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Beginning Improvisation

I would like to continue with the train of thought from my last blog. Previously, I had discussed the importance of experimenting with improvisation. Improvisation teaches a different set of skills that can help to enhance your abilities as both a classical musician and performer.

While it's important to teach these things to students, it is difficult to introduce subjects that you, as the teacher, may be uncomfortable with. Despite its daunting appearance, learning to improvise is no different from learning a technically complex violin concerto. It must be systematically broken up into smaller tasks that can be easily managed.

One of the easiest things to do is to start listening to improvisation. Get all the books you want, but the "jazz swing" is not something you can notate accurately. Reading music as a jazz violinist rather than a classical violinist is an acquired skill. Knowing how a particular genre should sound is a huge step in the right direction.

Learning scales is important but even more important is learning chords. A simple chord consists of the first (root), third and fifth notes of a scale. It is unfortunate that the violin is not a chord instrument. Most of the notes we play are individual. Guitarists, for example, do not even think about the names of the notes in a C chord. They learn hand shape and finger patterns. Since improvisation requires both solo playing and backup playing (something violinists are not usually used to), learning chord shapes is crucial. A really easy way to do this is to just look up mandolin chords. The mandolin has the exact same strings as a violin, it is simply plucked instead of bowed. Familiarizing yourself with chords will make rapid key changes and accompanying easier.

There are a variety of books and backup CDs out there that can help assist you in the learning process. Two excellent authors are Jamie Aebersold and Martin Norgaard. But if you are new to improvisation, you must allow yourself to experiment on your instrument. The more you try improvising, the less frightening it will seem.


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