Solo Orchestra Instruments

In these essays I devote attention especially to the Piano as my own preference and as the most generally accessible instrument in our society. Pianos of all shapes are found everywhere and piano instruction is the most popular introduction of the young to the world of music. The piano is ideal for this, it has the widest range of tone of any instrument with its impressive seven octaves, and it can play light and soft pianissimo as well as a thundering rush of chordal sound enough fill a great hall. Using the right and left hand in concert, it has connections with the right and left side of the brain and does not have the separation of hand and arm functions which the string instruments require. The Organ with its special registers, the Harpsichord with its baroque atmosphere and the electronic KB are all good instruments for improvisation, but the ubiquitous piano with its army of teachers for basics is found everywhere and many will think of improvisation as a piano technique.

The piano however does have some limitations. In our musical tradition, and especially in the popular vein, it is assumed that the right hand will be used to carry the melody-line, to which our ears are culturally attuned. The left hand usually supplies a harmonic background to the "tune" up above, with chords, rhythmic motions and extensive arpeggiation. This formula is so built into our popular and commercial music for piano, that beginning improvisers will often go for it implicitly, believing that it is the normal way to improvise.

This is a critical limitation to the full improvisational process. By contrast, the best example of a full two handed technique can be seen in any of the KB pieces of J. S. Bach. Many of these are virtuosic examples, they are hard to understand on the fly and difficult to read from score; but any of the slow pieces in the WTC or the Partitas I and II will show how the right and left hand can be used to elicit separate but intertwining musical voices.

The piano has to be watched lest it be dominated by a chordal mentality, so it is good to remember the words of many a harmony teacher who insists to a surprised class, that a "chord" is nothing but the moment of confluence of a set of leading voices. Chords without voice-leading are just clumps of sound and one of the hard lessons for intermediate students is to write exercises with proper voice leading of all parts. This of course just an academic exercise and a bother to write out properly, but it puts the attention on Voice Leading in opposition to use of pre-set chords used as musical filler below a dominant melody line. Piano improvisation has to learn this fact, there is an interesting world of voice in any live music.

But leaving the piano aside for the moment, we have to ask: Where are the improvisations coming from all the rest of the instruments of the grand symphonic orchestra? Why is there so little experimentation in improvisation with the string instruments and the breath instruments in all their sizes and tonal varieties?

I think of Bartok's lovely and delicate piece for unaccompanied violin, and we all have heard Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites, so why are there so few single-voiced instrumental improvisers around? Considering the large number of violin students who have done their homework achieving some degree of ease with their instrument, many reading score parts with relative ease, why don't more try their hand at improvisation? Then I think of the sound of the horn, of the rare English horn, or the wonderful chalumeau tone of the clarinet with its hard second voice up above, or of the bass clarinet and the flute and the majestic bassoon. Most of us have only heard these instruments when the camera points them out in a recorded symphonic performance, where they are restricted to very small and unimaginative parts by orchestral necessity.

Beside the piano where I am at home, I have learned enough about the violin and especially the largely unheard viola, to be able to improvise when I am overloaded by my piano technique. I don't play these well at all, but I find there is a great deal of freedom with the string instrument if I give myself permission to try new directions. There is an ample supply of bowing techniques, from long breaths of resonance sound, to staccato with a special abruptness, glides and wrist-generated continuatives, all this on the bridge or legno , and all hammered loud or incredibly soft. Against this bowing the left hand is free to think in terms of tonal fifths, often fifths-on-fifths which is a very interesting non-piano sound. I can be diatonic with a baroque intonation, using just one melodic voice and even if I want, trying out on another string a second complementary voice for a second or two.

I am thinking that with any one of a dozen classical instruments there is world open to the inventive musical mind, and Improvisation is the tap from which to turn on a surprisingly new personal flow of sound. It may be easier to play a part of a memorized piece of Mozart, but that does not call up the inner spirit of the mind which is much happier at inventing than repeating. Of course some people are not natural inventors, just as some readers who love poetry could never think of trying to write a poem. One's natural bent must be respected and followed, but until an improvisational and inventive effort is explored, a person can never be sure what lies inside the mind. As children we all had imagination, but our schooling and our lives steered us toward fact and trained performance ---- in writing, music and to a certain extent in our way of living. But there are sparks of imagination to be revived, if we give ourselves a chance, and a good start will be to experiment with the sound of music.

In short, I suggest we try to get into focus the sound of a single orchestral instrument where we have had training, as something of value in its own right aside from its role reading score in a group setting. My viola improvisation may not be something I am ready to record right now, but I find that when I step aside from the piano and spend half an hour with the very different world of string music, that my mind gets turned in a very fresh and free direction. And when I come back to the keyboard, my sense of voices is much clearer and I am improvising far better. I used to play the clarinet a little, maybe I should take out the old vintage Selmer from its case , find out if my embouchure is still usable, and see if the instrument has something new to suggest in an improvising frame of mind.

The question is how to get a new touch of musical freedom from an activity with my hands, arms and inner spirit, so that I can get up on a Saturday morning and experiment a while with something that I am able to invent, something I have not quite done before, something which is for me in a small part still unheard, fresh and new.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College