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Chapter 3: A Case for Partimento Pt. 2 – Improvisation

The Benefits of Improvisation

A linguistic parallel may be applied to outline the relationship of different musical fields of study. When learning a foreign language, a student may be taught grammar, aural, literacy, pronunciation, and translation skills. But a language may only be said to have been learnt if the student can speak it. Subsequently, the student that can extemporise speech in this foreign language will find literacy, aural, pronunciation and translation a much simpler task. These linguistic skills have their musical counterparts: grammar (theory), literacy (notational literacy), aural (aural comprehension), pronunciation (performance interpretation), translation (sight-reading), speaking (improvisation). A key skill is missing from contemporary classical pedagogy, that of ‘speaking’ music. Depréset al. (2016, p.176) notes that “classically trained interpreters are among the only musicians who can reach a high level of expertise without ever playing an unwritten note”. This can often lead these musicians to “feel at a loss without a score” (p.176). The benefits of improvisation (which can be taught through Partimento) are outlined by Depréset al. (p.168):

  • Improve understanding of music theoretical concepts
  • Improve musical achievement
  • Greater aural perception
  • Reduce stage fright
  • Increase a musician’s motivation
  • Increase musical creativity

Deprés et al. (p.168) further note the half a century-long call for improvisation by scholars and the numerous empirically based benefits of improvisation. These point towards the holistic benefits of improvisation as well as improvisation as a means unto itself. However, 20th century classical pedagogues have mostly not been taught improvisation, so they tend not to be equipped, or willing to teach it. Furthermore, there may even be distinct opposition to improvisation. Depréset al. (p.176) provided an example of a conservatoire student who hid himself in order to improvise. This is due to his teacher having told him (when improvising) to “Stop this nonsense and get back to work”. When I had asked my teacher that I wanted to learn improvisation, he looked at me, perplexed, and said “Oh, so you want to learn jazz?”. Although anecdotal, these examples epitomise pervasive views of improvisation from educational institutions. This institutional inveteracy has stifled improvisation; “teachers teach the way they learned” (p.169). Porter (2013, p.15) further notes that the reason for classical improvisation’s difficulty is “because our systems of musical education make it so … they deprive our students of the means by which it could be made much easier”.

One of the problems mentioned in Chapter 2 was that of an unhealthy perspective as to the definition of improvisation. Porter (2013) holds that a proper view towards improvisation is not necessarily one of originality or spontaneity, but creativity and preparedness, perhaps in the sense of “ars combinatoria” (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.74). Porter (2013, p.10) mentions how “one must undergo rigorous training in preparatory exercises … One does not learn to improvise without rigorously practicing its procedures”. This ties in with Goldman’s (2016) corroborated statement that many performance traditions around the world considered improvisatory to a Western musician “are known by experts either to rely on corpora of pre-learned musical structures and rules” (p.3). Partimento and schemata naturally fit this method of learning.

The syntactical comprehension of music that can be achieved through improvisation will help with the linkage of analysis, theory and practice. Schubert (2017) eloquently describes improvisation’s benefit to the traditional theory course, “improvisation merely adds a layer of comfort with the actual musical material” (p.184). This is echoed by Callahan (2017, p.202), “If they can improvise – even modestly, even in small amounts, even with substantial preparation rather than on the spot – then they have synthesized contrapuntal norms and principles, heard them, and done something with them”. Callahan, also, recognises the “surprise” and “delight” that comes from learning to improvise (p.202).

Schubert (2017) writes that music “has physical and aural dimensions. Improvisation addresses these dimensions, and encourages the development of an intuitive ‘feel’ for the material” (p.175). Improvisation “develops musicianship, it encourages discovery and creativity, it has a social dimension, and it assures a deeper level of ‘thinking in the medium’. Improvisation takes abstract theoretical concepts and makes them intuitive.” Goldman (2016, p.14) notes how different ‘ways of knowing’ about music could stimulate or inhibit the ability to improvise. He briefly discusses partimenti and schemata, indicating that students who may be playing the same notes that were composed in the 18th century may not be able to improvise with those notes. But if the notes were understood on the same terms as their conception (as a finite combination of various bass motions and progressions with their associated harmonisations) then this may facilitate improvisation.

