Performance and Improvisation

Improvisation has been an area that I’ve had to focus quite heavily on throughout the duration of this project, as it plays and essential role within the material that we are rehearsing. Even though I have improvised in the past, I have never really sat down and consciously thought about the process leading up to, and during improvisation. ‘What are improvisers thinking about at the precise moment of creation?’ ask Parncutt & McPherson (2002). ‘In short, we still do not really know’. They do however go on to assert that ‘…the creative impetus for improvisation often depends on volatile performance variables (e.g., interaction with audience, fellow musicians, acoustic considerations), all of which are extremely difficult to replicate under controlled experimental conditions or reliably account for with postevent analysis’ (p. 121). We discovered this to be true after comparing the rehearsals we did with previous ensembles to the group that we are currently rehearsing as. Keeping the same line up, and having some sort of a rehearsal schedule and structure brought a sense of continuity to the group. We had time to learn each other’s expressions, helping to gauge when we each want to, for example, leave a solo section or change the dynamic. In the previous recitals, it had been at times hard make the music flow, as I was sometimes unsure of the gestures of the other group members. This was the case when we started this group too; however the rehearsal structure, stable line up and set list allowed us to quickly get to grips with the song and learn to perform as a unit. Parnacutt & McPherson (2002) argue that ‘…the body is not only essential for the accurate execution of music, but it is also vital in the generation of expressive ideas about the music. In addition, the body seems to be critical in the production and perception of information about the performers concerns to coordinate with coperformers and audience and to engage in extramusical concerns on stage…’ (p. 237). Again, the more we rehearsed together, the more we found this to be true. Through movement we did develop expressiveness within music, but with this project it has mainly revolved around communication.

Whilst investigating into improvisation and the psychology of performance, I came across some words from Westney (2003) which I found to be quite thought provoking. He asserts that ‘…Another, perhaps less obvious, reason we find the nervous state distressing is that we’re not accustomed to being held accountable in the dramatized way that is part of every public performance. Public performance is a potent truth serum, stripping away all self-delusions and instantly revealing – in front of an audience – the solidity of our knowledge, our precise degree of mastery’ (p. 142). I related to his comment and began to appreciate it when listening back to the recorded rehearsals. What we hear when we are performing, and what we hear on a recording is the same, yet totally different. It is easy to get caught up in the music and in a performance frame of mind when playing. I did at times feel helpless when listening back to the recordings. There is always a slight moment when you think ‘maybe I should have played that section a little differently’. During a performance, there isn’t time to go back and analyse what has just happened within the music, but listening back I found myself over thinking it all at times. This was great for ironing out the little things that you don’t necessarily notice when playing, but at times frustrating, as I’m forever wondering why I can’t always hear these things in the performance. These recordings have been great to improve my playing and develop the rehearsals, but as I know and as Westney (2003) states, ‘all bets are off when we step onstage, and things usually don’t happen exactly as rehearsed or predicted’ (p. 142)


Parncutt, R., & McPherson, G. E. (Eds.) (2002). The Science & Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning.New York: Oxford University Press.

Westney, W. (2003). The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. New York: Oxford University Press.

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