As a young man, Robert Schumann began to imagine himself and create his world through the act of reading. [...] It is necessary for late twentieth-century observers to note that Schumann wrote music with the full expectation that it would function for the listener the way reading functioned. The shared literary and linguistic foundation behind Schumann's sense of musical time and form are fundamental. What this suggests may be nothing short of radical, particularly for the modern interpreter. As Schumann's own revisions of his earlier music imply, the act of making music resembles rereading. Rereading is never a replica of a past event. What is perceived and recalled has as much to do with the life history and place of the reader as it does with the printed text. Playing involves the creation of new meanings and experiences. If printed music is, then, like a poetic or prose text, the conceit of faithful representation of past practices  including the category of authorial intention  as understood by late twentieth-century performance practice may be irrelevant. [...] The twentieth century's notions of authenticity and the musical text demand redefinition if Schumann is the subject. Perhaps playing Schumann according to performance practices of his day requires that the player take striking liberties including improvisation, alteration, amplification, and addition to create the intensity of memory, expectation, and consciousness in the audience. [...] Schumann's additions to the texts of his beloved Bach, his close emulations of Bach, and his early and late appropriations of Paganini are the alternative models of what we might do to Schumann, all in the name of history. Exploring Schumann as history, then, reminds us of how performance strategies need to be evaluated in terms illuminated by extra-musical historical categories, including reading and the viewing of art. The consequences of this approach need to be considered if we wish to conjure up among our fellow citizens the spirit as well as the personal and public significance that history teaches us actually marked music making and listening in Schumann's world. (Botstein 1994, 4041)


Approaching Schumann in the twenty-first century


This excerpt from conductor and music scholar Leon Botstein's article "History, Rhetoric, and the Self: Robert Schumann and Music Making in German-Speaking Europe, 1800–1860" describes an approach towards Schumann similar to the one exposed in Playing Schumann Again for the First Time. Botstein emphasizes how the reading that Schumann engaged in shaped his specific cultural knowledge which in turn yielded musical scores that still inspire many today, and his incitement towards a kind of rereading of these scores that includes "improvisation, alteration, amplification, and addition" aligns with the goals of and strategies pursued in this project. As has been shown in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods, performing alterations to Schumann's scores can create more room for improvisation in one’s playing. This added improvisational space amplifies certain aspects of his music while also reflecting the practitioner’s sonic signature, and this space is also where more diversity in the way contemporary performers approach Schumann can be created. Botstein criticizes approaching Schumann as a mere historical figure by claiming that "rereading is never a replica of a past event" but rather something that happens in the moment of rereading, in the contemporary moment. This delineation between Schumann as historical figure and a rereading of his texts may remind the reader of the two attitudes towards history described in the chapter On Improvisation in the Nineteenth Century: the more historicist-inspired approach that prevailed during Schumann's lifetime and the document-based scientific understanding of history that came to be the reigning ideology for historical thinking during the second half of the nineteenth century (see the third chapter of Sancho-Velázquez 2001 for a detailed discussion of this shift in historical thinking). Because rereading is never merely copying previous meanings but rather relating to a historical document in the contemporary moment, the reader inevitably brings his or her own cultural weight into the process and understands the text in ways that are unique to his or her time, culture, and experience. Understanding the encounter between the reader and the text this way implies a more playful reading, creating new meanings and experiences. Very related to Adorno’s criticism of contemporary attitudes towards Bach discussed in the Introduction – a critique of certain musicians’ reverence that actually strips Bach’s music of its substance by replacing it with a surrogate loyalty to him as a historical figure, safely locked up in the past  adopting the idea of a more creative rereading of Schumann can release his music from unnecessary constraints and help it retain its contingency and validity today.1


