December 8, 2004 at 07:07 AM · Among the classical virtuosos today, how many can improvise and do it well?

Replies (64)

December 8, 2004 at 10:10 AM · Many of them can improvise, but do it well, that must be a matter of taste.

Perlman, Kremer, Kennedy and Zehetmair have all done cd's with improvisations and Bron & Mullova can do it exellent in her chamber, but don't quite dare to do it live or on cd.

In my opinion probably most of the Great violinists can improvise and in particular those of them that also teaches.

But what do you mean by improvise? I've seen several great violinists do mad atonal improvisations that where amazing. And I suppose that all known violinist could broaden out a melodyline if asked.

December 8, 2004 at 12:48 PM · Why don't we ask how many classically trained players on this forum improvise.

I don't count, because I'm not trained.


December 8, 2004 at 04:59 PM · stephan grappeli

December 8, 2004 at 06:18 PM · He is neither a classical virtuoso nor alive... :)

But he sure could improvise!

December 9, 2004 at 02:12 AM · I can improvise..i would consider myself classically trained.......styles of improvising that im best at are afro-cuban-salsa and gypsy violin.........graham is really good(thought I'd throw that in there)...this is a good question, can any of the great violnist improvise, which doesn't mean composing there own cadenzas, I don't think I know of any that can...I've heard gilles apap is a improviser, i sure liked his gypsy album. Kennedy as well, is supposedly an improviser. what is the name of zehetmair's album in which he improv's..he's an amazing violinist!

December 9, 2004 at 02:48 AM · Jean-Luc Ponty was a classical prodigy, I understand...but he no longer plays classical. Jerry Goodman, the original Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist, had classical training, but likewise plugged in and never went back, to my knowledge. Sergiu Luca does some improv in the Baroque style, and it wouldn't surprise me if a lot of Baroque specialists did the same.

December 9, 2004 at 06:12 AM · I improvise. Not at all in the area of jazz, but quite naturally with bluegrass and hymns, since they are built mostly on simple chords. Plus, I was born an Okie, and my grandpa was a fiddler.

December 9, 2004 at 03:06 PM · eh, thank you Patrick!

Alexander Balanescu improvises, I think.

I would expect baroque specialists to be able to play from figured bass, which is a kind of improvisation.

Also, of course Michal Urbaniak, who say this on his webiste:-

"As a boy prodigy violinist, I played many recitals and concerts with philharmonic orchestras. I took part in competitions for adults and was awarded a scholarship to study in Moscow with the famous David Ojstrach."



December 10, 2004 at 07:19 AM · Yeah, Jerry Goodman is cool and so is Jean-Luc Ponty but I like his earlier, more straight stuff. My uncle told me there's a violinist named Dideo Lokud or something like that who's really good but he still hasn't given me a CD....

December 10, 2004 at 07:53 AM · Among the famous classical players out there today. Perlman,Hahn,Shaham, Mutter etc.

Who is the best improviser?

December 10, 2004 at 01:26 PM · Enosh,

The French violonist you've mentionned is Didier Lockwood. He plays only Jazz now.


December 11, 2004 at 09:57 PM · Thank you so much! The name I said was different because my uncle told me about him and he's Isreali and can't spell very well. Didier Lockwood makes alot more sense. Thanks.

July 12, 2012 at 03:53 PM · I improvise!

I am a classically-trained concert violinist and for the past 10 years all my classical concerts are entirely improvised. It is what I had been searching for all my life. I love playing my own classical works, with real stories and places and feelings in mind which have deep meaning for me.

I developed it into a method which allows classical players improvise freely using all the textures, tones, subtlety and nuance which we have spent years cultivating, instead of resorting jazz. I found the worst thing about improvisations I heard was that they seemed aimless or all too similar, so having a blend of intuitive and methodology seems to have addressed this. It can be learned in an hour and used right away for performance. I use and teach this approach for my solo and chamber music performances and it has been highly effective.

