Thursday, July 11, 2013

Why Should American Musicians Study Indian Classical Music? Part 3: Improvisation

Western classical music used to have a rich tradition of improvisation. Many performers during the Baroque period were expected to be able to spontaneously create music. During the classical period almost all the cadenzas of a concerto were improvised. What happened? Today, Jazz is really the only remaining vanguard of western improvisation.*

Every Jazz musician knows how vital it is to be able to think quickly when it comes to improvisation, so studying a system that has thousands of years of improvisational development under its belt seems like a good idea. This in many ways goes along with the ear training portion; Indian Classical Music’s study methods usually involve palta-s and Alankar-s which stress musical patterns over a drone. These patterns range from the super-simple to the ultra-complex (and every phase in-between).  Memorizing these patterns means that the performer is able to call upon virtually every scale degree and every interval almost at a whim.


Of course, calling up random scale degrees and intervals is not all that is involved in the task of melodic improvisation. As the above video teaches us; there is also the issue of making something that is pleasing and interesting – not to mention "novel."  Fortunately, the western-trained musician is in luck here. Where western music took the route to develop complex harmonies that supported melodies, the melodies in Indian Classical music had to thrive on their own. Anyone who listens to an instrumental or vocal alap during a performance can tell you that these musicians exercise incredible restraint and creativity in order to deliver the best possible musical product.

It should be mentioned, however; that instruments which are heavily dependent on harmony such as guitar and piano will benefit somewhat less from this.  The instruments that benefit the most from this portion of ICM training are monophonic instruments such as woodwinds, strings, and of course the human voice (please see the ear-training blog).  Best of all, the training is, for the most part, universal which means that a vocal instructor would be able to instruct a cellist, a sitar player would be able to instruct a flutist and so on.

*I understand that many jam-rock bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish are known for their long improvisations. I also understand that there are many popular acts that fall outside of Jazz that also improvise. Furthermore there are some modern performers within the tradition of western classical music who are attempting to bring back the older forms of improvisation – I made a sweeping remark for the sake of brevity only. 

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