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How Nora Germain got her Jazz Violin Education

Becky Chaffee

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Published: January 25, 2015 at 12:28 AM [UTC]

 I listen to music videos of musicians I stumble upon on facebook. That's how I found Nora Germain who plays jazz violin. I love her style. I know that a jazz education on violin is not so easy to come by. I love jazz music, partially because there was access to jazz in the public schools where I grew up; and because my brother became a jazz, then a Klezmer-Jazz trumpeter, band leader and composer.

Interview with Nora Germain, Jazz Violin Part 1

Nora Germain is a professional jazz violin player, recording artist, composer, producer, singer, session soloist, and string section violinist. She is skilled in on-camera performance/ sidelining for TV and film, recording for soundtracks and scores, and improvising on recordings or in live performance.

She is currently "playing a lot in Los Angeles and San Diego, and sitting in with a lot of great musicians. I've been playing in some movies as well, and getting to do some more recording soon which I am thrilled about!"

Nora Germain
Photo by M. K. Sadler Photography, 2014

1. Violettes:  I understand, both your parents were professional musicians, but you didn’t start with jazz violin until age 16? Did you not come across jazz in your studies until you went to the high school where Marshall Hawkins (former bassist for Miles Davis, Shirley Horn) taught? Did you specifically apply to this high school to study from Mr. Hawkins?

Nora: I had been interested in improvisation particularly in fiddle music, like Celtic/ Irish fiddling and of course American fiddling. I had heard some jazz growing up, but hadn't become inspired by it until meeting Marshall, and around that time, I discovered Stephane Grappelli, and his music deeply inspired me also.

I applied to Idyllwild Arts, a boarding high school, as a classical violinist and as a dancer for my junior and senior years. I hadn't focused my artistic path and was really into ballet and jazz dance at the time, so my thought was that if I could just get to a school where the whole idea is to sharpen a young artist's path, or further focus the already existing vision (and mine was rather vague -- all I knew is that I wanted to play violin!) then I would find a path. And I did!

Violettes: You learned jazz violin from a bass player? Did he have a specific method? Or did you learn the theory, and just practice with people that know what they are doing on a daily basis? Can you tell us a little more about how you became so proficient seemingly so quickly?

Nora: It doesn't seem so quick to me! Ha! There are new things to learn every day, even master players like Marshall still say that! That's the truth.

When I started playing jazz, I had a good ear and had a wide range of musical influences. So many, in fact, that I felt a little lost. I wasn't sure what I really liked versus what was just ok.

I used my ear to really practice improvising on melodies and also playing improvised cadenzas. It was a lot of ballads.

For a while, and I still do this, I'd learn the melodies of ballads or play other tunes slowly, pay a lot of attention to the chords and also the sound of each chord and the feeling of the phrase. Marshall and I would sit at the piano and he'd play the chords and I'd take my time playing the melody on the violin, then repeat it with variation or embellishment, and before I knew it, I was soloing, totally improvising, but in a "melodic context," which is to say, always thinking of a melody. Not the notes, or the scales, but a melody.

Theory can be very helpful and it is an important part of the foundation of a musician, but when improvising, the theory of what I am playing rarely crosses my mind. If there is a tune with particularly tricky chords or something, it's good to take a closer look. In general, I go from the melody. Straight from the heart! That’s swing!

Marshall always taught us to play what we feel and to go for it. Don't shy away from dynamics, extremes in acoustic range or tempo or intensity, a new technique or approach, or even silence. He was and is a man of expression, so we all learned principally that way.

Listening is key also! Especially important to listen to things you are drawn to. They lead you to your own sound if you keep drawing on things you like and keep making them your own. And listening helps you to sharpen your soloing, your ideas, everything! If you don’t like something and you’ve listened to it quite a bit, maybe it’s not meant to influence you, or maybe just not yet.

Some people think it’s interesting that my first jazz teacher was a bassist, and not a violinist, but really, in jazz, no matter if you’re a singer or a guitarist or a trumpet player, you can always be inspired by or even steal ideas from one another. It’s not like classical music where each instrument has its own repertoire and if you play oboe and you want to a play a piece written for cello that it may be weird. In jazz, what’s weird is welcome, as long as it swings!

So learning from a bass player was great. It gave me all sorts of insight that helped me develop my foundation and understand the basics of jazz, like timing, the feeling of the quarter note, the importance of intonation when playing jazz on a string instrument, understanding and feeling bass lines, using the bow in creative ways, and most importantly, learning from Marshall in particular is a school in itself. There will never be anything like it in my life.

See Ms. Germain in action in this delightful video.


Watch for Blog Sequel, More about Nora Germain, Jazz Violin Part 2

Visit her web site at:

Blogger Becky Chaffee is owner of Violettes by Becky making Music Purses and Gig Bags

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From Paul Deck
Posted on January 29, 2015 at 3:15 PM
Thanks for introducing us to this fine young jazz performer. I was not aware of her before. I have now listened to her album "Little Dipper". I like this album, and over the years I have listened to a lot of jazz violin. I gave it a four-star review (out of five) on I was so glad to notice that Germain is playing true idiomatic improvised jazz, not that fake "gypsy jazz" stuff. What she is doing is hard. I'd say her next task is to work seriously on some medium- and up-tempo standards to the point where she can stretch out, create longer lines/solos, and be more adventurous (e.g., spend a little more time "outside"). I'm looking forward to hearing her next contribution!

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