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  • Improvising:Learning to Relish Risk
  • Ann Copeland (bio)

In his elegant novel about music, family, race, and twentieth-century America, The Time of Our Singing (2003), Richard Powers creates an episode in which Joseph, the narrator, a gifted and classically trained pianist studying at Juilliard, happens upon the universe of keyboard improvisation.

One afternoon he interrupts his friend, Wilson Hart, in the practice room where Hart should be exercising his voice but instead spends hours at the piano, composing. Hart pushes over on the piano bench. "Sit down. We're going to make something happen" (186). He has been playing part of the second movement of the Rodrigo guitar concerto. First they play "straight," and then suddenly, Will breaks free:

Before I knew what was happening, his fingers dropped into bottomless places. They untied the long, mournful melody, and lifted out the contents hidden inside.


Joseph tries to limp after Will on the keyboard, but feels his fingers as "clubs":

I knew the shape of the music he made. You couldn't live in this country and not breathe it. But I'd never learned the rules, the laws of freedom that kept those improvisations aloft, just out of reach of a clean conservatory death.


Surprised by Joseph's inability to keep up with him, Will asks afterward: "You can't make it go, on its own? You need it out there, in front of you, on the page?" He offers friendly cold comfort: "Don't make no difference, brother Joe. Some folks need the notes. Other folks don't even care what the notes are called" (188). [End Page 89]

* * *

I need the notes.

Yet I long to be able to improvise, to learn how to make music "go on its own."

Like Will, I have, at various times, glimpsed another way to relate to the keyboard—a way that uncovers music hidden within music, unties it, sets it free.

Such moments have left me wondering, and curious. What is composition? What is performance? How do they relate? What is music, anyhow? Where is it? Where does it come from? Where does it go? Powers implies these unanswerables in his fictional spectrum about composing, improvising, performing. When Horowitz says the music is underneath the notes, what does he mean? When Neuhaus advises the student to play away from the notes, what does he mean? What is the relation of notation to music? How many different ways are there to make music?

I cannot answer these questions. I can, however, honor the spirit of creative play that releases music from music, or, as Joseph puts it, launches "possibility out of empty air."

In his classic study of the play element in culture, Johann Huisinga says that "earnest" is the opposite of "play." I am earnest about desiring to learn this kind of play.

For me to write about improvisation is presumptuous, for I am a beginner. The keyboard my fingers have roamed over since I was seven sometimes feels like a stranger whose possibilities I don't yet really know. I've stood by pianists and wondered at how freely they play without the page, without those enticing black shapes asking the player to release music from, beneath, within, beyond, around them.

Along the way, I've learned how to read a lead sheet on which are printed only the notes for the melody, while symbols above indicate appropriate chords—A#M for A sharp major, Bm7 for B minor seventh, C° for C diminished, and so on. I can fill in the left hand with most conventional chords as indicated by those symbols. And my hands can travel some kinds of distance over the keyboard reasonably well. Still, to feel secure I need the notes.

Joseph spends days, weeks, training his ear, brain, and hands to reconnect with the keyboard in a new way. Finally, he returns to the piano with Will and they successfully improvise. Will sets the theme. They send out challenges, dares, teases to each other, carrying on a musical conversation.

Reflecting on the experience, Joseph comments: [End Page 90]

Everything we'd done—the free-form quotes, the random wandering—was just a...


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pp. 89-104
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