Juan's World

Guitarist, Composer, Writer, Publisher

Improvisation and Classical Guitar

[This article first appeared in Classical Guitar magazine's Summer 2016 issue.]

Photo by Caroline Strunk

Photo by Caroline Strunk

Learning to wing it

The first step, and in some ways the most difficult one, is to wrap your head around the idea of improvisation on the classical guitar. What precisely is improvisation, and what is not? A familiar part of the musical toolbox for guitarists specializing in jazz, flamenco, bluegrass, blues, rock and other genres, improvisation has been relatively neglected, if not exactly derided, in modern classical guitar. This extends to classical music in general, of course. Considering the history of classical music and the evolution of the guitar, it’s perhaps surprising that improvisation does not play a larger role.

Improvisation was a commonplace in early classical music. Musicians from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods improvised ornaments such as trills, mordents, appoggiatura, and other embellishments; composers the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and others extemporized whole forms including the ricercar, fugue, and variations. Today this body of music seems canonical and not apt for ad-hoc experimentation. The concerto’s cadenza was originally a section between movements allowing soloists to demonstrate their skills as an improviser, until the 19th century when cadenzas began to be written down in full by the composer. Lute and vihuela performers often improvised a “prelude” in order to test the instrument or as an introduction to another piece of music.

An improvisational “prelude” is a signature of French guitarist and composer Roland Dyens, one of today’s foremost improvisers on the classical guitar. “It’s almost a superstition, to me,” said Dyens from his apartment in Paris. “I love to improvise, and beginning a concert with an improvisation is the best way for me to check the sound in the performance space, to gauge the public’s mood and reaction, to warm myself up, to feel my guitar. And it connects me to the tradition of the prelude.”

Roland Dyens

Roland Dyens

Improvisation can be many things, but it’s a leap into the beyond, spontaneity, a bit of risk. It can be defined most broadly as extemporaneous composition or ad-libbed performance of a musical passage not prescribed by notation or other text. Creating a new rhythm, contemporaneously embellishing a harmony, inventing a new melody or a variation on a melody “in the moment” are all approaches of improvising.

“One way to think about improvisation is as composition on the spot,” says acclaimed guitarist/composer/improviser Andrew York, who spoke to me from his home in Los Angeles. “When we improvise, we’re in a Zen-like moment, playing ideas that are coming, hopefully, without too much thought. Someone who improvises well, however, can have a larger temporal sense—a greater sense of time—and get an idea of a form developing. It’s pretty complex, really, to have this larger perspective at the same time you’re in the present.”

Roland Dyens improvising at the 2012 Guitar Foundation of America Convention, June 30, 2012, Sottile Theatre College of Charleston


Liquid Composition

Few prominent classical guitarists improvise on a regular basis; it’s undoubtedly not coincidental that most of these practitioners are also accomplished composers for the instrument. While not a prerequisite, the two fortes appear to be complementary. Dyens mentions, “I have some close friends who are outstanding composers who really don't know how to improvise three notes together. For me, being a composer implies being an improviser, but it’s not always the case.”

Dušan Bogdanović, the US/Serbian guitarist and composer celebrated for his dazzling improvisations, added from his home in Geneva, “I’ve written in my book Ex Ovo that at best, improvisation would be as structured as composition and that at best, composition would be as fresh and inspired as improvisation.”

Dušan Bogdanović, Photo by Nicolas Zeller

Dušan Bogdanović, Photo by Nicolas Zeller

Improving your improvisational skills and practice can also help lead to or improve compositions on the guitar. York agrees, “A lot of my pieces were based on or were born out of an improvisation. I might be improvising, just playing around on the guitar, and stumble on something that seems really meaningful, poignant, with a bit of magic to it. I try to record that very quickly on my iPhone, to capture the intent, that emotional moment, and later I can hear it again, to use as a springboard for developing a theme.” He cautions, however, “As soon as you start messing around with technology, you’re completely out of that state of creation. It’s critical to stay in that frame of mind where creation is happening, and not start using those parts of the brain that you use to manipulate technology.”

