On 18th March 2024 a full house of 110 teachers and learners got to experience the magic of the all-but-lost art of Improvisation in Classical Music as demonstrated by some of the world’s greatest composers.


While contemporary music showcases improvisational expertise primarily in genres like jazz and contemporary music, with notable figures such as Jacob Collier, John Tilbury, Peter Michael Hamel, and John Wolf Brennan, improvisational composers within the Classical sphere, notably John Cage and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, employ more experimental styles. They often utilize graphic notation to convey their compositions in “written” form rather than standard notation – quite a far cry from the improvisations of the 18th and 19th centuries.


The tradition of improvisation in classical music dates back centuries, where composers frequently improvised preludes before performing their main pieces (we also learned that prior to Franz Liszt’s invention of the modern solo piano recital, piano recitals resembled what we typically arrange as student recitals, featuring multiple performers). Notably, Johann Sebastian Bach was renowned for his ability to improvise complex musical passages, influencing a lineage of improvisers that includes his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Czerny, and Franz Liszt. Despite its historical significance, improvisation gradually waned in classical music education during the twentieth century, with few exceptions such as liturgical improvisation on the organ. Nevertheless, contemporary classical performers like Gabriela Montero, Galina Vracheva, Friedrich Gulda, Dinu Lipatti, and Robert Levin continue to incorporate improvisation into their concerts.

On Montero, and Levin in particular, Phil Best in a guest article on www.crosseyedpianist.com writes “The wonderful Gabriela Montero is an example of a well-known pianist who regularly improvises, usually creating a pastiche of a great composer’s style and Robert Levin is renowned for making improvisation an integral part of Mozart’s piano music, improvising cadenzas on the spot and fleshing out the barebones writing that is often encountered in slow movements.”

Reintegrating Improvisation into modern piano teaching – Though expected of musicians in past eras, improvisation was considered an expert level skill usually taught at an advanced stage of musical education, and is not something introduced to beginners (which has perhaps contributed to the decline of this skill in modern classical music education). Prof. Patzlaff challenges this notion, and advocates for teachers to explore this with young children and adult beginners early on. In his view, Improvisation, like learning a language, requires learning grammar, and practice – warm ups and exercises, best learnt with a teacher at the start, Prof. recommends the teacher improvise some accompaniment for the student to provide a safer, supported environment where they feel more at ease to try things. Other possibilities to start with could be Preluding (perhaps with a more advanced student), Ornamentation, Free Improvisation, Improvisation with Intervals, and Small variations with the score.


Throughout the day, amidst his sharing of knowledge and experiences from over a decade of teaching improvisation to students, Professor shared with participants the exercises he does with his students utilising various tools and methods such as modifying existing pieces (a line, a motif, or chordal movement) or perhaps re-harmonising it for more advanced students, or changing the articulation, tempo, etc.,  using “constant structures” and moving them around they instrument, utilising modal scales, improvising off visual representations (graphic scores, storyboards, taking inspiration from existing artwork or creating their own to work with, etc.), and teachers participated, with some very interesting and colorful results from different approaches to a graphic score, to having a “musical conversation”, to running free on a set chord sequence. 

The day closed out with Professor Patzlaff taking a few pieces suggested by the audience, and improvising around them. As he mentioned he always does at his lecture-recitals, he was “completely unprepared, except for having a quick look at the list on the plane (to Singapore)”, with varying, sometimes surprising results (sometimes surprising even himself – he did improvise after all!):

After each piece, the Professor took a little time to explain his approach to his improvisation of each one, and which tools he found himself using. A Brahms Intermezzo improvised on the theme, still in a similar style; Fur Elise (Beethoven) re-harmonised around its most recognisable motif (very harmonically and rhythmically interesting!), Nocturne Op. 37 in Gm (Chopin) in Jazz style, Rondo Alla Turca (Mozart) deconstructed and put back together in varying styles (including tango!), and Canon in D (Pachelbel) in the styles of Scott Joplin and Maurice Ravel to name just a few of the fantastic improvisations the Professor was able to conjure on the spot.

The main takeaway we get from the Lecture Recital Workshop is to really give students freedom to experiment and to make mistakes. Improvisation is very personal to every individual, and each student should be given a chance to discover their unique voice and artistic expression.


The Teaching Improvisation in Classical Music Lecture Recital Workshop with Professor Laurens Patzlaff was organized and presented by Bechstein Music World Singapore. Be sure to follow them on their Facebook and Instagram for more news on upcoming events, concerts and workshops in 2024!