David Dolan

David Dolan

If you don’t apply an improvisational frame of mind when performing repertoire … you are into a very uninteresting thing, unengaged, therefore un-engaging — The idea of playing what’s on the text always, only, is wrong.

David Dolan believes that one can improvise not only by inventing, or creating new musical material. He suggests a larger definition of improvisational practice as a continuum that includes not only spontaneous invention but also performing repertoire with an ‘improvisational state of mind’. Here, even repertoire that allows no place for improvisation will nonetheless be played differently, following different narratives in every performance. For him, an ideal performance will fuse natural expressive gestures (based on natural or universal schemata) with learned musical gestures, nurtured by deep knowledge of a piece’s harmonic, textural and motivic structure, and its stylistic context.

David Dolan (piano) & Tom Watkins (cello) improvise on Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Cello & Piano, op. 11, at the University of Cambridge in 2013.

As is well-known, C. P. E. Bach’s 18th-century treatise, ‘Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments’, was a major influence for many generations to come. It was steeped in the conviction that nothing in music is more important than expression. J. S. Bach’s son and pupil warned in the same text against worshipping hollow technical showmanship. David similarly errs on the side of expressivity over technical perfection for its own sake, and there is a pragmatic case for this preference to be adopted more widely.

Re-thinking performance as a creative act rather than an act of reproduction seems to bring significant benefits for the listener’s experience as well. David co-authored a multidisciplinary experiment whose findings suggest that taking an improvisatory approach to performance produces auditory experiences that sound palpably riskier, more adventurous and more emotionally engaging to listeners.[1] Even listeners without formal classical training seem to hear that risks are being taken by the performers whether or not they ‘work’. In the experiment, musicians played pieces to an audience in a ‘winning an international competition’ state of mind and also in an ‘improvisatory’ state of mind. The latter included more risk-taking both in terms of using performance parameters (changes of timing, dynamics and timbre over time), even when the notes were unchanged, and spontaneously extemporizing notes when considered appropriate by the performers. Not only were audiences able to distinguish the improvisatory from the strictly pre-planned performances, but also their brain activity (measured using synchronized EEG readings of performers and their listeners) coordinated significantly more closely with that of the players when, and only when, the improvisatory versions were played.

Mozart, Concerto in A Major, K415

In this performance of Mozart’s C Major K415, eingangs, repeat of themes, fermata points and cadenzas are extemporised. Although these skills were forgotten as composers and performers became separate specialists during the 19th century, until around the mid 1800s concerto performances would always have involved this kind of improvisation. Indeed, the form itself had always been understood as one in which performers were expected to apply creative freedom. Not only was improvisation integral to performance of particular musical forms, it was also integral to the concept of musicality. As it was a challenging skill that marked the able musician from the pupil or amateur, Mozart tended not to leave room for improvisation in pieces commissioned for non-professional players.

David says that while 25 years ago improvisation was received with cold, barely polite suspicion among professionals, improvisation had ‘always been something that both students and audiences are fired by’. One of the reasons, he thinks, is that it taps into ‘human empathy’. The audience, the solo performer or the ensemble musicians share the sense they are all experiencing and participating in something unique and risky, where the outcome is unknown. This is even more intensely felt in improvisatory ensemble playing where an unexpected move by one musician may require rapid, fresh decision-making by all the others. Audiences feel this straight away: the unexpected is the exciting thing. The vulnerability that accompanies taking risks with music-performance appears to bond audience members with the players in a shared sense of ‘anticipation, empathy and excitement’. David compares the feeling to that of watching trapeze artists in the air, except ‘we are talking about music which has a hugely complex structure, sets of aesthetic needs, expectations and rules’. In a world where recordings are ubiquitous, and concert performances hardly less predictable than recordings, this ephemerality and intimacy is rare.

Improvisation by David Dolan (piano), J. Kenny (trombone) and B. Mooiman (organ) at the Milton Court Concert Hall of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London

Unlike the other performances featured on this page, this one is pure improvisation. The performers are adjusting what they are playing at any given time to the other performers’ output as it unfolds. This demands constant active listening so as to anticipate where the piece might be heading via the motivic, textural, harmonic thematic and stylistic development in real time. To manage this process, the musicians have to know much more about musical form and about harmony, voice-leading and motivic development than is required of performers who ‘just learn how to play the notes fast’.

It is essential, now, to reintegrate improvisation back into music education, recovering the breadth of interrelated composing, playing and improvising that was the norm until the 19th century. In David’s teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—one of the leading institutions involved in putting creativity back into performance—links are also made between music and drama. Drama students are much more comfortable with the idea that a text can be performed in many different ways, and differently every time. This was much more normal among musicians before World War II, when a personal take on a piece was valued more highly. The global, generalized standard we have become used to was a reaction against pre-War individuality, exacerbated by the rise of international competitions and the recording industry’s increasing insistence on perfection and regularity. This worshipping of technique as a goal rather than a means to an end was exactly what C.P.E. Bach cautioned against. For David, the extent to which classical music is now used as public background music (as a marker of poshness in hotels, for example) reflects the bland homogeneity that’s become so characteristic of performances in recent times.

For David, it’s essential that improvisation be based in knowledge, not only in feeling: the two have to work inextricably together. A failure to understand this lies behind the common assumption in less progressive musical quarters that improvisation is merely a form of musical bluffing (though thanks to the example of Robert Levin, in particular, this is less common than it used to be).[2] On the contrary, students find that training in improvisation equips them to deal much more easily with the unexpected, with nerves, with fear of mistakes, because they can get out of accidents; and they all experience greater engagement with audiences. Many students begin to use it as a teaching tool, which makes them more successful as teachers. Competitions remain more of a problem, because improvising cadenzas there is still not accepted by the more traditional jurors. David’s advice is not to improvise in the competition, if that’s the kind of jury you face, but to do it joyously in the prizewinner’s concert!

Schumann, Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

Here David Dolan (piano) and Thomas Carrol (cello) improvise a prelude to the first of Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces, and then an interlude between the 1st and 2nd and between the 2nd and 3rd. (Note that the page-turner removes the score each time they improvise). The result is almost one triptych performed continuously, and the state of mind during the prelude and interludes affects the performance of the fantasy pieces as well.

Interview with Rosalind Rei.

[1] David Dolan, John Sloboda, Henrik Jeldtoft Jensen, Björn Crutz, Eugene Feygelson, ‘The improvisatory approach to classical music performance: an empirical investigation into its characteristics and impact’, Music Performance Research 6 (2013) 1–38
[2] Robert Levin, ‘Improvising Mozart’, in Gabriel Solis, Bruno Nettl (ed.), Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society (Champaign, 2009) 147


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