..... with elements of Baroque Style
This is a brief invitation to Baroque Improvisation for those who had studied several years of piano lessons, but over time have come to say "Oh yes, I used to play the piano...". In fact a great deal of the sound of what we studied remains in our minds, and much of the neural connections for hand and fingerwork although latent, can be recalled with exercise and practice. Going back to formal Lessons may not be the best road since it may bring up memories of the days of forced practice with unintuitive teaching.
When we speak of Baroque Improvisation we find there are two related but very different levels of improvisation. On the one hand there are professional scholars and performers who do meticulously crafted improvisations on harpsichord or organ in an authentic Baroque style. There has been an increase of attention paid to this art recently and a number of skilled artists perform regularly in concerts and workshops to show that the once common art of improvisation at keyboard is still viable and pleasurable to play and to hear. The current professional level of Baroque Improvisation arises partly from a necessity for modern performance with original scores. Many early scores have left large parts of the material unscored with the assumption that contemporary performers will fill out cadenzas if not whole sequences.
But in the 16th and 17th centuries improvisation at the keyboard was a personal art which served as a private way to experiment with new musical sounds and ideas. Bach was known to his contemporaries as a master keyboardist capable of the most complex improvisations, and his reputation was then stronger in this area than in the choral works which the modern public associates with Bach's highest art. Keyboard improvisation was a private matter, it could be done at the organ in the quiet of late evening so long as there was a boy to pump the bellows. And the clavichord with its tiny but clear and dynamic sound was as interesting for private music-making as the brasher plucking of the harpsichord . Of course demonstrations of keyboard virtuosity were always of interest to the educated musical public.
This private and personal use of a baroque style idiom is one which can be accessed by anyone who has studied the piano for several years, even without a great deal of study and practice. A person who has worked through some of the easier Sonatas of Mozart or Beethoven has absorbed through practice with his fingerwork to provide an intuitive sense of the basic harmonics of early music. Scales in various keys and modes, triadic chords arrangements and developments, basic modulation from one key to another --- these are things which have been used over and over in standard repertory, and these are the same things which an improviser will use intuitively without defining them as terms of a musical grammar.
Conversely someone who doesn't have hand and ear experience with these constructive elements will not be able to generate improvised music from instructions. He will lack the flow which is needed to put together musical phrases the way we flow forth a grammatical sentence in speech. Those early years at the piano doing lessons may not have been totally absorbing, but they do have a residual effect which can be used later for generating new musical sequences.
Some hundreds of thousands of young students are studying piano each year in America, most quite naturally under pressure from parents who want their children to do something 'cultural' and educational. Since the traditional approach has been regulatory with two handed scales and arpeggios exercises which may be more athletic than musical, it is no wonder that most kids get away from the piano as soon as they can.
Many adults will admit that they once studied the piano, usually adding that they can't remember much and now they tend to enjoy their music as recorded by artists who play the piano far better than they ever could have done. Who wants to pick out the Appassionata note by note when you can have a choice of ten brilliant CD recordings to hear? In l920 you played music or went to a concert to hear it, that was the choice. Now recorded music is the available choice which has turned us into a generation of HiFi musical listeners rather than instrumental players.
But if a former student wants to come back to music with the piano, it will probably not be at lessons with a prim Miss Pemberton sitting on the bench ready to point a skinny finger at the score with a stern: Play that Again! And who wants to study in a class with ten year old kids who probably are faster learners than you at your advanced middle years? There are teachers who favor older students but preferably those who have proven talent, and maybe you are not sure about that now. So there is a quandary:
For the first question, I recommend Improvisation as a musical enterprise which is done without peering at notes in the score, without reading instructions to get the right finger in the right place. It is something you have to be able to do with relaxed mind, even with your eyes closed. Once the flow of interesting sound arrangements starts, it continues by its own inertia; even if you are doing something quite simple, at least it is entirely your own. For developing with complexity, speed and effects, you are in sole charge, it is your decision which counts when you are improvising your own music.
