Spontaneity in Classical Music

I recently wrote about my friend and collaborator, Kornel Wolak. I claimed that he’s the most spontaneous classical musician I know.

I’m sure this statement raises some eyebrows; spontaneity and classical music are often considered diametrical.

But it’s possible!

Classical music is notoriously structured and rigorous. This is evident just by examining its notation, where everything from notes, dynamics, phrasings, articulations and tempos are marked. But despite its rigor, musical notation cannot capture every possible variable.

Also, there are multiple ways to interpret classical notation, even within a certain style. A musician could play the same passage with two different interpretations – both could be acceptable within the style.

Also consider what happens when a classical musician or ensemble “makes a mistake”. Where the mistake occurs, and how the musician(s) correct themselves, add variances to a performance of classical music.

Though small, narrow, and perhaps undetectable to the untrained ear, these variances allow the artist a certain amount of freedom and adds “unknown” factors to a performance. This is where the potential for spontaneity lies. I say “potential” because not all artists will have the ability or desire to take advantage.

Spontaneity, or perceived spontaneity, lends a kind of magic to a performance; it’s in every artist’s best interest to at least consider its advantages. They include an enhanced connection between the performer and the music, as well as the performer and the audience.

Nevertheless, as I wrote in my previous post, spontaneity in classical music requires three things: 1) Artists with extremely high levels of discipline, 2) Artists willing to rehearse rigorously/obsessively and 3) Artists who are willing to take risks.

Artists with Discipline

The best classical musicians are already extremely disciplined. But spontaneous performers require an even deeper understanding of themselves and the music they play.

Improvisers often liken improvisation to the regurgitation of a vocabulary. Improvising within a classical framework is no different; performers can build their vocabulary on all of the possible variances I discussed earlier. For example, if there are multiple ways to interpret and perform a particular passage, a spontaneous musician should be familiar with them. Eventually, all of the possibilities will amalgamate in the moment during a performance.

But really, the process can be deeper and more organic than this. Suppose, when interpreting a particular passage, you liken it to “falling in love.” Of course, there are many different ways to fall in love, and the notation may have the flexibility to communicate those differences. The spontaneous classical musician needs to be aware of the notation’s flexibility, as well as how it relates to “falling in love” (so it would help if he/she has experience with love!).

In the moment, the musician can say: “how am I falling in love today?” and have the ability to capture that through music. That’s one example of spontaneity in classical music. It not only requires extreme discipline, but also an intimacy with life and living.

Obsessive Rehearsing

Apply the idea of vocabulary development to ensemble music. If a soloist is spontaneous in how he/she interprets a particular passage, the accompanist needs to know how to react (and vise versa). There’s only one way to achieve this: with obsessive, rigorous rehearsal.

What do I mean by obsessive?

I mean the willingness to rehearse one page, or one passage of music for hours on end. There is no limit to the potential variances in classical music (as discussed above), so there should be no limit to how members of an ensemble can communicate, interact and play off one another. This takes many, many hours of dedicated, disciplined rehearsal.

When Kornel and I rehearse, we start by fitting the notes together – that’s easy. Next, we explore and bounce ideas off one another. For example, Kornel may play a certain passage one way, I’ll follow, and we’ll rehearse it a million times. “Until it works” as Kornel says. Then he or I may recommend playing it differently. We’ll rehearse that a million times too. In the moment, we’ll know a multitude of ways we could perform this passage, and we’ll be able to react accordingly.

In a sense, we’re striving to unlock our personality from the music. Personality can be attributed to spontaneity. Classical musicians are often more rigid in how they perform music so the potential for showing their personality is lost

Taking Risks

Of course, all this discipline and rehearsing is useless unless the performer is willing to take risks in front of an audience.

Spontaneity is risky because it exposes your personality, and it’s impossible to vibe with everybody!

It’s also risky because spontaneous performers are explorers. When you’re exploring, you’re bound to make “mistakes,” or play something inconsistent with what people are familiar with (i.e. the written music). This may be intentional or not, but either way, you’re exposing yourself on a deep level. For one thing, it’s easier for audiences to hear what you know and what you don’t know.

You’re also more likely to “lose” your audience with spontaneity. When performers and listeners meet, it’s around a figurative common-ground. In jazz music, the common-ground is in familiar tunes (among many other things). In classical music, the common-ground is in well-known pieces composed by well-known composers. But unlike jazz musicians, classical performers don’t take liberties and make drastic departures from the common-ground, nor does the audience expect them to do so.

Making departures from the common-ground is always risky because not all listeners will have the skill or desire to keep up. It’s especially risky in classical music because it’s not common practice.

A skilled improviser however, knows how to balance between establishing common-ground, exploring, developing and building trust without excluding too many people (more on this later!). The point here is that there’s more at stake with spontaneity; improvisers put it all on the line. But the risk has great potential for reward.

It’s often suggested that classical music doesn’t support improvising or spontaneity. I think this represents a narrow view of spontaneity. This topic warrants deeper reflection and I plan to explore it in greater depth in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’ll say that classical musicians have much to learn from jazz improvisers!

(and vise-versa!)


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