In a 1989 Classical Guitar profile, Italian-born guitarist Carlo Domeniconi, who has spent much of his life in Turkey, argued that all guitarists can and must learn to improvise, which he called ‘liquid composition.’ Richard ‘Rico’ Stover writes in Six Silver Moonbeams, his epic biography of Agustín Barrios Mangoré, that the great Paraguayan guitarist was a legendary improviser, which is hardly surprising considering his marathon bouts of practice, his background playing popular dances, and his prodigious memory. Evidence indicates that Barrios continuously revised his compositions and had a penchant for improvising new passages in concert; for Barrios, music was a mystical act.

Bogdanović and York agree that the pressures on today’s classical guitarists—and classical musicians in general—to perform at such high technical levels have resulted in a lack of attention to and practice of improvisation. “Classical and contemporary music demands so much attention and technique that it’s very tough to match that with symmetric work on improvising,” says Bogdanović. “My opinion is that one has to sacrifice one in order to gain the other. But I do think that classical musicians, and guitarists in particular, should have consistent instruction in improvising and I see some signs of this, especially in the US.”

“As the pedagogy increased, and classical guitarists were playing more and more complex pieces, it took a lot of effort to play at this high of a technical level,” says York, “The other thing is that it’s a lot easier to be an extremely proficient technician than a very good improviser or composer. Every year, we’ve got a deluge of hotshot young musicians winning competitions, but we don’t have a bunch of great composers emerging on the scene each year. It takes a lot to be a great player, but it takes, I think, exponentially more skills to be a great composer.”

Andrew York, Photo by Bryan Aaker

Andrew York, Photo by Bryan Aaker


Getting ‘into the mystic’

Classical guitar students may encounter a lack of standard practice and instruction in improvisation for classical guitar. Gerald Klickstein, in The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, encourages students to embrace improvisation as a component of the musicianship zone, along with sight-reading practice, while practicing scales, arpeggios, etudes, and so forth are part of the technique zone. Improvisation is an act of surrender, delving, as Van Morrison called it, ‘into the mystic.’ Classical guitarists interested in developing or improving improvisational skills can start with a few relatively simple steps:

Develop your ear: “The best way to begin is by having a really good ear,” says York. “Develop your ear in a way that you can hear the different qualities of each pitch in relation to the whole piece. If you’re in the key of G, and play a G major scale over it, every note of the scale should have a noticeably different quality to you, a distinct color. The more aware you are of the way notes relate to a home key, the better you can improvise. If you can’t play what you hear in your mind, you can’t really improvise.”

Get popular: “Learn how to accompany songs, such as popular songs” suggests Dyens, “This is the first and perhaps most important step. Then learn to do things with the harmony, discover the inner voices of the song, like contrapuntal motion in polyphonic music. In France, we have the strong tradition of chanson, like Georges Brassens, Édith Piaf, Jacques Brel. Or, similarly, use jazz standards, because as you know, most jazz standards used to be popular songs, like ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

Mix it up: Dyens, York, and Bogdanović are all notable for the diversity of their performances and compositions, and all began to improvise at the earliest stage of learning guitar. Listen to—and learn to play—a variety of styles, especially those that incorporate improvisation: Brazilian music, Grateful Dead, Turkish music, jazz. “I actually do not see big borders between genres, and for me it is all a spectrum of defined or not-so-defined stylistic characteristics,” mentions Bogdanović. “Improvising a ricercar is not the same as improvising a Blues, but at this point I think that the styles are largely a matter of history or marketing and not of creative reality.” (Bogdanović, in fact, is co-organizer of the inaugural Multimod Festival, a conference at the Music University (HEM) of Geneva, in November 2016, to navigate such diverse stylistic approaches to composition and performance; see www.multimod-perfomer-composer.com)

Arpeggiate: Delve into a piece like Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1,” of which several nice arrangements exist for classical guitar. Explore its string of sonorous, melodic chords, first as written, then extend the chords in a light arpeggio movement, and a third time in a more aggressive, free arpeggio. Congratulations, you’ve just improvised! Vary your approach each time you play the piece, but it’s fine if you discover a beguiling arpeggio that you want to reuse. Next, dig into some of the chordal possibilities themselves.

