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Danielle Gomez

Rethinking Improvisation

October 20, 2009 at 1:01 AM

 I think that improvisation is often overlooked these days by classical musicians.  Classical music is, in many ways, very safe.  Everything is already figured out for you.  Notes, dynamics, key changes, even fingerings are already written down.  As musicians, all we really have to do is get the coordination to play it and maybe add a little of our own artistic interpretation.  Easy right?

Maybe not.  But with so much initial information presented to us before we even attempt to play, the chances of playing a piece "wrong" the first few times is much higher than playing it "right."  This is not an entirely bad thing.  It instills in us a drive for perfection.  To work hard until the desired result is achieved.

But this sense of achieving perfection must be balanced out.  We've all hit ruts at some point when learning one song or another.  Even when the teacher is encouraging, we still think on some level "I didn't play that piece correctly because I messed up some of the notes."  Therefore, it is important to occasionally put ourselves in an environment where every note you play is the right note.

The seemingly open-ended vagueness of improvisation scares those of us used to the strict, comforting structure of pre-written compositions.  It means that there is potentially more for others to judge.  Not only can others judge how you play but also what you play.

But experimenting with this level of creative expression can only help your playing.  It teaches things like how to key change without the help of a visual aid or how to play difficult fingerings on the spot.  And it doesn't have to be an excruciatingly painful process either.  Designate your own boundaries.  A really simple way of doing this is improvising only with one note at a time.  So play whatever rhythm you want with A.  Experiment with different A notes all over your instrument.  There are no wrong rhythms and you already know exactly which note to play.


From David Blair
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 8:08 AM
I have noticed that some players of classical music have difficulties playing by ear or with a band if there are no sheets available. Playing songs or tunes by ear, improvising, becomes easier with practice. Quicker too, with an understanding of music/chord/scale/mode theory. In my instance; theory was never discussed during 12 years of violin lessons. Technique and tone were always the subject. There is another post on this site about teaching and music theory for more reading. My short answer is that to improvise, compose, or play in a live band, it all comes easier with theory. jazzguitarbe is a great resource site. Cheers
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 3:36 PM

 I like the idea of improvising, but I can't do it.  My stumbling block is that I don't have a good enough ear to be able to play the note that I want to in my head.  I might be thinking of a tune in my head, and then say to myself, that note is a D, play a D, and then when I hear it, it turns out to be not what I intended at all.  And then all I can hear is D, and have no idea what the note was that I really wanted to play.  I can't say, "oh, now I know I really wanted a note a 4th above the D," and play a G instead.  I'm just hearing D and have lost my train of thought.

I've gotten a little better at being able to play simple pieces by ear, but nothing beyond the level of hymns and Christmas Carols:  tonal pieces with limited range, a familiar key, and no accidentals.  And even then, I'll put them in a key that's comfortable for me to play rather than the key they were written in.  It's the same issue, I can't reproduce pitches, or intervals, out of my head.

Improvising or playing rhythm from ear seems to work better, though.  I think I'd enjoy improvising on percussion instruments.


From Marianne Hansen
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 4:12 PM

I improvise at the beginning of each practice session for about 5 minutes.  I have been playing about two and a half years now, and what I do is rather simple.   Sometimes I play the notes I am imagining and sometimes I just hear whatever it is I played - I think both are improving my ability to play by ear.  I often play on only two strings; I almost always stay in one key or in one mode.  I do a lot of little pieces of scales, mixed with short interval jumps.  Sometimes I use a steady rhythmic pattern and change the notes.  Soemtimes I play the same notes with different patterns.  Sometimes I practice a specific skill, like repeated string changes.  Sometimes I just noodle.  I usually repeat phrases, both as memory and as ear training.  I find my intonation is better on average than when I am playing a set passage.  I think it's doing me a lot of good.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 6:13 PM

 To Karen,

Try improvising on just one note.  Then add another note.  It's a good way to learn the fingerboard and the sound of each pitch.

