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Brendan Booher

The Need To Improvise

July 14, 2012 at 12:27 AM

There is an incredible amount of joy that comes to any violinist/fiddler from playing a tune or piece well. Having it sing forth on your instrument, and bring joy even to others who might be listening. How can you beat that? And yet, there is still something that may be even better than that grand experience.

One word for it is “improvising.” Improvising is either adding a melodic expression/idea of your own invention into your perfected melody, or totally replacing your song with your own invention.If you have never tried this, I recommend it strongly. It is an experience you don’t want to miss out on, and I am confident that you won’t be disappointed for at least giving yourself a chance to take a swing at it!

I call improvising a need, because I believe that every violin player has to experience doing it in one form or another, in order to be really fulfilled. When you start improvising, you are really expressing yourself through your music more than you possibly could through performing someone else’s composition as it was written. I think that we should all learn to play in the same way that we creatively speak every moment that we converse. And the kind of playing that I’m suggesting might become just as natural (with a lot of practice, of course)!

What often keeps one from creative playing is fear. Fear of putting the wrong notes in the wrong places. This fear gradually goes away though as you continue, because you come to realize that you are going to put the wrong notes in the wrong places, but that’s all right! Because you are experimenting, just like a good inventor. Thomas Edison, in referring to his experience inventing the light bulb said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” So please don’t look at messing up as failing, but rather as an opportunity to learn what not to play. Your mistakes just gain you more wisdom and valuable experience on your instrument.

In teaching the violin, I have often reminded my students that they should be mature perfectionists. A mature perfectionist is someone who strives for perfection, but allows himself to mess up without quitting or being discouraged, learning from his mistakes.

It’s a pity to see so many players who know their instruments so well through years of experience with even complex pieces, not use their knowledge and experience to be creative, and to even learn more by ear, which deserves another whole article.

The very first step on the road to improvisation on your violin is to obtain recordings of someone who is good at decorating the melody with nice, mature creative ideas, ideas that are pleasing to the ear and sound doable (or maybe kind of doable). The next step is to imitate what they are doing. many giants in the fiddling realm began as good imitators. Imitators of their heroes. Now they are someone else’s hero. To be a hero is not our goal (hopefully–although that does happen on rare occasions), but just to broaden our horizons on our instruments, and enjoy the experience. Maybe someone else will enjoy listening along the way, too.

Playing jazz also deserves an article all its own, and probably many more. But I hope that at least I have sparked a little interest for those who may not have spent enough time thinking about our topic. Or, maybe I have provided the last encouragement needed to get someone to step out and do the unthinkable. -Brendan Booher


From Tyrone Wilkins
Posted on July 14, 2012 at 4:44 PM
Great article. I can proudly say that I'm a mature perfectionist. Even though I'm way harder on myself about mistakes than people think I should be I think that's one reason I've made so much progress. That constant desire to reach a certain level of playing. Why not improvise!? I've done improv with a pianist for my friends once. It was certainly a magical experience. Even though I couldn't get out of my natural classical thinking we still had a lot of fun. After we finished playing we realized that we had been playing in random keys for 2-3 hours straight! No breaks. Listening to Ysaye's music and reading this article has inspired me to master the art of improv. For it is where the true beauty of music lies,in the spur of the moment.Thanks for this. I'll be sure to use some improv in the violin concerto I'm composing!

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