Piano Street Magazine

Improvisations – New Forum Section

March 30th, 2009 in Piano Street Site News by | 6 comments

The other day I heard Chopin improvise at George Sand’s house. It is marvelous to hear Chopin compose in this way: his inspiration is so immediate and complete that he plays without hesitation as if it could not be otherwise.
But when it comes to writing it down and recapturing the original thought in all its details, he spends days of nervous strain and almost terrible despair.”

– Karl Flitsch –

“In 1968, I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation. He answered:

In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what you want to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.

His answer lasted exactly 15 seconds and is still the best formulation of the question I know.”
– Frederic Rzewski –

In the history of Western music, from the medieval until the romantic period, improvisation was an important skill for all composers and keyboard players. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and many others were celebrated for their ability to improvise.

However, while most of the composed music easily survived in its purest form, written scores, improvised music left nothing but the traces in the minds of its listeners (or, on rare occasions written descriptions such as the above quote by Flitsch). The modern conception of the history of music is probably lacking a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Jarrett - The Köln Concert A milestone in the solo piano improvisation revival?

Jarrett - The Köln Concert
A milestone in the solo piano improvisation revival?

Consequently, in music education today and on the main concert platforms there are often distinct borders between improvising, composing, interpreting and performing, and few “classical” musicians are masters of all four trades.

Many modern jazz pianists are currently widening their musical skills and approaching the area traditionally belonging to art music. Thus, in the future, the distinction between being a “jazz pianist” and a “classical pianist” might be blurrier than it has been, not least since there also seems to be a growing interest in improvisation among classical pianists and piano teachers.

Improvisations in Audition Room

In the Piano Street forum community there is a subset of pianists exploring solo piano improvisation. In an effort to support both them and the historical tradition of keyboard improvisation we have now opened a separate section for improvisations in our Audition Room. Here you can listen to uploaded improvisations, discuss them and, not least, share your own recorded improvisations!

In order to make life easier for you when you listen to these improvisations and to all the other pieces in our Audition Room, we have now added an embedded mp3-player next to all the attached files. Just click the little play button and enjoy!


  • The general discussion around improvisation in musical circles tends nowadays to focus on structures provided jazz (strophic form) or the embellishment of classical pieces. For about 20 years I have been improvising with a friend, where our principal connection is not via a musical language but throu spiritual intention. It is one of intense listening, and of responding to each other’s energetic presence so that the musical narrative evolves by consensus, rather than a predetermined way. We have evolved a way of ‘respectfully occupying the same space’ which seems to work best when we’re alone (recording or videoing our performance) rather than with an audience. If the above link doesnt work try http://uk.youtube.com/Maxwellsteer

  • I love the quotes at the beginning of your post. The worlds of improvisation and composition really are separate–you can be wonderful at one and a nightmare at the other.

  • Abbey says:

    I love the quotes at the beginning of the blog post and I remember in one of my books about Chopin a description of George Sand. It said she dressed in mens clothes and smoked. Which is truly weird knowing that Chopin actually fell in love with her anyways, and it is said that he composed some of his most famous pieces while he was in love with her. That ones funny about how Steve Lacy answered in exactly 15 seconds and thats the best answer I’ve ever heard in a short amount of time like that. Its truly amazing. And when George Sand left Chopin he died shortly after that so I guess he really loved this weird woman who wanted to be a man…

  • Trobomaendara says:

    Hi, my name is Tim. Just wanted to say hi to the forum, I been creeping around here for a while now, but tend to participate more. Looking forward to make some new friends. Ciao!


    NY, NY

  • James says:

    I’m fairly certain Steve Lacy lifted that quote from Bill Evans. He gives a short discussion about jazz and improvisation in an interview with his brother Harry Evans. Not that I blame him, or even that I think it was a purposed attemt to claim those words; I just thought I’d mention it.

    Here’s the link if anyone’s interested


  • Ted Jones says:

    The comments by the people mentioned above are interesting but grossly simplistic. It is not simply a matter of time and quick thinking. Improvisation is not simply rapid composition. The mental processes are completely different. Improvisation is real music and notated music is merely a crude visual approximation of it. Over centuries, Western music has embraced the contrary and false notion that improvisation is a fumbling substitute for notation, a poor man’s composition, at best a means to an end.

    The most important difference concerns rhythm. The truth is that most perceived rhythms beyond the childishly simple cannot be notated unambiguously at all. Harmony, on the other hand, is just a matter of discrete combinatorics, easily notated, theorised about and academically done to death in both classical and jazz.

    This has brought about the totally destructive idea that improvisation is all about harmony, with endless theories, treatises, diatribes, “shoulds” and “ought tos”, all efficiently stringhalting any spontaneous creative impulse. It is hard to know which group is the worst at promulgating this moribund nonsense, the classical brigade or the jazz diehards.

    Unlike other forums I could mention, Pianostreet has shown unusual insight in having an improvisation section.

  • Write a reply or comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *