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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Do you improvise?

February 20, 2009 at 10:41 PM

I was thinking about this recently, because I had the opportunity to try out for a T.V. commercial.

I didn't get it, but at any rate, had I gotten it, I'd probably have made more $ than I've ever made with my fiddle.

So what were the skills needed for this audition? The call was for "a Vivaldi string quartet." When we got there, it became rather apparent that our skills in playing Vivaldi would be of minimal importance in negotiating this audition. They put us in a small studio, where we were given five minutes to assemble our own version of "Respect", then play it into the camera. Then, they wanted to hear us play "Vivaldi" (ie. anything sounding remotely classical) and please, play to the camera.

I thought it was a really fun experience, I love to get untethered from the charts and play by ear.

Every year we have a Christmas party, where I get out my fiddle and play whatever anyone feels like playing or singing with me. I find this to be a really honest, fun way of making music, and I always have. When I was a kid, I also would get out my fiddle and play requests -- though I wasn't quite as good at it when I was a little beginner!

This is not the case with everyone, though, and many people feel far more comfortable using music. A improvisatory audition would be a type of special torture. What are your feelings about this? Do you improvise? Tell us about it below: In what kinds of situations you like to improvise or play by ear? Or, what makes you a reluctant improviser? Or, what turned you into a better improviser?


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 2:11 AM

I wish I could improvise, I'm envious of people who can.  But for me it's like public speaking:  I can do a reasonably good job if I have something prepared and/or memorized, or if I have cues on my power point slides, but I can't improvise a speech out of nothing.  I draw a complete blank and then the anxiety rushes in and feeds on itself in a vicious cycle. 

I got better at public speaking when I gave myself permission to say "I can't do it" and instead let myself prepare, memorize, and use mental crutches.  And I got better at performing music when I did the same thing:  when I actually put effort into committing a piece to memory rather than just hoping for it to somehow magically come together. 

I view this approach as non-ideal, and kind of second-best, but it's a lot better than not being able to speak or perform at all, which is where I'd be if I had to improvise.

From Maeve O'Hara
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 2:37 AM

I consider myself very lucky that my teacher / school, Alice Kanack, combined regular improvisation classes with ordinary Suzuki training through a method my teacher called "Creative Ability Development". We would go to improv class once or sometimes twice a week, and we would play different improvisation games for the hour & half class. We would start with a warmup game called "What's The Answer to My Question", where we would stand in a circle and take turns improvising in pairs to the first 8 or so bars of Pachebel's canon, while my teacher would play underneath us on the piano. We then would move on to other games based on the age group (e.g. animal guessing game for younger students, and the cadenza game for older students). Through the games she would set keys and even modes -- many students could recognize mixolydian, dorian, etc. ... far before we could spell it!

Above all she instilled in us a no-fear attitude to improv -- that we could never make a mistake, that all we could learn was to believe in what we were doing. The games were very encouraging and stimulating and fun, too! I've really appreciated these classes in the long run, they really encouraged us to explore and express ourselves musically without the boundaries of written music, the hurdles of technique, and the fear of mistakes.

It was great stuff, and I've missed the classes since coming to music school!

From Mendy Smith
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 3:12 AM

I do what my stand partner calls "doodling" on viola.  Basically I begin with an arpeggio and then start adding extra notes and ornaments.  I play from memory quite often, especially around the holidays.  Last Christmas I stood in my mother's living room while my family called out various tunes they wanted to hear - from Christmas carols, the Tennessee Waltz, and other songs that were favorites of my grandfather's.  If I didn't know a song, he'd start singing it and expect me to follow along.  This has been a long-time family tradition that has helped me alot over the years.

From Daniel Blomdahl
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 3:44 AM

If it's classical, espeically in a group, I won't improvise. If it's folky, fiddley, or anything like that improvise away! It also depends on if someone(s) is accompanying or who is accompanying me. That really affects how much I can improvise.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 7:23 AM

For me, jamming is one of the biggest highs I can experience.  I just got home from a jam party.  It helps to sit next to a very good fiddler (or guitarist or banjo player) to pick up the melody.  However, I think I do my best improvisation when I'm unhampered by knowledge of the melody.  I like to improvise by playing countermelodies, rhythm variations, and bowing variations.  I've learned how to improvise by playing with groups of musicians whenever possible for years.  I've taken workshops, and they've been a big help.  I've taught adult students who've been trained in classical music how to play fiddle music, jam, and improvise.  It's so much fun!

I had a very interesting gig one year at a Christmas party.  I was hired to play nice, quiet, classical music to give a touch of class while the partygoers were eating.  I selected some classical music and prepared to play it before the gig.  The sound system didn't work too well, so somebody stood and held a mike right in front of my violin.  Then there was a change in plans.  I was told to circulate among the guests and play music while they ate.  Since I had not prepared for ths, I just played whatever I could remember off the top of my head:  Bach, Beatles, bluegrass, Suzuki, Christmas music, Scottish/Irish/Appalachian tunes, etc.  It was a challenge, but it was a lot of fun.  It also boosted my self confidence to know that I could do it.

P.S.  I like  this video of Aretha Franklin in her prime performing the original arrangement of "Respect." What a great song and great artist!

From Royce Faina
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 1:52 PM

I love to improvise. It has it's place. It can make a neat recovery tool for me. I love how it tests what I'm capable of, my creativity, and it's a rush when someone tells me, "You were just now making that up?! I thought that was the solo to the peice you were playing too!" And this is true!


