The Development of Performance Skills and the Ability to Use them as a 

Means of Self Expression

Improvisation Now and Then - Mostly Then  

Among classical musicians, improvisation is a lost art.  The formal musical educational enterprise, which is only just beginning to acknowledge jazz-based styles, pays scant attention to  the creative element in musical art.   It  concentrates, mainly, on the development of executive skills and musically sensitive recreation of composed scores.

In the Beginning...    

The formally structured musical art  of Western society has its roots in the troped plainsong of the 12th century.  By improvising and writing down ‘twiddly bits,’( for example, the clausulae of the plainsong organa) and by combing classical and popular styles (plainsong and popular ditties of the day) mediaeval composers laid the foundations of Western art music.

Five hundred years later the development of opera from Italian monody and emergence of instrumental music as an independent art created a musical workplace in which improvisational skills were essential.  Handel, in fact, had difficulty persuading his singers to sing what was written rather than what occurred to them on the spur of the moment. Instrumental performers were required to improvise ornaments and, in the case of those provided with a figured bass, to improvise the harmonically based contrapuntal ‘middle ground’ for an essentially amphonic texture.  These kinds of improvisation demanded a thorough practical understanding of both music grammars and current musical conventions.  For some contemporary instruction on the topic refer to the (Quantz) manual on 18th century flute playing;  chapters XIII, XV and XVII (section VI.)  If you don’t have a copy of this book get one now.   As a primary source of information on 18th century performance practice, it is a ‘must have’ for every musician.

Nineteenth Century

Nineteenth century musical commentary is full of references to improvisational virtuosity.  Here are some of umpteen observations made about Beethoven’s astonishing powers on improvisation by his contemporaries.  They are taken from BeethovenImpressions by his Contemporaries.  This book, edited by O. G. Sonneck, is a Dover publication .

"Beethoven.....begged Mozart to give him a theme for improvisation........he played in such a style that Mozart.....finally went silently to some friends ...and said, vivaciously, ‘Keep your eyes on him;  some day he will give the world something to talk about.’”  Mozart/reported Jahn (1787)

“He improvised on a theme I had given him as I have never heard Mozart himself improvise.” Carl Czerny (about 1800)

...he would frequently pour out an extemporaneous effusion, of marvellous power and brilliance.”  Cipriani Potter (1818)

“Beethoven was especially fond of seating himself at the piano in the twilight and improvising,....”Anton Schindler (1814-1827)

Accounts of prodigious improvisational powers are numerous right down to the middle of the 19th century when they begin to taper off.  Perhaps the growing demands for virtuosity initiated by new instrumental technologies took precedence over the more creative aspects of  music education.


New instrumental technologies are again significantly influencing the ways in which music is created, performed, stored and presented to audiences.  They make possible, for instance,   immediate capture of creative expression and permit endless editorial manipulation in both sound itself and its written symbology.  Surely the most important leap forward in technology  since Petrucci established functional music printing techniques in the 16th century!

So What! 

It is my fervent belief that the development of creative skills should once again be a major element in any curriculum designed for the education of young musicians and that, both as the sole surviving custodian of the improvisational art and as a major stylistic genre, jazz-based styles should be included in all performance studies. I do not believe in either/or.  Young musicians should be educated for choice.  Preparatory curricula should embody so-called ‘classical’ styles;  jazz-based styles;   improvisation in all styles; and the creative use of music technology.

Being Creatively Useful and Productive 


‘Okay smart guy,’ you might say, ‘what opportunities does the non-jazz based musician environment present for improvisation?’  Well, there is a religious programme on Sunday morning  ABC TV called ‘Songs of Praise.’  The programme uses (mostly) small ensemble to accompany the hymns.  The ensemble arrangements are musical gems.  Why not begin your career as an improviser by improvising accompaniments for and arrangements of carols, folk songs and popular ditties.There are many instances of classically trained musicians who, when called upon to provide a simple accompaniment to a song at a social gathering, are quite unable to do so. There are also, of course, examples of classical musicians who can perform this task with supreme artistry;  André Previn for example. 

Next - buy an electronic instrument (keyboard, wind or string) which you will learn to manage in no time. Connected to a computer managed sequencer you can now improvise a melody which will appear in notated form on the screen.  Work on it a bit until you are happy with it then improvise a counter melody.  Hurrah! you have just completed your first two-part invention. Work on it a bit more to refine and expand your first extempore inspiration.  Wrestle with it, get mad at it but persevere.  You are now in the throes of composition.  As you work you will begin to dredge up all sorts of information you thought was useless (it probably was at the time!) and for which you can, in desperation , now see some relevance.  When you eventually complete your piece you will have performed an act of composition.  Edit, print and bind.  Now you are a publisher.

I write the above to make a point.  The point is that the nineteenth century image of the artist hero is no longer valid.   Composition has long been regarded by mere performers and other musical plebeians as a process exclusive to a small number of god-like adepts.  In the case of composers who have produced some of mankind’s greatest artistic masterpieces this is a perception which I believe to be absolutely valid.  I am referring, of course to composers in the Bach/Strauss ( Johann and Richard,)/ Webern/ Stravinsky/Gershwin league.  BUT (harking back once more to the good old, exhaustively plundered Baroque) composition was an art which nearly all musicians practised - with quill pens and other primitive recording devices.  Technology has now made it possible for musicians to write, perform and publish their own music.  Forget all the silly mythology which forbids the use of an instrument for composition and, even worse, proclaims that audience enjoyment is indicative of poor quality.   I’ve told you what you need.  Get the gear and start tomorrow.


For performers who choose to specialise in classical music, career opportunities are severely limited.  A simple mathematical equation which measures the output of highly skilled players by a seemingly growing number of tertiary institutions will reveal that supply greatly outweighs demand.  Young musicians are not stupid; but such is the optimism of youth that hard realities are often ignored.  Many musicians groomed exclusively for this market will be disappointed.  Most will become teachers who will prepare their students as they themselves were prepared with ever increasing chances of disappointment.

The stiff, pompous formalities of classical symphonic presentation, the greed of agents and stars and reliance upon 18th and 19th century repertoire , are among factors which have thrown the ‘classical’ music industry into disarray  and many of the world’s great symphony orchestras into bankruptcy. It is sad to reflect that while the performance standards of individual symphonic performers have risen immeasurably over the last thirty years the ability of ensembles to inspire an audience has markedly declined. For facts, figures and a bit of scandal read Norman Lebrecht’s When the Music Stopped (now published in paperback by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd. 

Musicians must take a more global view of the music enterprise;  a view which takes account of a voracious and many tentacled music industry in which highly skilled, creative and versatile musicians are in demand.  Competition in the music industry is fierce.  Preparation for a career in music which include the skills and insights required by the industry will enormously increase a musician’s chances of working as a performer, arranger, sound engineer, artistic director, etc.  This means, in my view, that the kind of holistic creative skills and conceptual understandings which I have advocated in this article need to be nurtured throughout the total music learning process.

Ideally we should begin this process of musical integration at the primary level (with something a little more imaginative than ersatz doggerel sung to the accompaniment of stones rattled in a bottle), continuing until the learner is in possession of enough information to make decisions about the specific directions which their own identified abilities and ambitions dictate.

(This article is an abridged version of the original.   I shall be happy to email the original article to anyone interested)