Improvisation as practice and the (non-)idiomatic elements that guide it


Considering the contexts in which playing and reading take place brings a particular issue to light that is very relevant for this research project: for whom is one reading? And for whom is one playing? In both cases, scenarios that involve an audience and are therefore performative differ (sometimes greatly) to reading and playing at home alone. The newfound knowledge Playing Schumann Again for the First Time exposes was mainly discovered in the context of the latter scenario, although many of the musical examples exposed here were performed and recorded in public. Playing music at home alone is often referred to as “practicing” in this project; and when Eric Landgraf asks the question "what then is improvisation?" and answers that "in music, improvisation marks the simultaneous conception and presentation of art" (Landgraf 2011, 16; author's own emphasis), he clarifies the difference between practicing and performing with the terms "presentation" and "art." A performance is certainly a "presentation of art," but practicing does not necessarily have to be considered as such even though it certainly affects any ensuing presentations. Practicing is clearly essential for gaining the ability to improvise in public, although it should not be forgotten that public performances are sometimes the best forums for practicing and often serve as crucial hurdles in the development of one's own music-making. Learning to improvise necessarily involves practicing in public as well as privately.


Two particular aspects of improvisation have become more deeply elaborated throughout the practice-based research done in this project: first, the concept of improvisation as practice can be clarified, organized, and pursued in strategic ways; and second, idiomatic aspects of any particular instance of (practiced) improvisation are generally counter-balanced by non-idiomatic elements, and vice versa. In order to discuss both of these, I will first consider the overlap between improvisation in performance, in composition, in public, and in private in order to more clearly delineate what I think improvisation as practice means. Then I will use the summary of my understanding of how improvisation happens  through a practitioner’s engagement with a feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis while maintaining his or her individual cognitive and embodied approach to listening, forgetting, and conceptualizing, the results of which bear his or her own sonic signature  in order to substantiate the claim that there is no fundamental difference between so-called free improvisation and idiomatic improvisation. Preferring the term "non-idiomatic improvisation" to "free improvisation," in order to draw a continuum using parallel vocabulary, I believe that the musical examples exposed here are as idiomatic as they are non-idiomatic and that improvisation can better be understood as always emerging from not only the constraints of a particular idiom but also from those of one’s own practice, embodied knowledge, and experience.


The concept of improvisation as practice, where I believe the most fruitful work took place that has been exposed in this project, emerges as an overlapping of both improvisation in performance (including performing alone as well as public performance, however not primarily for "presentational" or "artistic" purposes but rather with the intention of developing one's own skills) and improvisation in composition. Improvisation as practice is an activity that constantly shifts between modes of playing, writing, analyzing, and reflecting (in and on action, see the discussion of Donald Schön’s “reflection in action” in the chapter Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing) in order to develop one's own practice. This may sound redundant or self-evident, but actually lies at the core of what Playing Schumann Again for the First Time intends to discuss. As mentioned in the Introduction, this research project could also inspire students and other practitioners who are interested in developing improvisational skills. Partially circumventing the idea that "improvisation marks the simultaneous conception and presentation of art," some of the improvisations shown here are not necessarily just about presentation and therefore not necessarily yet "art," but rather exemplify practice tools that should help lead to effective presentations of art at some further stage. Further along the practice spiral shown in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods, examples can be found that also have more presentational intentions and therefore might more readily be considered art. Improvisation as practice liberated the way I prepare in order to perform music, including performances of precomposed musical works. This newfound knowledge has affected the way I approach specific musical elements as well as influencing my music-making in over-arching in-explicit ways. (This differentiation between improvisation affecting specific musical moments and the playing at large is discussed within the context of performing precomposed music in the subchapter Schumann Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17, where certain practice methods are correlated to effects that can be heard in specific moments whereas the claim is made that others influence the playing more generally.)


