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https://ericbarnhill.wordpress.com/facts-about-improvisation/

I just came across this old yet interesting article about the improvisation stories of certain classical composers. Since classical improvisation back then was a huge common practice and needed to be taught, how did classical composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy exactly practice piano improvisation? How are they so good at making melodies out of thin air?

  • Did you never see Amadeus? [Yes, I know it's hokey, but it has at least some insight. ;) – Tetsujin May 16 '17 at 18:37
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    You are forgetting one thing: Throughout the history of music, most musicians were poor improvisers and composers, just like most of today's wannabees. The people mentioned in the blog were the tiny minority who weren't bad. Even the "pretty good" ones are forgotten. How much music do you know by Vanhall (he wrote more string quartets than Haydn, and 73 symphonies) or Salieri (more operas than Mozart, and more popular that Mozart's in his own lifetime), for example? – user19146 May 16 '17 at 19:15
  • @Tetsujin Are you referring to the scene when Mozart "spiced up" Salieri's theme? – Eric May 16 '17 at 19:22
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    Improvisation was even more "common practice" in the baroque era than in the classical. In fact, we have hardly any of J S Bach's organ music written after he was about 25 years old - he was too busy improvising music to spend time writing it down. One of his predecessors, Reinken, was a full-time professional organist for 65 years (right up to his death at age 79!) who was admired by J S Bach. During his working life probably improvised around 8,000 hours of music - but he only wrote down and published four organ works in his entire lifetime. – user19146 May 16 '17 at 19:26
  • @Eric - it was one of the more memorable scenes; of course it's trite, it probably/possibly/maybe did/didn't happen, but it's an example of 'improv'. The article to which you refer mentions, "Improvisation, however, doesn’t leave the strong archaeological records..." - it never could, by definition. – Tetsujin May 16 '17 at 19:38
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The same way as the rest of us, I'm afraid. There us no magic to learning this skill. Music, like any area of study, is full of patterns. Neurologically speaking, as you observe more patterns and get better with them, you can utilize them faster and with more aptitude/facility.

One of the theories for how Bach hurt his eyes was by spending his youth copying music by candlelight as a form of study. In Jazz school and in conservatories, you transcribe works as a form of ear training and study.

A good, healthy mix of playing the music of others, studying that music very closely, constantly trying to improvise, and writing out your own music are all important parts of learning to improvise.

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If you do some digging, you will find a lot of material on this topic.

Try these for starters:

When you hear stories about composers who could improvise fugues, they are talking about partimenti fugue.

Also, check out these videos:

  • Robert Levin: Improvising Mozart.
  • Improvising Mozart with Robert Levin.

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