Last night I attended a wonderful clinic featuring Wycliffe Gordon, acclaimed trombonist, here at Paige’s Music. It was sponsored by the wonderful folks at Yamaha and put on by our own Tucker Woerner, low brass specialist. Gordon had so many interesting and insightful things to share with the group, and even though I am FAR from being a trombone player, I was inspired to think about something that we as flute players may tend to shy away from: improvisation.
Unfortunately, my musical upbringing involved little to no jazz education, and although I am quite good at sightreading (both vocally and on my flute), I freeze up when I am asked to improvise something or play something that is not in ink on the page. It’s not that I don’t understand the concept of it; maybe I just worry about playing the “right” thing or sounding silly. I know that I am not the only one in this boat; flutist Jim Walker writes, “In the Baroque era (1600-1750) music notation assumed that players would add improvisations and ornamentation to the written music. “Figured Bass” is the term used for the numeric code that composers placed above notes in the piano or continuo part to give clear indications of the harmonies that were to be used in support of the melodies. In popular and jazz music of the twentieth century chord symbols have taken the place of figured bass. These indications such as C7 are a specific code for indicating harmonies for each composition. Unfortunately single line players such as flutists rarely see this code and naturally develop a fear of such things.”
So why improvise as flute players? Walker continues, “There are many reasons but the best one may be the joy and freedom that this skill brings to your playing. There will be many fringe benefits that come from developing this skill, not the least of which is a more solid understanding of music theory and harmony. This alone will bring a deeper understanding of your classical compositions, but in addition your ability to memorize and truly learn a piece will be greatly enhanced.” Notable jazz flutist Ali Ryerson, perhaps one of the current greats on the subject, says, ” By its very nature, improvisation is a creative process, and I believe bringing a sense of creativity into one’s musical life is also going to improve the classical player. I think every musician should study Jazz because it provides valuable ear training. Being able to hear intervals results in better intonation. Being able to hear a melody and reproduce it without music—to know how that melody has been constructed or how the harmony relates to it—makes us better musicians.” I think those are some pretty good reasons!