I also enjoy improvising in many other styles too, but my point is that you can have a whole career performing classical improvisations.

There is an awesome future for classical musicians to be original artists, just like painters create new original works onto a blank canvas - we can do that too. And what I love about it is that everyone has their own musical voice, it just comes out without trying.

Imagine a concert season of several different string quartets or solo recitalists, each one with their own original music, sounds and style completely, not just interpretations or extemporisations on someone else's themes.

This is a real possibility for all musicians.

July 12, 2012 at 09:26 PM · Many classical musicians I know improvise, the violinist I work with frequently improvisies. What is good is that they improvise in a 'classical' style, not the more usual jazz style, or graph score style, of the 1960s/70s.

I believe the young British composer, Charlotte Bray, has one work where the violin part is notated but the rest of the ensemble is mainly improvised; which of course is the opposite of the question about violin improvising.

July 12, 2012 at 10:17 PM · If you play in an orchestra, as I do, the correct term for improvising is "faking it" ;) - an essential skill if you're in a concert with only one rehearsal behind you on an unfamiliar piece, and your desk partner fumbles a V.S.

[Edit added] Wow! I've just noticed - this discussion is 8 years old!

July 13, 2012 at 12:09 AM · Rupert, I just missed your lecture in Melbourne, see you at the next one.

July 13, 2012 at 01:11 AM · The dueling fiddlers are classically trained and they do an awesome job at improvising rock music

July 15, 2012 at 01:49 PM · I was classically trained but improvisation lead me away from classical music and I think this is generally the case.

July 15, 2012 at 04:34 PM · I believe Stephane Grappelli studied at the Paris Conservatoire, so he had solid classical technical training underlying his jazz.

July 15, 2012 at 08:22 PM · Improvisation is like conversation - you can only do it if you have something to say.

July 15, 2012 at 09:25 PM · And you are prepared to listen

July 16, 2012 at 12:29 AM · I play jazz piano -- I'm not the next Benny Green, but I'm good enough to be turning away a fair number of opportunities to play, including paid gigs, in my local area.

However I did not start out in the world of jazz piano with great "musical ears" or fantastic knowledge of theory or "something to say." I had reasonable playing skill for a 15-year-old kid, and I had genuine interest in jazz, open-minded parents, an older brother who played the bass quite well (very useful!), and teachers who used normal pedagogical methods to help me develop these skills gradually, much the same way that musicality is developed in classical music students -- a step at a time.

Too often, I think those interested in trying jazz are dissuaded by a certain mystique and, in some cases, snobbishness on the part of jazz aficionados who insist that a person must have endured devastating poverty to be able to play the blues, or that you need savant-like listening skills to engage in a jazz improv jam session. It's just not true. Anyone can improvise. There is a book called "Jazz Improvisation Made Easy" (JIME) that you can buy from Shar that will get you started. And I don't see why the materials and pedagogy developed by Jamey Aebersold for horn/reed/keyboard players shouldn't be applicable to the violin. If you can play two octave scales and you're willing to learn a few basic chord progressions then you can get started. At the same time, it's not reasonable to expect to show up at a jam session with semi-professional players and sit in successfully. That same is true of classical chamber music. People generally want to play with others having about the same or perhaps a little bit higher skill level. I would not be able to sit in with pros -- there are specific reasons for that, and I know what they are.

Having said that, the fact is that I cannot play jazz violin at all. I haven't tried that hard, because I have a good jazz outlet in the piano. But my "sense" tells me that there is some kind of underlying intrinsic fault of the instrument behind the paucity of idiomatic jazz (especially bebop) played well on the violin. Grappelli is held up as a giant of jazz violin, but when I listen to him, what I hear is mostly practiced ornamentation and filigree (canned licks), rather than spontaneously improvised melodic content in the tradition of John Coltrane, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau (as exemplars of the straight-ahead genre). I have the same complaint, to a lesser extent, about pianist Oscar Peterson -- perhaps that's why he and Grappelli were such a good match musically. So don't think I'm just down on jazz violin. Anyway it's not just me. I know a lot of people who dig jazz, but unless they play the violin themselves, jazz violin never quite seems to measure up for them either.