While discussing Judith Butler's definition of gender as the "practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint" (Butler 2004, 1), Landgraf comments that:


Butler conceives of improvisation also in terms of its location as anything but the expression of unbridled freedom. The performance [...] is enveloped by constraint. These constraints do not merely limit or negate agency, but rather enable the "performance" [...] in the first place. (Landgraf 2011, 17)


I believe this project helps to make clear that the performance of improvised music is also enveloped (and therefore enabled) by constraints. These take many different forms, including but not limited to the musical elements relating to a particular idiom as well as one’s own practice, embodied knowledge, and experience (as already mentioned above). Reconsidering the rules and framework that guide improvisation in any given context (see the chapter On Scales of Improvisation), certain constraints ordain much of what can be considered idiomatic in an instance of music-making. Butler and Landgraf’s point, that these constraints are not a matter of choice but inherent in any human action, can certainly be seen here: even the choice to use Schumann to determine the rules and framework for this project was determined by my experience and interests as a classically trained pianist. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the mimetic processes involved in the feedback loop that guides musical improvisation, as described in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis, continually bring elements into improvisation that are already known to the practitioner and are already integrated into the “ways of the hands” (see David Sudnow’s description of reflection-in-action in the chapter Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing). These as well as other constraints affect the musical results in ways that create a specific idiomatic context.


However, other constraints bring what may be considered to be "non-idiomatic" elements into play: aspects of the performance that emerge from a specific practitioner's individual engagement with the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis that guides musical improvisation. Willingly or unwillingly, he or she brings new resonances to the process that ultimately create unique results. Perhaps still understandable within the context of a particular idiom, these resonances emerge from an individual approach to practice, to history, to music, to the instrument; in short, to all actors and factors that are operative while making music. These non-idiomatic aspects of musical improvisation, those which cannot be understood within conventions or arrived at by following rules, counter-balance the more idiomatic aspects; and they all play a crucial role in the development of a particular practitioner's sonic signature (see the chapter On Sonic Signature) and should be celebrated as elements that are crucial to music-making.2


Learning to improvise


Has the main research question guiding this project  how one can learn to improvise convincingly within the context of the nineteenth-century piano repertoire  been answered? I hope that the process exposed in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods that involves gradually distancing the sounding musical results from any particular musical work (or excerpt thereof) can serve as a guideline for others who are interested in acquiring improvisational skills within the context of this repertoire. The chapter On Scales of Improvisation should also serve to give the reader-listener-practitioner the feeling that improvisation is not something magical or far removed from one's own current set of skills, but rather inherent in all music-making to many various degrees. Initially approaching these degrees individually and beginning with the ones that already seem realizable should help the practitioner develop skills that can lead to the ability to improvise in other, perhaps more diverse, perhaps more large-scale contexts. Re-considering Czerny's list of prerequisites for being able to improvise  "zum Fantasieren gehört [...] eine natürliche Anlage, [...] eine gründliche Ausbildung in allen Theilen der Harmonielehre, [... und] ein vollkommen ausgebildetes Spiel (to improvise, the player must possess a natural inclination, a thorough education in harmony and music theory, [and] a completely refined technique)” (Czerny 1829, 34; my translation)  this project combines theoretical knowledge and practical tools to show that a "natural inclination" is only necessary in that the practitioner should desire to do the appropriate work. Rather than considering improvisation as something that is derived from talent alone or granted to an exclusive few, I believe the natural inclination to improvise belongs to everybody and that all musicians are already doing so (see the discussion of Benson’s improvisation1 in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation). For those who may not feel the same or still have inhibitions towards the idea of improvising within the context of nineteenth-century piano repertoire, an alternative approach might be  rather than to dwell on natural inclination  to consider how one can look for a personal sonic signature by first pursuing various approaches to practicing (like the ones described in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods) and then experimenting with various ratios of listening, forgetting, and conceptualizing. Perhaps the initial steps to be taken in order to develop improvisation skills involve more conceptualizing than listening and forgetting, but over time one can learn to strike a balance between these three that allows the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis to guide the playing.


