Attribute #4: We have established the fact that to be a complete contemporary musician one must have a worthy purpose for his life and art (Attribute #1), he must learn from those who have come before him (Attribute #2), and he must be willing to embrace the creativity of other contemporary artists and stay abreast of the times (Attribute #3). The skilled and successful musician must also be able to function both creatively and responsively in the process of making music, that is, he must be able to improvise as well as read music.
The improviser, to a certain degree, becomes the composer. He spontaneously creates the music at the moment. The music reader, however, is responsive to the one who has created the work already, endeavoring to bring the ideas into completion as carefully and accurately as possible. Both scenarios have merit. They are ‘two sides of the same coin’.
Improvisation lends itself to freely expressed emotion-inspired creativity, while reading notation yields a more accurate, carefully constructed and pre-meditated order.
Improvisation many times marks the burgeoning of a new historic style. As the style continues to work its way through history, however, notation begins to document it so that others can appreciate and participate in its established patterns.
Take, for example, Rag-time music. It wasn’t until Scott Joplin put the music into notation that its wide-spread influence could happen. A similar process occurred in 19th Century Europe with the Gypsy musicians who improvised profusely. Skilled composers brought much of the creativity into notation, historically cementing the music for others to enjoy and play.
Throughout history, there has always been interplay between improvisation and notation, the creative expressiveness of improvisation together with the careful preparation, pre-meditation and design of notation. Take Bela Bartok, for example, who took the un-notated Hungarian melodies as themes for his classical compositions. Another example is George Gershwin, who took jazz motifs and raised them into a sophisticated symphonic structure. J.S. Bach merged the two worlds of improvisation and composition simultaneously, as he was able to create a multi-part fugue in his mind as he improvised! (He literally improvised as he composed, and he composed as he improvised. The process was one and the same to him.)
I once had to arbitrate in a great debate between people in my music ministry team who could only read music while straining to improvise, on one hand; while on the other hand, there were those who could only improvise and had no desire to read notation.
The music readers argued their points about the benefits of reading notation, and chided those who lacked that ability.
The improvisers, however, mocked those who couldn’t ‘play by ear’, citing the benefits to knowing how to ‘flow’ when given only a chord progression, at most.
I pondered how to solve this dilemma, and one day, as I was reading my Bible, a scripture popped out at me that said it all: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made both of them.” (Prov. 20:12) I knew then, as the leader of the group, that I must expect everyone to improvise (or ‘play by ear’), as well as knowing how to read notation. Once the entire group felt comfortable with both, I knew we would have a winning combination.
One of the main benefits of reading music lies in the fact that it doesn’t exist as sound, but rather as ideas. It leaves room for interpretation from the participant’s imagination. It is not subject to the flaws of a human performance, but rather exists on a higher plane of ‘pure ideology’. (For more on this, see “My Vision- The Technique”)
Another benefit is that it structurally allows more than a few people to participate, giving clear and concise direction to all who join the plan. When dealing with larger groups of people, a more specific plan becomes necessary. Take for example traffic in a big city versus a small town. In one situation there have been multiple engineers who have designed highways and clover-leafs for huge volumes of traffic; whereas, in the other situation you might have a single policeman to direct a few vehicles.
The same hold true with music creativity: more people, more planning; fewer people, less planning (or easier improvisation).
The complete contemporary musician should be able to function proficiently in either situation, able to both read fluidly and improvise freely, to intellectually and accurately follow a chart, as well as participate creatively with others in a small consort. He must know how to live successfully in high structure, as well as in little or no structure.
Perhaps someday, even as J.S. Bach, the one who is skilled in both areas will experience the simultaneous merging of both worlds!