In November, the Scroll Ensemble gave courses in historical improvisation at the conservatoires of Katowice and Bydgoszcz in Poland.
Improvisation is often seen as something specialised, or the result of sudden inspiration; but it can be learnt, just as a language, from a few simple tools. Starting with basic realisations of harmonic progressions, we experimented with rhythmic and melodic figures based historical models, and different ways of interacting, before finding a form together. In addition to improvisation on a ground bass, we also led sessions vocal counterpoint on a tenor, melodic improvisation (French prelude according to Hotteterre), canons, and toccata on a pedal point.
Improvisation was one of the most fundamental activities of musicians of the period known as ‘early music’, both in a musician’s education and in performance. Even so called ‘written’ music was intended more as a memory aid, and something that the performer would take an active creative part in, and so the study of improvisation is one of the most essential tools for a historically informed performance.
Improvisation is a holistic approach, combining theory and practice, technique and musicianship.
It improves ensemble skills, as one has to be aware of all voices simultaneously, how your part relates to other voices, and the harmony. It also increases awareness of structure and what ‘makes’ a composition, not merely on paper but through practical experience, which brings increased authority as a performer to all music. In addition, development of memory skills, learning music without a score at any stage of the process, brings the ability to play directly from the imagination;
and last but not least, experimenting with variation within clearly defined parameters increases the creative capacity.