Improv and theory resources

Edited: December 21, 2017, 8:41 AM · Looking specifically for resources for a middle school student who wants to learn to improvise. This is something I do reasonably well and would like to incorporate more into my teaching anyway but have never taught systematically. If anyone knows of a curriculum/resource that would work either to use directly, or as a good starting point for me to to work with, please let me know! Stuff like Christian Howes' course is *probably* outside our immediate scope, though it's on my list.

Related, while I teach a lot of theory/ear training in my lessons, I'd like a fuller systematic theory resource for my interested ms/hs students. I know there are good online resources out there and plan on researching this over the holiday break but does anybody have recommendations? I'd love something that presents the theory notation and aural together, which i feel like an online resource could probably do very well.

Thanks for any leads!

Replies (13)

December 21, 2017, 10:22 AM · Creative Strings at It's jazz violin stuff, but it might be useful. Improv can be self-taught, though it varies from person to person because some people automatically learn to improvise without training. You can ask her to play an improvised melody at her lesson, or you can suggest that she spend some time improvising in the practice room without accompaniment. You can also find some music, preferrably a pop song or the like, or an accompaniment/karaoke track, and she can improvise a melody over that.
December 21, 2017, 6:38 PM · That's my speciality! I teach jazz/swing improvisation to university level classical violinists. There are many paths to learn improvisation but for me, the best one is the one that comes from self discovery; it's the most natural way. What I mean by that is that the student discovers a musician that he/she likes so much that he/she tries to emulate said musician. And then this leads to the discovery of other musicians, and on it goes until the student has created his/her own style.

So I would start by getting the student to check out a bunch of different improvising violinists (or non-violinists). Since I specialize in swing music, I make them discovery artists like Stephane Grappelli, but I also show them a whole bunch of other players.

There's no one right way to improvise, and many musicians have different approaches, and certain approches may contradict each other. That's the beauty of it.

With my students, I try to get them to listen to a few different violinists that I really like. Then I teach them songs, both the melody and the harmony. We almost never talk about theory ; it's kept to a minimum until they have a handle on repertoire and vocabulary. It's almost like learning to speak a language. I get them to try to be able to have a basic conversation before teaching them grammar.

I also produce instructional videos for some of the best jazz violinists. I will be doing something with Christian Howes next year. Christian's style is very different from Grappelli's for instance, and the whole point is to get all the different artists to talk about their personal philosophies. Christian's jazz violin playing has a strong "folk" element to it with a full sound, as opposed to Didier Lockwood who plays more with accents and a whispery tone, almost like a jazz saxophonist. And there are so many schools out there.

I invite you to check out clips of my productions on youtube.. Just type "DC MUSIC SCHOOL VIOLIN", and you'll see lots of things..

Here's one for instance:

And another with a completely different style:

Yet another one:

December 21, 2017, 7:21 PM · Thanks Denis! I can't wait to check these out!
December 21, 2017, 7:27 PM · So what I'm.getting both from you guys and my study is, it's really all about the style. You start from there and then identify your constructs. My improv "style" is still pretty classically based with a bit of fiddle. So, say my student wants to improvise like Lindsey Stirling and be able to jam in a band, what other violinists might anybody bridge to from there? :)

(Thinking i should maybe check out some Natalie mcmaster/lara stjohn??...)

I do have a couple resources from Christian bookmarked to follow up on when I'm somewhere i can play them--ideas about voiceleading etc that look like they'll be helpful across genre...

Edited: December 21, 2017, 7:53 PM · If she wants to improvise in a specific style, it's a really good idea to immerse yourself in that style and get a good feel for it. You can also practice improvising with a jam band or backing track. Classical-style improv is good to start with, as that's what she's used to. Also, another way to start improv could be to imagine you are writing a composition and are planning it out on your instrument. It's especially good if you want to compose music, and it gets your creative mindset going. Also remember that there are virtually no "real" rules around improvisation. The only one I can think of for improvising alone is that the improv must sound melodic and pleasing (e.g not scale-like). If you're improvising with others, you must harmonically match them. It's a matter of analyzing and anticipating the chord changes and following along in a harmonic sense as best as you can. If you're improvising with a recorded backing track or are improvising over a pre-written song (i.e vocals and accompaniment are already established, but you aren't), the more familiar you are with the song, the better your improv will be because you'll know where the chord changes are.
Edited: December 22, 2017, 12:09 AM · Hi Kathryn, so you say that she is interested in Lindsey Stirling's music! That's already a big clue and a good starting point of where to start. I didn't know that Lindsey improvised, and it's probably very minimal if there is any.

Again, there are many approaches, and some philosophies contradict each other, which is why I think the best way is to find musicians that your student likes to emulate. It's funner that way, it's organic, and when you are having fun, it's easier to assimilate.

So what I would suggest is that you work on some of Stirling songs together. But the key to learning improvisation in my opinion is to work on not just the main violin part but to also learn the harmony behind the lead! That's one of the big things with my classical students! Some of them transcribe solos already but they never thought to learn the chords that go behind the solos , which is what you need to do in order to understand what's going on.

So you should have her try to learn the lead part by ear, and if she has trouble with the harmonies, you can help her. On the violin, there are a few things you can do to play harmonies: Some sort of arpeggio based pattern, or double stops. This is where the fun begins because there can be near infinite possibilities in the accompaniment alone!

