Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Functional String Improvisation

Several months ago, my friend Chris Selby, at the Charleston County School for the Arts in Charleston South Carolina, invited me to come to his school to give a weekend seminar on string improvisation. I was hesitant to accept his invitation at first because, as many of you know , I am not really a jazz educator in any way. I am an improvising violinist and a string educator. But, I really haven't taught a great deal of improvisation over the years. Nor, am I an expert in jazz or even formally trained in improv.  My improvising skill and style is much more self-taught and from the school of hard knocks.  So, I really wasn't sure if I wanted to tackle the daunting task of a weekend seminar explaining and teaching my approach to improvisation.

With that in mind, I thought for a while about my values in teaching and decided that if I could come up with a systematic, sequential system that outlined my journey as an improviser, I may be able to give the students something that would be useful and practical. I began putting my thoughts together and as a result of some discussions with Chris and with my wife I came up with the title, "Functional String Improvisation" for the weekend. This notion of being functional is very important to me. I am so aware that I am not a jazz performer nor an expert improviser. But, I am a functional violinist. I am able to go into almost any performing situation and provide something that is interesting, stylistically appropriate, musical, and enjoyable. I am as comfortable playing over chord changes in a recording studio as I am playing in the middle of a violin section of an orchestra.

So, here is the system that I articulated that weekend.  It is my approach.  It is an articulation of my journey and experience.  I don't hold it up as the gold standard, but I know that it has worked for me.  Working on and developing these concepts and skills has helped me to become the improviser that I am today.  This is all built on time, practice and experience.  The system is effective, but practice and repetition is the key.

I am providing my outline and annotations here.  My hope is that other string teachers may find something here that resonates with them and begin the journey for themselves.  Or, if already on that journey, find a different twist or approach.


Basics of Functional Musicianship
  • There is no substitute for core technique and tone
  • Functional String improvisation is a combination of the following:
    • Functional/Applied Music Theory
    • Internalized concepts of harmony, chord tones, and voice leading
    • Listening
    • Understanding the function or role you are playing at any given moment in the tune
    • Imagination
    • Practice!

Skills to Develop:

Free Improv and musical conversation
  • Listen and respond/react
  • “Yes, and…”
This skill encourages the musician to play without fear of wrong notes. There ARE no wrong notes in free improv.  This is an opportunity to take chances, listen and respond at any level. Players can be rhythmic or a-rhythmic, tonal or atonal, the same or different, and the list goes on. This is the time to get comfortable without the notes in front of you.  I also like to discuss that idea of "Yes, and.." from the improv world of theater.  The idea is that you never deny an idea. Rather the only response is, "Yes, and..."

Imitation (learning by ear) and playing with radio (15 minutes)
  • Listen to the tune. Identify and imitate the various voices
  • How do you imitate guitar, snare, bass, vocals, lead guitar
This, too, is an opportunity to get away from the written page.  I loved listening to my son spend hours in my studio with Pandora on and just playing along on his bass guitar.  That is how it is done.  You just have to be willing to spend the time.   This is a great way to learn keys, hand positions, cool licks, and ideas in songs.  The player can imitate all of the instruments (drums included).  When I was a kid, my parents would get mad at me when I was in my room "practicing" and playing with the radio.  I was supposed to be playing my classical rep.  Little did they know that this was a really good use of my time!!  Oh how times have changed!

Major and Minor scales in first position,
  • scale patterns 3rds, 4ths, etc
  • Alternate ideas on scales, jumps
  • Pentatonic scale
  • Shapes (finger patterns) - thinking like a guitar player
I really believe in making etudes out of scales.  Put on a drum beat and make them fun.  I also strongly believe in playing all of the major and minor scales in first position - all the way from the lowest possible not in the key to the highest possible note without changing positions.  This really establishes all of the possible scale "patterns" that are necessary for quickly and functionally performing in all keys.

Diatonic Harmony
  • Triads - know your 3rds and 5ths (7ths too!)
  • Patterns
  • Key
  • Playing pads (whole notes)
  • (Extreme ranges)
  • 3rds and 7ths
This is  where the hard work begins.  It is where your functional understanding of music theory and harmony intersects with your playing.  The player must develop the skill of thinking on their toes.  Can they name and play the triads?  Can they find the 3rd and 7th for any chord?  I think this where many would-be improvisers get hung up.  It is easier to think melodically as a string player.  We do THAT all the time.  Be persistent and don't give up.

Bass lines -
  • Roots
  • Riffs
I played bass in bands as a kid.  I feel like this skill has served me well over the years.  Playing bass lines is a whole different feel and idea than focusing on melody.  Listen to bass lines on the radio.  Imitate them. Practice playing them on violin, viola or cello.  It is really fun.  And, it takes you another step in the journey to becoming a functional improviser.

Melody vs Off melody
  • Does the range blend with or cut through ensemble appropriately?
This is really important in my opinion.  Where is there space for notes in the tune?  Are you the primary melodic voice?  Or are you a secondary voice?  Listen to songs you like. Listen for the melody and for other voices that are responding to the melody.  Then, play over songs where you are the melody, then respond to the melody instead.  I use this skill all the time when accompanying in church and creating parts for singer/songwriters.

  • Importance of 2 and 4
  • Chops
  • Chords
  • Strum bowing
This is where classically trained players can be a little square.  Listen to popular music.  Listen to the snare drum.  Where is the weight of the pulse?  Usually on 2 and 4.  We need to get aware of this and try to imitate it.  There are numerous times that the string player provides a rhythmic role in a band.  What should you do?  

Blues patterns
  • Check out Blues back-tracks in various on Youtube.
  • Listen to blues artists and imitate them.  Play along a ton!
Every kid that learns the guitar in the garage starts here.  We need to spend some time on it. Listen. Imitate. Repeat.
Interpreting a lead sheet (the thought process)
  • Slightly modify the melody 
  • Think “Theme and Variations”
  • Build the piece dynamically
This is a skill that must be developed. It takes time. But all of the above skills will get you into the right ballpark.

The Art of Listening

There is no substitute for listening with purpose.  Think about the things you are hearing.  Think about the function of every voice that you hear in the tune.  

So, there you have it.  Let me know what you think.  And, good luck with your journey to improvisation.  It is so much fun to be able to express yourself without notes in front of you.  But, remember, it takes time.  So, get to work!


By the way, if you are really ready to dive into the world of creative strings and improvisation and want some individualized training, I highly recommend attending Christian Howes' Creative Strings Workshop as part of your summer professional development.  He's the best.  Hands down.  My son will be attending this summer.  I don't give a higher endorsement.

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