Depréset al. (2016) mention the two kinds of improvisers: native improvisers (from the beginning of their musical lives), and immigrant improvisers (learnt later in life). I posit that it is vital to train students in improvisation without delay. This generation’s immigrant improvisers will instigate the next generation of native improvisers. Many in the musical academy understand the compelling reasons for classical improvisation in pedagogy; however, no systematic method has been integrated as of yet.

How Partimento Facilitates Improvisation

When requested to play a perfect cadence, many a student – even at the undergraduate level – may play example (a) presented in Figure 2. Compare this with example (b) taken from Spiridion à Monte Carmelo’s (1670, p.2) (a pseudonym for Johann Nenning) Instructio Nova. This florid realisation of chords V to I is number 22 of 72 ways to play a perfect cadence. Each one was to be learnt, transposed to all other keys and memorised as an initial stage in a student’s training (John Mortensen, 2011, 3:36-6:15). This corpora of diminutions over cadences, ascending Rule of the Octave (RO) (62 variations), descending RO (60 variations), bass motions, toccatas and canzonas for imitation, create a toolkit of ‘riffs’ or ‘licks’ to use for improvisation of any 17th century genre (Brantingham, 2016).

Figure 3: Comparison between a V-I chordal cadence which modern students play when requested, compared with the florid, contrapuntal cadence which Spiriodon prescribed for students in no.22 of page 2 in the 1670 organ manual, Instructio Nova

Partimento Regole contain similar resources to equip students with various harmonic and melodic patterns for improvisatory purposes. These theoretical rules are immediately put into practice through brief partimenti which exemplify the principle under consideration. The partimenti use the rule in question in a musically varied way to demonstrate its practical occurrence. The realisation of these brief partimenti are not to be written down but improvised in increasing layers of difficulty (mentioned in Chapter 1). This method secures understanding of the theoretical rule through immediately engaging a practical realisation of that concept. Comfort is gained with both the rule and the practice of improvisation itself as the realisation trains creative combinations under harmonic constraints. This view towards improvisation, as creative recombination, closely aligns with the contemporary scholarship previously cited. Rabinovitch and Slominski (2015, p.2) extracted this principle from their study of Mozart’s pedagogical partimenti and schemata, “in order to become an active speaker of the style, one has to master idiomatic patterns”. Therefore, we may posit that the Partimento study could be used to stimulate improvisational learning. Other than the monumental achievements by composers and performers who had been steeped in this tradition from infancy hundreds of years ago, there is growing evidence of this method working in a contemporary setting.

The 15-year old (at the time of writing) prodigy Alma Deutscher has attracted much media attention for her exceptional improvisational and compositional abilities. Some of her compositional output has been an opera (composed between the ages of 8 and 12) a violin concerto (age 9) and piano concerto (age 12). She, in fact, has been a product of a galant pedagogy – partimenti and schemata. In a 2016 interview, Robert Gjerdingen relates his experience of the Deutscher family (Brantingham, 51:05-53:30). Guy Deutscher (Alma’s father) contacted Gjerdingen seeking a teacher for Alma based on Gjerdingen’s seminal Music in the Galant Style (2007). At that time, there did not exist a teacher in the UK who would be able to teach using these methods. Gjerdingen contacted the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland where Tobias Cramm (a student of Rudolph Lutz) was able to teach Alma over Skype. Videos can be seen of Tobias and Alma improvising together (Alma Deutscher and Tobias Cramm, 2014), accompanied with schematic labels provided by Tonal Tools (2014) (a schemata method book which has unfortunately been out of print from 2017). Alma is certainly a unique example. She has perfect pitch and an extraordinary passion for music, combined with the circumstances to pursue it. This is not the case for most students; however, the following example demonstrates that the study of partimenti as a means to improvise can be integrated with musicians of varying standards.

