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christian howes

The Perfect Practice for Improvising String Players

April 26, 2010 at 9:53 PM

My former classical violin teacher, mentor and friend, the late and widely beloved Michael Davis, told me many things which influenced me early on as a classical musician and later came to influence my growth as a jazz player.
Regarding the amount of time spent practicing daily, he felt that, “if you can’t get everything done in three hours, you’re not practicing efficiently”. In his view, the saying, “practice makes perfect”, wasn’t adequate. Better to adapt the mantra, “Perfect practice makes perfect”.
Many of my students at Berklee and abroad come out of a classical tradition and have developed practice habits conducive to making gains as a technician and classical player. Often though, these same habits become detrimental to growth in “creative studies”. This is not to suggest that practicing technique and jazz/ improvisation are mutually exclusive; quite the opposite is true. It’s actually advantageous to consolidate improvisation practice with technical practice. For example, one can focus on technical issues such as string crossing, bow control, intonation, double stops, etc. all while improvising- this is the equivalent of killing two birds with one stone, and offers the added advantages of 1)developing technique beyond the “given” and limited possibilities of the classical repertoire and 2) providing the student w/ a sense of ownership in the vocabulary he/she is practicing/creating.

However, regardless of how many years you have studied your instrument and/or classical music, the moment you begin to study jazz and/or improvised tonal music, you are a novice.
Accepting this is difficult, because you have come to identify yourself as an expert. Both can be true, i.e., that you are an expert musician and instrumentalist, and at the same time a novice in jazz or improvised tonal music. In studying improvisation or jazz, you are embarking upon a journey to obtain an entirely new and different skill set. It will take time. (In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell refers to a study which holds up the “10,000 hour rule”, i.e., it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years at 3 hrs per day, to effectively master any given discipline. Even accounting for your accrued mastery on your instrument, you might want to allow yourself about 6 years.)

I’ve referred before to the difficulty and discomfort that comes out of accepting your new status as a “novice”. For many musicians switching from classical to jazz, this discomfort is intolerable. It can threaten one’s self esteem and cause all sorts of defensive thoughts/behaviors to arise. One of these is denial. The sooner you accept the truth about where you are in your development and get over your insecurity, the sooner you can begin to make progress. Remember, you can still take credit for the mastery that you have developed over years of practice. You have a lot to be proud of in taking the plunge into something new. Ultimately, by forging ahead in a discipline which is totally new to you, you will come out stronger for it.

One of my favorite and most accomplished young adult students frequently arrives to his lesson with a list of concerns and questions including things such as sound production, shoulder rests, philosophical questions about the state of the mind while playing, posture, et al. These are all potentially very good questions for a classical student, but often they strike me as distractions for a jazz student, (especially given that this particular student has his technique really together and claims to be primarily interested in studying jazz for now). Every week, as he plays solos for me over standard tunes, most of the things that I notice holding him back are related to gaps in his grasp of harmony, i.e. “playing the (chord) changes”. Sure, there are other things worth working on as well, but this is a consistent thing that comes up which he continues to evade. It’s not that he can’t execute ideas on the violin- it’s that he can’t conceive of the ideas because the harmony is challenging and eluding him. I continually give him exercises for internalizing the harmony, and he continually avoids doing them. Is this denial? Why do so many of us have this same tendency, I wonder. I have to be ever vigilant in my own practice to make sure I’m not “practicing” what is comfortable, but rather addressing the gaps, the uncomfortable areas. Every day you practice you are faced with one crucial challenge, which is to practice effectively. Make it count. Practice the things that matter. Michael Davis once also told me, “if you sound good, you’re probably not practicing”. Most of your practice time should be devoted to things which you don’t sound good doing, or you’re uncomfortable with. Once you sound good and fell comfortable, it’s time to move to something else. (This is equally true for classical players).

