
When improvising a solo, it is useful to have a visual for either dynamic, tonal, or rhythmic shape. The one used in the workshop was a ‘stand – sit – lie down’ visual. The eyes of the soloist would follow the shape of three people who were doing just that, and this helped them to craft a coherent shape to the solo.
Improvisation is just a tool that can be used to further express yourself. Both Dean Newcomb and William Barton have expressed the term “honesty” when explaining it. When you improvise, you are sharing your own musical honesty with others. The best way to be confident with improvisation is to give it a go!
“If your story is honest and your intent is honest, music can take you places you wouldn’t have thought of before.” – William Barton