I'm not saying that if it's not in the genre of "straight-ahead jazz" then it's not jazz (those who think so call it "real jazz"), but one does wonder why there are no violinists playing it. At least I have not heard one yet. (Graham, maybe you can help me with that, as I have not followed the field of jazz violin that closely. I would love to be proven wrong!) In my opinion Jean-Luc Ponty got pretty close early in his recording career but could not maintain that artistic trajectory and he ended up selling out. Both Ponty and Cellist Eugene Friesen (his "CelloMan" show is worth seeing) also created the perception of improvisational range by expanding their playing into other genres including avant-garde and digital electronic effects.

Sorry that was a bit of a tirade but I think we do have to be honest with one another.

July 16, 2012 at 01:39 AM · I get what you're saying Paul. The problem with over improvising is that we tend to play what's easy to us. I am sure this happens to a lot of musicians. We get into ruts and every piece sounds the same after a while, it's difficult to think out of the box. I find it is best to improvise a new piece, then try to retain it and over time our pieces will have some differences to them.

In this video, Menuhin is kicking himself because he memorized what he improvised, but I think it's a great thing.

I improvise all the time, but I've only memorized a handful of the pieces.

Joe Venuti played classical music when he was younger.

July 16, 2012 at 01:51 PM · Having "something to say", in my book, can be as simple as having a pretty motif in your head. Or a danceable rhythm. Even just wanting to make a beautiful sound. Or having curiosity about how something will sound.

It's nothing to do with social comment or life experience, or anything so earnest. It is about having musical intent, and being prepared to put that intent into practice on the spot.


July 16, 2012 at 02:27 PM · "It is about having musical intent, and being prepared to put that intent into practice on the spot."

Graham, with that I agree 100%. You have to want to make music "in the moment" to play jazz.

The question is how to become "prepared." When I started, I didn't really even have any riffs or rhythms in my head. The jazz I had listened to was all big-band jazz, which was popular in the 70s when I was growing up (Maynard Ferguson, etc.). There are solos in big-band, but I didn't understand what the soloists were doing.

I was taught "the blues scale" and found that it gave me a framework for coming up with riffs. For me, that put the horse in front of the cart. My teacher would sit on the left side of the piano bench and play some blues changes, and then he would play a riff (initially just two or three notes). I'd sit on the right side of the bench and I'd have to copy his riff in the upper register without watching his hands. In a subsequent lesson he put on a recording and showed me how to listen for simple riffs and how they are developed. Then he demonstrated on the piano how that development worked melodically and harmonically. Suddenly the little riffs I had learned seemed very real. In a few sessions I learned not only how to play (albeit in a very elementary way) but how to listen, and I saw the relationship between the two. My point is that with good instruction you really can start to learn jazz from practically nothing.

July 16, 2012 at 02:28 PM · @Paul, you wrote,

"Grappelli is held up as a giant of jazz violin, but when I listen to him, what I hear is mostly practiced ornamentation and filigree (canned licks), rather than spontaneously improvised melodic content in the tradition of John Coltrane, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau (as exemplars of the straight-ahead genre). I have the same complaint, to a lesser extent, about pianist Oscar Peterson -- perhaps that's why he and Grappelli were such a good match musically."

Here we agree entirely, not just about the superficiality of Grappelli's playing, but also of the over-blown filigree of Peterson's. Now - both SG and OP were great admirers of Art Tatum. I think that is where this over-playing comes from, trying to emulate someone else's thing.

Paul: "So don't think I'm just down on jazz violin. Anyway it's not just me. I know a lot of people who dig jazz, but unless they play the violin themselves, jazz violin never quite seems to measure up for them either.

