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August Watters

Improvisation in Classical Mandolin

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“Bach was the first jazz musician.” “Mozart was a great improviser.” “Paganini thrilled his audiences with improvised cadenzas.”

These anecdotes are often heard around the classical music scene, and they hint at some of the improvisational languages within classical music traditions. It’s well-documented that improvisation was an essential part of a classical musician’s toolkit, through the 18th century. Yet somehow, today, the word “classicist” is sometimes used to describe someone who doesn’t improvise.

The state of classical mandolin education today would probably reinforce that misperception. Both the German and Italian educational systems have highly-developed curricula for classical mandolin, but to my knowledge neither has yet devised a systematic approach to teaching improvisation through the classical idiom. The same is true in America: although a uniquely American strain of classical mandolin flourished briefly at the turn of the 20th century, no formalized educational approach has yet been devised to explore this music or its improvisational component. Perhaps as more of this music is recovered, we’ll get a better view of the improvisational language of those early American mandolinists.

The role of improvisation in classical mandolin history is somewhat speculative, but it’s fair to say that mandolinists were part of the same improvisational traditions as other instrumentalists of the day. We can find some strong evidence of improvisation in classical mandolin by reading between the lines of Paganini’s “Allegro Moderato.”

Paganini’s father was a mandolinist, and so mandolin became Paganini’s first instrument. “Allegro Moderato” is among his first compositions, and one of his few surviving mandolin works. It consists of four 8-measure sections. The first two look like this:

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Notice the lack of ornamentation: the melody is relatively simple and unadorned. This follows the practice of the time, where ornamentations were implied rather than being written in. Notice also the repeat signs – it is unlikely that a simple, unadorned melody would have been played exactly as written once, let alone twice. Players might have worked out the ornamentation, or they might have improvised it – but since we know that Paganini became a great improviser, this short piece serves as a snapshot of his development.

Ornamentation, however, was not the only improvisational language of the day: in an upcoming blog post we’ll look at a theme-and-variations approach to improvisation and composition. Later on we’ll look at mandolin’s potential to join the baroque continuo – the improvised accompaniment of baroque music, performed by what today we might call a “rhythm section.” It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds: we do have evidence that early fretted instruments participated in the continuo, and read figured bass, the “chord symbols” of the day. Learning to improvise accompaniments in baroque style on mandolin, mandola and mandocello is only a matter of mastering that language.

So how about it, improvising mandolinists? Let's get down to it! As we dig deeper into our instrumental traditions and extend them into the future, we'll find plenty of room for creative improvisation within classical mandolin.

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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?
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. 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.