9 ways to improve your improv and craft a cadenza
by Richard S. Bridges
I learned how to improvise by the “sink-or-swim” method when, as a teenager, I was invited to participate in a promotional concert sponsored by the Barcus-Berry Corporation. The firm had just come out with its first line of electric violins and violas. We performed pop favorites and a few jazz classics. All of us were expected to improvise a solo on cue during the performance. As we played Isaac Hayes’ theme from the movie Shaft, the conductor pointed at me and said, “Hit it.” I was terrified, yet excited, and the solo came off pretty well.
From that moment on I was hooked on improvising.
“Oh,” I hear you saying to yourself, “I’m not a composer; I couldn’t write a cadenza or variations on a theme.” But that’s not true! With a little coaching, anyone can write out a cadenza, and with some practice and experience, even improvise one on the fly. I have organized a simple, step-by-step method to help you get those creative juices flowing. It’s easy and fun.
Indeed, you never know when inspiration and opportunity will coincide to create new music. My first experience with creating an actual cadenza came as a student. I was studying the Stamitz Viola Concerto in D, and I really disliked the published cadenza for the first movement. So I copied the cadenza from my favorite recording by ear and embellished it a bit to suit my own taste. Now I always look for a chance to work on cadenzas and to help other players develop their skill in this area.
Recently I had a student who was working on the Hummel Fantaisie and needed a new cadenza, so we worked on it as a collaborative project. During the lessons, we took turns improvising, until we came up with a result she was happy with.
These kinds of opportunities happen all the time. You just need to be willing to seize the moment when it comes along. I’ve chosen as a working example the “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s beloved opera, Carmen. Literally dozens of composers have arranged this charming aria for various instruments, including violin, flute, piano solo, trumpet, and cello ensemble. Recently, I finished composing two new Carmen fantasies; one for viola and piano, and another for cello and piano. (These are both firsts; no one has ever published a version for either viola or cello before.) I composed the viola version for myself; Barrett Sills, principal cello of Houston Grand Opera orchestra and founding member of Ars Lyrica Baroque ensemble, commissioned the version for cello.
Where to Begin
Let’s start by reviewing standard cadenza format. The word “cadenza” means “to stop” and the simplest cadenza is merely a fermata, or hold, on the last note of a phrase before the resolution of the harmony. The soloist holds the note in a dramatic fashion, and then cues the accompaniment to join in for the final chord. Over the centuries, this stopping point in the music evolved into an opportunity for the soloist to improvise on the preceding thematic material.
I’ve identified nine basic techniques you can use to create a cadenza and/or variations on a theme.
1. Octave transposition: Simply state the theme, but play the second half either an octave higher or an octave lower.
2. Ornamentation: Add trills, turns, grace notes, and mordents as the spirit moves you.
3. Major/minor shift: If the theme is in a major key, repeat it in a minor key. Likewise, if the theme is in a minor key, repeat it in a major key.
4. Tempo/articulation variation: If the theme is quick, repeat it at a slower tempo. If the original theme is indicated as legato, repeat it with staccato articulation.
5. Arpeggios and scale motion: Fill in the theme with linking scale runs and arpeggios. Take care that your scales and arpeggios fit the harmony.
6. Rhythmic variation: If the theme is in duple meter, repeat it with triplet figures. This works especially well when applied to the scale and arpeggio technique
7. Chords and double-stops: Check the accompaniment for proper harmony and add chords and double-stops.
8. Fugato/canon: State the theme in the solo line and have the accompaniment enter a half-bar or a whole measure later in imitation. You may need to alter the solo line to keep the harmony consistent between the solo and accompaniment lines. Imitation and fugue are standard development techniques, but they are the most difficult to master of the techniques suggested here.
9. Repetition of motivic cells: Take one small snippet of the theme and repeat it over and over as a flourish. To add interest, you can speed up, slow down, crescendo, or decrescendo as you play through the figure.
Using these nine techniques, you can immediately start writing your own cadenzas and arrangements. Choose one or two of the main themes from the composition you’re working with. For a brief cadenza, choose only a couple of the techniques listed above. Don’t “overload” your cadenza; part of the art of improvisation is knowing when to stop. Experiment with techniques, using them to transform the theme. As a simple example, play through the original theme, then repeat it in a minor key, adding some trills, and finish with a few chords. Then try it again, this time instead of trills and chords, add triplet repeated notes and end with an arpeggio up to a harmonic.
