Workshop with Violinist Christian Howes at ASTA 2019: Improv, Modes and More

March 25, 2019, 11:30 PM · Violinist Christian Howes knows something about helping students find their creativity.

A classically-trained jazz violinist, he is the founder of Creative Strings Academy and also runs annual Creative Strings Workshops where string players can immerse themselves in a variety of musical styles such as world music, jazz, rock and fiddle. He would like to see that spirit of creativity integrated into music education, and in early March at the 2019 American String Teachers Association Conference in Albuquerque, Howes put a whole lot of fresh ideas on the table. In the course of just a couple of hours, Howes outlined a series of concrete ideas about teaching improv, getting students familiar with the fingerboard, and opening students' minds to a greater variety of musical genres. (An outline of his lecture can be found here.)

"We have separated our musical education cultures," Howes said in opening. Generally, when we learn music, the educational model falls into one of three categories: classical, jazz, or participatory music. "In each of these settings, we learn some skills and not others," Howes said. If we could integrate the best of all those ways of learning, then students would gain a broader range of skills, opening up more possibilities for the kinds of music they can explore and play well.

As someone who has worked to draw out the creativity in classically-trained musicians -- including himself -- Howes finds that the classical training model, for all its positive aspects, can be deficient in fostering certain categories of learning. For example, "we don't foster the creative process," Howes said. By that, Howes means that many string players with classical training don't have the confidence to improvise because they rarely get experience doing so during their training, and they also are not trained to visualize harmony on a stringed instrument. For similar reasons, they can also be reluctant to branch out to other genres.

How do we branch out? How to we cultivate a mindset that will allow us to explore improvisation and other kinds of music?

"Set aside time during practice to engage in the creative process," Howes said. "Creating anything is just about making choices." One of the biggest problems is actually having too many choices. If you begin with the infinite universe -- this can be overwhelming. "The key to the creative process is actually to limit the choices." If you are helping students to improvise, you have to do it for them, and you have to make sure you give them parameters that take into account their knowledge and their technique. What are those parameters? It helps to start simple, as Howes demonstrated in what he called an "Icebreaker Exercise" for improv.

First, give students some extremely do-able parameters, such as playing quarter notes on the A string. He then expands the parameters: play quarters on the A and E strings. Expanding the parameters a little more, he tells them to play quarter notes on notes of the A major scale. Of course, they have to know the notes of the A major scale! That is where a teacher must take into account the students' knowledge and skills. Don't ask them to play in A minor if they don't know it; don't ask them to play all spiccato notes if they can't do it. Back to the icebreakers, Howes then asks students to play quarters on any note of the chromatic scale. Then, throw in a rest here and there. Then, allow for free tempo changes, and suddenly the parameters are very wide.

The parameters can be anything you choose. You could choose an emotion, like happiness or sadness. You could choose a technique, such as harmonics, string crossings, pizzicato, or playing in third position. You could choose parameters based on pitch, picking a key, mode or chromatic notes.

"The key is to create structure so that you can jam with other people or improvise, within your own knowledge.

If you are trying to get good at improvising, keep in mind that it takes courage and requires a lot of experimentation. Howes suggested recording yourself and then listening back. "Do 100 improvisations, and then throw them all out," he said. You have to accept being "bad" at it in the beginning, so that you can get good at it. (We violinists aren't very good at that, are we?)

As a young man, Howes had drawn the conclusion that he just wasn't the creative type.

"But we all are," Howes said. "You owe it to yourself to push against these boundaries you've set for yourself. And if you don't do it for yourself, you need to do it for your students."

Making modes relatable: LIMDAPL

Howes brought up the topic of modes, those scales such as Lydian or Aeolian that don't necessarily follow the same interval patterns as a standard major scale. Howes stressed that we can learn to use modes in a practical way. I know that when I learned the modes in music theory class, I memorized their names and intervals in a very academic way, and then promptly forgot most of it. I certainly rarely applied it, other than trying to identify the right mode for the Gilligan's Island theme song.

Howes argued that it's better to be able to use modes than to know their names, and he had a really brilliant way of demonstrating it, especially for string players:

Building on an acronym he picked up from Rob Thomas at the Berklee School of Music, "LIMDAPL," Howes demonstrated a way to get to know the modes, from "brightest to darkest."