I'm not saying that if it's not in the genre of "straight-ahead jazz" then it's not jazz (those who think so call it "real jazz"), but one does wonder why there are no violinists playing it. At least I have not heard one yet. (Graham, maybe you can help me with that, as I have not followed the field of jazz violin that closely. I would love to be proven wrong!)"

Paul, I don't think you are wrong.

There are some violinists playing straight ahead/post-bop etc, (I am one) but it is a very difficult market. I only really like Michal Urbaniak in this field. If I want to listen to great jazz I go to the great players of jazz. And that means, Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy etc etc. I can't include a violinist in the true greats of jazz. Stuff Smith was suerb, but his sphere of influence is limited to violinists. You never hear of a trumpet or sax player saying Stuff was their inspiration, while I can name an armful of sax/piano/guitar/bass players that have been my inspiration. Even drummers.

Paul, you say, "But my "sense" tells me that there is some kind of underlying intrinsic fault of the instrument behind the paucity of idiomatic jazz (especially bebop) played well on the violin."

I am sure it is not a limitation of the instrument, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it myself. Rather, I think it is because very few violinists come relatively directly to jazz. Usually they have either played for some years classically, and think it fun and exciting to learn jazz. Then there are the folkies who move via bluegrass into Hot Club, and think that is what jazz is all about.

You are right, I think, in saying "I don't see why the materials and pedagogy developed by Jamey Aebersold for horn/reed/keyboard players shouldn't be applicable to the violin. If you can play two octave scales and you're willing to learn a few basic chord progressions then you can get started. "

Absolutely right. There is no difference at all between learning the music on fiddle from learning it on any other instrument. Why don't more violinists do it? I don't think they are prepared to do the kind of work it requires. It is a different approach, and although it isn't rocket science, it does take a shift in attitude and a new way of thinking.


July 16, 2012 at 02:33 PM · Wow, our posts came in one minute apart!! Too bad I don't have your phone number LOL!! Anyway I think we do agree, but I still wonder about the instrumental limitation because there are SO MANY brilliantly capable violinists out there, it just boggles my mind to think that the lack of straight-ahead jazz violin players arises from nobody trying. And I want to hear your stuff, where can I?

July 16, 2012 at 02:43 PM ·

July 16, 2012 at 02:52 PM · Yep, you're doing it. Good sound, tasty stuff! I listened to the first couple of tracks on there, I'm less interested in the ballads, but I'll give those a listen later on too.

July 16, 2012 at 03:07 PM · See, the ballads are where I hear the lack of "real jazz" in most "jazz" violinists.

As soon as they can, they go dashing off loads of scales and arpeggios that mean nothing. Of course, we can all get excited, but I want to hear some shape, and tone, and phrasing. I don't care about your speed. It is a ballad!


July 16, 2012 at 04:06 PM · I totally agree.

July 16, 2012 at 05:34 PM · "there are SO MANY brilliantly capable violinists out there, it just boggles my mind to think that the lack of straight-ahead jazz violin players arises from nobody trying."

They do try, but they try in the same way that they learnt to play classical. As I said, it takes a shift in approach - a paradigm shift, if you like. To some degree, you just have to jump in, and not worry about making mistakes. That is anathema to most straight players

Improvisation is a lot easier to get to grips with than such players think. But letting go of ingrained mind-sets is much much harder than many of us would like to believe.

July 16, 2012 at 06:04 PM · I have spent a lot of time at the Eastman School learning jazz improvisation from their jazz faculty and grad students. In their teaching, the sounds, the rhythm, the melody creation, the thinking are nothing like the lessons I got with classically trained violinists. Even at the most elemental level for improvisation, classical training does not provide the basic resources. Where is a classical exercise book with all the 7th chords? Its a fundamental of jazz, blues and rock. Where are syncopated rhythm studies? What classical resource describes how to use a "guide tone line"? Aside from the pieces of wood I hold, I am in a different world when learning jazz violin.

