Improvisation masterclass with Mark Polishook

On Saturday afternoon members of the London Piano Meetup Group met at Peregrine’s Pianos for a masterclass on improvisation with Dr Mark Polishook.

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Generally considered nowadays to the the preserve of jazz musicians, classical improvisation has become something of a lost art, but prior to the 20th century, pianists routinely improvised and there are accounts of Liszt and his contemporaries offering improvisations on suggestions from the audience at the end of concerts. Mark presented the activity of improvising not as something new or novel, or to be confined to the world of jazz, but as the reclaiming of a lost art and a necessary skill for pianists of all levels.

Four members performed works by Bach, Debussy, Menotti and an own-composition, and Mark worked with each person to guide them into improvising from a fairly basic starting point. For example, José, who played the Prelude in C Major from Bach’s WTC, used a basic C major arpeggio for the starting point for a simple, yet rather arresting, improvisation which encouraged us all to think about the sound, and the silences in between, as well as the harmonics the piano can create, which can be used as inspiration for further improvisation.

After David had played Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie (from ‘Estampes’), he began his explorations into improvisation with a straightforward diminished 7th arpeggio. Mark demonstrated that by placing one arpeggio on top of another, or using scale patterns, some interesting and unusual harmonies and colours could be produced quite simply, creating an improvisation that suggested both Debussy and looked forward to Messiaen and beyond.

Petra then gave us a lively and assured account of Menotti’s Toccata. Mark encouraged her to think about an improvisation based first upon a repeated rhythm deep in the lowest register of the piano, thus demonstrating that rhythmic impulses can be the source of improvisation, as well as melodic or harmonic ideas. At this point, we also had a discussion about the ‘mystique’ of the performer and the idea of creating a ‘performance’ before one has even sat at the piano, playing on the audience’s expectations and “creating magic” within a performance.

Jennie was the last person to play, one of her own compositions. Mark introduced us to an iPhone app called Drum Genius, which allows you to play any number of drum beats, and showed once again that rhythm can be the starting point for improvisation.

This was a fascinating class which left everyone feeling very inspired and energised. It was as if we had all been given permission to go back to our pianos and free ourselves from our rigid classical training and simply enjoy the sounds and colours available from the instrument. Mark’s teaching style was engaging and friendly, endlessly positive and enthusiastic, and his tuition was peppered with interesting anecdotes about jazz musicians which more than added to the overall enjoyment of the event.

Details of other London Piano Meetup Group events can be found here

Dr. Polishook, who is from the United States, has had a varied career as a university professor (composition theory, music technology, and piano), a jazz pianist, and a multimedia and sound artist. He currently teaches through Mark Polishook Studio (http://www.polishookstudio.com) in Leicester and world-wide through Skype . Dr. Polishook writes about pianos, pianism, jazz, and improvisation on his Blog of the Improvised Line, also at http://www.polishookstudio.com.