Blog Comments

  1. Rob MacKillop's Avatar
    I'm late to this thread, and am sorry to see it quickly petered out. Have other threads developed from it?

    I'm new to the mandolin, despite a brief foray a few years ago, which only lasted three months. I bought a cheap mandolin last week, and have signed up for Caterina Lichtenberg's online classical mandolin course. I downloaded a pdf of the Leone method, and have just made a video for Caterina, where I add a few notes here and there in one of Leone's allemandes. I can tell right away that I'm going to have fun playing around with these pieces.

    Despite being new to the mandolin, I've been playing lutes and guitars for years, and have played continuo in baroque ensembles, improvising accompaniments and counterpoint - and I mean improvising, not composing and arranging. I got reasonably adept at it, not brilliant by any means. I think there is too much emphasis on brilliancy, when often all that is needed is some chords and stuff to fill out the space between the bass and the treble.

    I've also taken to improvising preludes and short cadenzas to my 19th-century guitar pieces. - for examples.

    So, I'm determined to bring some improv skills into my mandolin studies, again, not flashy cadenzas, but decoration and ornamentation. I'm finding the Leone allemandes lend themselves particularly well to melodic variation.
  2. DavidKOS's Avatar
    Although improvisation used to be a part of the working life of Renaissance and baroque musicians, by the end of the 19th century improvisation had been removed from most classical music teaching.


    As already pointed out, "Composers got more specific, and technical demands soared."

    The great demands of the post-Paganini violin world and the Romantic symphonists had pushed the technical requirements needed to play the literature to a point where something had to be eliminated in order to have time to practice the newer more technically demanding music. What was lost? Improvisation.

    So by the early 20th century there was a division between the"legit" players that only read off score, and the "fakers", guys that could and often did play by ear, using what were called "head arrangements".

    Fortunately the rise of Historically Informed Performance has helped by making players aware of the need to use improvisation, embellishment, ornamentation, and such when playing pre-Classical literature.
  3. Sevelos's Avatar
    I tried improvising with some good classical players and even some balkan-music players who really had no idea what improvisation is, and were just playing random notes or moving over the scales.
    I think the teachers are to blame. I studied piano for several years when I was young, and my Russian teachers were very concerned that I play from the note-sheet correctly (and I was quite good), and never even mentioned improvisation.
    I started improvising years later, when I began playing mandolin and was taking it everywhere with me, improvising when someone was playing or singing. In the beginning people hated me, but later I got better
  4. August Watters's Avatar
    I use this book to get improv games to use with players I wand to get comfortable improvising with
    Fascinating book concept, thanks for the tip! Can you describe how the improvisation games work?
  5. Beanzy's Avatar
    I've had to play cadenzas in some of the Haydn baryton trios we're playing in our mandolin trio. But the temptation is to work them out beforehand and even create practice scores, I prefer to wing it, but there is always the danger of 'crash & burn' so it can feel quite sketchy too.

    I suspect a big factor in the demise of improv (as against just reinterpretation of a score) would be the rise of the conductor as Maestro over the musicians, not wanting anything that could tarnish his performance and reputation nor upstage them. This was a time of the rise of complex industrial machinery and admiration of the strong leadership figure. The idea of the ensemble as a machine under the direction of the strong willed dictator seems bound to stifle individualism or flights of player fancy.

    Thankfully things are changing for the better.

    I use this book to get improv games to use with players I wand to get comfortable improvising with
  6. August Watters's Avatar
    Also, let's not overlook the places within the classical community where improvisational traditions live on: improvising ornamentation is a basic skill for any baroque specialist. Improvising accompaniments from figured bass symbols is another baroque-style improvisational device. And improvisation lives on in the organ scene. Studying what goes on there might be worth considering:
    Updated Aug-06-2015 at 7:19pm by August Watters
  7. August Watters's Avatar
    I think the biggest reason for a shortage of improvisational skill in the classical community is probably the music education system, which has focused mostly on the needs of orchestral players-in-training: the demands are so high to play the written repertoire that students are kept on that path. But there are plenty of advocates for reform in music education, including those (such as Brian Wicklund and Mark O'Connor) who envision a music education system based on American folk styles, or focusing on the needs of future community music participants rather than future professional musicians.

    Probably another contributing factor was the 19th-century trend toward romanticism -- as orchestras got bigger and louder, there was less room for improvisation. Composers got more specific, and technical demands soared. However, the 19th century was also the era of the rise of mandolin virtuosos in Italy and across Europe. I suspect future research will indicate these mandolinists transmitted improvisational traditions (particularly ornamentation and theme-and-variations improv) to America during the massive Italian emigration that began with Italian unification in 1870 -- and that these improvisational devices were central to the American composer/mandolinists (Aubrey Stauffer, Valentine Abt, Samuel Weeks, etc.) who were performing original compositions to enthusiastic American audiences at the turn of the 20th Century.

    Whatever the reason, it's clear that improvisation belongs to all classical musicians! At some point I'll write more about evidence of improvisation in the 18th-century mandolin methods of Leone and Denis.
  8. JeffD's Avatar
    Fascinating stuff.

    Do you think the modern "anti-improv" misperception of classical music is the result of changes within the classical community over time? I recall a story about Beethoven being disappointed with how performers' improvisations were not good enough, and he took to writing them out.

    Or, alternatively, perhaps the misperception about classical music is a reaction to developments outside classical music, especially the last 60 or 70 years of jazz, blues, and rock, etc., which have adopted improvisation as their own.

    A friend of mine in Texas attends a "classical jam session" held regularly at a bar in the DFW area. The musicians are amateur and professional classical musicians, and they get together and play unscripted unplanned improvised takes on popular classical music. Someone will do a very serious Mozart thing, and the piano player will take off on it in hilarious directions. Like a jam its all spontaneous, and done entirely for the amusement of the musicians participating.

    It kind of took me by surprise, but I bet this kind of thing occurs all the time at parties and such.
  9. catmandu2's Avatar
    Thank you for your blog Mr Watters - an asset to the MC community.
  10. August Watters's Avatar
    I've rarely seen violin music with fingerings -- usually that's left to the player or section leader to resolve any questions. Classical violinists often avoid open strings entirely, because they'd lose control of intonation and vibrato -- so unless you're a fiddler, open strings on a violin may be something of a special effect. Some classical mandolinists also avoid open strings, but most of us use open strings at least part of the time. That's worth a later blog post!

    I like the way mandolin composers indicate position shifts by adding a fingering to show where the note is played. Doing this well requires reading intervals, so it's not surprising that a lot of mandolin methods begin with interval studies!
  11. dang's Avatar
    Thanks for the blog post on this, I am new to the classical mandolin world (another Thile/Bach convert) and you raised a few questions I guess I had never considered.
    Is mandolin notation specifically different than notation for violin?
    I guess there could be very different notations for picking vs bowing but as to the fretboard/fingerboard wouldn't the notations be similar?