Improve technique can you do it?

September 30, 2010 at 03:28 PM ·

 I'm a Classical Violinist, i learned starting with Suzuki, and then went on with a traditional teacher, at the age 12 i got a fiddle teacher that couldn't read music and I learned fiddling from her by ear and with fiddle tab. I started playing in fiddle groups and learned quickly how to improve on the violin. As of late i've been asked to play in a country band, and the improve for that music came naturally, soon after i was asked to play in a rock band and the improve was harder but still came with great results and much praise. I came to know a Viola player that has a masters degree in music, and was talking to him about how fiddling has helped me expand my playing field to groups as mentioned and he said that he cant improve. I was surprised to think that a man who has played viola for many years, with specific training, got a masters in music couldn't come to a jam session and improve, or make up a song. So i was curious if other classical players feel the same way?

Replies (33)

September 30, 2010 at 05:10 PM ·

Be careful coming to  traditional Irish music from classical.  There is no improvisation as we know it with jazz, and the word "jam" is never used in an Irish music context. The music, although apparently technically straightforward if you look at printed version, has in fact an immense amount of detail in the playing that is essentially unnotatable, and changes every time it is played.  It is dance music with roots in the Baroque, although it is folk Baroque rather than "classical" Baroque.

The classical violinist will have to get accustomed to a modal approach to playing, and the modes used aren't necessarily quite the same as those described in the text books; the Celtic Irish versions are slightly different.  Gapped scales are often used.  The use of these scales implies that an accompanist such as a guitarist has to be careful to keep his harmonic structures within the scale being used (sadly, this is often not the case). The intonation used by the best solo fiddlers isn't equal temperament or perfect; it is not playing that is "out of tune" but a system of intonation that is particular to the genre, even to a region. Some regional styles occasionally use quarter tones (which are known by a variety of other names), a typical one being between Cnat and C# on the A string. Again, this isn't out-of-tune playing because it is used consistently and the player will still play a G on the E string or an F# on the D string, or even a true C# elsewhere in the tune in standard intonation.

There are ornaments in Irish fiddle music that aren't found in classical playing - for instance the "roll" can have the same notes as the classical "turn" but is played so fast as to be percussive rather than melodic.  Slides up onto a note aren't uncommon. A "cut" is a very quick interruption in a long held note across a beat. Typically, if you're playing a note with the 1st or 2nd finger the cut is done with a very fast flick of the 3rd or 4th finger onto the string, so fast and lightly that the listener can't identify the frequency, but knows something has happened.  The fingered E on the A isn't all that common (I only use it if it is a weak note preceded and followed by lower notes on the A string); a bowed open E tends to be the norm.

The rhythm and accentuation of the music is probably the most difficult to learn, and is of course controlled by the bowing.  The music is learned by ear, and I have yet to see sheet music used for playing, either in a session or in a performance.

Tone quality - possibly a little rough and gritty compared with classical, but there are many excellent younger players around who have trained in classical alongside Irish with no cross-over, but when they play Irish the tone probably won't sound quite classical.  Vibrato is rarely used, and open strings are normal.  The sort of violin you feel you'd need for classical solo or orchestral work is quite unnecessary for this music; something in the mid to high 3 figures is quite adequate provided it is set up properly (I never use my orchestral violin for playing Irish, and vice versa).

The best, and really the only way to learn to play this music is to listen to it lots before you try to play it, so as to absorb it, preferably live in sessions or from the best solo players on CD or in concert (the playing of Martin Hayes is a good place to start).  I'd avoid the bands on CD for a while until you really get to know the music.  And don't try to learn the tunes from sheet music until you're really familiar with the genre.

September 30, 2010 at 06:27 PM ·

 For me, learning how to chop took my bow finger control to the next level.

September 30, 2010 at 09:52 PM ·

@Danielle - you said it! Yes, very important for good chopping.

@Trevor - good post. You said a lot of the same things I would have.

I think moving to any new genre is difficult. Even if you have a solid technique in any one discipline, there's always going to be that learning curve of the music itself, plus the additional grasping of a new technique. That not be a hugely complex thing in itself, but it's so different in the many fiddling genres, plus jazz, snazz and blues, etc.

I come from a Scots / Irish fiddling background, with heavy-duty classical traing in later life. I found it quite daunting to enter jazz sessions / jams, but now, after soaking up the music aurally and learning new riffs, I can join a jam and feel comfortable.