Be open: The demands of solo improvisation on a polyphonic instrument like the guitar, sustaining melody and harmony simultaneously, are rigorous. “Start with inspiration and sincerity,” recommends Bogdanović, “but as far as particular keys, from the Blues and Carcassi studies to Britten’s “Nocturnal,” all roads lead to E, both major and minor.” Open keys allow you to use the guitar’s open notes as drones when improvising. Try a dropped D tuning [6th string tuned to D], especially if you are less familiar with this tuning; it may open up some new possibilities.

Go Brazilian: Learning and performing the music of Latin American composers can be conducive to improvisation; the rhythms and melodies are often by nature freer, encouraging ornamentation and other forms of spontaneous interpretation. Guitarist Benjamin Verdery mentioned on his blog that he couldn’t help but improvise flourishes as he learned “Julia Florida” by Barrios. Brazilian music offers a particularly suitable entrée to improvisation. For many Brazilian guitarists, genre boundaries simply do not exist: popular, bossa nova, jazz, classical—it’s all violão. Back when people discovered music in record stores, the albums of consummate performer, composer, and improviser Baden Powell would be more commonly found in the jazz or Brazilian sections, yet he certainly offers gems for the repertoire of classical guitarists. Try “Berimbau” or “Asa Branca,” for example, both available in notation and tablature on the website dedicated to Powell, Brazil-on-Guitar.

Gain a launch point and exit strategy: Two related strategies to improvise within a song include locating a section within a piece that you can use as a springboard into improvisation, and having a “go to” section to transition out of your improvisation. The latter can be the same musical phrase as your launch point or can differ; you might transition into another piece, for example. The coda of Powell’s “Consolação” provides a section geared for launching into an improvisation.

Collect odd chords: Become a cartographer of the guitar by exploring different tonal possibilities around the fretboard. This comes after you’ve developed your ear—you’ll find combinations that are neither commonplace nor fully dissonant. Collect these like seashells, to utilize in unique combinations as you improvise. “When I improvise, I’m usually playing some things I know, that I think might work together, some of the thousands of things that I know might sound good,” says Dyens. “Improvisation presupposes a lot of musical knowledge. To have an ‘organized improvisation,’ something that sounds good, it’s like the ‘little sister of a composition.’ So it’s not completely random.”

Bridge the gap to the stage: After starting with small steps, such as ornamentation and arpeggiating chords, move into more complex improvisation. You’ll begin during practice, of course; a guitar competition or concert performance is not the place to attempt your first improvisation. After getting comfortable in practice, try improvising in informal performance situations such as cafés or receptions. These are good settings to get into the saddle; as people chat and clink wine glasses there’ll be less pressure on you to improvise flawlessly.  Eventually, you may be equipped to improvise in the concert hall and recording studio. Throughout the recording sessions for my new CD, I performed variants during each take of some of my pieces, while maintaining the same tempo. I even revised the structure of one piece on the fly, and improvised a new ending for another, which I included in the final mix. Improvising during a performance has risks, but it also has rewards. “Improvising in front of people is a challenge,” says Bogdanović. “Of course, it is not the same responsibility as playing just for yourself, but on the other hand, it is also very inspirational and it can produce good results—after all, you are sharing your experience with a larger entity.”

Don’t fret: Don’t expect every improvisation to be transcendent. The measure of a good improvisation is to be free, melodic, and not trite; this is an elusive trio. Even the best improvisers find that moments of exquisite beauty are rare. “To be honest—I have a lot of defects but I usually try to be honest—most of my improvisations are simply not very good,” confesses Dyens. “Some times, but very rarely, do I think, wow, this one would have deserved to be a piece. It happens some times, but it’s rare.” York echoes this sentiment, “When you improvise in front of a lot of people, you hope it’s going to go well. But it doesn’t always go well. I’m not the most consistent improviser, like Dušan—he’s a real genius at improvisation. It’s not like learning a piece of music to the point where you’re 95 percent sure you’re going to execute it really well. Grade A improvisation is not going to happen every single time. But when it works, it’s magical."