I've discovered that the most difficult thing to do is to start writing. When I am in the habit of posting every day, it is rather easy. But when I take a break, trying to come up with a good idea for the restart is daunting. Figuring out the mission of the blog, whether the opening post should be personal or academic, a summary or new material, causes paralysis by analysis. But it is a new year, and time to shake the cobwebs off of this blog that I've spent so much time developing over the last 4+ years. I hope that I haven't lost too many readers to newer, shinier classical music blogs.
First up, improvisation as a learning tool. I've promised Eric Edberg that I will write a guest post for his blog, so consider this a brain storming session. While there is much debate on whether music truly is a language or not – with concerns about grammar and syntax, efficiencies of communicated meaning and the like – I feel strongly that the performance of music is the same as the performance of a spoken language. An actor reciting Shakespeare is not convincing if he does not understand the words he is speaking, either singlely or in context. Likewise, I am convinced that a musician cannot perform Beethoven without understanding the notes in the contexts of melody and harmony, at most hierarchic levels of organization. Some of that understanding comes at the theoretical level, working through analyses with Schenker graphs, motivic sketches, and formal diagrams. But, just as the actor is not expected to be be consciously thinking "subject, predicate, adverb, verb, object, adjective" and "iambic pentameter", the performing musician should not be consciously thinking about Roman numerals, intervals, and motivic design. These facts should be ingrained, allowing the music to flow forth naturally, with all these structural elements combining organically to create the emotional and aesthetic content that is conveyed to the audience. This is where improvisation comes in as a pedagogical tool. If a musician can extemporaneously create music in a given idiom, I am convinced that she has been able to absorb the rules of that idiom into her subconscious. In this regard improvisation is a diagnostic tool: improvise 8 measures in D minor to prove you understand tonality. But improvisation can be a developmental tool as well, practicing to gain more understanding. Just as young children combine rote repetition and extemporaneous speech to learn how to read and speak their native language(s), musicians can combine performing from notation with improvisation to develop their sensitivities to the given musical idioms. Please give me your thoughts.