On the classical musician's fear of improvising
To tie in with her new album release, which fuses the worlds of classical and jazz music, violinist Emily Davis reflects on the process of 'retuning' her classical musician's mindset to embrace improvisation
The Davis & Robb Duo - comprising classical violinist Emily Davis and jazz double bassist Andrew Robb - was born in the lock-down of 2020. Their debut album, Long Days, Short Nights features classical music, the Great American Songbook, as well as folk music from Brazil, Scotland and Norway. In this blog, Davis reflects on her journey into the mindset of a jazz musician.
Why do so many classically trained musicians fear improvising? When my husband and I decided to create an album that brought together our two musical worlds, jazz and classical, there was one predominant thought in my mind – would I be able to step outside my comfort zone into the realms of different genres and improvisation? My friendly imposter syndrome niggled away as we drafted the pieces for the record, telling me I had no experience of improvising or attempting these different genres. When stepping back from these unhelpful thoughts, I questioned where they came from and how I could best enjoy the creative process.
When I look back over my three decades of violin playing, I am grateful for the wonderful teachers I have had. However, I realise there is an internal ‘panic’ button which is wired to my fear of making mistakes, something I believe most classically trained musicians share. We diligently spend hours practising eight bars of a Mozart concerto for the correct phrasing, intonation, vibrato, articulation, colour, character etc... We place unrealistic demands on ourselves, instilled by our education, seeking perfection in what we do. It is no wonder that the thought of stripping back these practised layers, to make something up in the moment, seems practically impossible! This is therefore the challenge: learning to embrace things sounding ‘wrong’.
So where to start? Jazz musicians, such as my husband Andrew Robb, work from an intense harmonic and rhythmic understanding, as if with a dictionary of ideas in their head to rifle through at a pace, creating new music on the spot. This theoretical knowledge, of which I am in awe, provides a base for the freedom to improvise. Lacking this expertise myself, a good starting point for the album was to rediscover melodies I love such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. The goal was to play around by experimenting with techniques such as harmonics, double stops and exploring the instrument’s range. The key word here is ‘play’ – perhaps this is not improvisation as many define it, but playfully seeking ways of repeating the same melody differently each time felt like an achievement for this well-trained note reader! While trying to put aside any embarrassment of making ‘mistakes’, I sought to create new ideas with the familiar notes I knew so well. Without making mistakes, it is impossible to create something new.
With this playful approach in mind, it occurred to me that this way of working aligns with how I wish to always perform classical violin repertoire. I have the most fun performing when I feel in the zone, creating new characters and musical ideas in the moment. We can paint a moving picture using the techniques we have at our disposal (articulation, bow speed, vibrato etc) to bring characters and emotions to life. The classical performances that most inspire me are those that tell a story, where the performer creates a real-time narrative from their imagination. I believe that this is also improvisation and requires the same abilities as jazz music, to draw from a well-honed skillset and create spontaneously.
After retuning my mindset to recognise I have the skills to play around with the dots on the page, I found the creative process of building the album very exciting. I improvised and immersed myself in folk, Latin and jazz music on several tracks. I leant on Andrew for support with harmonic understanding (it also turns out I have no idea how to swing!), and he gave me space to play around in a judgement-free zone. This is a key point: like speaking a new language; improvisation simply needs to be tried out loud. When I meet anyone learning English, I celebrate them for making conversation and battling through errors. I found that once I was in the flow of ‘playing’, it felt far more instinctive. Creating this album together was one of the most joyful projects I have ever worked on.
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I strongly believe that we should focus on stepping away from the written notes in all of our classical music learning. It is hugely rewarding and fun to approach all music making as a form of improvisation. Though my respect for jazz musicians’ improvisation skills knows no bounds, I would like to recognise the correlation between performing jazz and classical music; by combining our imagination and techniques on the instrument, we can also improvise and aim to bring the music to life in the moment. So, whether reading a score or improvising spontaneously, let’s see improvisation as a language with which we can freely express ourselves and with which we can create music that lives and breathes.
Long Days, Short Nights was released on 17 February 2023. Check out the album here.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.