Learning to improvise in western classical music: a psychological study

Jonathan Ayerst

Jonathan (MA, University of Sheffield, and FRCO, Royal College of Organists) is a professional pianist, organist and choir director. Since 2000 he has worked in the Casa da Música in Porto as pianist for Remix Ensemble (Portugal's contemporary music ensemble). He has also recorded portuguese renaissance repertoire for Naxos with the vocal ensemble Capella Duriensis. Since 2015 he has developed an interest in improvising in Western classical music, making this the subject of a PhD study at the University of Sheffield. He studied baroque improvisation with Jürgen Essl at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart (2017-18), and more recently has given masterclasses and recitals in improvisation throughout the UK and Portugal.

Jonathan's projects

My research explores the process of learning to improvise music as a western classically-trained musician in the conservatoire tradition. Placing myself as the subject I document my own progress in improvising in baroque styles, forms and genres, from novice to concert performance. This allows me to study and discuss emotional and cognitive barriers to improvising; changes in perspective which accompany emerging skills; mental representation of improvisation at different stages of learning, and the transition from controlled, conscious performance, to unconscious, automatic performance. I also explore the decline of improvisation in western classical music, the aesthetic beliefs towards music-making and creativity which lead to this decline and which continue to dominate the conservatoire and the institutions of classical music.

Much of my experience in learning to improvise will be included in thirteen (1 hour) programmes which I wrote for the radio station RTP Antena 2 (Portugal's classical music radio station). These will be broadcast in during the Autumn of 2020.

Jonathan's Publications

Are classical musicians excluded from improvisation? Cultural hegemony and the effects of ideology on musicians’ attitudes towards improvisation. (Awaiting publication in Contemporary Music Review)


Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCZRT3q1JcUbiJOr9ahM6Ig

Facebook: Psychology of Classical Improvisation

Website: http://www.classical-improvisation.org/ includes a great deal of information about improvising and learning to improvise. Templates for download, a discussion forum and a blog are some of the features!