Thoughts from a Musician's Heart
SING TO THE LORD A NEW SONG? by Pauliina Haustein
By definition, classical musicians tend to be singers and players of old songs (classics!). However, in times when most of the canon was originally composed, improvisation used to be a part of performing it, similarly as in jazz today. Until the 20th century, professional musicians’ skill sets included a toolkit of knowledge from which to draw on spontaneously in live performance, and they could create both solo and ensemble improvisations, to which harmonic progressions, compositional structures, and stylistic rhetoric were applied. The personal, creative voice of the performing musician was expected as part of the performance, engaging in collaborative, artistic dialogue with the voice of the composer’s. (Numerous examples exist; for example, Schubert was once so touched by a singer’s improvisations to his composition in performance, that he went back and changed the written composition accordingly. For details, see Haustein, 2022.) Historical accounts describe, how improvising appeared to unlock a different, creative dimension, that was emotionally powerful and drew crowds to the same concert (with different improvisations) night after night. These experiences resonate with ones from any musical genre today - improvisations, performed between written pieces, electrifying the atmosphere… Look, they are improvising now… Our full attention is on the musicians.
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Psalm 96.
Many of us who have been making music in and outside churches have undoubtedly experienced beautiful times of playing-in-the-moment; improvising to songs or hymns, creatively with others, expressions ranging from worship to lamenting. Hopefully, in such moments, we felt safe; we were connected to the present, focusing on something other than the technical execution of the piece… Knowing that ‘mistakes’ didn’t matter that much, or might even go unnoticed. Perhaps we felt particularly connected to our innermost selves, without fear or judgement, and to a loving, accepting God. Our connectedness might have even extended to our instruments, and we found ourselves thinking, I wish I would play or sing with such ease on stage as well. But on professional stage, under performance pressure, analytical ears of colleagues, and the nagging voice of self-criticism, such moments are rarer, and may even feel as if they belong to an entirely different world.
Could a bridge between the two experiences, the two worlds, be built? Could the ease, connectedness, security, and playful creativity of our safest moments, our closeness with a loving God, become part of our professional performing practice? What could happen if it did?
Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. -- The water that I give, will become in him a spring of water, welling up to eternal life. John 4:14
Improvisation has indeed started making a comeback to the classical scene in recent years. Musicological and neuroscientific studies have shown, how improvised moments in a classical repertoire performance became detectable in the change of brain activity of not just musicians, but also audience members - creating a neural phenomenon in the brain that resembles the moment when a sleeping person starts to wake up (Dolan et al, 2013, 2018). Audience research has further highlighted, how improvisation seemed to facilitate a noticeable shift in the concert atmosphere, as both audience members and performers started experiencing an emotional wave – a welling up, you might say – of empathy, security, creative freedom, and acceptance during improvised moments (Haustein 2022). Perhaps these worlds are not so far apart, after all?
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see… and put their trust in him.
The writer is a cellist, classical improviser, and pedagogue, who has a DMus in classical improvisation. www.pauliinahaustein.com