From Heather Meisner
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 6:31 PM


I often lose it as well, thinking a sound in my head, but then when I make the choice of a note and hit it, it isn’t at all what I intended.  BUT it is getting much better and I really attribute this to being taught fiddle tunes traditionally.  I play and am taught classical and fiddle both, and I’ve only been playing for 3 years so my suggestion is very humble but, I really feel the way I’m taught fiddle has helped me tremendously with classical as well.


I think having someone sit down and ‘teach’ you something by ear start to finish, show you each section, repeat it, try to play it back, do the next, add them together and keep building on them until all of it is in your head, cements it firmly and it seems to help me anticipate the sounds I’m trying to achieve.  As the sounds are established for the first time in whatever we’re playing, I am really listening right at that moment in trying to re-create it, and it’s not so much about positioning etc. as a feel for the sound.  I would think this will help me in improvising, (down the road that is, since I still rather suck at it now) because I’m learning to feel for that sound.  Just a thought.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 6:41 PM

 See, this is the problem I had mentioned above.  As classical musicians, we practically beg for the "right or wrong" structure.

There are no wrong notes in improvisation!

If you're trying to play some tune you're thinking of and you don't play it the same way it sounds in your head, who cares????  Unless you mention it to the audience, no one is going to know that the two don't match up.  Just take the note you did play and go with it.  Make up a new tune!

From Heather Meisner
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 8:56 PM

Danielle - What I was experiencing was the possibility of being able to make up musical bits in my head and express them – or to string together notes that sound interesting together spontaneously… I seem to think of this as coming from what I want to do in my head first, even if completely made up, but I’m thinking now that that isn’t really improvising (composing??).

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 9:31 PM

 Hi Heather,

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary:


1 : to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously

2 : to make, invent, or arrange offhand
3 : to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand


1 : the act or art of improvising
2 : something (as a musical or dramatic composition) improvised


Composing IS improvising.  If it's your piece, then you can compose/improvise whatever you want.  The only person who can nay-say  what you compose is you.


From simon lyn
Posted on October 20, 2009 at 10:59 PM

Hi Danielle - and thanks for a great post. You must have read my mind since I was searching for 'improvisation' about an hour before! I am both fascinated and perplexed by improvisation, it's certainly something I aspire to in my own practice. I enjoyed reading Daniel Barenboim's description (I think in a Reith lecture):

"improvisation is the highest form of art because in a completely unpremeditated way you literally create is a very blessed state in the life of a human being"

I see most music on earth as improvisatory, across history and cultures, and notated music as something of a relatively recent western anomaly. But a very powerful one! It seems like we somehow outsourced a part of our musical cognition into an art of score-making, which was then shared en-masse, refined and evolved at great speed over a short time. I find the pace of this progress quite breathtaking, compared to other idiomatic and indiginous musics that typically evolve much more gently over longer timescales.

But I feel there is a catch! Because notated music, for all it's tremendous benefits, has the effect I think of shifting the role of the musician from 'creative artist' to 're-creative artisan'. By this I mean that when we operate in 'classical' mode we are working to realize the inspiration of another (the composer). For me this is a re-creative art because what we create is an interpretation. In an orchestral context we are usually a layer further removed, since we are then working to realize the conductor's interpretation of another's composition. I know personally in that scenario I often feel much more artisan than artist.

The violin heritage that we share is pretty awesome, the great science and art wrapped in a delicate piece of silk in my case still blows my mind. I have an enduring fascination with all aspects and nuances of big technique - and the central question of my creative life is 'if I took the richness of 300 years of evolved violin technique and applied it to creating music spontaneously, in the moment, would that be a blessed state in the life of this human being?'

Thanks for posting your improvising experiences!



From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 21, 2009 at 10:54 AM

 "If you're trying to play some tune you're thinking of and you don't play it the same way it sounds in your head, who cares????"

Well, I care, because what was in my head sounded a lot better than what came out of the instrument.  Part of my problem is a kind of shock/surprise/disappointment with what I'm hearing.  A "yuck" factor.  When I'm playing, it does matter to me that I like, or find enjoyable in some way, how it sounds.  It made a difference to me when I got my new violin, for example, because listening to myself practice became more enjoyable, so I wanted to practice more.  Whereas if what I'm playing makes me cringe, I'm likely to just stop.

