Throw down your music and join in the fun. You too can learn to improvise and you can even teach somebody else, writes former Turtle Island String Quartet violinist Tracy Silverman


You're at a party, the musicians are jamming and they invite you to join them. 'But I don't play jazz,' you answer. 'I was never taught how to improvise... I can't play without music.'

Yes you can. I've seen it happen so it will do you no good to protest. Not only can you learn to improvise, but you can even teach someone else to. The tradition of teaching string improvisation dates back to Leopold Mozart and earlier and even books from the early 1500s were printed detailing instructions for all the new instruments of the day. These owner's manuals had in-depth passages about the 'correct' way to extemporise ornaments and variations on melodies, realise bass lines, invent countermelodies and fugues and other standard and expected skills.

In A History of Western Music, Donald Grout says: 'Improvisation, in one form or another, is the normal way in most musical cultures'. So what happened to ours? Has respect for the written note gone too far? Can we paralyse ourselves with composer idolatry?

Improvisation is still very much alive and gigging, but not so much for strings. Those string players who can improvise often find themselves with extra work, whether in the recording studio where it may be necessary to adopt a jazz, rock or country style, at a party or wedding where the only music may be a fakebook, as part of a period instrument group, as a folk fiddler or in a new music concert.

Or maybe you are tired of feeling tense physically and constrained musically and creatively by a narrow tradition of string playing. Maybe you see those jazz, rock and folk players having so much fun and you're thinking, 'What about me?'

Teaching improvisation to children is demanding in a different way from teaching adults, but a lot of the methods apply to all ages. Imagination is the key to composing and a good imagination is your strongest asset.

Children are uninhibited and full of colourful flights of fancy which need only to be directed in a playful way. Just listen to their stories and you'll realise that you have lost the ability to think so wildly, so abstractly and with such wonderful incongruence. Try to think like a child. If you examine the greats in any discipline of the arts, you may notice a wonderful childlike quality.

I am frequently asked how I learned to improvise. The answer is simple and doesn't usually thrill people looking for a quick fix for their improvising ills: I listened and listened and listened again to the music I love and then I listened again; all the time trying to play it on my violin. Immersing yourself in music is the first step.

One of the most important things you need in order to learn how to improvise is a place you can practise where no-one can hear you. Or you can be like me and just not care if you make a fool of yourself, because that's what most of your time will be spent doing for a while. You need to sing along with records, sing without the records, sing while you're playing and sing while you're sleeping. Have you ever gone to bed at night with a tune in your head and woke up the next morning still thinking it? Imagine how many choruses you played while you were sleeping. And every one of them was perfect.

So the same definition: improvisation is playing what you hear in your head. Simple, right?

First, you must listen to what's in your head. After immersing yourself in your music of choice, you will probably have little bits of tunes or riffs floating around your mind. Pick one and sing it clearly, making sure it's not one of those vague it-goes-something-like-this kind of hums.

Now all you have to do is play it. How? Practise. Sorry: there's no shortcut. You must hear the intervals of the melody and the harmony it is a part of, lock into the groove it generates or comes out of (that's rhythm for some) and be familiar enough with your instrument to know where those notes are.

Copy as closely as possible your favourite phrases from recordings, including the all-important untranscribables of inflection, tone and attitude. This is a tradition that has been going on in jazz since there were recordings to copy. There's the immediate gratification of being able to spout a few choice riffs, and gradually you will depart from the riffs and phrases you've absorbed from your immersion process and will gravitate towards your own. This is the heart of true improvisation: more complete self expression.

Try limiting yourself to just one or two notes. It can be liberating to remove the pressure to play the 'right' notes and can help you to get into the more performance-related aspects: attitude and playing style.

Improvisation exists in many different styles, but for the sake of simplicity, let's look at jazz for a moment. As with any style of music, jazz has certain traditions. These apply not only to what is played but also to how it is played. So we should concentrate on two things: first, how to sound jazzy on a stringed instrument; second, getting acquainted with jazz harmony and how it propels itself around, because the harmonic language of jazz is rich and satisfying to speak.

The quickest way to sound jazzy is to learn a few stylistic conventions and perhaps learn how to sound a little more like typical jazz instruments such as a saxophone and trumpet. Most string players are classically trained, so the following suggestions are aimed in that direction. Folk fìddlers already incorporate some of these things.