Concerning growth in jazz and/or improvised tonal music, their are several ways you can go about drilling harmony such that, over time, you assimilate and internalize the information (and once you have internalized harmony, the understanding will never go away.) I’ve covered many of these in other articles, but to recap:
1) articulate the chords on the violin in various forms (as dble stops or arpeggios in all inversions or shapes), being sure to play properly voice-led inversions when the chords fall into progressions. (It’s not really very helpful if you only play chords and arpeggios in root position).
2) play the voice-led chords on the piano (or guitar). You can also play the root/3rd/7th in the left hand on the piano and improvise, rubato, in the right hand.
3) when you listen to music, focus on the harmony instead of the melody. Try to use your ears to transcribe the harmony in any music you listen to (when in doubt, refer to the bass line for help. if you need to, sing the bass line up an octave to find your starting pitch).
4)play voice-led arpeggios or double stops of chord progressions (including both chord pairs and/or longer progressions)
5) harmonize melodies and/or solos in doublestops (both as parallel thirds, 4ths, 6ths, 7ths, 2nds, and also as non parallel harmonies)
6) play 3rds and 7ths of chords in various comping styles. Play root/3rd/7th voicings of chords. Play voice-led upper extensions of chords. Walk bass lines.
7) harmonize the melody of a tune with the chord tones underneath(root/3rd/and/or
Play 4-note melodic patterns up and down first position, Changing the scale through the chord progression (but don’t start on the root of each scale; Instead, start wherever you left off from the previous scale).

One’s brain is typically only able to handle this kind of practice for so long. Perhaps an hour tops. So, if you practice 2 hours in a day, you might want to spend 1/3-1/2 of your time drilling these harmonic issues. The rest of the time can be spent on other things. But if you ignore this practice, you are just stalling, and Nothing can replace real harmonic understanding. It will never come easily, and there’s no way around it. You have to practice the important things or you will just be living in denial, copping out, and on some deep level, you will be frustrated. On the other hand, make these a regular part of your practice and you will see results over time. The rewards are worth it.



From Roy Sonne
Posted on April 27, 2010 at 1:17 AM

Bravo Chris! You get right to the heart of the matter with your customary lucidity and wisdom born out of experience.

For those who don't know him, Christian Howes is one of the best jazz violinists in the world today. I feel fortunate that Chris is also my good friend and mentor in my jazz education. Classical players wanting to enter the jazz world can take heart from the fact that Chris also started out as a classical violin student and has the experience of going through the difficult transition that he describes to us.

From Vivian Hsu
Posted on April 27, 2010 at 2:01 AM


Thank you so much for such an informative blog entry.  Improvisation is still scary for me, but I have been working on it, and will include your suggestions in my practice.


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 27, 2010 at 2:21 AM

Thanks, I never did Jazz but I find it interesting and love good Jazz violinist's music!


From Janis Cortese
Posted on April 27, 2010 at 4:52 PM

I continually give him exercises for internalizing the harmony, and he continually avoids doing them. Is this denial?

Nope.  You are pointing to something and saying, "You see this handle here?  Grab onto the music at this point."  And he looks and he doesn't see a damn thing.  He's not in denial; he is simply BLIND to the fact that there is a handle where you are pointing.  You're saying, "Grab on here!" and he's thinking, "Whatever," because he sees nothing but air.

You have to convince him that there is a handle there.  Until he sees or suspects that there is, he will not grab on at that point.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 27, 2010 at 6:15 PM

 >I continually give him exercises for internalizing the harmony, and he continually avoids doing them. Is this denial? Why do so many of us have this same tendency, I wonder. I have to be ever vigilant in my own practice to make sure I’m not “practicing” what is comfortable, but rather addressing the gaps, the uncomfortable areas.

Oh, so well put, in so many ways. Switch a few words here and you could be discussing the human condition and our struggle (and/or avoidance of) to actualize to our full potential. 

I may not ever make the switch over to jazz violin, but going from years of being good in ballet, to playing the violin as my "art" has certainly been a humbling experience. And you're right, it's all good for us. Good to be humble. Good to stumble. (Hey, that rhymes!) Just not very comfortable. (And that rhymes too - in a distorted, sloppy sort of way.)

Great blog.

From Nate Evans
Posted on April 28, 2010 at 12:58 AM

 This has to be the best post on the site. Many of the things you posted also are things my instructor tells me.  Maybe it's because I'm learning and all of those "novice" things struck a note I can relate to, and I'm trying to hit two birds with one stone in that I'm trying to learn to improvise from the get go.


 I find learning to improvise from the beginning keeps things in perspective for me, and lets me gauge my progress as well.  it also seems to open the small metal blocks that come from practicing reading music and learning all together.


Great post!

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