Don’t worry if your first couple of tries sound a bit stiff or awkward. With time and practice, you will develop more ease and confidence. Make improvisation a part of your daily practice regimen and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your inhibitions will melt away. Whether your main musical interest is early music, Classical era, or complex post-modern style, a willingness to experiment and improvise will add depth of understanding and enhanced satisfaction to your music making.
If you’re interested in writing your own suite of variations on themes from Carmen, check out some of the resources below before you start. And don’t fret about the piano accompaniment. You don’t need to write the piano part from scratch. You can simply use the piano reduction rehearsal score of the opera (published by G. Schirmer). Just substitute the solo instrumental line for the vocal line.
You may want to study some of the more famous Carmen fantasies to see what other composers have done, and get ideas for your own version. The most famous versions for violin and piano are Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy Op. 25 (International) and Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy (Fidelio Press).
Pablo de Sarasate: Aaron Rosand Plays Sarasate. Aaron Rosand, violin; Rolf Reinhardt, Southwest German Radio Orchestra (recorded 1959; rereleased 1993). Vox/Allegretto. ACD8160
Franz Waxman: Korngold/Rózsa: Concertos/Waxman: Carmen Fantasy. Jascha Heifetz, violin; Donald Voorhees, RCA Victor Symphony (1946); Naxos rerelease, 2000 HNH ADD 8.110943
Jenö Hubay: The Fiddler of the Opera. Gil Shaham, violin; Akira Eguchi, piano (1997). Deutsche Grammophon/Polygram, 447640-2
Full Score: Bizet, Georges; Carmen, premiere in Paris, 1875. Full score published by Konemann Music, Budapest; distributed in the US by Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
Violin and Piano: Jenö Hubay: Fantaisie Brillante or Carmen Fantaisie Brillante, Op. 3 No. 3, for violin and piano. Composed in 1876; premiered in 1876, in Budapest, Jenö Hubay soloist. This is the original “Carmen Fantasy,” written and performed only a few months after the premiere of the opera itself. Hubay was a well-respected artist in his day; born in 1858 in Hungary, died in 1937. He enjoyed great success with his “Carmen Fantaisie Brillante.” His arrangement is charming, but sounds a bit old-fashioned by today’s standards. It is liberally infused with brief cadenzas. The popularity of this arrangement was short-lived, as it was soon eclipsed by the “Carmen Fantasy” written by Pablo de Sarasate. Sadly it is now permanently out of print.
Pablo de Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy, after Bizet’s Opera, Op. 25, for violin and piano, published by International Music Company (edited by Zino Francescatti). Version for violin and orchestra published by Choudens. Sarasate was born in 1844, in Pamplona, Spain, and died in 1908. He was a dashing, romantic figure who was nearly as famous for the trail of broken hearts he left behind as for the many fine showpieces he wrote or the violin. This is the quintessential Carmenfantasy, and my personal favorite—bold, straightforward, and filled with sizzling fireworks.
Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasie, for violin and orchestra, recital version for violin and piano also available. Noted film composer Franz Waxman wrote this for the movie Humoresque (Isaac Stern performed on the original soundtrack). Waxman was born in 1906, in Germany, and died in 1967, in Los Angeles. During his career, he wrote scores for 144 movies. (My favorite is Sunset Boulevard.) The Waxman Carmen Fantasy is often associated with Jascha Heifetz, who played it frequently in concert. This arrangement is a bit of a challenge to obtain. It is published by Fidelio Music Publishing Co., Westport, Connecticut (available only by special order from Franz Waxman’s son, John Waxman, who is the owner of Fidelio). Call (845) 469-5790.
Robert Bridges: “Carmen Fantasy.” Published 2003, by RBP Music Publishers.
Cello and Piano: Franz Waxman: Carmen Fantasie. This is a transcription of the version for violin, arranged for cello and piano by David Grigorian. (Recorded by Grigorian, but the sheet music is not published)
Werner Thomas-Mifune: Carmen Fantasy for five cellos. Published by C.F. Peters (GM0508). A fun arrangement, and not overly difficult.
Robert Bridges: Carmen Fantasy for cello and piano. Derived from the version for viola and piano listed above, but with special pyrotechnics suited to the cello. Available from RBP Music Publishers.
Double Bass: Stuart Sankey: Carmen Fantasy, for string bass and piano. Published by International Music Co. (3339). Sankey (1927–2000) was a noted performer and pedagogue, who taught at the Juilliard School, Indiana University, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. This arrangement is a classic for the double-bass.