October 1, 2010 at 04:20 AM ·

 Thanks for the post's, they are off subject a little bit, i'm looking to see what classical violinist feel about improv, be it with jazz, blues, fiddling, even contemporary music styles. Its such an amazing world of genres that a violin can play in, that being able to just play one style (classical, bluegrass, celtic or what ever) seems to me as if you miss out on becoming a true artist with the instrument. Most painting artist are amazing with pencil, acrilic, oil base, and most any type of art and they use all those forms to create some of the most amazing pictures, Thus they are "artist's." So what my other question would be is it better to be a Classical Violinist, A fiddler, or have the ability to become a Violin Artist fluent in many genres?

October 1, 2010 at 08:56 AM ·

Trevor, your post is one of the best ones I've read on this subject.

October 1, 2010 at 12:19 PM · Clinton, I'd call myself an"eclectic" player at this point. Long-term classical player/teacher & avid fiddler. I have to take issue w/some of your ideas, though. 1) Classical isn't a style, it is many styles or genres. 2) Fiddling isn't a style, it is also many styles. The various classical & fiddle styles each have their own bow use, expressive elements, quantity of improv & intonations, with many crossovers, of course, but still distinctive. I'd sound just as goofy playing Irish bowing w/Cajun tunes as using a Beethoven vibrato on Renaissance pieces. I also disagree about artists. There are certainly eclectic artists who use varied media, but also those who work exclusively in pencil, in charcoal, in oils, as weavers, etc. Feels to me like you're trying to compare apples & oranges where I see a whole fruit bowl. Sue

October 1, 2010 at 07:10 PM ·

 Sue brings up a good point.

But, I think, that what you're driving at Clinton is why more classically trained violinists don't try and experiment with "the other side."

I've asked myself this question as well and I think a large part of the answer has to do with level of interest in learning something new.  Going from "classical" to "fiddle" is a daunting task.  Essentially, it's like starting all over on the violin.  It's not too dissimilar from the mentality of an adult beginner just picking up the violin for the first time.

Some people enjoy the challenge.  Others prefer to stay in their comfort zone. It takes all types of fruits to make a fruit salad =)

October 1, 2010 at 08:45 PM ·

Well, Ms Gomez, you seem to have got there just before me :) I was typing something similar to what you said, and I happened to refresh the page to re-read the original post, and so your post appeared.

Clintons asks : "is it better to be a Classical Violinist, A fiddler, or have the ability to become a Violin Artist fluent in many genres?"

I think it's entirely dependent on the individual, but my answer would be "a violin artist fluent in many genres". Well, easier said than done, I suppose. I think the initial degree of technical ability is the main factor for any classically-trained player siding into Irish or Scots fiddling, for example. With that under the belt, one only needs to spend the time learning (and enjoying) the music. I've known some really good classical players who have turned to Irish trad, found it a bit tricky at first, but soon got the hang of the different rhythmic approach, and the fingering and bowing has just fallen into place naturally. Others have an unrealistic approach, thinking it is "easy" because (eg) only 1st position playing is required. Some go with that, but play with over-long bow-strokes, stilted rhythm (ie un-danceable to), constant vibrato, etc, etc. Takes all sorts, I guess.

To be honest, the "classical" repertoire has absolutely so much to offer in the range of music, range of styles, technique levels / demands, and I can understand why an ambitious classically-trained player would want to pursue this to the full, rather than diversify into the "fiddle" world :)

October 1, 2010 at 10:29 PM ·

I don't think that whether someone can be called an artist or not depends on the musical styles that they are involved with. I don't think I've ever heard a recording of Oistrakh playing anything other than "classical" music, but that doesn't make him any less of an artist to me.

How about this question: Is it better to dabble at everything, or become as good as you can at one thing? Or can you manage to become really good at everything? Some can, but they are very few.

October 1, 2010 at 11:32 PM ·

Some people have an ear for languages. The violin is a capable transducer of intention into sound, but to speak in many different dialects is not a skill that everyone can master. In fact, to translate thought into sound without a script seems to be problematic for many paper-trained musicians.

But so what? Do what pleases and challenges you. As far as I'm concerned, the basic "art" is the art of creating yourself, over a lifetime. That's the goal; the methods are infinite, and each path is different.

But please do try to enjoy the process.

October 2, 2010 at 12:14 AM ·

 If you're a classical violinist and wish to explore another style or genre with the intention of becoming reasonably good in it then that is going to demand dedication and commitment.  Unfortunately, if you're a professional or a busy amateur the chances are that it is going to be difficult to find the necessary time for that dedication and commitment.  I know of a professional classical violinist who spent a couple of years in Ireland to learn and get as much exposure to Irish music as possible, and found it took those two years to lose the classical "baggage" when playing Irish.  

