David Dolan has developed a unique method of teaching classical improvisation and encouraging its applications in performance. The method aims to combine the use of know-how (structural, stylistic, textural and harmonic awareness) with real-time flow and creative spontaneity. It has been taught as a course at the Yehudi Menuhin School and at the Guildahall School of Music and Drama in London since 1990, as well as in a large number of master classes, seminars and workshops in leading European and North America music institutions. David’s vast experience has proven that the ability to improvise is not an inherited talent, but a skill that can be acquired.

The Course
The course is structured through five main channels:

The first deals with extemporisations, which are not based upon specific repertoire but are performed along the lines of known stylistic patterns and forms. This channel also deals with structure-free improvisations. The aims of this channel are twofold, that is, to gain both experience and confidence in improvising. The work here emphasises the “awakening” of intuitive skills, and does not require much conscious implementations of knowledge.

The second channel aims to enhance stylistic awareness, facilitating a creative approach to repertoire performance. In other words, it enables the performer to gain experience in creatively approaching improvisation in real-time on the level of the ‘what’ (the notes played) where stylistically appropriate, and not only the level of the ‘how’, which he/she is already familiar with.

The third channel deals with using improvisation as a tool in the search for one’s personal voice while searching for the interpretation of a given piece. The method of work involves examining several levels of possible structural reductions of the piece, and extemporising several possibilities of opening them up. This channel is mainly present in the part of the course dealing with the issue of different possible interpretations of solo and chamber music works. The aims of this channel of work are to enhance the implementation of structural and harmonic knowledge, as well as stylistic awareness in real-time; to enable the performer to explore different possible interpretations of the piece, while enhancing his/her creativity and freedom with fully owned structural awareness. Indirectly, this process enhances the performer’s emotional involvement with the piece and with his/her chosen interpretation of it.

The fourth channel of the course deals with further promoting the performer as a creator by introducing, where appropriate, extemporisation within the repertoire. Cadenzas, repeats and fermata point are improvised according to a particular stylistic language. Extemporised preludes are a meeting point between the first and the third channels, as they involve free improvisation within a given stylistic structure. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, this genre of improvisation was traditionally part of the performer’s contribution to the concert and was played before movements as well as between them (C. P. E. Bach, 1753/1957; Benson, 2003). Reviving this practise may contribute greatly to a higher quality of communication between performers and listeners. This approach is demonstrated in the recording of Mozart concerto for piano and strings K.414.

The fifth channel of the work aims to enhance active listening as a key element in developing musical leadership, as well as the ability to follow in chamber music or orchestral contexts. Improvisation provides an opportunity to develop these skills, where the high level of concentration needed for extemporising often reduces an inexperienced performer’s level of listening to what is going on around him/her. This channel is discussed in the in different sections dealing with group work, whether involving repertoire or free extemporisation.

The work is done with small groups of between three to five players, and is also found to be beneficial to existing chamber music groups who take the course as part of their ongoing work. The course changes, at times profoundly, players’ attitudes towards performance by connecting their ability to take risks. Thus, performers increase both their enjoyment of performance and their ability to communicate with their audiences. Also, for many (as revealed in over two hundred reports and self-assessments by advanced students who have taken the course has been an aid in overcoming performance related tension, in encouraging confidence, listening, and leadership, as well as in enhancing the participants’ ability to apply analytical insights in real-time.

The following video examples demonstrate some elements from David’s method of teaching and learning classical improvisation. The examples were filmed during a public presentation made at the “Reflective Conservatoire” international conference organized by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama at the Barbican Centre in London in February 2006. The work is part of David’s research fellowship at the Guidhall School of Music and Drama, entitled “The Creative Performer”.