But the issue is even larger. Improvisation was expected from violin soloists during Bach and Mozart's time. Who can perform that way now? I attended a lecture demonstration about Baroque improvisation on the piano led by Christian Bezuidenhut, who has a strong performing and teaching career going in this area. He talked about his sources for uncovering the riffs and motifs that were actually used back then. I asked him who performs Baroque improvisation on the violin that is historically informed with real source material. He said, "no one".

Violin education, generally speaking, has a gaping hole - called improvisation - which is there for any genre of music. It is a sad state of affairs. I try to support any genre of violin improvisation, and I don't find discussion of "who's the best" to be helpful in solving the larger issues. I have tried to contribute to improvisation by publishing Arpeggios, Rhythms and Scales to provide basic teaching resources. Others, like Graham, contribute by teaching. But the situation will only change significantly by creating demand for improvised violin music in many genres. If you want to make a difference, buy someone's music or go to their concerts where improvised violin music is performed. It doesn't matter what genre, or whether they are the next Miles Davis. We and others need to create demand by supporting performers.

July 16, 2012 at 06:37 PM · I understand the gulf between classical and jazz improv pedagogy (I bet we'll be hearing from Mark O'Connor soon!), but does that gulf exist only for the violin? I played more different kinds of arpeggios studying the violin (thanks to Flesch) than I ever did studying classical piano where Hanon and Czerny reign supreme. Doesn't the same problem exist for trumpet and flute? Or did I misunderstand your point?

I don't think the question of "who's the best" is misguided, because if one can have that conversation then it means that there is depth in the field, that there are enough players that are really good that the question actually arises.

BTW I read the description of your book entitled "Arpeggios, Rhythms, and Scales," and I'm going to get that for sure. Looks very useful.

July 16, 2012 at 10:33 PM ·

July 17, 2012 at 01:05 AM · Q.E.D,

July 17, 2012 at 01:26 AM · Eric, I agree -- and if you look in a good scale book like Flesch you see pretty quickly that the fingerings are based on a few simple logical rules, like shifting down at half-steps. I just cannot grasp why -- if it's so easy -- more people are not doing it. It just seems like a disconnect to me, and I want to understand that. I'm one of those who think things should have logical reasons. :)

July 17, 2012 at 02:13 AM ·

July 17, 2012 at 02:27 AM · Hi,

a very good way for a classical violinist to enter the world of blues, jazz etc impro ist to join a jazz school and learn guitar or piano. A classical violinist who plays violin will think like one. If he plays guitar or piano he'll start to think like a guitarist or pianist. It's not as hard as one would think. It's a question of willingness to invest in the field. Jazz guitar made me a better classical violinist (at least for me). The theory is the same as classical but the use of 7th chords is predominant. The structure of pieces in jazz or blues is straightforward in a majority of pieces, the extensive study of them will open possibilities of using notes you wouldn't have expected.

To make my post more complete: improvisation is not exactly what we classical violinist think it is or at least what I thought it was. Of course it is conversation exactly like we speak, with statements, rythm and pauses. You recognise a poet or writer or stand up artist by the way he uses words and phrases. It's the same for jazz, blues or rock: the musician improvising DID work a few thousand hours on his phrasing and statments before playing in public. Of course this investment gives him the possibility to "improvise spontaneously" for the majority of our ears but a well trained jazz artist will be able to recognise the typical phrasing of this particular artist. That's why we can recognise great artist pretty easily because of the signature of their statments. BUT all the hours invested in preparing and understanding music will give them the possibility to improvise in the most spontaneous way.

In short: improvisation has more to do with practicing musical phrases in a chord context than playing notes out of nowhere who happen to fit in a given harmony context. If you listen to George Carlin, the stand up artist, you will have the impression that he's having a spontaneous monolog but in fact he has probably spent hundreds of hours working on his text. The beauty of it is that this process opened his mind in such a way that he was probably a very articulate person in his every day life.