For the second question, about where to begin, it is less clear. There are abundant "courses" in piano which show you how to pick out a tune with the right hand and then add standard chords with the left to give a basic accompanied song. This is in effect what an accordion does with chord arrangements under a melody line, and if you really like this sound then the accordion and not the piano may be your instrument. There are now dozens of Jazz courses which operate on this same chordal basis, with pre-set figures and turns which are standard in the jazz repertory. Again, if you like jazz this is your dish; but if your ears are more tuned to Bach's Goldberg or Well Tempered pieces, then an experiment in Basic Baroque may be better suited to your temperament.
But between the returning piano student wanting to do Baroque Improv for personal pleasure, and the professionals who do their own baroque pieces or demonstrate harpsichord cadenzas at workshops, there is an instructional lacuna. A few colleges are now starting teaching in the improvisational area, more will hopefully follow; but for the moment there is little practical instruction to go with.
In the meantime there is much you can do by experimenting on your own, and I urge you to proceed and for the moment go it alone. One should never wait in the world of music for someone to tell you what to do and how to do it. Over the years I have been developing my musical skills on my own learning curve, and I think it is now time to write down what I have been doing. It is like the classic Samurai swordsman who goes to the mountain in old age to write down what he has learned, since otherwise his learning becomes lost. But don't wait in too long the valley, the personal sage may never come down from the mountain.
One might properly ask: Just what is the Baroque style? When the word Baroque was first used it was in a derogatory sense along with 'rococo' and referred to overly ornamented design of music and architecture which filled every corner with intricate detail in a 'horror vacui' frenzy. It is hard to understand this criticism since now Baroque is taken to mean clean-lined and clear music in its well laid out complexity. Furthermore it is architecturally intellectual and a good counterfoil to the involved instrumentation and expanded orchestration of the 19th century. Baroque music has its quirks and conceits, not unlike John Donne's difficult and tough-written poetry from the same period, but it is never mushy or inconclusive. It was written for people who were musically educated and only disappeared in disfavor in mid 18th century when an expanding middle class took interest in the concert hall and the symphonic orchestra. Music which was easy and attractive to hear was preferred to music which had to be understood to be appreciated, and the total effect of a piece was what brought people to the concert hall, rather than the harder art of unraveling voices woven into the musical fabric of the score.
Baroque music has two advantages as a starting point for improvisation. First the sound is familiar and intellectually accessible, there are no problems of trying to understand what the music is about, as compared to Schoenbergian twelve tone rows. Second, the actual fingerwork required to play two part Inventions is natural to the hand and if one has studied even Bach's first Inventions the use of the left hand is well understood if not yet automatic. It is probably this left hand playing which is the first thing a new improviser has to get familiar with, since classical and modern piano writing generally uses the left hand in a subordinate chordal way as accompaniment. The notion of two voices working with and against each other will take some time to become a part of your manual and musical thinking.
The technique of Baroque polyphony involves freely independent use of the right and left hand. Since both are operated from an opposite side of the brain, there is a real difference in how the dominant (usually right) hand works as compared with the left. The old words 'dexter' and 'sinister' which had special associations for the Romans are no longer regarded as good and bad, but there is a clear difference in the way the right arm throws a baseball, or the left hand carves turkey at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Some of us are wired the other way and the left hand serves as dominant, others will be ambidextrous by nature although a certain ambidexdtrosity can be achieved by use and practice. I mention this here because it affects the way hands work on a musical keyboard. Melody in the right hand with block accompaniment with the left fits the neural wiring of the majority, while a left handed pianist will find polyphonic music quite accessible in performance, with a natural inclination to use the bass line strongly.
I have found that regular and conscious use of the left handed musical voice does produce interesting results. A melody worked out with the fingers of the left hand often has a style of its own, sometimes it seems to be coming from another place in the mind, which is in fact neurally quite correct. Reading music written by a right handed composer we will ignore many LH signals, but when improvising a left-handed person can follow the natural inclinations of those LH fingers, and give them, by relaxing and watching their penchant, a life of their own. It takes time and attention for the left hand to develop its full potential, since the process of connecting right and left side of the brain in concert is as complicated as it is ill-understood.
But the hand connections although flexible and somewhat forgiving, are still hard wired, and the more you learn about the way your biological equipment works, the more you get in contact with the way your biological nature responds to music. We cannot say at this point whether two handed activities done regularly and with intent, will improve the overall operation of a person's brain, or whether polyphonic pianists recover more quickly from one-sided damage from a stroke; but being two handed physically and mentally is certainly no disadvantage in living and may well have rewards which we do not generally recognize.
