Learning to improvise on the violin?

January 11, 2007 at 05:29 AM · Hi,

How do you go about learning to improvise? I heard music theory helps but what aspect of music theory?

I mainly want to improvise for fiddle tunes because they just don't sound right if you play them strictly by the book. Classical peices at least most of the time have to be played by the book and sound good that way.

Any books for this? I know improvising has to do with the chords and forming notes from that.

Replies (70)

January 11, 2007 at 07:00 AM · This is one of the reasons we practice appregios, double stops and other techniques. On guitar there's a technique I call double picking, where I play the rhythm and melody simultaneously. While I'm sure if one wanted to write all those notes down I'm sure they could, but ordinarily it comes from knowing rhythms and melodies.

On piano, I use appregios, staccato and rests, triplets, and other basic techniques to make a piece of music my own.

And on violin as one example, I take Laura's Theme from Dr. Chivago and play the minor theme using tremolo, then go into very resonant legato type bowings for the Somewhere My Love portion, with all the clean vibrato I can muster--hopefully appropriately?...

I also took a couple measures from that genius video someone shared, started playing it with double stops, and tacked it onto the front of Lully's Gavotte at way above speed, ritarding and decrescendoing back down to the original borrowed measures, then go into a theme I learned in Music Appreciation a couple, ok a bunch, of years ago both in the upper and lower ranges.

So, these examples say, take a song you know, and start doing different things with it. Sometimes it will work, sometimes not. I'd start with a simple song but one you can envision playing for others.

Oddly, I was just watching a Legato masterclass at VMC, and Dr. S., was having the pupil change rhythms to make the measures their own. It's the advanced Legato video I think. But this is a good starting point for improv.--just changing rhythms until confidence is built. Then start applying different bowings and techniques, and as you advance use more advaned techniques and so forth.

I'm always spouting off about making the music your own, and the above is partly why.

January 11, 2007 at 07:42 AM · p.s. you'll know when you're getting there, when the music obscures the techniques.

January 11, 2007 at 07:47 AM · You ought to try fiddle camp. You'll have a good time. I went to CeltFest on Vancouver Island, and Pierre Schreier from Ontario, Canada taught my class. He taught us several possible adornments, as did the other fiddle teacher. By the way, we were learning to play Scottish/Irish/Cape Breton fiddle tunes (and some Quebecois). Interestingly enough, all teaching/learning was done completely without music - we only got music right before we left. It's definitely a different way of doing things.

January 11, 2007 at 09:10 AM · TRY THIS!

Get a REAL BOOK, the jazz collection or a FAKE BOOK if you prefer, and inside there are time signatures and chordal arrangements.

Play, the melody as is, then play the chords as arpeggios in time to the melody.

Then you'll "hear" the music in your head.

After that, start improvising, to add twists to the music, play everything in double stops, ie. sixths and thirds.

If you've had great training in Bach Sonatas and Partitas, this won't be a problem.


January 11, 2007 at 01:31 PM · Glad to hear you benefited from the time off (but only one week, does that constitute a rest?)

Yes, Jazz could be the way to go for you. I did a jazz improvisation course a few years ago, and of course it really emphasised the importance of knowing scales and chords - there is bound to be a similar course or jam session in your location.

We had to do a group performance at the end of the course for which, shamefully, I 'learned' my 30 second improvisation, but for me that represented real progress.

January 11, 2007 at 03:50 PM · I do a lot of improv work, and I think you'll be surprised at how easy and fun it is. Start out by making sure you know your major and minor scales and arpeggios, and take it from there! It's fun to get together with friends who play other instruments (like guitar) and do improv together. It's really easy once you get started, and if you don't worry too much about what people who can hear you think.

January 12, 2007 at 04:32 AM · I think Amanda and Vince gave excellent direction for establishing a technical base, from which you can then branch out.

After that, two things are critical:

1: With music playing in the backround (preferrably a short section that "loops" continuously) SING a short line, whatever comes into your head. Then try to play the same line on your fiddle. This will both train your muscle-memory, and help you break free of "the same old" ingrained lines and figures.

-you can also do "mental" excercises. Think of a short line, then imagine yourself playing that line. Important suggestion: do not do this while driving a car, or your insurance premiums will soon go up!

2: LISTEN as much as possible to players who constantly improvise. There is no substitute for this. You must immerse yourself in the genre (whichever genre you choose) so that those types of lines become automatic in your head. -then you use step #1, above, to train your fingers how to replicate what your mind has absorbed.

January 11, 2007 at 05:55 PM · The information given is good. As someone who has recently come from a classical background into the world of fiddling and improve, I feel that there hasn't been enough emphasis in the comments so far on the idea of getting a teacher or going to a camp. Fiddle music isn't something that can be learned in a vacuume. You need to go to a Celi, a camp or one of the many amature/improve nights in local clubs around your area that undoubtedly exist. I also found that I required getting over my self consiousness. I always feel like my improve sounds horrible. Sometimes it does, other times, it's just that what I'm playing is entirely my own and I fear potential critisicm.

That being said, a few hours of instruciton with a good fiddle teacher would go a long way. Improve has structure based on the genre. For instance in Celtic fiddle, they use a lot of turns, trills, grace notes, birls and D throws. A teacheer would be able to both explain them and where in the music it is appropriate to use them so that you don't change the melody so much that it becomes another song.

