How to practice improvisation: A balanced approach

April 8, 2016, 2:50 PM · Although many classical musicians are taught from an early age to develop a balanced practice regimen, they often feel lost when it comes to practicing contemporary styles, improvisation, and related subjects.

Sound familiar?

Mastering improvisation requires a balanced practice regimen, just like mastering a concerto, which is why I’m laying out a common sense approach to practicing improvisation in a new 18-video playlist entitled "Anatomy of a Groove." You can watch it, save it to watch later, and share it right here:

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the playlist. Feel free to comment below this post.

Before I go through the contents of this playlist, let’s rewind and think about the overview from which it stems.

The conversation within the classical community regarding improvisation and contemporary styles is convoluted, and the main reason for this is that classical musicians and educators, most of whom have only had cursory introductions to improvisation and contemporary styles, are unable to see the forest for the trees.

Rather than glazing over the subject, I’d like to see the development of a curriculum around it, i.e., an extensive collection of lessons/skills/knowledge. (I also offer free instructional materials, click here to sign up to receive those via e-mail.)

Jazz teachers around the world have a sort of curriculum, but it can be alienating for classically trained musicians who aren’t looking to go “all in” and become outright jazzers. Classical musicians need a curriculum which makes room for jazz but doesn’t depend on it. They should be open pursue new areas of musicianship in which the pursuit of jazz is not requisite.

I envision three pillars of this curriculum:

  1. Musical Creativity: Improvisation, composition, and arranging
  2. Practical Music theory
    a) internalizing harmony in terms of the construction of bass, inner voices, and melody
    b) internalizing rhythmic claves or grooves
  3. Exposure to a range of contemporary musical styles

Here is a break down of various modules which might apply:

  1. Tonal improvisation/arranging/composition; Understanding the construction of bass, inner voices, and melody in various contemporary styles and internalizing basic voice-leading.
  2. Scales and modes: practical approaches to applying the use of modal improvisation and composition
  3. Blues- including cultural/historical, literary, and musical analysis.
  4. Non-tonal improvisation, including solo, small ensemble, and large ensemble settings
  5. Amplification and effects
  6. Right hand and left hand techniques for string players relevant to these genres and applications

The new video playlist above hits many of these subjects from the standpoint of a case study – an approach to learning a new tune. The tune itself is based on a simple two chord vamp. Hence, an “Anatomy of a Groove”.

The funky two-chord vamp is reminiscent of Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic” or Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”, and the backing track is laid down using my Yamaha Electric Violin with loop pedal.

Below are links to each video in the series, and what I've described in each one:

How to practice arpeggios

The harmonic structure of the vamp is outlined as a recurring progression of two chords. How to practice the arpeggios is covered as one of many steps to internalizing the structure of this improvisational vehicle.

How to create a bass line

The process of creating a bass line is covered as well as some of the right hand techniques available to play a bass line on violin, viola, or cello

How to voice chords

The process of how to voice chords and “comp” over this vamp is explained as follows:

  1. Identify the 3rd and 7th of each chord
  2. Find the closest “voicing” on violin, viola, or cello so that you move the smallest possible distance between both double stops
  3. Apply rhythmic variations

How to create rhythmic comping patterns

  1. Ghosting arco at the tip of the bow
  2. Chopping at the frog of the bow
  3. Strumming guitar style striking the strings on all subdivisions
  4. Strumming guitar style without striking the strings on all the subdivisions

How to practice pentatonic scales

Efficient ways to practice and internalize pentatonic scales on violin, viola, or cello

How to practice blues scales

Efficient ways to practice and internalize blues scales on violin, viola, or cello. The blues scale is just one workable strategy (of many) for creating effective improvisations on violin, viola, or cello.

How to identify the components of a good solo

This introduces the second half of our playlist and explains that, beyond being informed by a knowledge of the bass line, inner voices, and rhythmic structure, a good solo is comprised of diversity, repetition, and made more feasible when you have a “deep bag of tricks”, based on a series of criterion.

How to groove on violin, viola, and cello

One of the elements of any good solo or musical performance has to do with how to groove. Whether on violin, viola, or cello, or any other instrument really makes no difference! By monitoring your groove factor when you practice improvising, you can play concise or restrained ideas that are still compelling.

Using phrasing "algorithms”

Like harmony, rhythm, style, and many other elements of improvising a solo, the element of phrasing is a good one to focus on in order to build strong improvised solos. In this video I discuss how to practice using “phrasing algorithms” to improvise on violin, viola, or cello.

Motific development

Here I discuss strategies for using motific development in your improvisations.

How to Improvise Better by Playing Less

Here I discuss the “discipline of restraint”, also known as the discipline of improvising better by playing less. Often we make the mistake when improvising of taking too many unnecessary risks at the expense of the music. In other words, we can restrain ourselves to only play when the lines we play will be clear distinct ideas, grooving, in the changes, etc..

Criterion for grading your improvisations

In this video I discuss criterion for grading, or scoring/measuring, your improvisations. Criterion could include phrasing, rhythm, pitch, tone, cohesion, surprise/diversity, or others you might think of. While it’s important for beginning improvisers to remove all judgement, the more you advance, the more useful it is to record yourself and notice how your solos hold up against different measures. This should never be something you take personally, but rather a way to constantly evolve your craft of improvisation on violin, viola, cello or any instrument, in any style.

Playing cool licks

In this wrap up video I give you a chance to test your ear and try to play licks back to me. Feel free to use the rewind button in this video demonstrating how to play cool jazz licks on violin, viola, and cello, or any instrument :)

Bonuses… some “play after me” videos, and a special exclusive on how to use effects with electric violin/cello.
I hope you’ll agree that the subject deserves a full-bodied curriculum. “Anatomy of a Groove” is an abbreviated case study that looks at many approaches to mastering a simple two-chord vamp. It's a glimpse into the curriculum that Creative Strings develops and shares through outreach, summer conferences, podcasts, literature, and more. Let us know what you think in the comments below and please do share and subscribe!

Click here to watch the 18-part "Anatomy Of A Groove" series.


April 10, 2016 at 09:36 AM · Thanks, as both a violinist and percussionist I appreciate what you are doing.

April 11, 2016 at 06:27 PM · Christian this is outstanding material. Very useful introduction to improv. Everyone should try this.

April 12, 2016 at 04:32 PM · I love this extremely organized and superbly performed presentation!

Steve Kelley

April 13, 2016 at 04:13 PM · the good news is I want to improvise a lot and I like the gadgets,

the bad news is that I don't like the style

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra

Violins of Hope
Violins of Hope Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Colburn School

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine