I was watching Stephen Fry and his jolly chums on QI, enjoying all their whimsical banter, and once again it occurred to me that the best thing about the show (and other similar ones) was not the wittiness but the fact that it was spontaneous. Of course it’s all a bit silly, and a tightly scripted thing from any one of the panellists would in fact be a whole lot cleverer. But the show is tremendously popular, and understandably so. Maybe people really prefer daring (even if sloppy) to slick. How does that apply to music?
In his 1667 publication The Division-Viol (p.27) Christopher Simpson says
“True it is, that Invention is a gift of Nature, but much improved by Exercise and Practice. He that hath it not in so high a measure as to play ex tempore to a Ground [improvising], may, notwithstanding give both himself and hearers sufficient satisfaction in playing such Divisions [variations] as himself or others have made for that purpose; in the performance whereof he may deserve the Name of an excellent Artist; for here the excellency of the Hand may be shewed as well as in the Other, and the Musick perhaps better, though less to be admired, as being more studied.”
Which indicates that 350 years ago unpremeditated invention was more prized than intellectual offering even though the latter may produce better music! So our demised classical recording industry was really barking up the wrong tree in its obsession with clarity and perfection: all it achieved was sterility.
Simpson’s message is good: practice a lot, then make it up on the spot. That will grab them.