Tobias Cramm is a pianist, teacher and improviser in the 17/18th century Partimento style. One of his students for composition and improvisation is Alma Deutscher. Since she lives in the UK and he is in Switzerland, the lesson are done over Skype.
Tobias and I met for a cup of coffee on a sunny afternoon for a chat.
Pianoways: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview!
You work with a method called Partimento that was developed as an education system 300 years ago. Why do people learn this method nowadays?
Tobias: 300 years ago in Napoli, music students were prepared for a position in church or court where they would be required to constantly produce and compose music. The king or duke expected the music to be freshly composed for the upcoming event, and according to the latest fashion.
Musicologists have been interested in this Neapolitan tradition for the last 25 years and I applied this with Alma Deutscher. When we started working together we would improvise back and forth without any rules, using these basslines. We would create little pieces and I observed how her skills and musical ideas became richer and more structured. It gave her a vocabulary.
Pianoways: You teach Alma via Skype, that's an interesting combination of 18th century music and modern technology, how does that work?
Tobias: Of course there are many advantages to being in the same room and It wouldn't have been possible at the beginning stages without the help of her father who assisted the lessons. But in a way it was interesting to feel the musical connection through the listening experience. When you are on Skype, you really concentrate on the listening.
This playing back and forth improvisation doesn't restrict or narrow you down but rather, enables you to play something and to respond to the playing you hear. So the student plays and I try to pick up their idea .That gives me many insights into their musical thinking and with time we can integrate elements from the work with Partimenti into the improvisation flow. Of course we can talk about it beforehand or later on, but it's a real time thing that just happens and that is what's so beautiful about it.
Pianoways: There is a video of the two of you in a lesson with little explanations of the figures you are doing
Tobias: Yes, that's from the Tonal Tools (a tool box developed by Lieven Strobbe) and the video was done by somebody who was promoting the Tonal Tools approach. I have known this system for 6 years now and use it with other students but not with Alma. It's a similar idea to the partimenti but extended to many styles.
Pianoways: You are also a piano teacher in the local Music School in Laufen (Switzerland)- how many of your students learn improvisation?
Tobias: At the local music school not so many. Generally, people think that in classical music you sit down and learn pieces , so the parents are not that interested in their kids learning improvisation. Of course I try to motivate all my students to explore. Even just learning a piece and playing it in different variations like changing a rhythm or the key, doing a different accompanying pattern- it's all related to not taking the piece as something you need to reproduce but more like playing it as a story.
I myself discovered improvisation at the age of 35 after having studied and worked with modern piano and then gone on to study improvisation with Rudi Lutz, so its relatively new to me too. I feel like a beginner myself which is fun.
Pianoways: How much musical freedom do you give Alma?
Tobias: The partimenti work gives you a broad range of possibilities with some rules . Certain things are forbidden but very few, and all the others are a matter of flexibility . You can tell it sounds somewhat better this way or that, but there is not a clear cut of right or wrong . Alma was always very precise in her own feeling and knew what sounded good to her . At the same time she was also very open and quick at picking up new ideas. She will not be polite and say well, if my teacher tells me this it must be so, she will always be clear about her own thoughts.
Pianoways: Do you think Alma may branch out into something more contemporary later on?
Tobias: I don't know. She has the stunning quality of living in the now, I find, she just loves what she is doing right now. So if you ask her she will probably say- yes! this is nice music, I will do it forever! - but I will not be at all surprised if her composing style will change in the next 3 or 4 years when she grows older . I also think it doesn't matter. It's about the process of being able to compose her music which is important to us, not whether this music will be performed within 10 or 20 years.
As classical musicians we are used to playing older music but whenever somebody takes a pen and sits down we expect them to compose in a contemporary music style- it's such a contradiction!
We should either abandon the old stuff and say we will only play freshly composed music in contemporary style like they did 300 years ago or we should allow people to come up with this nice music that we actually like and say yes, it's possible to do this today. I mean, why not?
As a pedagogue I see that thanks to this activity of improvisation and composing Alma and other composition students of mine have a different connection to music in general. If they will choose another style it will be about expressing themselves in the other style. It doesn't matter whether the style is tonal or atonal.
Pianoways: Thanks Tobias, for this fascinating discussion!
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