Finally, you have to know your theory. You have to not only have the scales and arpeggios memorized, but you have to know which scales can fit together and why so that you can play in key with the other instruments. You also have to know this relationship well enough that you can do this real time. Essentially, you have to be able to make the changes without thinking conciously about it.


January 11, 2007 at 06:39 PM · Look into a publication called "Creative Ability Development" by Alice Kanack.

January 11, 2007 at 06:39 PM · I don't think you necessarily NEED to go to a camp to do improv. I mean, he didn't specifially say he wanted to become a fiddler, just that he wanted to do improv. And camps are expensive!

January 11, 2007 at 06:56 PM · You don't need to go to a camp, but you do need to play with other people if you want to learn to improvise in a particular style. It's like learning a language -- you can study in the classroom all you like, but you probably won't have a very convincing accent until you start conversing with real people.

And remember -- you're never more than a half-step away from a right note!

January 12, 2007 at 12:58 AM · Right, Patty. You sure will progress faster if you play with people. The camp may be a good start for you. Then... start looking for jams. They are all around the world... folks just getting together in a parking lot, someone's home, a local restaurant, etc. playing music together... no paper music..just listening and participating in the give and take of a jam. If you're ever in FL you will be welcomed at our jams! :)


January 12, 2007 at 01:57 AM · All good responses: theory, camp, teacher, jams, books, mental imaging...all good.

What's done the most for me is to think of improv as a musical conversation, a sort of synesthesia if you will. The conversation could be the old common knock on the door that everyone knows (I hope)....'da da-da da da' and then the response is 'da da'! This is the idea. The first part of the conversation is like the question and the 'da da' is the reply.

Listen to anything and everything you can and listen for the phrasing, picking out the conversation that is happening. Try making up your own reply to a musical question. Once you are flexible enough to answer questions musically with your instrument, experiment with different genres such as bluegrass, jazz, blues, rock, celtic, etc., using the same idea but try and use it within the context of that genre (you can even do it with classical musical).

After some work you'll be able to lengthen the question and answer and break out into more advanced phrasing of the conversation.

January 12, 2007 at 08:05 AM · the best thing i found for improvisation is to play jazz or folk or roots music of some kind whether it be american, english, irish etc and play in as many jam sessions as possible. the main thing is not to be afraid of being laughed at. although you may be surrounded by players who've been improvising for years i very much doubt anyone would laugh at you, and most would help you learn. it's all about getting out there and doing it!

January 12, 2007 at 06:49 PM · For a long time, I, too, wondered how I would be able to improvise. Part of my problem came from my original, classical violin teacher. When I'd make a mistake, he'd say, "What's the matter with you? You don't like the way Beethoven wrote it? You have to rewrite it yourself?" I learned a lot of the techniques one uses to improvise, as many people on this thread have discussed. My problem was freeing myself to actually be able to use them. What worked for me was hanging out with folk musicians and playing with them. At first, I played strictly melody notes. After a while, the improv experience seeped into my head, and I started doing it without even trying. I think "not trying" was part of setting myself free. I know a classically trained musician who says that she can only play bluegrass music after she's had three beers. Smae principle, but I don't really recommend it. I recommend hanging out and playing with other folk musicians. Their spirit is contagious. Most important of all, just relax and have fun.

January 12, 2007 at 10:55 PM · To a certain extent the more we move into group jam sessions the more we move away from real improvisation. I'm not saying that such group playing is harmful in any way for improvisation, I think that has been shown by the experiences mentioned so far here not to be the case.

What I'm saying is that, as with all music there are classifications, and these often tend to dictate the form and style of the music you are playing. Using bluegrass as an example, it can be safely said that there are a large number of 'types' of bluegrass (square dance, old timey, new age, dawg music...the list is practically endless -- indeed if you look at all the regional variants it is endless), yet each one has a formal representation of how a piece should be played.

I've had a great time over the years playing with various sized groups of people in jams and in performances. I love to sit back with a group of between 4 and 6 especially and cycle the breaks. There's nothing like it. But I don't see this as true improvisation.

Rarely, if ever, will you witness a cyle of breaks between 4-6 people where each break taken is played in a different type/style/genre of bluegrass. One will play from memory, yes, but one will also play in a style that bears a recognizable melodic line resembling the classification/typification of the piece you're all playing, and it will have a rhythmic limit (often 8 or 16 bars).

I think that true improvisation has more spontaneity. It has harmonic as well as melodic invention, something that you'll find more in jazz than in bluegrass. But true improvisation will also have no limits at all, and recognition is in the mind of the beholder. It comes from memory, but from also from a calculated inventive perspective as well.

January 13, 2007 at 01:41 AM · 1. Ditch the sheet music. Many fiddlers do know how to read music, but with classical training, you'll be far too dependent on it and you'll need to break the habit. Remember that the page will never tell you how it's supposed to sound.

2. Pick ONE fiddle style. Improvising for bluegrass is vastly different than improvising for jazz or cajun or any other style. Irish and Scottish fiddling has very little (if any) improvising at all---it's more a matter of knowing acceptable forms of variation.

3. LISTEN to as much fiddle music in the style you've chosen as you possibly can. Seeing someone play it live is even better.

4. Remember that the primary difference between classical violin and fiddling is that fiddle music is DANCE music---rhythm is paramount. The bowing techniques are meant to create the rhythm. The ornaments are there to accentuate the rhythm.