Once she has the lead part and the chords memorized, she needs to see how the lead part relates to the chords. She needs to be able to hear the chords and to know where she is. In other words, you can start playing the recording somewhere in the middle, and she should be able to say "oh we're on so and so chord".

To help learn the chords better, you can try to figure out the song's structure (ie most jazz songs are in AABA format - 32 bars).

For me, this is one of the most important aspects of learning to improvise! You can do this with classical pieces as well. Even taking things from the first few suzuki books and checking out the piano accompaniment and adapting it for violin!

If you look at Canon in D, where it goes F# down the D major scale , etc... You can help her see that the first note F# is over a D major chord, the second note E is over an A chord, the next note is over Bm, so on and so forth. Since Canon is the same chord structure over and over, you can then start to analyze the variations and see how every single note relates to the harmony. This is how we acquire vocabulary and learn how to create variations on themes.

If you look at Kreisler's Schönrosmarin, it starts with a G major arpeggio in first inversion, and it 's going over a G major chord in the accompaniment, and even though it's in the key of G, Kreisler fits in a C# before going to an E. It's a cool little melodic device... So what your student should get from that is that over a G major chord D C# E sounds cool! and then she can transpose those to different keys ( G F# A over a C chord), etc... these are tiny melodic cells that she can absorb, and as she acquires more and more melodic cells (Always understanding how they fit over the harmony), she can string many cells together to make something more coherent.

One final tip would be to practice arpeggios and scales in first position starting on the lowest possible note. So if playing a D major scale, start on the open G! if playing a D major arpeggio , start on the G string, on the note A.

The reason for this is to have a completely map of the violin fingerboard. Most improvisation is done in first position and third position for certain specific tonal qualities or better fingerings. Of course, it's possible to explore other positions, but 1 and 3 are the main ones to work on , as almost everything can be done in those positions.

December 22, 2017, 12:08 AM · BTW, here's an example of what I mean when I say you can learn a lot from existing classical pieces.

In this clip that I produced, the violinist takes the famous Bach Gm fugue , and analyzed the chords. Then he created an accompaniment that is improvised. The main violin plays a simplified version of the melody, and there's a third violin improvising counter melodies based on his knowledge of both the melody and the harmony. The end is him then turning the chord progression into a swing style where he improvises a jazz solo, always with the knowledge of the harmony in the back of his mind.

December 22, 2017, 12:21 PM · Jazz Philharmonic from Randy Sabien and Bob Phillips is good. Its meant for a class of mixed instruments, but can be done solo also. If you just want a good, simple to understand way to get started, that could be it. Also, Jamey Aebersold book #1 would work also to get off the ground. These are both jazz, yet the improv concepts hold true for any style, and the main thing to accomplish first is just to give the student a basic answer to "How do I decide what notes to play?!?"
December 22, 2017, 1:21 PM · Denis I listened to tcha limberger on YouTube . His video was inspirational . I enjoyed it so much . Thank you
Edited: December 27, 2017, 4:08 AM · Hi Kathryn,
if you are working with a teenager in the final years of schooling before tertiary study, and you want a comprehensive, easy to read theory for improvising, try Jazzology: The Encyclopedia of Jazz Theory for All Musicians, by Robert Rawlins and Nor Eddine Bahha, 2005 Hal Leonard.
While thousands of other books have merit, this one does good work in a pleasing manner.
Now, of course you can't just pass any book to a teenager and expect them to "absorb" it. So, define a path through the book in consultation with the student.
Work out a daily routine that revises improv concepts, build technique of instrument, and includes some application to pieces.
So, learn concepts, learn the instrument, learn pieces all in a daily one hour session. Then let this sit alongside other required studying and musical work the student has to complete.
Really, there is so much to cover that I find it best to encourage the student to find a mentor who will stay with her for about two years at least, and play with the student each week, learning a concept and applying it to a specific tune.
After about two years, it is time to get the student to nominate those three improvisors she wants to emulate, and then start again.
My point is, of course, that the student needs to know somehting before she can set meaningful goals. (Older students have already travelled the first journey through scales, chords, rhythms, articulation, borrowing motifs from given melodies, etc.)
Edited: December 27, 2017, 6:43 AM · Wish I'd learned about this long ago when I was a student. I started only when I was in my late 60s, but discovered -- to my utter surprise -- that I could easily improvise an accompaniment in folk or jazz, in clubs and at jam sessions. If somebody had taught me this as a student, or even hinted at the possibility, I'd have had a lot more fun as a musician over the years. But in those days classical violinists were usually taught to stick to the score.
December 27, 2017, 6:42 AM · I do not improvise, but my adult grandson's band did ( for their 5 year run, including 3 CDs. From what I could see and hear, there are a lot of standard "licks" that are fit into different keys and melody situations in that kind of music. They only recorded their own songs, but their stage performances would generally include at least one of their Stephane Grappelli/Django Reinherdt interpretations (i.e., "After You've Gone" and "Dark Eyes" - as good as the original in my opinion). Of course in performance, by the last couple of years of Steep Ravine's, run those songs were never done the same way twice in performance. Their violinist was a classically trained violinist with his college degree in violin performance.

You might acquire one of the many Jazz Violin books out there ( )

But also watch Youtube .

Edited: December 27, 2017, 9:08 AM · Agreed! I have started to pay much closer attention to what the background violinist is doing on youtubes or concerts, in anything from folk to country to jazz, and those standard licks are an excellent basis to start. One needs also, in performance, to discover a different and more active way of listening as the music is unfolding.

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