Play the change you wish to hear


In the contemporary field of improvisation studies, much attention has been given to its power to criticize and (re)shape societal issues. Because "improvisation demonstrates complex and emergent properties that are greater than the sum of its parts," Cobussen for example theorizes how it is


especially suited to test aspects of social interaction[. ... Improvisation] can create the conditions for different experiences of social space and social behavior[, ... and] perhaps it can break up entrenched orientations and simultaneously teach us to better deal with change, complexity, and chaos. (Cobussen 2017, Introduction to Part 4 - Exceeding, [1])


Being able to deal with "change, complexity, and chaos" within music helps the musician to remain more resilient towards mistakes, unknown situations, or generally unexpected events. Extending these impacts into other contexts, Cobussen continues by showing "how insights directly stemming from the field of musical improvisation can in one way or another contribute something to extra-musical discourses, disciplines, cultural fields, and/or events" (Cobussen 2017, Management  Richard Barrett, [1]). In a way this echoes Rzewski’s claims of how knowledge gained through musical improvisation might be relevant in the social realm as well:


Because improvisation resembles real life, it can illuminate this real life. [...] Improvisation tells us: "Anything is possible  anything can be changed  now." Change of some kind is inevitable. We have to be ready for anything. [...] If there ultimately is some kind of peaceful transition to more generous forms of social organization, music, and specifically improvised music, will play an important role in this process, as it has done in the past. Great social movements do not have clearly definable causes. Although not totally free of causality, they nevertheless happen spontaneously. No individual can foresee them completely. This is precisely what improvisation is about. (Rzewski 2007, 6266)


I agree that improvisation can illuminate real life and that its results are not totally free of causality but cannot be foreseen completely. Rzewski illuminates how great social changes often require a form of improvisation from citizens as they contain unexpected elements even though they do not take place without any causality. Contextualizing Rzewski's and Cobussen's claims of how improvisation can impact society, many authors have concerned themselves with the problem of elitism in art music and asked whether or not art music in an institutionalized form is the place where this kind of social catalysis can happen. I believe Dana Gooley addresses the issue effectively by initially acknowledging that:


if one of the ambitions of the field [of critical improvisation studies, BM] is to identify in improvisation sites of freedom, creative agency, and intersubjective exchange that could be released into social and political transformation, [...] it is rarely asked, for example, why experimental forms of improvisation, which enjoy a decisive privilege in the field, are so unpopular, ignored, or actively detested. [...] One of the field's larger unresolved issues, in my opinion, is the large gap between the values of experimental improvisation and the inclusive democratic values that this mode of improvisation is claiming to serve  a gap that is easily avoided by staying focused on producers, who double as their own listeners. (Gooley 2014, 10)


After articulating the problem of elitism in certain musical circles by acknowledging that much art music today is "unpopular, ignored, or actively detested" by a large segment of society, Gooley arrives at the solution of the "producer" who doubles as "listener," reminiscent of the rereading approach proposed by Botstein. The reader produces an understanding of a text only when he or she is listening to what the text is telling him or her. This is ultimately what Playing Schumann Again for the First Time is about – listening to the past in ways that can influence the present and the future in interesting ways, first and foremost in the context of one's own musical practice. And practicing music can catalyze social change beginning with the changes within oneself achieved through the pleasure derived by engaging with music of the past in diverse ways. This shift in one’s own practice might open a musical domain where “an attentive listening, an ethical listening, can be learned and practised” (Cobussen and Nielsen 2012, 33). More in line with the scope of this project, however, such an ethical listening may perhaps liberate the performers of classical music today from unnecessary constraints and create musical results that will in turn inspire audiences and reinvigorate and instill further interest in the repertoire. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer also addresses the ethics of listening in Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method) by stating that “anyone who listens is fundamentally open. Without this kind of openness to one another there is no genuine human relationship. Belonging together always also means being able to listen to one another” (Gadamer 1979, 324). Bringing Gadamer’s thoughts into the context of practicing music, one could argue that music can only really speak to a musician through unbiased listening; only then have the conditions been created to pursue a sonic signature.


To conclude this project by returning to the verb play, I propose a play on words with a well-known quote attributed to Gandhi that reflects the role musical practitioners play in creating the musical and therefore also the social landscape of the twenty-first century. Play the change you wish to hear in the world!




On Improvisation in the Nineteenth Century 


On Mimesis and Morphosis


On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music


On Scales of Improvisation


On My Improvisation Methods


On Sonic Signature


Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing




Bibliography and Acknowledgements