Baroque playing does not require the kind of virtuosic capabilities which you need for playing Brahms or for Liszt. A huge hand-reach is not required for octave runs or for major tenths, and the kind of speed in scales which 19th century pianism requires is different from fast moving Baroque scalar motions. Parallel octaval scales and appogiations are used but are not basic requirements for baroque playing, and much of the drill and exercise which early students are required to perform has minor reference to basic baroque playing. Long fingers laid flat against the keys may help some in execution of a difficult passage of Liszt, but Bach's son stated that his father played with curled fingers following the natural relaxed cast of his hand at rest. By now most teachers will advise following the nature of your musculature and start from the way your hand anticipates playing when you first sit down at the keyboard.
Since the piano as we know it only came into existence after 1820, and much baroque music was written and played on clavichord or harpsichord, which do not have the thunderous dynamic potential of modern grand piano, one should start improvisation with a light touch and soft sound. The clavichord has dynamics of sound but they are so soft as to escape a modern ear, while harpsichord has almost none at all. Avoiding a heavy touch seems historically appropriate, but it also favors a lightness of sound which comes from hammers just kissing the piano's strings. When we were children we were glad to just get the notes and keys right and often pounded them down as if working at a manual typewriter; so this might be a good time to re-assess the way our fingers can work with a touch marked by delicacy. This confers another advantage; if the sound is lighter and more delicate, that is probably good for our hearing and our intimate perception of music. It is always easy to play louder, but difficult for a loud player to play softly. That takes some care and practice.
I remember watching a harmony teacher with a class going through a demonstration at the blackboard, tracing with chalk the progression of several voices through a sequence as individual voice-led lines, until he came to the end where he marked out the place where they all came together on the last sound. "That" he said "...that is a chord! These are voices and that is --- a chord. " Starting with voices you assemble good chords which are nothing but simultaneous presets of moving voices. Thinking of voices you get good voice-leading from chord to chord, rather than blocked chords in blunt array. In baroque music the voices are important and when they come in at a final point all together, as in a Chorale to end a Cantata, there is a special effect which comes from the way the voices conspire to resolve together. Using the flow of moving voice-lines requires the improviser's attention because it is not a part of the student pianist's regular training; but members of a choral group will be fully aware of what this means.
Piano students often use the right or Sustaining Pedal indiscriminately, usually far to much and held down far too long, and when they refer to it as the "loud pedal" they show they have missed the point. This pedal raises all dampers across the soundboard and lets the open strings resound sympathetically with the struck strings and also to each other. If you listen carefully to heavily pedaled playing, you will hear a cloudy mishmash of resonances, which although useful for some progressions and for some triadic chordal sequences, will not suit the nature of baroque playing at all. Use of the pedal should be restricted for baroque improv. Best leave your foot on the floor for a while, and learn how "finger pedaling" or holding down a struck key with one finger, while other fingers continue with their motion, can give a selective pedaling effect. Right hand fifth finger holding down still leaves three fingers and the thumb available for new notes, with the resonance of the one string still sounding. This delicate selective pedaling may seem something new to try out, but it is a device well known to performance pianists as a finer way of getting special resonances without a murky sound of all strings humming together. Baroque playing normally does not need the pedal at all except perhaps to bind together some of the ornaments or the closing phrases of a sequence.
But the "Soft or una corda Pedal over on the left side is fine for baroque piano. Originally called 'una corda' in l820 when pianos were strung with two string per key, the name has stuck although we now have three strings. The left pedal on a grand merely moves the hammers over to strike only two of them, and if the lateral motion is properly adjusted, the third or left-side string which is not struck will pick up reverberation sympathetically from the other two strings, and produce a soft, almost lute-like resonance which is quite charming. You will not hear this if the adjustments are not right, or you may not be tuned to such a gentle acoustic resonance. Use of this pedal is often favored for baroque playing since it gives a light and gentle sound, although the modern grand piano was engineered for volume since mid-19th century rather than for delicacy of sound. The upright piano does not move the keyboard but raises a bar to shorten the key stroke, and Fazzoli at the high end of piano manufacture also does it that way ; so the secondary reverb will not be heard there.