First he started by turning on a "C" drone -- C was going to be our tonic (first note of the scale) for all of the modes. He then started with Ionian mode, which is basically a major scale. For this exercise, you do need to know the order of your sharps (F-C-G-D-A-E-B) and even more importantly, the order of your flats (B-E-A-D-G-C-F). If you add a one sharp to Ionian mode, it becomes Lydian mode. This is actually the first and "brightest" mode, and it is the "L" that starts our acronym. Then comes Ionian, and then we start adding flats, one at a time. Add B-flat and it becomes Ionian; then E-flat and it becomes Mixolydian, etc. Here is a summation:

LIMDAPL - modes from "bright" to "dark," using "C" as a tonic for all:

Got that? It actually took me a while -- watch the video a few times if you need to! At the end of the video he also demonstrated ways to practice in the various modes -- a series of exercises that rivals Schradieck, if you do them all!

His point is: to get to know those modes inside out is to get to know the fingerboard. Another way to become versed in modes is to take a simple fiddle tune or Suzuki tune and put it through all the modes. He gave a few examples:

The modal approach to practice works with tunes that will go over a single tonic drone; then you just take them through the various permutations, based on a circle of fifths.

When it comes to voice-leading, internalizing harmony, reading jazz charts, "A lot of us think that if we just listen hard enough, we will get it," Howes said. "It won't work. You need to use your mind!"

Classical musicians (like me) who are accustomed to reading music and simply playing what is written, can be struck with paralyzing fear when they see a jazz chart. It has a melody, but then it has chord symbols written over that melody. When it's time to improvise, the idea is that you look at those chord symbols and come up with something that makes musical sense, based on those chords.

That means that you need to understand a few things: What are the notes in all of those chords? And where are they located on your fingerboard? Sounds simple enough, but it's pretty hard to do on the fly. To help music readers get started with this process of learning chords and learning to create melodies from them, Howes devised "chord stacks," in which he simply writes out all the chords in a given piece, and then the beginning improvisor can read through, just choosing one note from each chord. In fact, he did so for a piece we all know and love, the Pachelbel Canon. "I'm giving you all the notes in a D minor triad, in an extended range," Howes said. Using that visual tool, "All kids have to do is drag and drop, and it's a 100 percent success rate."

"As violinists, we play the melody, but we are oblivious to the inner voices and bass line." The idea is that eventually, you internalize those chords and learn effective voice leading.

Howes closed with thoughts on why is important for string players and for all players to be open to alternative styles. "When we try to see someone else's perspective, we expand our understanding of ourselves and of our music." When approaching the music of a culture other than your own, it is important to do so with humility, curiosity and an open mind. If you don't know someone's perspective, then "go to the source of that perspective -- it means connecting with people."

* * *

NOTE: Just this week Christian also released an interview on his Creative Strings Podcast that he did with the legendary jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty. Click here to check it out.

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March 26, 2019 at 12:05 PM · My lifelong experience being around jazz players and jazz learners is that their expectations are warped. They fully expect that progress on the technical side of their instrument takes dedicated work, but they somehow expect that improvisation should magically develop on its own with perhaps a tiny kick-start from having attended a one-day workshop where they learned about Dorian Mode. For most people, learning improv is like learning the violin -- it takes dedicated work, improvement will be gradual, and having a good teacher is very helpful if not essential. Like classical violin, learning jazz is accelerated by listening to it. Jazz violin is not like jazz piano where there have been a thousand players well worth listening to and innumerable streaming channels of nothing but jazz piano music. Jazz requires ear training -- of a different sort than intonation. And the best way to train your ear for jazz, at least at the beginning, is to transcribe recorded solos.

I have great respect for Christian Howes and his methods. It would be wonderful to study with him. I learned all of the "modes" back in high school when I started learning jazz and I was given a few books by Jamey Aebersold. I found that knowing the modes did relatively little for my playing. (Probably that is because my teacher at the time, Barton Polot), did not emphasize them. It's quite possible that I learned the same thing, just in different packaging. What helped me the most was learning a little basic harmony -- especially working with chord progressions, and then understanding the roles that the notes of the scale (initially the major scale, then the minor scale, and eventually all 12 notes of the scale) can play in standard chord progressions (especially the ii-V7-I progression). Those roles include consonance, dissonance, leading, and resolution.