And when you've done all that, listen some more. Listen to five different fiddlers playing the same tune to see how they express it. There is LOTS of free music on the internet these days, so you don't even have to buy cd's. Go to fiddle workshops and camps and hear other fiddlers play.

Good luck!

January 13, 2007 at 06:09 PM · I agree with a lot of what has been said. I think that the best way to work on your improv. is to find a group of people...and they ARE out there....and just start jammin' away. What's cool, is that the people who do get together for jam sessions are always accepting. Once you start playing with them, you'll realize there's no need to be self-concious. They're not there to critique you..there just there to have a good time and play some tunes. It's awesome.

Happy Jamming, Ann

ps--the Fiddle Fakebook has a huge repitoire of tunes that are often played...if you felt like you needed a little 'baptism' into the world of fiddling. Also, listen to the kind of music you want to play! Listen to others improv.. That's helped me a lot.

January 13, 2007 at 06:26 PM · Happy jamming Ann said:"Also, listen to the kind of music you want to play! Listen to others improv.. That's helped me a lot."

I call it stealin strokes--a must for every instrument, formal or informal.

January 14, 2007 at 02:22 AM · As a plus, if the session's in a bar, you might get free beer. :) Sadly, the places I know of that used to do that either stopped or went bust... couldn't have anything to do with free beer to Irish musicians, though, nope.

January 15, 2007 at 02:41 AM · Regarding theory, if you take that approach to it, there is something you should understand, which I didn't for a long time. The theory happens during practice but the playing is by ear. You would practice your arpeggios and chord relationships, but would put it out of your mind when it's time to play.

January 17, 2007 at 08:58 PM · Get the Carol Ann Wheeler books about fiddling. They are geared to a beginner, but give a lot of basic information on trills, roll-ups, slides, various endings and bowing styles. Many of her books also compare and contrast the various styles.

She makes it very clear on how to "fiddle" a tune with excerpts from standard teaching material.

Have Fun


February 22, 2007 at 02:34 PM · I taught myself how to improvise and play in a blues style about two years ago. First, I listened to a lot of music to get the sounds in my ear, and I also did some research and reading so I could find out what makes blues sound like blues. With blues, the slides are the most important thing, plus you have the riffs, and you use the pentatonic scale. After I listed for a while, then I started playing along with cds. I used cds by Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Johnson, Rory Block, Robert Lockwood, and other blues artists. A very good friend of mine, who happens to be a professional musician (guitar and harmonica) and a blues artist, sent me some stuff that he had done, and I worked with that too. It took a while to get the style and get it perfected. It's like any other musical genre - - classical, etc. You must practice, practice, practice. That's the whole key. At first, I improvised slowly, and then I was able to go at a faster tempo. Now, I would consider myself to be pretty fluent at blues. Once you learn the style, which I have, then you can improvise to most any blues song. Unlike the classical genre, blues is very relaxed and laid back. I already knew how to play by ear and do strolling work, but improvising carries it a step further. I've also found that learning to improvise has had a positive effect on my playing overall. And now, I am going to be working on a cd and playing gigs to promote the cd. When you are a professional musician and a freelancer, it's to your advantage to be as versatile as possible because it can only lead to more playing opportunities.

February 22, 2007 at 02:50 PM · Robert Johnson, eh? I met Lockwood once. We talked it all out.

Learning blues lead styles, there comes a moment when you think wow I can play the blues, and you can.

February 22, 2007 at 03:15 PM · Since my pianist and I formed the Amadis Duo (www.amadisduo.com) we have always done a good half hour of plain improvisation. We find it great for warming-up both physically and mentally before working a couple of hours on our repertoire.

We have so much fun with it that we have also started recording our improvisations!

Once you develop a good level of comfort with the violin or any instrument you will be amazed at some of the music that you play and create during this sessions. We have decided to put out a album of Pure Improvisation Work and we now have tons of our own compositions derived from our improvisations. Sometimes we spend hours just listening to an improvisation we played and recorded, and putting it on paper.

So, improvisation can be a great tool and I think all musicians should embrace it as being fundamental to learning music and especially an instrument like the violin. I have done a lot of improvisation playing with friends and teachers since I was very young and remember improvising on my violin when I was about 7 or 8 years old with a good friend of mine who played mandolin in the same conservatory where I studied in Portugal. Lots of fun and I can tell you it really did help me get more creative and comfortable technically with the violin.

So go for it Edward, it will really be beneficial for your playing!



February 22, 2007 at 11:53 PM · Also, take a look at this link, lots of improv and great music by one of V.com members.


February 23, 2007 at 06:23 AM · The Pittsburgh Jazz and Fiddling Camp gives classically trained string players of all ages, hands on experience, playing and improvising in non-classical styles including Jazz, Rock, Fiddling, and World Music. The Camp runs from July 16-20, at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

You can check out the Camp website at:


March 29, 2007 at 08:16 PM · I just discovered a violinist by the name of Maiko. Her videos can be found at youtube. She does jazz improvisation. She is fabulous!

March 30, 2007 at 12:37 AM · Improvisation is about exploring music and the instrument, not appplying formulae to either.

Put your bow on the string, and move it up and down.


Put fingers on strings: listen.

If you like what you do, remember it so you can do it again

If you don't like what you do remember it so you can avoid it in future.

Yes, knowing scales and all the chords helps. I teach that approach, but it means nothing without the exploratory curiosity that lets you discover musical things for yourself. You can't gain that ownership of the music or your instrument in any other way.