Some pianists keep the left pedal down continually to get a lighter tone from the instrument, and it may be possible to slip a wedge into the works somewhere in the pedal train to stay on 'una corda' and thus be free to play with two hands and both feet on the ground. Aside from acoustic reasons, this disuse of the left foot gives a more balanced and relaxed playing position and leaves attention focused on the two hands in motion. (The middle pedal which holds strings open with raised dampers after striking, has a special use for grand Lisztian passages where the roar of the bass must be extended, but is of little concern for baroque playing.)
Piano students were often instructed by a certain breed of old-fashioned teachers to play each 'note' ( meaning a 'key' or lever = Fr. touche --- we have problems of mixed wordings !) with a snappy action of each finger, which after striking goes up to a raised position immediately. Where this evil information came from nobody really knows but it might have once suited the finger action of the clavichord which is very particular about details of fingering. For harpsichord and piano which use dampers this is totally wrongheaded, and has produced generations of students who "strike" the note, ruining the sound by force and avoiding resonance by the immediate damper fall , at the same time putting the hand into a tense and thoroughly un-pianistic attitude.
Hands and fingers need to be soft and relaxed, arms must be loose and floating, shoulders never tight and the body must be easily seated on the bench, preferably a solo chair without the teacher hovering over your right shoulder. Pianists as well as violinists must be relaxed, from hands to toes with the mind free from tension as well. Without a proper frame of approach, one should not try to play the piano at all. For some people, tai-chi exercises may be good for putting the body into a state ready for music, by relaxing both body and soul. For others it may be taking a walk, shaking out the arms until they feel soft and droop at your sides. Whatever devices you try, remember that a relaxed body and soft fingers produce lovely sounds as a reflection of the performer's inner state. We evoke music rather than contrive it, whether we are singing, whistling while walking in the woods, or sitting quietly before the black and white gleaming keyboard. The mind of the player is the all important pre-condition for making beautiful sounds.
Some things do require practice. Harpsichord music does require trills, perhaps originally as a way of sustaining the sounds since the instrument does not produce long resonances. We usually consider trills and mordents in the various formats as "decorations", perhaps part of an objectionable baroque over-dressing; but they are also interesting and musically valid in their own right. In any case you will want them ready on hand and practice is fine so long as it is done in sequences rather than baldly practicing them as exercises, minute after minute. The same is true for scales of course, but remember that baroque scale work can often be a five finger run, up or down or up-and-down, giving the effect of a collapsed eight note octaval run. These are easy to do, even with left hand, they need little comment; but people coming back to play after long years away will still trip over their thumb-under motion in a regular scale.
Not overspeeding and raising the wrist as you slide thumb under, will help scales infinitely, and of course right hand running down with finger-over is much easier. Left hand scales may seem harder to do on the fly, but left hand running up is very natural and this direction nicely suits the important base pivot sound resolving upward to meet another voice at central point. Again one starts with what figures come naturally, and since this is improvisation there need be no practice done apart from the improvised music session. You must give attention to minor difficulties while in full motion, without freezing your attention on a mistake. In practice as in a formal concert, when you make a mistake, go right on: That is an iron rule.
Speaking of mistakes. We were schooled to read the right note and press the right key, and when we did either of these wrong, it was a MISTAKE and you had to stop and go back and do the passage again. This was seen as a matter of correctness and diligence, but it was also a sure way to stop the flow of music and discourage the student's music ear. When the mistakes were all corrected, the music might be no good after all, and freedom from error is never what makes a piece of music interesting or even acceptable. It was like penmanship in the old days, when it was the freedom from wrong curls of the steel point pen and black blots on the paper that earned you a good grade. An immaculately played little exercise was what the teacher was really after. When we turn to Improvisation, we are going to find all kind of "errors" in flow and in harmony; but these are acoustic micro-lessons in what goes seamlessly with something else naturally and acoustically.
