I still remember how one day Gelinek told my father that he was invited to a party that evening where he was to oppose a foreign virtuoso in a pianistic duel.
“I’ll fix him,” Gelinek added.
Next day my father asked Gelinek about the outcome of the battle.
Gelinek looked quite crestfallen and said: “Yesterday was a day I’ll remember! That young fellow must be in league with the devil. I’ve never heard anybody play like that! I gave him a theme to improvise on, and I assure you I’ve never even heard Mozart improvise so admirably.”
“Then he played some of his own compositions, which are marvelous – really wonderful – and he manages difficulties and effects at the keyboard that we never even dreamed of.”
“I say, what’s his name?” asked my father with some astonishment.
“He is a small, ugly, swarthy young fellow, and seems to have a willful disposition,” answered Gelinek.
“Prince Lichnowsky brought him to Vienna from Germany to let him study composition with Haydn, Albrechtsberger, and Salieri, and his name is Beethoven.
The modern performer of early repertory is challenged to make it meaningful to audiences who are in many ways removed from the language and culture of the original. Who would notice the bravura of a dancer who substitutes, unannounced, the doppio portogallese for a regular double step? What face would raise itself out of its program should a singer spontaneously change the words of a song in a foreign language? Would an improvised rendition of a basse dance be more successful than an existing setting by a Renaissance master? Such sprezzatura on the part of a dancer or musician would have to be recognized by the onlookers to be appreciated.
But improvisation employed as a means to enhance the expressive qualities of the music, the dance, the art, will surely have a noticeable affect; what better way is there of making a piece one’s own? Improvising performers don’t extemporize because they are bored, but because they can. It is what they do. It is part of their personal expression as performers, just as it must have been in the Renaissance.
A very close friend of mine is an accomplished improviser. After hearing a particularly stunning rendition, I’ll never forget his response to a question one of my colleagues asked him as to how he learned to improvise so well. He said that his first piano teacher insisted that he improvise a piece of music in response to every new piano composition he studied. He was brought up with the idea that music begets music. Consequently there was no division between presenting and re-presenting, between thinking up, in, and about.
Creativity, which is nothing more or less than imagining something and then executing it, has been virtually removed from all but the most innovative [music school] curricula. This raises two questions: If the continuing presence of music is the cause of continuing to learn music; if the cause of music is human creativity, why is creativity not at the center of the music curriculum? Why is the act of thinking up music left just to a select few specialists, while re-presenting it, or over-verbalizing about it, is the province of so many?
–Harold Best, Music Curricula in the Future
As an improvising musician, I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. Improvisation is acceptance, in a single breath, of both transience and eternity. We know what might happen in the next day or minutes, but we cannot know what will happen. To the extent that we feel sure of what will happen, we lock in the future and insulate ourselves against those essential surprises. Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh.
Musical creativity should be the first and foremost priority in the teaching of music. In every music lesson, there should be a time for improvisation, for invention, and a time for technical training, and development of the tools, which would include improvisational skills based on free and theoretical styles. These could come from western or eastern classical music, specific indigenous cultural practices as chosen by the individual, based on their interest or heritage, from pop or jazz, or from free improvisation.