Performer as Composer

I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Hough‘s article in today’s Guardian about the relatively recent separation of the roles of composer and performer.

It is only since starting to improvise and compose over the last ten years that I realize how my education was so separatist in that regard, both at school and university– “composing was for the prodigy and the rest of us probably wouldn’t write anything worth listening to” seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

Stephen writes: “…there is a modesty that is snobbery and one that is laziness, but a much more common form is just plain timidity. Anyone who can read music can write it too – and should. It doesn’t have to be performed, and it may not be very inspired, but to be totally divorced from the act of creation risks making us neighbours rather than relatives to the works we play. And, by the same token, composers who never perform risk writing music that is impractical and even unplayable.”

Looking back, I think I was a ‘neighbour’ to some extent. However much I was taught to analyse the works of others, it never seemed feasible that I might actually write something myself– certainly not sitting at a desk with manuscript paper and pencil. My liberation eventually came through discovering that improvisation (forbidden when I was a child) produced much more satisfying results. It also freed me to play the standard repertoire with greater vitality and insight. Experimenting myself with harmonic or motivic building blocks, I could then understand more deeply from the inside how Bach or Beethoven were composing.

My forthcoming article in American Music Teacher, “Intuitive Improvisation”, lays out in greater detail some good places for the budding improviser to start. Until then, I would just encourage any of you to ‘have a go’ and have fun!

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