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christian howes

Develop your 'thing', whether or not it's Jazz violin

November 21, 2011 at 4:45 AM


Any musical activity is creative, but we can all agree that there is a difference between performing a piece of music from the page on the one hand and improvising, arranging, or composing on the other. I love classical music, and yet, after 25 years of exploring improvisation and composition in many styles, my musical life has been enriched by not only the sheer variety of musical situations I now regularly enjoy, but the challenge and reward that comes from putting my creative energy to work and seeing how my artistic voice has grown. Pursuits in jazz, improvisation, and more have ultimately led me to get more out of classical music as well.

It’s hard for some to break into “creative string playing”, i.e., including improvisation and composition, whether it be in jazz, rock, fiddle styles, etc…. One reason is that classical musicians assume they must have access to “insider information” such as tunes, chord progressions, or specialized stylistic vocabulary. This isn’t necessarily true.

To get started going “out of the box” musically you can use what you know. Classically trained fiddler and jazz violinist, Eli Bishop, was pretty much exclusively a classical string player just four years ago. He didn’t know if he wanted to play fiddle styles, jazz, classical music, or whatever. But one day he had the idea to try to play the bach-double with both parts at once. He ran with that idea, taking what he was familiar with and getting creative with it.

After 4-5 years of regularly pushing himself out of his comfort zone, Eli is now one of the most advanced jazz violinists his age anywhere in the world. He’s worked closely with Billy Contreras, Buddy Spicher, Rob Thomas, myself, and attended my annual Creative Strings Workshop. Currently on scholarship at Berklee College of Music, he recently sat down with me to do a set of interviews which are being published exclusively for subscribers of my Creative Strings Academy Program

Here’s a video showing Eli playing some jazz during a very informal rendition we did of Scrapple from the Apple:

Eli also loves fiddle styles including Texas Contest Fiddle and Bluegrass and I’m sure his tastes will continue to evolve. What I’m most excited about is how much he’s evolved, from a purely classical player to a well-rounded creative string player. He’s a great model for us to continue to watch.

So how do you get from “A to B”? This video here shows one method I used to get people going into free improvisation from zero to creativity in 5 minutes. Feel free to grab your instrument and try this out.

My recommendation to classical string players who are curious? Simple: take 5 to 10 minutes during practice sessions to doing something “creative”. Take a moment to get out of your comfort zone. Treat your instrument as if it were a crayon and a piece of paper and take time to scribble, mess around, play around, come up with something outside of your box. You don’t have to be a “jazz violinist”, or get locked into any one kind of style, per se… You don’t need to be fluent with tunes or chord progressions to get started exploring, and soon enough your voice will begin to emerge, (and whether or not it’s a “jazz violin” thing is unimportant.)

Join Eli and me at the Creative Strings Workshop again this coming summer!! Sign up for a free trial to learn improvisation online at the Creative Strings Academy

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 3:53 AM
Christian, I love the style of video #2, and I would love to get together and learn from people who play that style of music. I have a great ear and a good sense of musicality, but my whole life I've been shackled by the need to find the right note, so your excercise on free playing is very helpful to me. I'm glad you took the time to share it, because I've got a rehearsal scheduled in about an hour with a jazz pianist who wants me to improv Christmas tunes with him. I'll warm up with your exercise and see if it helps...

Much appreciated!

From Rebecca Hopkins
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 2:38 PM
I have always been amazed at those who can improvise. Years ago I bought quite a few books on improvising on the violin, and they helped get me past "how do you know what to play" anxiety/amazement. Still not a great improviser, but it's much less a mystery now (I started out just playing the notes from the chords the guitar player was playing), and the benefits to my playing are many. One I have noticed is that memorizing music now comes very quickly and naturally. Another is it's much faster now to figure out a tune by ear. I think all classical teachers should consider including some of these techniques. It really is about becoming more intimate with the instrument, IMO, and that can't hurt!
Thanks for posting the videos, great stuff.
From christian howes
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 5:30 PM
thanks for the comments.It's great to see more interest and acknowledgement of these issues from players of all kinds of backgrounds.
What has in the past been considered a division between different types of training will, I hope in the near future, be all a part of what we all aspire to in terms of general musicianship.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 6:39 PM
improv -- improve :)
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 8:09 PM
Haha, type-o in my post--fixed it!

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