Improvisation: Magical or Explainable?

After studying jazz improvisation for a few years, I was recently joyous to discover the concept of improvisation in the classical style, or more specifically baroque improvisation. One example of this on piano is Gabriela Montero from Venezuela.

During an interview on NPR, my joy quickly turned to irritation when she said, when asked how she is able to improvise (~2:01): “Ah, where it comes from even now, it just ah, another place. I can’t describe what it is. It’s definitely not a place where thought is part of it, you know. It has a logic to it but I’m not conscious of it. Something that just happens”. This is irritating for a few reasons. One, this was a great opportunity to take the mystery and intimidation out of improvisation explain to people how improvisation works. For example taking a standard chord progression and adding a melody around it. Two, it propagates the myth that some people are just born being able to improvise and the music comes from some heavenly place and is just played ‘through the musicians fingers’. And it discounts the amount of hard work and knowledge required to pull this off.

When we listen to the first 2 improvisations that she played we can easily see in the first case (~1:29) a melody played over Dm Gm A Dm (played twice) the first time the melody ends on the minor 3rd of Dm (F) leaving it unresolved and then the second time the melody ends on the root over Dm (D). This is a i iv V i progression which is very standard. Here’s the tab (on one staff) – Gabriela Montero Improv (not to be played on a guitar unless arranged properly).

While Gabriela may not being aware of what she is playing, or may have forgotten what she practiced what she played was very explainable.

In the second piece, we see another progression in Dm but after the first Dm Gm A Dm A we go through the cycle of fourths in the key of D minor. Dm Gm C F Bb Em7b5 A Dm Gm A7 Dmajor.

Later on the interviewer says (~8:10) ‘You know, one is tempted upon hearing that to say there’s something, whatever we want to call it, innate, genetic, god given, there’s something, there’s a gift there.’ Argghhhh!

Improvising can be learned. It is not genius, prodigy, or magic. All it takes is a lot of hard work.

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