March 30, 2007 at 04:55 PM · @Carolyn - that's sweet - a japanese girl playing straight Grappelli tradition: fine relaxed style - a kind imrovisation one can do by ear variationlike with some blues in mind! Have you found her homepage? Here is the mp3 and movie download area:


By the way - for impro-beginners Grappelli is a gas! - He improvises often so near to the themes - not ratttling down scales, which is ununderstandable to someone who wants to get a first foot into improvisation.



March 30, 2007 at 06:39 PM · Ulrich,

Thanks a million for giving me Maiko's web address. Her style is so free and easy, and she's so expressive. I wish I understood how to read Japanese so that I could see what's in her profile! I'm sure she has a great background. That's obvious by watching her play, and she has an excellent technique. And she's more versatile than I first thought. She also does Wes Montgomery, tango by Piazzolla, rhumba, etc., etc.

July 2, 2007 at 02:43 AM · Here's a perfect example of how lick-based improvisation works. It's hillarious! Click on buttons to play and sing the blues. Have fun.


July 3, 2007 at 01:47 AM · My teacher said her son is great at Improv and he has a formula. It works on bluegrass to jazz. She has heard him do it. The Improv I am talking about is where each instrument is called on to play something after the main melody has been completed and before it is repeated.

I'm brand new at this but the other day I played a song from ear, down to the last note and did something like three notes up from the last key and just played the scale down to the last note, if you can follow what I'm saying.

I will try to get the son's formula and post it.

July 3, 2007 at 07:45 AM · I like to make him throw in an E major when the radio is on the IV and V chords. It reminds me of typical summer camp guitar players.

February 2, 2008 at 07:26 PM · I just posted this in response to a blog entry by Corwin Slack called "Finger Patterns III"

This is the link to it:


It contains some of my thinking and approaches to violin improvisation.

Great posts Corwin. I like your ideas.

Finger pattern knowledge offers great advantages for the improvisational violinist. Visualizing patterns makes memorization of scales much easier. Here is a pdf that I created for my students:


Although these are in first position, I have found that when the student starts really grasping these scales in a visual way the higher positions are not nearly as challenging as they would otherwise be. (I have done the same for all the keys of the major scale as well as over twenty other scales including the Blues, Pentatonic, Bebop, etc. In the future I will post some of those as well.)

To create a good nomenclature for finger patterns we have to try to combine music theory with the idiomatic nature of the violin–that is, if we want to get a true understanding of the fingerboard and have a foundation for improvisation.

For music theory, I prefer the jazz nomenclature because most jazz players use it and its an established language. Most of the terms are identical to what you would find in a conservatory theory course. We pay particular attention to chord/scale relationships.

H = Half Step, W = Whole Step, -3 = Minor Third (3 half steps)

Major scale = W W H W W W H

Blues scales = -3 W H H -3 W

Also, the Blues scale can be looked at like this: 1 b3 4 #4 5 b7

which is derived from the Major Scale: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

From the Major Scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) we can easily see the construction of other scales:

Major Pentatonic - 1 2 3 5 6 (W W -3 W -3)
Diminished - 1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 6 7 (W H W H W H W H)
Dominant Seventh (Mixolydian or 5th Mode of Major Scale) - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 (W W H W W H W)

I like Corwin’s idea of underlining numerals but when I combine theory and finger patterns I find it easier to use Roman numerals for the four basic patterns that Gerle used.

Pattern I = W W H

Pattern II = W H W

Pattern III = H W W

Pattern IV = W W W

This way, I can combine the patterns to make memorization of scales much easier.

If we start with a one octave fingered major scale played on two strings the pattern will be:
I / I (Your first finger will always be the root note.)

Now we have a new pattern we can easily remember. You can put your first finger on any string (other than the e-string), in any position, and play I / I – a major scale will be heard. You can “Do Re Mi” all over the fingerboard. I have students do this as soon as they can play it in tune in first position. This is what I mean by combining music theory with finger patterns. I have taught advanced classical violinists, violists and cellists like this and they always make swift progress with chord/scale relationship using these patterns.

If you want to play a two octave major scale in one position across four strings the pattern will be: I / I / II / II

If you start on the G string in third position, put your first finger on a C and play this pattern, you will hear a two octave scale with a 9 on top when you get to your fourth finger on the e-string. The 9 of C is a D. The 9 is the same as the 2. You can think of the major scale in two ways - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 or 1 3 5 7 9 11 13. The first being linear and the second non-linear, i.e. chords. It is much faster speaking and thinking in scale degrees than in steps. You can always figure out the steps from the patterns. However, finger patterns need to be remembered in steps.

Now we know that I / I / II / II is a major scale but we can learn more scales via finger patterns. Remember that your first finger will be the root note and you will start on the G string for each scale in order to play in two octaves. 

The modes are:

II / II / III / III = Minor (Dorian)

III / III / IV / I = Phrygian

IV / I / I / II = Lydian

I / II / II / III = Mixolydian

II / III / III / IV = Minor (Aeolian)

III / IV / I / I = Locrian

Using patterns for improvisation is great because you can move around the neck using patterns that you practice over chords. There are many other patterns that don’t use this I / II / III / IV that I have incorporated into my playing, far more complex, integrating leaps, long shifts and non-linear approaches. Through massive repetition they have become imbedded in my playing which makes it possible for me to improvise at high tempos and stay on top of the fast-moving chords.