A good way to train your hearing to start improvising is to listen at and write down for example a piece played by someone like Grant Green, Joe Pass or Stevie Ray Vaughan or your favorite jazz or blues artist. Try also to recognise the key and each chords of each bar. Difficult at the beginning but with time and practice it will become pretty easy. THEN: take your violin and play EXACTLY the same as the artist on your recording.

There are thousands of jazz, blues, rock tutorials out there, I suggest you buy one and start working with it. But the very best way to learn improvisation is to join a school which offers not only instrumental but also theory and ear training courses.

July 17, 2012 at 05:09 PM · Paul Deck,

A student of trumpet or flute with an interest in improvisation has two things going that a violin student does not have. First, they can easily find lots of teachers who improvise on those instruments and get started with good coaching about fundamentals for improvising. Second, they have keys instead of a fingerboard - so they don't have to think about positions and fingerings as they move their improv from chord to chord. The mechanics of press and blow are much simpler, and wind students can start improvising more easily because they don't get tripped up with "which finger next"?

As you know, Flesch is full of arpeggios, but aside from diminished chords, there are no other 7th chords. There are no altered chords. And some of his fingerings start in 4th position. Good luck with that while improvising. Flesch doesn't show the Dorian minor scale, which is a foundation scale in jazz. I could go on. Flesch is a good book, and I practice out of it every day, but it does not build useful technique focused on improvising.

July 17, 2012 at 11:45 PM ·

July 18, 2012 at 12:17 AM · Francis Roux,

Some people do think that improvisation on any instrument is achieved by practicing musical phrases in a chord context rather than playing notes out of nowhere. In this approach, the musician plays a continual stream of musical fragments/riffs. I call that the "paint by number school" of improvisation. A reasonable number of professionals have graduated from that school and make a living from it, so it is not to be dismissed. But after 2 minutes of listening to them, you know that's all you will ever hear from them - a bunch of riffs you have already heard before.

Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, John Coltrane, Stuff Smith, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, etc. did not graduate from the "paint by number school" of jazz. When a student is good at assembling riffs on the fly, my counsel is to think about what level of playing is the objective. If its "for fun", stick with memorizing and assembling riffs. If the objective is to be noticed in the musical world, then lots of other skills are more important than memorizing and assembling riffs.

On the violin, moving beyond canned riffs is where specific improv technique becomes necessary because the foundation of those skills requires the instantaneous ability to execute certain chord tones in invented rhythms, while the chords continually change, to achieve specific musical effects. Human's are very sensitive to chord tones and musical intervals, and even the "uneducated listener" gets meaning and feeling from the chord tones and the rhythm of delivery.

July 18, 2012 at 01:45 AM · See what I mean?

Get stuck in, make some noise, avoid what you don't like, repeat and consolidate what you do like - the rest is commentary.


July 18, 2012 at 02:26 AM · @Mike, I totally agree with your characterization of "paint by the numbers" improv. That is how I started -- many people do. I moved past that, but honestly it wasn't easy. Now, as my jazz instrument is piano, I can attest to a legitimate use for patterns, turnarounds, etc. What it takes is the will to say, "I'm not sliding back. Even if I can only manage a couple of chorusus, it has to be real."

By the way Flesch does include dominant 7th arpeggios which you can convert to minor 7th on your own just by flatting the third. What's missing are arpeggios that include 9ths and beyond, but at that point you're in the realm of creating your own patterns and fingering them yourself. I never got into "dorian minor" or other modal scales as fundamental because, as Eric said, they can be substituted by major or minor scales starting on different keys.

I was interested in your "press and blow" description of the trumpet, but isn't the issue for trumpet much the same? There's three valves plus the range that you're selecting by lip (analogous to changing strings), right? Not trying to push back, just trying to understand.

July 18, 2012 at 04:06 PM · Paul Deck,

Patterns and turnarounds have a legitimate place in improvisation, of course. I objected to Francis Roux's "simple formula" of just learn a bunch of patterns in 12 keys and play them - don't go wandering off. At least, that's the way I read it. My Eastman coaches teach other things for starting, e.g., 3s & 7s, guide tones, rhythm exercises, modals. When a student gets to intermediate levels, I've heard suggestions about patterns "to build vocabulary". But if you can't invent your own melodic feeling improv, you really have no use for patterns, in my opinion.