Speaking for myself, I wouldn't want to merely dabble in another kind of music without making the effort to progress in it.  For one thing, I'd find that personally very unsatisfying, and another is that I'd feel that dabbling wouldn't show respect to that music or its real practitioners. 

October 2, 2010 at 01:05 AM ·

Hi folks

> But, I think, that what you're driving at Clinton is why more classically trained violinists don't try and experiment with "the other side."

There is certainly no reason why classically trained violinist can't straddle both worlds. In Scotland there is a 200 year tradition of fine classical musicians who also play in traditional style. The most notable example was the inimitable Scott Skinner, and the tradition is continued by modern exponents such as Douglas Lawrence, Alastair Hardie, Chris Stout and Anna-Wendy Stevenson.

The East-Coast style of Scottish fiddle music is technically demanding, so classical players have a big head start. They do need to learn some new techniques and master the ornamentation, but in my experience the key issue is whether they develop an ear for the idiom.

I was once at an open mike event at the Edinburgh Festival, and who should step onto the stage but Yehudi Menuhin. He'd been taking lessons from the legendary Scottish fiddler Hector MacAndrew (who played an Andrea Guarneri) and wanted to show off his new skills. The result was lamentable: clearly, he had technique to spare but he simply hadn't "heard" the differences between classical and Scottish music.

So it's all in the listening, I think. Phrasing, tone and attack are radically different in traditional music, and you have to open your ears. Or find a teacher who understands the differences. Then, for a little extra effort, your classical skills will open up whole new worlds of enjoyment!

October 2, 2010 at 08:48 AM ·

I'd just like to throw in a few words now. Trevor mentioned classical "baggage" when learning Irish trad, which is understandable in the context, but I think any fiddling technique should be in addition to an exisiting classical technique. In other words, never at any time is one a substitute for the other. I don't belieive in "un-learning" anything either. Stating the obvious now, you need to use totally different bowings for Irish trad, or jazz, etc. Broadly speaking , patterns you learned before simply would not work.

Geoff made a good point about the Scottish players. Scots music has quite a classical history (many fiddlers were classicaly trained too), in contrast to the Irish and old-time traditions where the opposite was usually the case.

it's a pity that Yehudi Menuhin's fiddling performances were poor (Scots style and Indian too, earlier with Ravi Shankar), and I'm quite surprised. He raved about the Scots tradition at the time, saying things like "they [the players] have an infallible sense of rhythm, and they never play out of tune". Many lesser-known fiddlers got a fair bit of exposure through him too!

October 2, 2010 at 10:02 AM ·

"it's a pity that Yehudi Menuhin's fiddling performances were poor"

Though it doesn't have to be that way, if the musician is looser and has a better ear. Here's Perlman having a go at Klezmer:

As he says himself, he hasn't mastered all the ornamentation, but he really enters into the spirit of the thing and it's a joy to listen to...

October 2, 2010 at 01:03 PM ·

This is a subject that I find fascinating. As some here will know, I work as an improvising violinist, mainly in jazz, fusion, funk, blues, and rock (electric and acoustic). All these fields share a common core of blues and their differences lie on top of that core, either in more complex tonality, for example, or in the detail of their rhythmic construction. I also work in free improvisation, where I try to avoid genre-specific vocabulary. That often ends up sounding more like post-serial classical music.

However, I do not play the Celtic folk based genres, ranging from Irish or Scoittish trad, through to Bluegrass. Why? Simply because I do not have the correct "accent". I don't listen to those styles (I have never really enjoyed them), and I have not absorbed the detail of their timing or developed the specific bowing techniques that define them. If I do play a reel, you can hear that it is not my natural thing. The other side of that is that if I hear a folkie trying to play jazz, I hear their timing and phrasing and know immediately that they are from a folk background.

Now a great deal of classical composition has been based on European folk genres, Think of Bartok, Vaughan Williams, Bloch, Sarasate, even Tchaikovsky. I am not at all surprised that Perlman or Kremer can play Klezmer. They can play "Hora Staccato". Of course, these are fixed pieces that can be learnt. The ornamentation is a matter of improvisation, but the pieces are there already, and the great players will be familiar with the vocabulary because some, maybe much,  of what they already play was based on those folk genres.

Melodic improvisation, as opposed to ornamentation, in any genre, is a different matter, however. It is a real-time compositional skill that needs an internalised knowledge of musical structure that only really comes from doing it a great deal. You cannot just "know" your theory. That theory has to be part of your musical make up. You can't speak a language by "knowing" the grammar - it has be part of how you think.

I am suggesting that the way that classical players learn does not develop that kind of internalisation of theory. To make an analogy, many native English speakers can read French, but not speak it, because they did not do conversation classes. Those of us who do speak it tend not to have to sound exactly like a French person.

