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How I Used Jazz to Teach Myself Mozart

Posted by on June 8, 2014. 0 comments

In October of 2013 I performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 with an orchestra in northern Mexico, the Orquesta Filarmonica del Estado de Chihuahua. This particular concerto is among Mozart’s most popular, frequently performed works, and I was concerned with finding ways of bringing something entirely new to my performance. Since there is no cadenza by Mozart available for this concerto, I initially decided to compose the cadenza. This cadenza was the result of hours of improvisation during practice. Since I never wrote it down, it preserved a certain flexibility that allowed me to create variations for specific passages while retaining the underlying framework. In a way similar to jazz improvisation, there were countless “licks” that I could play for a particular section that would be true to the style and work in my cadenza’s framework. For example, a four-measure ascending line connecting the end of the main theme with a long trill on the dominant could take the form of a chromatic scale, a broken V7 arpeggio, or more complicated elaborations using different types of ornamental notes.

Over time, I grew discontent with playing the same cadenza repeatedly, especially since my improvisatory excursions in the practice room continued to yield interesting ideas and a more fulfilling experience than my “written-out” cadenza. Through repetition, my cadenza had grown stale and uninteresting to me. My purpose in composing the cadenza was to imbue the concerto with spontaneity, to embrace the juxtaposition of an improvisatory cadenza and the rigidity of classical form. By fearing the uncertain and performing only the most successful versions of my cadenza repeatedly, I was taking away from my performance. To remedy this, I decided to improvise a new cadenza in every performance; I decided to confront my fear of the unknown and embark on a search for freedom in playing this music. Essentially, I took my practice room improvisations to the concert stage.  I consider improvisation in 18th and 17th century keyboard music as one of the most exciting, largely unexplored areas of piano repertoire and performance and was very excited when my friend, conductor Armando Pesqueira, agreed to accommodate my urge to improvise on the spot. This was the result:



To prepare for improvising in front of an audience, I had several lessons and conversations with jazz performers. I am currently based in Western Michigan University, home of some of the most exciting jazz musicians performing today and they were an invaluable resource. The differences between improvising in jazz and Mozartian style quickly became apparent; jazz has a high tolerance for inaccuracy and a low tolerance for the unoriginal, completely the opposite of improvisation in the Viennese classical style. I also came to realize that there is an enormous difference in the performance experience of inserting different interchangeable “licks” into my already established cadenza framework, as a jazz player improvises on a given melody or progression, and creating a new framework for each performance. Improvising a cadenza would be as much about improvising a balanced large-scale form, with its tonal centers and modulations, as it would be about improvising at the small scale.

For my improvisation, I set a limit for myself: I would only improvise in complete adherence to style and performance practice, working within the limits of the instruments and techniques of this particular period; no octave passages a la Liszt or jazzy extended harmonies for me. Improvising in a classical, Mozartian style requires an abnormally high degree of accuracy and adherence to style in the harmonic and melodic movement, balanced forms and gestures, and respect for performance practice guidelines. Finding practice strategies that would not encourage me to repeat the same material every time was a fundamental problem. The goal was to attain higher degrees of freedom with the material every time.

I talked with various jazz musicians about their practice and teaching methods and used these to teach myself over the course of several months. I began by studying other cadenzas for this and other Mozart concertos – often from recordings since they are frequently performers’ own compositions and not publicly available – and then worked to replicate them as closely as possible. Transcribing these cadenzas by ear and replicating them helped immensely, and I can understand why transcribing solos by ear is such an important part of jazz pedagogy. In the process, I isolated specific licks that were characteristic of the style, that appeared repeatedly in different works and cadenzas. What do I mean by a “lick”? This is also an idea taken from jazz. A lick is a stock melodic pattern or phrase fragment. Jazz musicians will often learn these licks and study how other musicians use them in their own improvisation, gradually evolving their own musical language. This is a common jazz lick:



I also found several licks in cadenzas of other classical concertos. I used the ones that I found most attractive and experimented with them. Doing this helped me gain insight into certain characteristics of the different material in the concerto that I had overlooked before. For example, Dinu Lipatti’s cadenza in the extraordinary 1950 recording highlights the contrapuntal relationship between the main theme and the characteristic arpeggio sequence that connects the second theme with the coda; Mitsuko Uchida’s 2012 recording begins the third movement cadenza with the “B” theme of the rondo-sonata, illustrating how that theme can be adapted freely to virtually any common classical chord progression. I also improvised countless variations over the framework of specific themes, chord progressions, or accompaniment patterns and often used jazz-specific pedagogical methods such as playing fragments of the melody and improvising new endings or beginnings, inserting rests and stops at different places, or experimenting with inserting sections from one part of the work into other parts of the chord progression.

In the moment of the performance I was constantly thinking about the large-scale form of my cadenza. My practice methods helped me build up hundreds of licks (most interchangeable with any other Mozart concerto), accompaniment patterns, and chord progressions that would help me go from one key to another or develop a particular theme. This allowed me to focus more on where I was going and how I was going to get there than on the mechanics of a specific passage. My main concern was making decisions on the fly about which keys and themes I wanted to visit, following through without embarrassing myself, and then finding ways to return to the original key’s V7 chord to queue the orchestra’s entrance. It was an incredibly exciting experience, a rush that I have rarely experienced when playing classical music in the traditional way.

During the performance, there were two sensations that I’d never experienced before and that I’ve tried to recapture every time I’ve performed since. I felt a connection to a common language from which all improvisers draw. As I performed, I remembered other cadenzas I’d transcribed, all the other music I had studied, and I drew from it for my own performance. I have felt this connection to history and to other performers in the practice room, but never to this degree in a public performance. I also felt a sense of  physicality, an idea of space and a freedom to move about that space that I had not experienced in traditional performance.  Each new theme, chord, or tonal area was a physical location, a room or landscape, and, as I played, I felt that I began at a point in space and visited different rooms, moving away from my tonal center and then returning home. I can honestly say that I am a different musician thanks to this experiment and I highly recommend it. It allowed me to abandon many of my fears and take part in an expansive and free form of musical performance to which I had closed myself before.