Expert improvisers in Western classical music: Perceptions, learning pathways and creative processes

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Jean-Philippe Després


Aims. The research question of the present study is: “What are Western classical music improvisers’ perceptions, learning pathways and creative processes?” To address this question, a threefold rationale has been developed: (1) describe how Western classical music expert improvisers perceive their practice; (2) map Western classical music improvisation learning pathways; and (3) identify and define the cognitive processes and strategies implemented by Western classical music experts, as well as the states they experience in the course of performance.

Method. Open-ended, semi-structured interviews have been conducted with (N=8) internationally recognized Western classical music expert improvisers. Expertise has been determined by peer recognition and professional performing/recording/teaching activity in Western classical music. After transcription, the interviews have been coded and analysed using NVivo 10 software, with a mixed category approach.

Results. The participants perceived improvisation as a spiritual experience, situated at the core of their musical practice, which is ideally created collaboratively and ex nihilo. Furthermore, even though improvisation, interpretation and composition are often intricate activities, distinctions are clearly drawn for the participants. Two different types of learning pathways have been identified: native improvisers and immigrant improvisers. While in the former pathway improvisation was introduced at the very beginning of instrumental learning, in the latter pathway improvisation was learned after developing high-level of instrumental proficiency. Both these learning pathways led the participants to develop improvisational expertise. Thus, we hypothesize that expertise can be attained even when improvisation is introduced in later phases of musical development, as long as know-how and know-what are sufficient. Moreover, beyond knowledge and skills, expertise is also built on risk-taking and acceptance of the unexpected. Finally, the strategies implemented by Western classical music improvisers can be grouped into six categories: motivic, pitch- oriented, real-time, rhythmical, structural and stylistic and, from a broader perspective, the improvisational cognitive processes and strategies identified are either transversal or language-specific. On the one hand transversal cognitive processes and strategies could be implemented in any improvisational context; on the other hand Western classical music-specific cognitive processes and strategies are linked to the peculiar constraints of this language.

Keywords: Musical improvisation, expertise, perceptions, learning, creative process.

Acknowledgement. The author wishes to acknowledge the generous financial contribution of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and of the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE).

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