  • First is the issue of vibrato and how quickly you can get rid of the one you've spent years developing. Young students have a tremendous advantage over experienced players here. Classical vibrato usually works to warm the sound. For jazz, try to cool the sound with a light sliding motion instead. Bring it in late or leave it out altogether.
  • Learn how to mumble or 'ghost' notes instead of playing all of your notes clearly
  • You know that wonderful art of hitting notes perfectly in tune you've struggled over? Lose it. You will still need your ear for pristine intonation, but in jazz you can slide into notes and bend notes more vocally.
  • Rhythmically, you need to swing and to know how much swing is appropriate - hot or cool jazz - and the different ways to use your bow to create rhythm, through slurs, accents and noises.
  • What about that wonderful tone your teacher struggled with you to develop so you could be heard clearly at the back of a large hall? Forget it. How about a breathy saxophone sound, or a pan-pipe instead?

If all you learn how to do is to play solos, you'll often find yourself standing around doing nothing. How about becoming a useful rhythm instrument? You can be a drummer playing brushes by leaning your bow down past the highest string and playing on the C-bout of the instrument; or a hi-hat cymbal backbeat by dropping your bow onto the strings at the frog so that it makes a percussive sound on the second and fourth beats. We at Turtle Island call this 'the chop'. You can replace a rhythm guitar part by combining the chop with syncopated rhythms. No longer a simple backbeat, this type of rhythm violin playing may prove to be a major development in non-classical violin playing.

A cello can make a very convincing walking bass and serves thrillingly as a drum when thrashed soundly. Violas not only occupy the same range as tenor saxes for soloing but also fit right into the range of the piano's left hand 'comping' (accompanying), for sprinkling important harmonic flavours behind a soloist. Learning how to comp well is an art in itself, combining great rhythmic and harmonic complexity.

In terms of getting to know what makes jazz harmony live and breathe and lead you around, allow me to introduce you to the chef at this musical feast: the chord. Think of chords dynamically - this sound pulls me where? If I'm here, how can I travel over there? I invite you to sample the delectable augmented and diminished delicacies the chords create and to recognise their flavours as easily as you would recognise saltiness or sweetness; to relish the more traditional minor and major fare; to savour a flat ninth chord or a sharp eleventh and recognise them as you would recognise lemon or pepper in a dish.

A good place to start is with the blues and to examine why certain chords influence you the way they do; for instance, why the tension of the V7 chord drags you over to the I chords, and why IV chords have a subtly different personality from V chords. Isn't it magical how II chords make V7 chords feel even V7ier? Memorise some II-V7 riffs from actual tunes and play them in all twelve keys. Jazz educators David Baker and Jaime Abersold have whole books and tapes devoted to helping you do just this.

A simple way to get started with the blues is to play within a minor pentatonic scale. A C blues on violin and viola is a convenient 1-3-4-1-3-4 finger pattern in third position. Let this simple pattern be your starting place. Use call and response over a blues accompaniment in all twelve keys. This allows you not only to exercise your ears and to get comfortable in all the keys but also to internalise the chords of the blues and also to imitate the stylistic techniques of the caller. If you don't have a teacher to do this for you, maybe you can find a friend. How about your string quartet? And, because at least two people are embarrassing themselves, it snuffs inhibition and quells those feelings of improvisational shame, by allowing you to have fun and succeed and fail together, while at the same time demanding enough of your concentration to distract you from being self-conscious. The string quartet is a ready-made laboratory for improvisational research and development, allowing you not only to confront your own soloing demons but also to function as a trustworthy member of a jazz rhythm section.

If you do have a quartet, you may want to try some of the ever-increasing repertoire of jazz arrangements. Many of them, including some Turtle Island arrangements, make the assumption that you cannot improvise and include written-out solos and accompaniment parts. I encourage you to modify, enlarge upon, and ultimately to dispense with as much of these arrangements as you can and force yourself to otherwise derange them. Why not experience first hand the misery of trying to make jazz work for a string group.

But above all else keep your sense of humour. And remember, yes you can.

This article was first published in The Strad's September 1996 issue.