This kind of internalisation takes a long time, and I just don't think that the classical training allows for that time to be spent on it. There is a trade off. You can have a near pefect technique and great repertoire, but no serious improvising skills, or you can have a decent technique, some repertoire, and a deeper understanding of musical structure that allows you to improvise in many areas.


October 2, 2010 at 02:18 PM ·

 I think Yehudi Menuhin really did not have the time, with his schedule and commitments, to immerse himself in folk music for the year or so he would have needed to be the excellent folk musician he was clearly capable of becoming.  

It still happens when playing across genres.  I have seen on YouTube a video of an eminent Irish fiddler's playing going pear-shaped when playing live on camera with Stephan Grappelli and his band.  Grappelli hung him out to dry.

October 2, 2010 at 02:43 PM ·


I'm pretty much with you, apart from one caveat: I think you'll find there's more melodic improvisation in UK/US traditional music that you imagine. Of course, the chord structures are simpler than in Jazz, though that has the plus side of making the music accessible to less sophisticated musicians. But most of the best trad musicians I know are more than capable of launching into wild improvised variation sets or harmonic lines. Just last night I was in a cracking little session with Flos Headford, the well known English fiddler, who simply blew us away with his improvisations.

Also, in Scottish music at least, there is more jazz influence than you might think. As far back as the 30's, guitarists such as 'Peerie' Willie Johnson introduced Swing based chording into trad accompaniment, and these days it's pretty much the norm. And there have been some very influential fusion experiments, such as  the legendary Easy Club.

Just setting the record straight :-)

October 2, 2010 at 03:13 PM ·

 I've come across a lot of classical violinists that cannot improvise and are quite intimidated by it. I think one of the main things that they are missing is the idea that it takes work like anything else and they think it's more a natural talent. Somebody who cannot read could not be expected to sight read something complex - they would have to take baby steps at first. Same thing with improvising. Usually however it's completely missed out of violinist's training, I think it's even discouraged to noodle around by some teachers.

Can you improve improv? certainly!

October 2, 2010 at 04:28 PM ·

 Jim, what I meant by "classical baggage" was the unconscious habits (if that's the right word) that would interfere with the playing of Irish music in the proper style - things like vibrato, shifting up from the first position, avoiding the open strings - and which would, in the view of some, instantly mark the player as one who hadn't yet started to get to grips with Irish fiddle playing.

October 2, 2010 at 04:50 PM ·

A few random thoughts -  

My violin teacher also teaches improvisation; it's something I may well take up in due course.

The classical musicians who are famous for improvisation are the organists - it goes with the job.  There are few more impressive things than hearing an organist improvise a convincing fugue (of all things!) from a handful of notes scribbled down and passed to him by a member of the audience.

I have wondered how many Irish fiddle tunes that are now part of the repertoire were in fact improvised on the spur of the moment and the improviser, or someone, had the wit to transcribe or record the tune before it evaporated.  I have my suspicions.

I think that if you get immersed in a style - Haydn, Mozart perhaps - you start thinking musically in that style, and from there it is but a direct path to composition or improvisation, except that one or both disciplines need to be studied in depth in order to progress any distance.

October 2, 2010 at 04:58 PM ·

 "I think it's even discouraged to noodle around by some teachers"

Not only those teachers, but also some parents - the words "stop messing about on that piano and get on with your practice!" come to mind.  Such people don't realize that "play", as opposed to "work", is an essential part of the learning process, especially in the young; it frees up the mind (and body) and helps to stop inhibitions.  In its more advanced phases it must surely lead to good improvisational skills.

October 3, 2010 at 01:12 PM ·

I for one say OF COURSE you can master more than one style.  What we call "classical" music spans a whole variety of styles in and of itself.  You can't Tchaikovsky like you play Bach or Vivaldi.  They're very different styles of music. Yet, musicians have mastered them, and are expected to.  The labels we give to music,; classical, bluegrass, rock;  are artificial.  Music is music.  Whether one plays it in a concert hall, salon or dance hall, doesn't change that fact. 

While yes its true that 'some' people setup their instruments differently for fiddlin' or have a different bow hold, a lot don't change a thing. 

May I point out that Rachel Barton Pine, a phenomenal concert violinist, also plays death metal with her group Earthen Grave when she's not tootlin' out Mendelssohn or Beethoven. 


October 4, 2010 at 03:46 AM ·

 I'm Loving the Comments!! Keep them coming! It has opened my eyes more to what the thoughts of cross genres and improve are to others and is giving me a better idea on the subject!