Each dissonant sound can of course be taken as a leading-tone to the adjacent sound, and if only one sound moves a half step the result will actually be harmonic; so there would be no reason to stop with a "bad" note. Just go on and it will resolve, that is all there is to it. You learn harmony by doing, since you can hear non-consonant sounds very quickly and make decisions about how you want your playing to sound. And there may be too much sweetness, too harmonic a series, so you try a few off-keys to see how a little grit in the mixture works. But by bit you assemble tools for constructing the kind of sequence you want, something which suits the instrument, suits your ear, and something which a friend dropping by unannounced may comment on saying "That's quite nice, that last part...". First please yourself, it will please others, and what about those "mistakes"? Well, each of them can be taken as a starting point for something new, a new phrase or a new direction in the harmonic sequence; or it may trip off a fast run as a change of pace, or a different sounding split chord. Mistakes are the seeds out of which new growth sprouts.
Baroque music might seem to be measure-and-bar music, by which I mean music which is always referring to the measure bars in the score as continual reference points. Some of this practice must have come from dance steps in music which require regularity and an anticipated beat, with an up-beat and a down-beat in each measure. Western music has been haunted by the 'thesis' and 'arsis' of academicians drawn from ancient Greek musical theory, where 'thesis' meant setting the foot down while 'arsis' literally means raising it up. Somehow we reverse this in our musicology, confusing an already questionable situation further.
I hope a person when first getting into personal improvisation will try to ignore up and down beats and for the moment ignore the idea of a measured chunk. Forget about the four-measure segments which is (1) played (2) repeated once, (3) modified slightly and then slipped into a (4) resolution for a tonal closure. There is a lot of this already in early Baroque composition, but it seems to have caught the fancy of the Western ear overall and it continued unabated as a stock formula through the early Classical period and on into 19th century musical expansion with full orchestration. Only in the early 20th century did we break out of this four-square mold and into a new world of vari-structured sounds.
But if you start Baroque improv with the four segment sequence, that will do no harm and it will give a touch of form to your rambling inventions. But the four segments can be extended to six, and can lap over into a another stream of sounds with a very different pace of fast moving sixteenth notes without stopping. In other words, let the form become free at some point and see how that changes the nature of your musical meandering. Put the other way around: If you really like four square organization in measures with internal up and down stresses, why not stick with Country Music which uses these things as its musical substructure? The majority of people seem to love Country and many can't even hear Bach, so a clarification of intent might be a good thing at the start.
Back to the keyboard, you must notice that your two hands are mirror images of each other. When you learned to do parallel scales with both hands, it must have been with a great deal of unconscious computing in the brain to match the motion of the RH. thumb with LH. pinky at speed; but you did master that exercise. Now here is another one which will require a bit of rewiring: The right and left hand can run in opposite directions simultaneously. This is perfectly natural for two mirroring hands, and it is very interesting musically because unlike the parallel scales which preserve the same harmonics note by note, inverse motion changes from harmonic to dis-harmonic sound note by note. Every serious student of composition is told to watch inverse motion in his writing, since it leads to very interesting and unsuspected associations of sounds. We hear these opposing motions continually in Renaissance and Baroque music of the 16th century, they offer a clean and fresh change from the over-harmonic sweetness of much 19th century practice.
When one studies Standard Harmonic Practice, one of the first lessons will be in Modulation as a way of changing the key signature in the course of a musical sequence. The first change will usually be to go through the formal Circle of Fifths to the next key in the series, e.g. C major to G major, via the dominant of the second key, and so on. This formal academic shifting of tonality is used continually in all classical music, but for an improviser's use it has to operate musically in flight, not as exemplification of a rule. It seems more musically intuitive to try moving around from your C major beginning, and see what sound shifts you can discover as similar to the way Bach does it on one of your CDs. If you get a Bach-like effect, you are on line in a historical sense, and if you get a different effect you may want to shift it around and normalize it. Or you may want to keep it as interesting and let it become part of your personal harmonic sensibility. There have been so many ways of getting from one place to another in the repertory of musical composition that whatever you do come up with, will certainly have been copyrighted by some composer in the last five centuries. There is nothing really "wrong" in sound, only things which are unfamiliar and new.
But there are some simple tonal shifts which are basic and easy to use. The straight major scale is different when you lower the third interval and then the sixth to give a minor scale. We in the West have only these two arrangements, the major and minor scales leftovers from the Greek handful of Modes with individual emotions attached to each. The happy major and sad minor is an unfortunate simplification, best soon forgotten. But there is an interesting sound-shift from any major scale to the "relative minor" in academic terminology, which starts a minor third down with traditional minor scale lowering. Shifting back and forth between these is always interesting, a standard movement in all Western music; but you can also shift from C major to C Minor staying in the same range but still with these same two lowerings; you are now in what is called the Relative Minor. But this gives a second kind of easy instant shifting which is after all what Modulation is about.
