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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Process and Prowess: A Personal Account of the Study of Historic Western European Improvisation Practices

  • Author(s): Rostomyan, Anahit
  • Advisor(s): Le Guin, Elisabeth
  • et al.

In this dissertation, I explore avenues of acquiring keyboard improvisation skills by (a) engaging with musical works that carry the mark of improvised traditions; (b) working from sixteenth- through eighteenth-century treatises on improvisation; (c) critically examining the history and pedagogy which informs past practices; and (d) reevaluating my place in relation to these historical musical practices from a current cultural standpoint. In the first chapter, I detailed my biography, focusing specifically on my musical training. I do so in order to familiarize my reader with the circumstances including education, musical training, etc. that have, on the one hand, equipped me with fairly strong musical abilities and, on the other, have made it difficult for me to grow as an all-around skilled organist, able—among other things—to improvise. In the second chapter, I describe and discuss aspects of improvisation practices from the Early Modern Period, which I have come to find particularly helpful for my musical exploration, as well as for building a better understanding of the differences in the past and contemporary practices that have shaped the outcomes of my abilities to engage with improvisation. Chronicling of my firsthand experiences with improvisation, primarily based on the examination of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582 and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Fantasia in E-flat Major, Wq 58/6, takes a prominent place in the third, central-analytical chapter. In the final, concluding chapter, I discuss ways of working with failure from a positive perspective and re-evaluate my place in relation to improvised musical practices.

By including both descriptions of musical processes and a narration of thoughts, derived from extra-musical texts, I outline and explore topics and sources which have, at various stages of the ongoing project, enhanced my understanding of the issues at hand such as, personal limitations and external factors, including musical training and cultural upbringing.

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