Kitajima was in seventh grade, and the music moved him, nearly to tears.
But he was dismayed by the fact that he did not play a typical jazz instrument, like saxophone, drums, clarinet, trumpet bass or keyboard. No, he played the violin.
"I never thought I could make this instrument speak in a different style," Kitajima said, holding his violin in his hands in front of him.
"But I started experimenting and realized, it can sound the same," he said. "Music can be played on different instruments but played the same way."
On Saturday, Kitajima gave an improvisation class to a group of about a dozen advanced Suzuki students from Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena (STEP). Kitajima teaches violin at the Pasadena Conservatory.
Kitajima started as a Suzuki student himself, but as a music student at the University of Southern California, he chose a unique path for a violinist: he enrolled in the jazz studies program.
"I didn't have a jazz violin teacher," Kitajima said. Instead, he had a trumpet teacher and an alto sax teacher.
"They treated me like one of their students," said Kitajima, who graduated in 2004. "They'd say, 'That inflection isn't correct,' or 'That hard-hat accent isn't hard enough.'"
As a result, Kitajima has cultivated skills like those of an expert translator: he speaks fluent jazz on the violin.
"Improvisation can be used in any form of music," Kitajima said. "You're not just doing anything crazy, you have a form."
Kitajima talked about various music styles that use improvisation: jazz, folk, country, salsa, rock and more. He showed the students (and teachers) how to play a blues scale, then taught a song he wrote just for the occasion, "STEP into the Blues." We learned three parts, including a pizzicato bass that we plunked out while giving everyone in the room a chance to improvise.
This caused some shyness. As a classically trained violinist and Suzuki teaching, I'm not used to "winging it" on the violin. Nor are students who typically hear a piece many times and spend months working on it!
For me, improvising felt really contrived for the first few measures, and I worried about straying off the best-sounding notes. But I could see that one has to cultivate a kind of playfulness, the ability to start with a few notes that sound right and then weave them into something.
After we went around the room and all tried improvising, Kitajima pointed out that "for each solo there's always one nice idea." One person tried doing some tremolo, for example. Another stuck to low notes on the G string. It's like composing a little theme and variations on the spot.
Learning to improvise can only improve one's violin playing, Kitajima said.
"It makes you more curious about your instrument," he said. "The more you experiment on your instrument, the more you know about your instrument."
Even within classical music, there is improvisation. Changing a phrase in the Bruch concerto, for example, "That's improvisation, too," Kitajima said. "It's not always about ornamenting or making up your own notes."
The best way to improve your improv is by listening, he said. Here is Leo Kitajima's listening list for cultivating improvisation style; some specifically use violin, some are simply classics:
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