Now, you might argue that of course harmony would be important to me because I was learning jazz piano. And you might say "getting to know the fingerboard" was a non-issue for me because on the piano, all of your notes are laid out in front of you visually. And that is true. So getting around the fingerboard on the violin -- well enough that you can find and play what is in your mind's ear -- is indeed an important task. (Good luck with that!)

It is also worth pointing out that a beginning pianist can immediately start to make progress on improv because he or she does not need to worry about tone or intonation. So, their improv and technical skills can develop in parallel. This is not impossible on the violin but much more difficult, and Mark O'Connor deserves some credit for trying to build improv into his method books.

At the end of Howes's "ice breaker exercise" video, he plays an improv sequence which he deliberately made to sound kind of random and edgy (in terms of note selection) and jazzy (in terms of rhythm and phrasing). I enjoyed it!! The reason it works is because his intonation is good enough that we can tell what the notes are, so we can clearly distinguish consonance from dissonance. On the piano, I can afford to "go outside" the key and create temporary dissonances that resolve -- a foundational element of all jazz improv. It is *very hard* to do that on the violin because if your intonation is even slightly off, then the "frame shift" between the intended dissonance and the consonance of the written harmony will not register with the listener.

Even practiced riffs and licks that use a "standard jazz scale" like the diminished scale or the whole-tone scale just will not come off properly if some of the pitches are off. I believe this is why a lot of amateur violinists end up in the "gypsy jazz" genre. Gypsy jazz tends to be much more consonant than, say, bebop or modern jazz, and audiences are much more likely to appreciate consonant music even if the intonation is a little off. You can buy books of jazz scales with fingerings (for example there is one by Mike Laird). I bet even really good violinists will find themselves perplexed by how hard it is to play diminished and whole tone scales in tune with speed and facility. Your hand is just not used to those patterns. You can practice them, and practice them you must, but in the heat of battle when you're in a different key and you find yourself needing to complete an improvised melodic line using a snippet of a diminished scale but starting in second position, then you will appreciate how much more work you have to do in the woodshed.

For the record, I do play some jazz violin in a trio with guitar and percussion. The genre is Latin (mainly Brazilian) jazz. In this genre both note selection and rhythm are somewhat easier. Swinging is hard -- and Latin jazz doesn't swing. Thereby I am able to do some improv even though my technique is not particularly advanced (approx. Mozart level).

March 26, 2019 at 12:41 PM · Christian Howes provides a much needed bridge to classically trained musicians and others who want to expand their playing and begin to play within a more creative context.Bravo!

March 26, 2019 at 06:45 PM · Thank you so much for posting it. Christian certainly has brilliant ways of getting violinists, violists and cellists to explore other styles. As someone who loves to improvise and compose, I am really open to exploring other styles, and I strongly feel that music teachers should encourage students to explore things outside of the classical box. Other styles are so amazing.

March 26, 2019 at 09:36 PM · I found Christian's techniques absolutely fascinating and manageable! It's a wonderful analysis of the improvisation process. Thank you for writing this, Laurie!

March 26, 2019 at 11:19 PM · I'm going to come back to this article when I get time and go over it thoroughly - that LIMDAPL exercise looks fascinating. (Especially when you notice that when you go around the circle of fifths that way, every second one hits hits the modes in the standard Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, etc. sequence. "I don't pick lilies much any longer...")

In addition to my classical playing, I frequently go to bluegrass jams and improvise up a storm. Some of it is almost instinctive, but I owe a lot to a mandolin teacher I once had, before I got involved in violin. One of the most important things she taught me was harmonized scales (double-stop scales in violin-speak). She got me going up and down the neck in all sorts of combinations - tonic and third, third and octave, etc. - while paying attention to the intervals: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, minor (actually diminished), major. Somewhere along the way I also discovered pentatonic scales and how naturally they fall under the fingers when playing an instrument tuned in fifths.

These two things - harmonized and pentatonic scales - formed the basis of my toolbox. Between the two of them I have enough to get a good start on improvising anything as soon as I work out the chord progression.

March 27, 2019 at 09:47 PM · I would be happy to be corrected, but as far as I have heard, jazz players study their solos almost in the same way as classical violinists study their solo pieces. they both know them basically by heart. the "only" difference is that the jazz players composed the music themselves (but already based on the harmonic progression given by the song they have to solo on). of course another difference is that classical solos are typically technically much more difficult. but a jazz performer needs to study more than ten, twenty solos for a single concert.