February 3, 2008 at 05:55 AM · Something I don't see mentioned here - forgive me if it was already - is to listed to recordings of a few different tunes with solos or "breaks" you really like, and learn them by ear, and then transpose into a few different keys. For jazz I'd say all 12, but for a bluegrass tune, just C,G,D,A,E, and B, will suffice. If you feel daunted by learning an entire solo this way, listen first for really tasty licks that you'd like to use and learn them by ear, practice in 6 keys, etc. Most important with this is to figure out what the underlying harmonic structure is - if it's something that closes out a solo, is it a I V I cadence, or is is I IV V I cadence? Get used to listening for harmonic structure. Then you will recognize what you're hearing when playing with others, and be able to use your licks at the appropriate time.

That said, this isn't exactly improvisation, but it is a great step in that direction because you get used to using your ears in a new way, and when you can identify what you're hearing then the "inner music" starts being heard better. Combining this with all the other great stuff people mentioned will go a long ways towards getting you started.

Improvisation is something you should practice every day if you want to get it down, too - do the scales, arpeggios, aural transcriptions, etc, for a while, and then let yourself go for a few minutes, just to see how you can use what you've been working on. If you have a keyboard or guitar (or a willing partner for a few minutes) record a simple chord progression to jam over. Try to discover something new about it every day.

Good Luck and have fun!

February 4, 2008 at 04:16 PM · There is a terrific book called "Jazz Fiddle Wizard" by Martin Norgaard from Mel Bay.It comes with a CD of backing tracks,too.Lots of fun,and it's useful even if you are illiterate,like myself!

February 4, 2008 at 04:55 PM · Also,

Electrify Your Strings: The Mark Wood Improvisational Violin Method (Paperback)

book to come out in the next month (I ordered mine with an electric violin ;)

February 5, 2008 at 05:39 PM · another great way is to buy a CD called "Band in the Pocket". It is a CD specifically created for you to play the "lead" part. They have many different styles of music. Learn some Blues scales and try playing the scales and variations of the scales along with the CD or a song you really like. Also another way is to try to learn a lead part of a particular song you like. It will require enduring some frustrating moments but if you keep on working at it you will begin to make progress.

February 7, 2008 at 06:46 PM · For those with a bigger budget, the program "Band-in-a-Box" is great, too. It costs under $100 and comes with a big collection of jazz tunes, some fiddle tunes, etc. You can also buy more "fakebooks" for it. You can play the melody from a lead sheet that scrolls along with the music, or use the changes to practice improvising. It also has some pre-programmed solos "in the style of" various players, i.e. Charlie Parker, Joe Henderson, etc, so you can listen to how they might reharmonize chords in a solo, etc...

February 9, 2008 at 12:14 AM · To improvise, you will want to know chords, keys, and chord progressions well. The key tells you what notes are available to you in general; chords tell you the same thing, but are for specific points in the piece. Chord progressions occur because we perceive certain chords to lead strongly to other chords. For example:

I IV vii° iii vi ii V I (I'm sure there is a website where you can hear this played, or ask a pianist friend.)

I would suggest starting with a simple blues chart and, where the chord symbol is, write down the notes that you are "allowed" to use (with experience, you will know when more far-out combinations are appropriate). Give yourself a nice, easygoing tempo and play short melodies in quarter notes and eighth notes at most. This is similar to what a grad student at my school had us do when he only had an hour to try to teach us to improvise!

This is an oversimplification, I know, but hopefully you get the gist. A good theory teacher will set you on the right path!

February 9, 2008 at 12:32 AM · Oh! I forgot to mention that the great fiddlers I know learn things by ear. Have somebody play a pattern to you and practice playing it back.

February 9, 2008 at 01:18 AM · "The key tells you what notes are available to you in general; chords tell you the same thing, but are for specific points in the piece"

This is sorta true, or one valid approach, the way I understand it. In jazz the "basic unit of exchange" is the 7th chord, including I7 and IV7. This is because when the 7th is included in a chord, theoretically any note a soloist plays forms part of a chord instead of automatically sounding like a bad note. I'm not a jazzman, it's too complicated to interest me as a player, but I picked that up somewhere. Other music would be entirely by ear. I think a lot of jazz people practice complicated scales and progressions to gain fluency and facility, but are playing by ear you could say in actual performance.

February 9, 2008 at 02:18 AM · Edward,

Are there any specific improvising violinists out there you have enjoyed listening to? If yes, definitely take on a study of their recordings (don't worry, as you learn to improvise, their language will become a part of what you already possess, and you won't sound exactly like them or anything). If no, start listening alot! Great modern fiddlers of all generations, like Casey Driessen, Darol Anger, Brittany Haas, Alex Hargreaves, Mark O'Connor, Stuart Duncan, Billy Contreras (also does jazz superbly), The Clarridges, and older folks who aren't all-over-the-map improvisers but are stylistically wonderful like Scotty Stoneman, Kenny Baker, Eck Robertson, Buddy Spicher, etc...

That's just fiddle music...then there's the great young and old jazz players...another long list for another discussion...

February 10, 2008 at 11:18 PM · Try my book: Improv for Violinists

Look it up at: sheetmusicplus.com

Good luck.


July 30, 2009 at 12:21 PM ·

Online improvisation course
I have thru time tried various improvisiation courses, and found that really improvisation is something that is very hard to learn from somebody else. You will have to teach yourself. There are some excellent tools like the Band in a Box software which allows you to listen to the same chord sequence again, so you can work out your ability in rock, jazz, bluegrass and blues improvisation. 