Regarding trumpets: One of my early improv teachers is a top local jazz trumpeter. At one point a couple years ago, he took violin lessons for 6 months. He told me that he really couldn't get good sound out of a violin, let alone music. Similarly, a sax player I worked with for a couple years said she was really happy she had keys and didn't have to make choices about strings and positions. These are anecdotes, but the general view among a lot of teachers is that the violin is much more difficult to play than wind instruments.

July 18, 2012 at 07:38 PM · Hi Mike,

I think you misred and misinterpreted me which is pretty sad. I really wrote something different.

July 18, 2012 at 10:56 PM ·

July 23, 2012 at 04:33 AM · @Mike, I'm in agreement with you.

@Francis, I kind of read your post the same way, so maybe it wasn't Mike's fault. Still -- sorry if he or I misinterpreted. Some people really like their jazz to be chock full of licks and riffs and patterns, and some don't. There is still room for individual taste.

@Eric as a jazz piano player, I can attest that the piano is totally different because of the huge "visual" advantage.

July 23, 2012 at 05:33 AM ·

July 23, 2012 at 01:13 PM · Interesting, this use of visual imagery.

I don't use visual cues on the violin - neither by looking or imagining. I work with the feeling of distances in the hand which give the intervals and note sequences I want to play.

So, for me, the kinesthetic is linked directly to the auditory without a visual go-between. I suspect that whatever generates the music sends it to both hand and auditory imagination simultaneously.

When there is a clash between internal ear and what I hear, I have made a fingering mistake.


July 23, 2012 at 05:36 PM · After spending a lot of time over the past 7 or so years in Eastman School's jazz combo classes, which are taught by professors and graduate students of jazz, I've heard a lot of their thoughts about learning to improvise. These professors have played with major artists, e.g., Chet Baker, Count Basie, Bob Brookmeyer, and the jazz school turns out professional jazz performers. While looking over the postings here since 12 July, I have seen some comments that I've heard in these classes, and some that I've never heard. The following is a quick summary. I include it, not to complement or criticize, but to provide some perspective for violinists with an interest in jazz improvisation. Its just some facts, as I see it. Make of it what you will.

Seen here, never heard at Eastman

- Hierarchical, all-encompassing patterns - of anything (rather: many tools are available on any topic, use as many as you can)

- Practice patterns rather than "notes out of nowhere" (rather: learn improv fundamentals, create your own melodic improv voice, add vocabulary from the greats of jazz)

- "there is only one scale" (huh?)

Seen here and heard often at Eastman

- Aebersold books have some role to play in the education of anyone who wants to improvise.

- Listen and play. Improvisation is a combination of listening to others in the combo and playing. They are not separate actions.

- Train your hearing/listening.

- Improvisation takes a lot of work to do well.

July 23, 2012 at 11:20 PM ·

July 24, 2012 at 01:16 AM ·

July 24, 2012 at 03:47 AM · @Eric, "anyway are there any mistakes in jazz?"

Graham defined a mistake as a mismatch between what is in one's mind's ear and what comes out of one's instrument. You could dispute that, but I think it's a pretty good operational definition of a technical mistake in jazz.

But I know what you mean -- you come to the end of a phrase and you slip and play a B natural instead of a C, and ooh... that sounded better than what you had intended to play. That's what I call a happy accident.

I'm thinking of an Erroll Garner track where he made an obvious finger slip and then repeated the same phrase over again with the exact same finger slip to make it sound intentional. He did it precisely but I was still kind of grossed out.