October 4, 2010 at 10:37 AM ·

 Just to muddy the waters a little, in Irish fiddle music there are about as many identifiably distinct styles as there are counties in Ireland (or even villages if you want to be very particular!)  The ones that immediately come to mind are from counties Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Clare, Kerry, West Cork ...  

October 5, 2010 at 06:31 PM ·

"Tone quality - possibly a little rough and gritty compared with classical"

@Trevor - I'm not sure I'd agree with that. Yes, it can sound rough and gritty, but the classical tone is, or can be, much more so. If you are sitting beside a trad fiddle player in a session, who is playing for the "circle", it can sound a bit rough and gritty. However, sit that distance away from a (good) classical player who is playing to an audience and the tone will be far more scratchy, rough, and bow noise more prominent, even from a high quality instrument. Hearing it 15 feet away, of course, is a totally different sound.


October 6, 2010 at 05:38 PM ·

Any violinist who has played contemporary classical, jazz, rock, or fiddling improvisations knows that classical technique is a foundation, but improvisation requires additional technique and real time abilities with music theory.  The sad thing is that violin soloists used to have those additional skills.  Improvisation was common, even expected, in the Baroque period, and many cadenzas contained improvisations in the Romantic period.  These skills have been lost in classical violin performance.  Teachers don't teach improvisation skills, hence students don't develop the ability.  The result is that most performers don't fully understand the original musical intent of some of the music they play.  Developing soloists who want to build the ability to improvise (in any genre' ) should take a look at  Arpeggios, Rhythms and Scales  It is comprehensive and covers both technique development and essential music theory in real time applications.  It contains a guide for teachers to help them in its use with students.

October 6, 2010 at 08:45 PM ·

You're shameless, Mike, shameless!!



October 6, 2010 at 09:42 PM ·

Mike -

I know it was a plug, but thanks anyway - you've solved my problem. I remembered seeing the book online some time ago and have been Googling for it without success, with keywords such as "Jazz violin fiddle scale book". You might want to take steps to ensure it has a better position in the search engines.

October 7, 2010 at 09:58 AM ·

 I think it can also be lack of confidence when classically trained musicians don´t improvise. If you have learnt to polish everything you play before playing it in public it can be a bit unsettling to improvise. What if it does not sound the way you wanted? You need to get over the need to be perfect. 

October 7, 2010 at 01:26 PM ·

I've come at it from the opposite direction, so to speak.  Some classical training for technique came late in my fiddling career (mostly Scottish/Cape Breton, with some jazz, American songbook, and show score thrown in), but it was a very welcome adjunct to my "bag of tricks".  I play regularly with a classically trained violist with a lot of symphony experience, and she can't improvise a line or make up a harmony part on the fly to save her life! Nevertheless, she's a fabulous player and really solid when it comes to melody; I can dance all around her and it never throws her off!

October 7, 2010 at 08:40 PM ·

Some books by Julie Lyon Lieberman addresses the differences in improv and "note reading", and I believe there is evidence that each uses different parts (sides) of the brain. I know that when Menuhin played with Grapelli (who improvised of course), Menuhin had to plan out in advance (compose) what he would play.

My favorite teacher frowned on improvisation, and actually barked "what are you doing, stop that!" to a student who said he was improvising. I am so glad to have lived long enough to see the violin world be blown open to everything imaginable. Wish I had had the guts to rig up an electric violin back in the early 80's when I wanted to, and play rock, but alas, I was ignorant and insecure.

October 8, 2010 at 12:12 AM ·

Sarah Edin,

I'd like to comment on the ideas of "polish" and "perfect" that you brought up.  Improvising musicians work hard for many thousands of practice hours to perform polished improvisations.  A polished improvisation means something very different than a polished recital of a classical piece, but musicians and informed audiences recognize and appreciate polished improvisations.  Performing a polished improvisation takes a bit of confidence (so does a classical recital), but mostly it takes hard work to develop the necessary skills and technique.  It is improvised, but we are not "winging it". As for "perfect", my own view is that  any music should create emotion in the audience, and that has little to do with perfection.  A teacher of mine said, "The only thing that counts is whether the audience will listen to your next piece."

October 8, 2010 at 01:33 AM ·

Geoff Caplan,

Its too bad you had trouble with the search.  As you know, the phrase "Jazz violin fiddle scale book" brings up about 133,000 responses.  If "Arpeggio" is added as a must contain word in advanced search, it comes up on the first page. All the words in the phrase "Jazz violin fiddle scale book" are set up as keywords, but as you can imagine, this is a low volume, specialized item, so it will not rank high unless the search has a must contain word to narrow down the result set.

I'm glad you finally found it.  I hope you find it useful.

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