I am presently working collect all the improvisation advises I can think of. The advises are put into a free online improvisation course for violin which also contains some sound examples that can be used for practicing. The intention is to make starting point for you who want to teach yourself the art of blues improvisation on violin.

July 30, 2009 at 02:44 PM ·

Listen.  I am uncomfortable with the emphasis in this discussion on outside assitance, camps, books, theory etc.  The kind of improvisation being discussed here really comes from inside the performer, who has internalized the conventions, sounds etc. of the music being played to the point where he or she can create personal settings and melodies on the fly - take a solo and make it convincing.  Facility on the instrument is useful, but you have no time to worry about which note to play next or what scale to play how in order to make your improvisation fit the piece being played.

Live music is good, but I would suggest that you need hours of listening to recordings to get these musical styles inside you.  Learning to listen, and freeing yourself from written music, are also parts of the process.  The violin world tends to be focused on written music as its source; but what we are talking about here is in the ear and musical imagination of the player.  For example, the simplicity of a fiddle tune as transcribed gives no more than a hint of the number and variety of multiple settings one hears from players, whose improvisation in this case has developed over time, new ideas developing the 100th  or 500th time the tune is played, and whose changes and additions to the tune are instinctively limited to alterations that do not obscure the basic melody, different in this way from the freedom of jazz improvisation.

On the jazz side the tradition of improvisation is robust and continuous, and leads in many directions.  I find Grappelly useful to listen to because he plays a lot of standard tunes that are fairly simple, plays cleanly and carefully, and retains a good relationship with the base melody.  One could do worse that start there.

As being a fiddler of sorts with no particular claims to being trained, I suspect I'm starting from a different point than most people here, and make no claims to being an authority; but I do think that what I'm saying is worth considering, especially for people who aren't used to approaching the music in this fashion.

July 30, 2009 at 03:55 PM ·

I was Yamaha trained music student, and I find it helped a lot during my learning journey.

I can play by ear on the piano, so playing it on the violin doesn't seem that all difficult. So it's basically just create melody on the spot from your brain, and apply it on the violin.

I think improvising is universal among all instruments. So why not just start with the most simple instrument - singing? If you can't improvise well with singing, I think it's gonna be the same on other instruments.

July 30, 2009 at 04:15 PM ·


I would offer the viewpoint that even "improv" is not without its structure.  In bluegrass there are techniques and structures which characterize that blue grass sound, likewise for jazz, klezmer, etc.   The improv takes place within these structures ... scales, double stopping, or whatever ... which unique to the respective genre of the music being played.  These need to be learned from one source or another.  I do agree that extensive listening to the form you wish to learn is also highly important.  You can teach yourself, but you can do that in classical as well.  However, common wisdom woudl dictate that a source of training, a teacher, or at very least teaching books will produce much better results.  Most fiddlers I know have learned from other fiddlers either formally or informally.

Violining or fiddling both require some level of training to achieve a reasonable degree of competence.

July 30, 2009 at 11:54 PM ·

I have a few suggestions that you can try by yourself, no need for fiddle camps or books.

Try it solo first: You can start improvising in a very simple way.  Pick just one note, any note.  Play it repeatedly but with different length, different attack, intensity, tone, etc..  Then add one note above and one below.  Play the 3 in different order, and again, vary the tone, note value, etc..  Then play those 3 notes again but use alternating octaves, e.g. E3-C4-E4-D3-D4-C4-E3-C3 .... You can also vary the rhythm, try different time signatures, then try to swing it.  You can also use different bowing techniques on those notes.  Then add more notes - e.g. play notes in a C maj scale but play the notes in different orders.  All this is to help open your mind up to a variety of possibilities and combinations of a sequence of notes.  

Then try playing along some familiar music - I suggest you start with something simple - i.e. has very few chords, and very repititious such as Canon in D (but REFRAIN FROM playing the theme) or "Stand By Me" .... these 2 examples only have a few chords and they repeat over and over again, so you can keep trying to harmonize to them.  While you're doing that, you can try the methods mentioned above in the solo exercises and vary your way of playing the harmony part.

If you have a good friend or sibling who plays piano or guitar, then great.  Ask this person to play 3 or 4 chords repeated e.g. C-F-G-C, or D-F#m-G-A, etc.  and you can try and harmonize to them. 

Remember one thing: Good improvisation doesn't necessarily mean a very complex and fast-moving melody or harmony, and conversely, a very complex and busy string of notes played feverishly doesn't necessarily make it good improv.  Improv can be as simple as playing 2 or 3-note melody in a tasteful way that works with the music accompanying it.  In fact, sometimes playing one sustained note over several chords could be very effective.

You were asking about music theory: personally, I definitely think having some basic knowledge of chords and keys greatly helps improvisation.  Practise your arpeggios, they come in handy when you start creating more complexity in your melodies, and can be used to bridge a low melody to a high melody smoothly and quickly.

One of the most importantly thing I find with improv is, you must know WHERE TO FIND THOSE NOTES on the violin quickly!  I know that sounds trivial but when I improvise, I try to "hear the note" in my head a brief moment before I want to play them, so I need to be able to find it right away, and in time.  Sometimes they are in the key, sometimes they involve accidentals, but either way you need to find them quickly, and in whatever position that works.