I don't think this is an issue with improvisation, per se.  Other people can improvise things that I want to hear and enjoy hearing.  I admire that.  

From Royce Faina
Posted on October 21, 2009 at 2:35 PM

Playing Bass guitar in the 80's in bands ealy helped me whern it came to impro.  Many of the Bass lines that i wrote came about from improvising along with the other musicians.  I learned how to follow leading tones, tendancies, chord & rhythm structures, etc.  those tools come in handy now when I play my violin!  I find grasping concepts, even advanced concepts, better than when I was a music major in college before playing in bands.

From Jeff Terflinger
Posted on October 21, 2009 at 4:48 PM

Stephane Grappelli said he played " Lady Be Good " for 50 years and never got fed up with it.

It is a freedom that allowed him  to play each day differently, as his mood and conditions changed.

From enion pelta
Posted on October 21, 2009 at 6:19 PM
A refreshing post! improvisation and playing by ear are the best way to understand that music isn't what's on the page, it's what's in the air. I naturally started improvising as a young child, or perhaps took to it because of call and response music games my father played with me as a baby, and it was the reason that, whatever else I did wrong at my lessons, I was always complimented on my expressivity, I think...I use improv games in my lessons, even with my very youngest students, and have been so pleased with the results. I haven't fully explored the method but Mark O'Connors American Violin School is an exciting new development on this front.
From Tess Z
Posted on October 22, 2009 at 4:14 PM

Royce brings up an excellent point...improv is something guitarists learn to do as second nature because they play mostly chords...unless they're playing lead. 

A book I would highly recommend for violinists to overcome this obstacle is by John Henry Gates, Improv for Violinists.

Here is the book at Amazon:

 Edit:  I'll add that this isn't a how to play fiddle book.  The author is a classically trained violinist who struggled to sit in on jam sessions with bands because he lacked improvisation skills and the knowledge on how to go about it.  This is a terrific book for the violinist who wants to branch out from the classic repertoire and sit in with a jazz, country, bluegrass, or celtic band.


From John Silzel
Posted on October 23, 2009 at 1:55 AM

I think I made the greatest strides in studying with good improvising players of sax, lead electric guitar, and brass instruments.  They played, I listened and asked questions, and it was up to me to creatively adapt their timbres, rhythms, and inflections to the violin.  This can lead to a rich exploration of the violin, and unique insights into the strengths (and weaknesses) of "classical technique".    For example, the rock guitarist's concept of "boxes" on the fretboard is freeing me to think in new, freeing ways about left hand technique  Best of all this method has led to a lot of new friends-- and new gigs also. 

Also helpful:  the excellent improvising books and CDs by Jamey Aebersold.

From Cara Garofalo
Posted on October 25, 2009 at 7:14 AM

I'm really glad that I stumbled upon this post. I am classically trained and have always loved the idea of improvising, but have always felt too scared to just go for it. I am just recently beginning to overcome this fear by improvising with others. Not only is it thrilling and a chance for creativity, but I can also see how it will help in bettering one's playing.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 25, 2009 at 9:12 AM


I'm very happy that you found the post to be helpful.  

I too was a classically trained musician and really struggled with improvisation when it was first introduced to me.  For one thing, I had a slight fear of performing.  For another, my background in music theory was sporadic at best.  So when I had to do jazz class at a music camp which involved solo improvisation using different scales (a fuzzy subject for me), it felt like it was just about the worst situation I could be in musically.

I'm still not anywhere close to being Miles Davis.  But I've never regretted forcing myself to learn how to play jazz.  If anything, it has taught me how to relax while playing.  I think that as classical violinists we tend to get wrapped up in the minutiae.  Like, does this piece have genuine Baroque bowings?  Would Bach have preferred an open string or a fourth finger?  The fact that Bach wrote a lot of his pieces by just messing around on the organ (improvising) always seems to be glanced over.

From Maura Enright
Posted on October 25, 2009 at 9:16 PM

"They can play whatever they want as long as it is in the same scale we're in."

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