March 28, 2019 at 03:34 AM · Jean, that's not correct. Solos are not memorized like cadenzas. They are improvised -- that is to say they are composed in real time, on the fly. Sometimes small memorized elements are inserted -- such as quotes from other tunes and the like.

March 28, 2019 at 11:53 AM · OK Paul but then what do jazz soloists practice on? I've also been told (but perhaps that is also not correct?) that they practice as many hours per day as classical soloists.

March 28, 2019 at 11:37 PM · Well, the very first thing that my jazz piano teacher told me when I arrived for my first lesson was that I couldn't stop learning classical music too. So my guess is that jazzers keep their tools sharp (and their brains filled with new ideas) by practicing classical piano too, along with technical studies. A great deal of being a jazz musician is just being a musician. The first piece my teacher put in front of me was a Scriabin Prelude. I had never played such music before -- very hard but I quickly understood why he chose it -- because its not only challenging technically but also rich with interesting harmony.

But a lot of "practice time" is also spent on what I would call discovery and on mapping. These are my own terms. Discovery means fiddling around with harmonies and teaching yourself new ways to work around chord changes. For a jazz pianist (like me) that often means new chord voicings. I'm unfortunately not clever enough to be inventing cool new voicings but if I am patient and studious I can glean them by listening to recordings or by buying transcriptions prepared by others more skilled. I mentioned "small memorized elements" and sometimes these can be practiced, extended, added to, as a means of increasing one's general vocabulary. Mapping really means arranging -- creating interesting introductions, endings, transitions, maybe pedal sequences, reharmonization of the chord changes, or even outright composing.

I suggest listening to the album "Live in Tokyo" by Brad Mehldau. I think you'll quickly appreciate that the overall arrangements of the tunes and some of the nuanced harmonies and chord voicings (especially in the beginnings of each tune) were probably carefully mapped out in advance, while the melodic development is largely improvised on the spot. That's part of the purpose of mapping -- it creates a framework on which you feel confident that interesting and musically meaningful improvisation can unfold.

If you go to an ordinary night-spot where there is maybe a lower-level pro or even semi-pro jazz combo performing (say, a horn, piano, bass, drums), the most common way one plays gigs like that is by playing "head arrangements." You play through the tune once, usually with the horn playing the melody and the rhythm section "comping" (accompanying). Then the players will take turns playing solos -- these will be entirely improvised on the fly, but the "vocabulary" of jazz is practiced in advance -- the patterns, scales, turnarounds, and other filigree elements ("licks"). After you listen to jazz for a while you come to learn which players rely almost entirely on licks that they use over and over and which ones are spinning out more actual improvised melody. Licks players: Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Stephane Grappelli. Melodic improvisers: Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Didier Lockwood. (Of course those are very crude binary characterizations.) Sometimes signals will be passed among the players to trade two or four or eight bars at a time, bringing the drummer in to solo as well. Then the main tune is played through again and some kind of ending (canned from some famous recording of that tune) or "tag" (repeating the last two or four bars a couple of times) is applied to finish the tune. Then you go to the next tune on your set list. I play two or three gigs like that per month. It's a blast if I'm well-rested, mentally focused, and challenging myself to really create something. Less fun if I'm tired, feeling pressure from work, and willing to take the easy road of spinning out licks.

March 29, 2019 at 09:29 AM · Great reply Paul, many thanks!

March 29, 2019 at 07:39 PM · Paul, that sound a lot like what happens at the bluegrass jams I frequent. When it comes my turn to solo, I'll usually have an opening lick in mind, but after that it's mostly improvised on the fly. I do have some standard licks, which come in handy in case I get lost or run out of ideas - or find myself playing in a key that makes it hard to really cut loose. (Why is it that so many singers love to sing in B?)

What's interesting is if I hit a wrong note - often I can work it into a brand new lick, which keeps things interesting and can cover up mistakes well enough that nobody notices.

March 29, 2019 at 08:02 PM · Charlie my piano student calls those "citrus notes." Because they can be made into lemonade.

When a singer asks for it in B just play it in C. Very very very few will know the difference.

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