However in reality, you can shift from any series to any series, just go ahead and do it and see how it sounds. There are places where Bach the master improviser moves so quickly from tonality to tonality that it is impossible to say in what key he is playing --- until he get ready to end the piece and return to home. But for pieces to be played by standard student performers, he writes measured phrases with clear beats and stays largely in the same key, if only as a practical matter. There are no rules, only the practices of continually varying performances.
On of the stock Modulations if baroque music is by Chromatic Movement, which is done by raising a few notes by one half tone, and then establishing that new-found series as the new tonality. Done with a repeated rhythmic figure, this is something you hear so regularly in baroque music that it almost becomes a trademark of the style. Used overly it becomes trite, but chromatic scalar movement is something that Bach experimented with often, and many modern scholars feel that had Bach's style not become disfavored in his lifetime and had he lived longer, he might well have verged into a chromaticism like that which we find in Beethoven's last quartets, and ultimately in 20th century innovations. There is nothing un-baroque in experimenting with the half tones, which are not really "accidentals" necessitated by overlapping diatonic tonalities. It took four centuries before we could at last think of music in half-tone terms, while the Indians have always employed quarter tones as a basic substructure for their musical art. In its rhythmic and tonal apparatus, our richly harmonic Western musical tradition is somewhat underprivileged; some might even consider us possessed of a third-world rhythmical musicality.
The modern piano has sounds which sing far longer than the baroque harpsichord, and when we play baroque music with an almost staccato fingerwork in great speed, we miss one of the good things which a modern piano can add to ancient music. A low piano sound can last almost half a minute till disappearance, while a middle treble has a good 15 seconds of duration. Improvised playing should take advantage of some of the richness of our well engineered piano sounds and work with a conscious legato of the fingers sounds to melt naturally into each other, while letting the singing sounds of a modern soundboard reverberate between the bursts of our active fingering.
One can think of trying to catch a bit of the singing of Corelli's wonderful strings with the on-ringing of the strings of a good piano. Baroque playing does not mean mechanical trapwork of the fingers as once taught, or exact timing of each measure as 1 + 2 + 3 + 4. Listen to Casals in 1938 playing the Bach Cello Suite in loosened tempi, which is the way he heard it in his own virtuosic mind, even if modern critics say it is all out of shape. Our baroque improvisation can be as loose and fluid as we wish, or it can be tight and measured in places, relaxed elsewhere by contrast. In the world of Improvisation there are no Rules, only the consensus of practices which seem good to hear, as part of the evolving stylistics of the improviser in the progress of his ongoing development.
In Epilog I would like to say that improvising in a modified Baroque Style is a wonderful training for both hands and mind. As you progress in your own curve of learning and experimentation, you reach into new ways of handling form and sound. This can be a self-fulfilling project in itself, good for many an evening of soundscaping in the privacy of your imagination. Going further in this direction you may want to shift to the harpsichord which has a character of its own, different from the piano but probably much nearer to the sounds of 18th century improvisers at their keyboard. Organs are found in most churches and they may open another window of the sound experience.
But you may want to re-shape your learning and experience away from the baroque style and move to an entirely different style of improvisation. Although the full sound of 19th century music sounds quite different from the acoustic compactness of the baroque, it is firmly built on what went before. When Brahms said that every morning began for him with Bach he was thinking of form and structure and the inner voices which are so characteristic of his composition, rather than just the sound. Or it may be time to make a complete acoustic break and become interested in the Polytonal realm, using all the halftones of the diatonic scale as acoustic equals, and perhaps fusing elements of standard classical harmony with the edge and biting qualities of minor seconds and augmented fourths.
What you have learned from your involvement with the earlier styles should be the basis for reaching out into a personal musical freedom. Musical traditions in any culture are cumulative, we imbibe intuitively a sense of what went before and even if we rip up the ancient scores and say we are going on into the future with a clean slate ---- it will never work out that way. We develop new points of reference in our thinking, and the end of a road in ant venture will be different from where you started out.