Maeve- What a neat teacher you learned under! Wow! {:^D

From Laurie Trlak
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 2:40 PM

I did it once at church, and it was a good experience, but for the most part, I don't have enough confidence to do it! I really envy those who can, and I've wondered if one can learn to do it.

As far as playing by ear, I generally avoid it because it takes a lot of work, but now that I think about it, maybe, just maybe, doing it more would help me learn to improvise?


From Graham Clark
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 4:32 PM

Improvisation is at the core of my music making.

I have worked as a jazz violinist since 1982, both teaching and performing. I say "jazz", but I work in all types of music that need improvisation, apart from teh folk styles.

The creative rush that I get from "making it up on the spot" is second to none.

Still, my approach to improvisation is quite disciplined: I only play what I hear. What I hear depends on my musical knowledge, and my technique has to be able to create what I hear on the violin immediately.

If I do make a mistake (i.e. what comes out of the fiddle is not what I intended, or "heard") then I have to be able to recover convincingly, or make something good out of what might have been bad.. That is also exhilarating, both for me, and listeners.

I am about to release a CD of violin/piano duo improvisations. They relatemore to Xenakis than they do to Charle Parker ;)


From Manuel Tabora
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 6:36 PM

I've always had to play by ear. I grew up in churches in Honduras where none of the musicians have (or even read, in some cases) any kind of sheet music. So the worship leader would sometimes hand out burned CD's of the songs he'd want us to learn and let us pick out the parts. He was also a songwriter and whenever he had a new song that he wanted to incorporate, the making of the arrangement was basically a group effort where each person would make up their own part. 

Now that I'm in college I've become immersed in jazz and, even though I don't play my violin in any jazz context, the harmonic knowledge that I have gained by playing bass and improvising in a jazz context has made it easier for me to improvise in other settings.

A couple of months ago we had an Orchestra Sunday at my church and that morning, right before the service, the worship pastor asked me if I could take a solo in a song. I said, "Sure!" I was actually playing viola that weekend, and I ended up playing a different solo for each service (there are three). I got pretty good feedback from fellow players, which is always nice :-) 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 9:14 PM

I'm glad to hear from others who get that great creative rush from improvising.  I love it!

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 10:05 PM

That's interesting.  Is it typical for that kind of work?  I'd expect them to have a music producer with some charts of some kind, but I don't know.

I've only know none person personally who I know could have pulled it off, one of my teachers.  He was a fine classical violinist and violist, and also a decent jazz pianist, trumpeter, and string bass player, and taught a counterpoint class.  And first-rate sight reader. Very easy to picture a few guys like him throwing it together, given a minute or two.

I saw an interview on PBS with Yo Yo Ma and James Taylor, where Ma said that there were two paths you could go down, reading or improvising, and the one you choose seems to cause difficulty doing the other.  Creating its own wired approach to the instrument or something.  I don't know though.

In a band, in cases where a chart isn't provided, the player typically improvises his part, and depending on the wishes of the "band leader" that may quickly gel into a part that may change little or none from performance to performance.  So in that case improvising and writing sort of merge into one.

From David Wilson
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 12:25 AM

When recording fifth album "Cafe Europa" comprised of American and continental standards, I decided to incude "The Swan" by Saint Saens. Playing it straight sounded terrible to me. So we lifted a jazz waltz drum part, added a keyboard bass and strings. When I re-recorded the melody to this lilting beat and played it in an improvizational manner, I nailed it on the first take! .. it's still one of my favorite tracks on the ablum. (Which has sold over 20,000 units to date.)

From Pamela Schulz
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 3:21 AM

I'm not that wonderful at improvising, but I can play by ear.  It came from wanting to play something for which I simply couldn't find the music.  I started out reading from music, and that's what I still do, but I am still capable of duplicating a tune I have heard.

From Bethany Morris
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 5:30 AM

I used to volunteer my violin skills at my church.  Sometimes I got written-out countermelodies, and sometimes I just got the melody with lead sheet.  Since playing the melody for 5 verses and refrains gets boring fast, I learned to improvise off of a lead sheet by necessity.

At this same church, the director had a habit of leaning over to me before beginning a hymn and saying, "Oh, by the way, we're going to start this piece in F and modulate to G in the third verse."  So I also learned to transpose on sight!  Gah!

From Jerald Archer
Posted on February 22, 2009 at 8:50 AM

Improvisation is a sublime talent that not all musician possess. It is possible to learn to a degree, and is most certainly enhanced through a training of the ear and a good understanding of theory, respectively. I go into great detail on the subject in my September 2008 blog on this site for those who would be more interested in the details and ideals surrounding the art of improvisation.

From John Henry Gates
Posted on February 23, 2009 at 2:36 PM

Anybody can play something they know. The real sport is in playing something you never heard of & making it sound as if you planned it that way. 

From Graham Clark
Posted on February 23, 2009 at 8:17 PM

John, I DO plan it that way.


From Peter Kent
Posted on February 23, 2009 at 11:36 PM

"Anyone can play something they know" may be a valid statement however with a slight twist : Can they play it in any key ?  Can you begin the Bruch vln concerto 1/2 step higher ?  CAn you do the Bach E Major in F ?

With younger players, improv should start something like:  Play "My Country Tis Of Thee" starting on do it starting on E-flat...etc.  When this is reasonably proficent, perhaps then they have sufficent knowledge of the instrument to make charming and irrefutable cacophony !

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