Coming back to the value of practiced patterns, another related trick is quotation. The chord changes are rolling along and suddenly you realize that you can interface a snippet from another song onto them. I remember shedding an old ballad on the piano and suddenly realizing that the opening phrase from Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me a River" can be modulated up by minor thirds to create a cool turnaround. Should I add it to my toolbox, or should I never play that again? Likewise I was working on "Out of Nowhere" and suddenly "On a Clear Day" came into my head. Should that quotation be off limits on a gig because it's not 100% spontaneous? Dexter Gordon was called the "quotemaster" but I wonder how many of his quotes were shedded in advance.

July 24, 2012 at 08:13 AM · I advocate practising finger patterns. Like Eric, I have worked these out by permutation, though unlike Eric, I have only gone as far as five notes from twelve, and my usual practice routines only go as far as four from twelve, mainly consecutive notes.

I also place the semitone between different fingers in sequence.

This provides a very useful set of exercises to develop finger independence, as well as opening the ear to a whole range of intervallic shapes that help build vocabulary. You could say this is the mathematical basis of a thesaurus of melodic fragments. It is a great warm-up routine.

However, such practice does not help develop an aesthetic sense, nor does it give one the ability to develop a line. That comes from some other source, I know not what. Maybe it is one's overall exposure to music.

My own formal tuition in jazz comprised two and a half days at an Easter summer school run by the Jazz Centre Society back in 1982. I learned almost all of what I needed for the rest of my career over that weekend, and I have difficulty working out how jazz colleges can spin it out over three years. Still, they do. I suppose it justifies the fees.

Aebersold's approach is not one I advocate. Here's something I wrote a few years ago:-

He takes each chord separately, while I find it much more useful to look at whole chunks that are from a single tonality. E.g, the first five bars of "All the Things You Are" are in Ab, the next three in C, then another five of Eb, etc. This allows greater fluidity and helps provide a longer context in which to develop lines

I agree that there is only one scale, the chromatic, though it may need tuning according to context. All other scale are subsets of this one George Russell's "Lydian Chromatic Concept" is a great resource for helping to understand this.

Another great book is Paul Berliner's "Thinking in Jazz". Important tome - real insights into how jazz musicians really learn to do what we do. I'll bet that most of what's in that book isn't taught at Eastman, either!

July 24, 2012 at 09:36 AM · I was just reading a review of that book.........

....Part II also includes an in-depth discussion of specific techniques used by jazz

players when creating improvisations such as generating variations and the all important covering up of mistakes.........

'all important'...!!

July 24, 2012 at 10:32 AM · Yes , "all important!!!"

I have several strategies, one is to slide off the bad note, into a good one.

Another is to use the bad note as a way into a line of "out" playing, often playing a line of fourths, a semitone side slip where you play a whole set of phrases a semitone away from the tonality, or some chromatic/whole tone nonsense that gets me into new areas. Another is to just PLAY THE NOTE LOUD until it fits, another is to stop it before anyone notices.

yet another is the trombone wobble, or wide manic blues vibrato.

Strong phrasing can cover a multitude of sins.

All work to varying degrees.

July 24, 2012 at 11:30 AM ·

July 24, 2012 at 12:13 PM ·

July 24, 2012 at 12:37 PM · Eric, here is the approach I take to working on scales:-

July 24, 2012 at 11:12 PM ·

July 25, 2012 at 07:23 AM · The note-names are useful when explaining it to some one else, and are particularly helpful for getting a student to think in terms of keys and tonalities.

But they don't really come into play when actually playing. It's just the sound.

July 25, 2012 at 05:33 PM · Paul Deck,

Regarding mistakes, its a good idea to practice making mistakes, of all sorts, and recovering / playing through them. In a gig, you then know you can get through just about anything that happens, and it also pushes you into new sounds and rhythms, which can be useful themselves. Its also good to spend some practice time "being playful" and amusing yourself with sound. That playful, relaxed feeling in a pro's solo doesn't just happen. It comes from practice, like everything else.

July 26, 2012 at 05:56 PM · @Mike I don't have to practice making mistakes. That's one thing I can do quite reliably. LOL -- I know what you meant!

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