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John Mortensen: "Improvisation is more important than memorization"


The eloquent Professor John Mortensen, author of upcoming book "The Pianist's Guide to Historic Improvisation", has recently released a provocative video as a part of his series of "Piano Pandemictivities" entitled "Things I Wish I Had Known (Part I)".


In it he makes the statement that "I wish I had known that improvisation is more important than memorization" as it relates to the "practical, working life of someone who wants to be a professional in music."


Interesting statements from the video:

"Most graduates of music school do not have a compelling reason to play large amounts of music from memory, once they're done with school. They won't be a big part of your life and it certainly won't be an important part of how you make a living, okay? I think through my many, many graduates who I've taught and I can't think of any of them for whom playing from memory puts bread on the table. For many of them, playing from the score yes, teaching yes, arranging.. all this other stuff yes but not playing from memory. However they could have plenty of reason to improvise, to jam, and to fake."

Most students who learn classical piano, particularly in Asia work very hard at memorizing and performing their prepared pieces at music examinations overseen by ABRSM or Trinity. These pieces are often weighed for the majority of the grade whereas Sight Reading is allotted a much smaller percentage of the overall grade.

"One of the dark secrets of music is that you can memorize long pieces and not understand them at all and it's just the way motor memory works.. just whatever we do by repetition becomes something that we can recall, physically. Doesn't mean we actually understand what's going on. But when you improvise, you're required to interact with the materials of music because you have to make decisions about the materials of music, when you improvise. Whether it's blues or jazz or popular music or historic or classical music. You have to make decisions about how to assemble that piece of music and therefore you have to understand how music is made."

A trenchant commentary on the perceived expertise of concert musicians is whether being able to play the music constitutes a comprehensive understanding of the music. The act of improvisation absolutely requires a musician to understand how to combine notes in a logical and tasteful manner.

The 21st century has seen a dramatic rise in the interest in classical improvisation over the memorization of repertoire and it appears that videos such as this one by Professor Mortensen will not be perceived as so heretical as they might have been several decades ago.

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