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Review: The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation by John Mortensen

“If I have one regret about my traditional education, it’s that it wasn’t traditional enough. We have forgotten that in the eighteenth century – those hundred years that form the bedrock of classical music – improvisation was a foundation of music training. Oddly, our discipline has discarded a practice that helped bring it into being. Perhaps it is time to retrieve it from the junk heap of history and give it a good dusting off.”

– Mortensen, 2020, p. 1.

Released in August 2020, Professor John Mortensen has provided an immensely practical and accessible method for historic improvisation. Aimed approximately at the technical and theoretical ability of an undergraduate student but with the improvisational experience of a beginner, Mortensen provides techniques to improvise from the first chapter. Students do not have to plough through the prerequisites or rules that contemporary or historical treatises recommend; rather, the material is written with the modern student in mind. The ordering of the book is such that one can see just how rewarding improvisation can be, without undergoing months of prior study.

Mortensen elucidates different forms of Baroque composition: Prelude, Toccata, Variations, Suites. He provides insight into the characteristics of each compositional form, then provides exercises to improvise (or compose) in this form using techniques from other chapters such as Rule of the Octave, Diminution, Lyricism, and Imitation. This offers the student a varied repertoire of musical forms and rhythms with which one may employ similar harmonic techniques. This approach helps bridge the gap between an improvisation exercise (such as a partimento) and composed music – a lacuna noted by many scholars.  Mortensen provides much novel value through this method.

The accessible prose does not dilute the material or compromise rigour. Rather, clarity strengthens his message. He too has been on the same journey as many students, that of conventional classical musical training which prioritises reproduction over creation. Yet, during his journey towards the study of improvisation, he has macheted his way through the jungle of galant treatises and 21st century academic writing to make the path more accessible for less experienced explorers. This he has done through creating content on YouTube, Patreon, Forums and now his book. Throughout his writing (and other content), he always keeps the student in mind. After a rather dense theoretical passage he writes “I bet you hated reading the previous paragraph as much as I hated writing it” (Mortensen, 2020, p. 193). This realistic perspective humanises the material and keeps readers engaged through any passages which may be necessarily complex.

Some terminology may be new to those unfamiliar with classical improvisation; however, this is an inescapable part of learning to improvise. Classification helps create a shared understanding where words can be imbibed with meaning beyond themselves. There is an emerging body of knowledge where nomenclature is being invented in academic papers, monographs, and some archaic terms have been revived which had not been uttered for centuries. The historic improvisation movement is going through an exciting, developmental stage where terms are not yet settled. To help with this, Mortensen explains terminology throughout, and provides a glossary. His new terms such as the onomatopoeic ‘Umpadeeda’ (describing the figuration that can be found in Bach’s B-Flat Major Prelude BWV 866) and referential ‘Page One’ (alluding to the first four bars of Bach’s Prelude in C Major BWV 846) vividly evoke rhythms or chord progressions without too difficult a stretch in imagination. The success of these terms will be indicated by their longevity.

Mortensen also writes with a motivational quality. He emphasises (as Callahan (2015, p.8) discusses) what students can do, rather than what they must avoid. This empowers the student to begin without undue self-awareness. The whole of classical music education is centred around the unblemished performance. Thus, Professor Mortensen provides an a psychologically safe environment where pauses, stutters, and errors are acceptable on the path to speaking music. The best way to avoid mistakes when improvising is not to improvise at all, and the only way to improvise is to make mistakes. This viewpoint of improvisation as a craft rather than an inherent gift contributes further to the motivational can-do style of writing.