Another important skill I use is, when listening to music, try and find the Tonic (I), Subdominant (IV) and Dominant (V) chords by ear.  This is helpful when you don't have chord charts to follow.  And it's also a training for you to "hear notes" in your head.

Improv. is something that needs time to develop.  The more you do it, the better it gets.  So be patient!

Oh and one more tip: if you made a mistake (well, some might argue that there are no "mistakes" in improv., but there're definitely better notes and not so good choices!), do it again, i.e. repeat the line you just played ... 'cos then it would seem like you meant to do it the first time! :)  I find that because the violin is very much a melodic instrument (compared to say, the guitar or piano), we get away with a lot of things in improvisation.  If you happened to have played a note that doesn't belong in the chord, well, play the next note up (or down), then the first one sounded like a passing note or a suspension!

So have fun!  I improvise a lot in my bands and I find it to be one of the most exhilarating things about live music!  Sometimes you'd surprise yourself the things that you came up with!    




July 31, 2009 at 01:13 AM ·

re: I have a few suggestions that you can try by yourself, no need for fiddle camps or books.

This is very good information.  I will refer back to this when I reach a point that I can actually do some of these things.  I am still a greenhorn with the violin, but I can see how these tips would be useful.

Thank you

July 31, 2009 at 05:25 AM ·

improv is my specialty and i do lots of workshops on that... anyway it would be too much to write but i would like to stress one very important thing.... to improvise is VERY easy... to improvise well is a whole other story!!!!


i produced a series of old school jazz violin (Grappelli style) DVDs with dutch fiddler tim kliphuis, and you guys can get an idea of what good improv is about with this clip:


most improvised music is like a language and it needs to be learned the sameway a child learns to speak ... by constantyl being exposed to the language....

the grammar (theory) can be quite useful but definitely NOT necessary to learning how to improvise properly (one of the biggest misconceptions when teaching how to improvise).... The same is true for learning to speak, think of peasaants back in the day who never went to school but spoke perfect "x" language

it's really all about immersion, once the student who has a decent feel of the style of music he/she is trying to play, the theory can be helpful and also open certain doors

April 25, 2013 at 02:46 AM · I've written a book on this subject.

The Creative Violinist. Look it up on Amazon.

April 25, 2013 at 12:39 PM · Fascinating thread! I have started looking into improv and it is a completely different way of thinking. Lots of great suggestions here. It will take me a while to process it all, but I'm looking forward to this journey within my journey.

April 25, 2013 at 05:59 PM · you may want to check out Michael Laird's book


Mike sometimes posts on vcom.

April 25, 2013 at 06:57 PM · Check out Chris Howes: Creative Strings Academy

You'll find lots of great video instruction and supporting materials mainly from a jazz standpoint but there's some more general material also.

April 26, 2013 at 06:28 AM · Best to learn a variety of styles.

I have my students use the iRealb app on their iOS devices (although the Android one works okay too). Download 1300 Jazz standards and whatever else might interest you, fire up youtube, and start listening and practicing improvising over changes. It generates the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) and sounds good enough to gig with!

It's a great way to get started, and it only costs $7.99. There are additional helpful features that cost a couple dollars (like displaying the current scale/mode while playing a chart).

April 28, 2013 at 11:54 AM · I'm just beginning to feel my way into Jazz-style improv.

But I'm intuitively reacting against the Berklee chord scale method that seems to dominate Jazz methods these days.

Clearly, you need the basic scales and chords as part of your Jazz vocabulary, but I don't like the idea of improvising over the progression with little reference to the melody. I'm also wary of the idea that all notes of the scale have equal value in relation to the chord. And the idea of chord scales gives little help with the fundamental issue of chromatic cadences which seems to be so important in Jazz.

So I've been looking for approaches that emphasise working from the melody as the basic unit of improv, rather than the progression. Here are some materials you might find interesting:

Hal Galper's idea of Forward Motion:


Ed Byrne's idea of Linear Improv:


Bert Ligon's idea of Linear Harmony:


Obviously, at this early stage I'm no judge of the value of these ideas, but they seem well respected on jazz forums, and as I say, intuitively I prefer the idea the improv should grow from the melody rather than the related chords and scales.

April 29, 2013 at 11:56 AM · Much of my work involves improviastion and I played a lot for contemporary dance - although on piano. My advice is quite uncomplicated. In the same way as when you start playing violin your bowing and fingers are not going to be synchronised, the notes at not going to have that good a tone, or be exactly in tune, there is a similar learning curve with improvising.

Here are my suggestions:

Start by playing simple intervals, and combine the experience of playing them as a player, and listening to them as a listener. If you start with say a major 3rd - e.g. E - G#, play this interval slowly, sometimes play the E several times and then the G# several times. Imagine you are playing a fiddle tune and the E-G# is a harmony part to the lead fiddle.

The next step is to expand the interval, e.g. add a turn to the G# exactly in time, so that you play E G# A G#. Then add a lower turn to the E, e.g. E D E - the D can be natural or sharp. Play rhythmic phrases using E and G# as the main notes, then the D and A as notes for turns or appogiaturas.

There is no hurry, these exercises are to get a feel for playing spontaneously and making up (very) simple phrases and patterns. Take you time, learning to improvise is a parabolic curve.

Next introduce both a high and low B. With these notes you can improvise a simple rhythmic fiddle tune - maybe even use a metronome sometimes.

Much folk music does not use much more than a few notes played rhythmically so don't feel limited.

