Does improvisation have a bad name? I had a discussion about improvisation with a friend who had graduated from Juilliard. He sat at the piano and placed his hands on the keys randomly and laughed…and said improvisation was junk. After years of training and dedication to play anything written for an instrument, doing something spontaneous is a sin, a criminal act, or at least a ridiculous behavior. My friend didn’t like John Cage and thought his entire body of work was a joke. I gave him this piece of advice: if you want to unblock yourself, listen to John Cage with your clothes off and the experience will take on a new meaning.

This discussion left me with a suspicion that the training that is currently prevalent for young musicians is perhaps not creatively motivating. For this reason, I think any program that puts students in contact with composers of the real world is essential. What they don’t learn in school is how new music manifests itself. Someone has to take a chance against the uncharted. Spontaneous creation can be frightening, but certain people have a real talent at this, they can pick up the instrument and create an entire work very quickly this way… but make no mistake: in order to get to this level of spontaneous creation that may occur on a blessed day, one has to maintain a daily creative practice. Improvisation in not junk, it is hard work. There is a thread from one day to the next, and the piece grows like a plant – a bit of sun here, a bit of water there, and lots of patience. So-called improvisation is the result of a dedicated, focused and frequent practice that is much more demanding that the superficial reading of a written piece by under-rehearsed musicians. Unfortunately, this is what I see happening more and more in New York: musicians are forced to rehearse as little as possible for each project, carefully measuring their time and availability against the monthly rent. They cannot give much attention to the music they are performing. Do they really have the chance to ‘feel’ the material? Do it from the inside out? Isn’t this a painful compromise? They are forced to be skilled workers instead of artists. And paradoxically, even if they despise improvisation, they have to call upon similar creative resources to make something happen musically at the last minute. If the player doesn’t feel it, how is the audience going to appreciate it? Sometimes they ‘pull it off’, but sometimes not… I think musicians need to be paid much more, especially for rehearsing, so that they have the chance to appreciate the material they are performing and to do it justice. This is why many downtown composers are turning again towards improvisation – doing it themselves, or performing with people who are seasoned improvisers rather than hiring professional readers, which is mostly unaffordable anyway. There is a craving for freedom right now. Music cannot be just a job, it’s an adventure.

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