Rabinovitch and Slominski (2015) used Partimento and schemata as methods to teach conservatory undergraduates an 18th century style of improvisation. They used Partimento rules to familiarise students with “typical figured-bass configurations”, RO, cadential progressions, and “ways of connecting them” (p.3). This was used in tandem with Gjerdingen’s (2007) schemata, which helped provide students with “a vocabulary of idiomatic outer-voice skeletons to be elaborated in surface diminutions” (Rabinovitch and Slominski, 2015, p.3). They employed a two-step approach, a figured bass realisation in block chords which served “as intermediate pedagogical steps”. Then the realisation in a two-voice texture, the right hand realising the figured bass in a polyphonic manner.

Rabinovitch and Slominski used a theme derived from Boccherini for their students to improvise over with their knowledge, kinaesthetic and otherwise, gained from Partimento and schemata. They played the “outer-voice framework… then elaborated the skeleton using the given motives and motives of their own invention” (p.4). The results of some students can be heard with the audio examples (10-17) provided by Rabinovitch and Slominksi (see bibliography for web-link). Rabinovitch and Slominksi found this galant-based method to work quickly. In just 4 sessions the students covered what “may well be equivalent to that traversed in an advanced semester of keyboard harmony” (p.3). They suggest that it may complement a “written harmony” or “model composition” class due to its fast results (p.3). This study allowed students “to explore the style from within” (p.5) due to the integrated manner in which partimenti operate. They suggest that the application of Partimento methods with pedagogical hints provides opportunities to engage modern students with historical styles (p.5).

The case I have put forward for the reintegration of partimento into current pedagogy is that of Partimento practice filling the needs of students. As outlined in Chapter 2, the biggest problems that can be addressed through the integration of Partimento are that of a lack of integration between theory and practice, and a dearth of improvisation at all levels of performance. Partimento can meet this need as the tradition is based on a holistic, integrated, hands-on approach to theory. Hands-on learning allows for students to develop a keen kinaesthetic connection between instrument and creates audiation of theoretical principles. Partimento prioritises instrumental production of theoretical rules which can be transferred away from the instrument. Improvisation is at the centre of partimento realisation, being the vehicle through which partimenti operate. Partimento trains students in a corpus of musical rules of which creative recombination over a bass exemplifies.


Bibliography

Alma Deutscher and Tobias Cramm [Tonal Tools]. (2014, Oct 30). Joint Improvisation by Alma Deutscher and Tobias Cramm [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nubC3dktQ24

Brantingham, J. (Producer). (2016, March 14). Partimenti and the secrets of the greatest composers: An interview with Robert Gjerdingen [11th]. Retrieved from https://www.artofcomposing.com/aoc-011-partimenti-and-the-secrets-of-the-greatest-composers-an-interview-with-robert-gjerdingen.

Callahan, M. (2017). Learning tonal counterpoint through keyboard improvisation in the twenty-first century. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 185-203). New York: Routledge.

Carmelo, F. S. A. M. (1670). Instructio nova: Pro pullandis, organis, spinettis. Bamberg: Johann Jacob Immel. https://imslp.org/wiki/Nova_Instructio_(Spiridion)

Deprés, J.P., Burnard, P., Dubé, F., & Stévance, S. (2016). Expert improvisers in western classical music learning pathways. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 22, 167-179. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2016.10.006.

Gjerdingen, R. (2007). Music in the Galant Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gjerdingen, R. (2010). Mozart’s obviously corrupt minuet. Music Analysis, 29 (1/3), 61-82.

Goldman, A.J. (2016). Improvisation as a way of knowing. Music Theory Online, 22 (4), 1-20. Retrieved from http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.16.22.4/mto.16.22.4.goldman.html.

John Mortensen [cedarvillemusic]. (2011, Sep 11). Classical Keyboard Improvisation Symposium: Keynote [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVY7_P2SM5I

Porter, W. (2013). Why is improvisation so difficult?. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 27, 7-18.

Rabinovitch, G. & Slominski, J. (2015). Towards a galant pedagogy: partimenti and schemata as tools in the pedagogy of eighteenth-century style improvisation. Music Theory Online, 21 (3), 1-11. Retrieved from http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.15.21.3/mto.15.21.3.rabinovitch.php.

Schubert, P. (2017). Teaching theory through improvisation. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 175-184). New York: Routledge.


By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.