To use an analogy, you practise pieces slowly and only when they are in the fingers do you speed them up, maybe even just a little at first. It is the same as improvising, instead of slowly you use a few notes, once you get a feel for these notes add extra notes.

Here is a classical piece of mine for solo classcial violin that includes improvised sections, recorded live in concert. I think the violinist, Guillem Calvo, integrates the improvisation really well - (this is a link to the composition page, the recording is in mauve a little down the page):

La Granja - for solo violin

May 7, 2013 at 03:51 PM · If you can, learn to do it on the piano first.

May 12, 2013 at 01:11 AM · Chirisitan Howes, a Jazz/rock/everything violinist has invaluable IMPROV videos on Youtube. One in particular, Howes notes to practice the root notes of the chords in every key, starting on the LOWEST note of any given chord. Example: Key of "C", with the C minor dominant 7th chord: Open G (sting)... B/flat...C...E/flat...G...and move through two octaves. Go through all the different types of chords. Howes says to do this every day for rest of your life... and he's not kidding. Improvisation takes a life time to master. "MUSIC" takes a lifetime to learn.

[Now where did I put that pill to double my life span? Ah ha! Here's the wrapper, but where's the... MARTHA! Where's the dog?]

May 15, 2013 at 10:33 AM · Howes notes to practice the root notes of the chords in every key, starting on the LOWEST note of any given chord.

Well the lowest note of a chord in root position is the root note, but I think you mean begin on any one of the chordal notes played as low as can be played on your instrument?

How do you go about learning to improvise? I heard music theory helps but what aspect of music theory?

All aspects of theory, obtain any beginner book on theory.

I mainly want to improvise for fiddle tunes because they just don't sound right if you play them strictly by the book.

Learn about ornamentations, bowing styles and inflections etc, in the genre you wish to pursue

May 15, 2013 at 06:05 PM · John, whatever you're on - can you send me some??

May 15, 2013 at 10:23 PM · John, whatever you're on - can you send me some??


Why...it may make the music 'sound lopsided like a dog with a sore paw'.

That`s what I would try,but I`m not going to

OH, Thanks for sparing us the agony

December 26, 2013 at 12:48 PM · loads of very interesting things here, but way too much theory... as a classical musician, you need to free yourself and your instrument, granted you know the basic conventions. a lot of listening yes, of any kind... anytime a song, a tune "sings" to you, pick up the violin, get the violin and "fiddle" around... that works for any style, from pop to jazz... yes some style will require a bit more practice - celtic fiddle has the bow going against the conventional way which makes it hard at first, jazz will have a different type of chord progression, etc... - my point is, if the song/tune resonates for you/in you, then the impro line will come to you naturally..

December 26, 2013 at 02:19 PM · Improvisation when playing an Irish fiddle tune (reel, jig etc) is all to do with ornamentation, accentuation and bowing, and should never change or obscure the melody itself - this is where it differs fundamentally from other kinds of improvisation.

However, if it comes to improvising a new tune on the hoof (which has been known to happen when a fiddler on stage has forgotten the tune he was supposed to play next) you first need to understand the structure of a typical Irish 16-bar tune. When you can do that you will also understand how it is possible for an experienced fiddler in a session to play a new tune first time through with the other musicians, with reasonable accuracy, and on the second time through with 100% accuracy. With experience, a player can predict fairly well how the tune is going to develop. Incidentally, this explains why some experienced fiddlers apparently have a couple of thousand or more tunes in their head, whereas the reality is usually a few hundreds.

It is worth pointing out that improvisation is alive and well in the organ world, not only in church services but in concerts where an organist improvises on tunes handed up from the audience, even to the extent of improvising complex fugues.

December 27, 2013 at 03:00 PM ·

December 29, 2013 at 07:36 PM · whistle ... and if it works, play it.

January 1, 2014 at 03:07 AM · Too much theory?? I don't know guys, most of the best jazz musicians and improvisers I've worked with have been theory monsters.

The gentleman who works as the choral accompanist at my school is booked practically every evening playing gigs all over Southern California with combos, big bands, choirs, etc. The depth of his musical knowledge is immense, and it extends to not only being able to sight-read practically anything AND transpose it on sight (we even played some Beethoven and Brahms sonatas together and I couldn't stop laughing as he was able to shift to any key and challenged me to keep up :). He's able to improvise variations on almost any melody/harmony, and is as cool under fire as any performer I've ever seen...I point this out to students all the time: his confidence as a performer is supported largely in part by proper practice as well as a very thorough understanding of the music that he has to play.

Yes, one needs to have some spark of creativity in order to improvise, and purely theoretical background is not going to generate that. However, having more options, having more "tools in the toolbox" is never a bad thing. Learn more bow strokes, and you have a wider tonal palette with which to "paint" your sound. Learn more about the relationships between different chords and you enrich your harmonic choices.

I used to be a course musician for Modern Dance, where I played in a combo that played around 90 minutes of collaboratively improvised music of all styles for choreographers and their dance students at the university level every day for about seven years. It was "sink or swim" the first time I stepped into there, but as I expanded on my theory knowledge I found it increasingly easier to not only come up with material, but also to react more quickly to what the other musicians would do. In listening to players in many other genres, I could "add to the toolbox" and the classes were a great place to experiment with new playing concepts.

February 12, 2014 at 10:16 PM · I've written a book about this: The Creative Violinist--Integrating Technique and Music Through Improvisation. Here is a link to the Amazon page: goo.gl/hXSnzI

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