Although Mortensen’s book does not contain a great deal of references to academic material, it is clear he has read them, internalised them, then produced practical methods for the modern student which implements the recommended techniques. His approach distils the key findings of academic papers and monographs then translates them to a wider audience. For example, Chapter 5: ‘Diminutions’ seems to draw from Callahan’s 2010 paper ‘Improvising Motives: Applications of Michael Wiedeburg’s Pedagogy of Modular Diminutions’ where Callahan shows Michael Wiedeburg’s (1775) approach to diminution. Mortensen has expanded this through adding diminutions for different intervals, rather than just to a unison. This communication with the academic literature provides comfort for informed readers and teachers. The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation is not an anecdotal monograph of techniques that have worked for the author and his students, but rather a culmination of rigorous academic papers, authentic primary source 18th century treatises, practical experience of on-stage historic improvisation, and the teaching thousands of students.

The time a reader spends with this book is flexible. One (if they understand the material) can read through this book in a few days. However, were that to be done, the point of the book would have been entirely missed. The time a reader should spend with this book should equate to perhaps 10% reading about the concept, 10% playing and understanding the musical examples, and 80% practical exercises. This balance, I feel, is the correct one. Rather than spending time explicating through prose, concepts (even if they are complex) are made simpler through accompanying exercises. Students do not improvise through reading. As Mortensen (2020, p. 3) says at the outset, “The only place this book is useful is on the music rack of your piano”. This haptic approach (forwarded by scholars such as Diergarten (2011)) is where most time is intended to be spent. Concepts such as diminution or transposition are not difficult to grasp (and can be read very quickly); however, to transpose the ‘Page One’ to all keys (or the whole Prelude in C) may require some effort. This effort is not misplaced, practical and conceptual understanding occur as a positive feedback loop. To quote Professor Mortensen (2020, p. 126), “I barely remember learning about the categories of nonharmonic tones in school. At that time they were merely inscrutable technicalities. Only when I began to use them in the creation of real music did they become vivid and important to me.” I am sure many of us have had the same experience. For more information on haptic learning for music theory, see my article “Chapter 3: A Case for Partimento Pt. 1 – Music Theory”.

The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation is a timely, necessary, and immensely practical contribution to the growing resources for classical improvisation. There is a feeling that classical music education is undergoing an improvisation revolution. Improvisation empowers students, giving them the ability to express their own creative voice and to “own the product” (Schubert, 2017, p. 184). I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in historic improvisation, partimento, and schemata. With The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation, readers can access the past, and future, of music education.


Bibliography

Alberge, D. (2020, June 6). Why today’s musicians should follow classical greats … and improvise. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jun/06/why-classical-musicians-need-to-learn-how-to-improvise#maincontent

Callahan, M. (2010). Improvising Motives: Applications of Michael Wiedeburg’s Pedagogy of Modular Diminutions. Intégral, 24, 29-56. Retrieved December 4, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41495293

Callahan, M.R. (2015). Teaching and learning undergraduate music theory at the keyboard: Challenges, solutions, and impacts. Music Theory Online, 21 (3), 1-22.

Diergarten, F. (2011). ‘The true fundamentals of composition’: Haydn’s partimento counterpoint. Eighteenth-Century Music, 8 (1), 53-75. Retrieved from doi:10.1017/S1478570610000412.

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. (2020). Child composers in the old conservatoires. Oxford University Press.

Hogan, N. (Host). (2020, June 14). 95: John Mortensen. (Episode 95) [Audio podcast episode]. In the Nikhil Hogan Show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKD4zGkbtGQ&t=2768s

Ijzerman, J. (2018). Harmony, Counterpoint, Partimento: A New Method Inspired by Old Masters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mortensen, J. (2020). cedarvillemusic. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/cedarvillemusic
— (2020). Historic improvisation discussion forum. MyBB. https://johnmortensen.com/forum/
— (2020). The pianist’s guide to historic improvisation. Oxford University Press.

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

Wiedeburg, Michael Johann Friedrich. 1765 (part 1), 1767 (part 2), 1775 (part 3). Der sich selbst informirende Ciavierspieler, oder deutlicher und leichter Unterricht %ur Selbstinformation im Ciavierspielen. Halle/Leipzig (part 1), Halle (parts 2 and 3). Facsimile ed. Harald Vogel: Florian Noetzel Verlag, 2006 (parts 1 and 2) and 2007 (part 3).


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.