Perfect Practice – Jazz and Improvisation for Classical Violinists/Cellists

My former classical violin teacher, the late and widely beloved Michael Davis, taught me many things which influenced me as a classical musician and later came to influence my growth in jazz.

 

Regarding the amount of time spent practicing daily, he insisted, “if you can’t get everything done in three hours, you’re not practicing efficiently.” In his view, the saying, “practice makes perfect,” wasn’t adequate. Better to adapt the mantra, “perfect practice makes perfect.”
Many of my students have developed practice habits conducive to making gains as a technician and classical player. Often though, these same habits become detrimental to growth in “creative” studies. This is not to suggest that practicing technique and jazz/improvisation are mutually exclusive; quite the opposite is true.

 

It’s advantageous to consolidate improvisation practice with technical practice. For example, one can focus on technical issues such as string crossing, bow control, intonation, double stops, etc. all while improvising – this kills two birds with one stone, and offers the added advantages of 1) developing technique beyond the “given” and limited possibilities of the classical repertoire and 2) providing the student with a deeper sense of ownership in the problems solved.

 

You Are a Novice

Regardless of how many years you have studied your instrument or classical music, the moment you begin to study jazz or improvisation, you should think of yourself as a novice.

 

Accepting this is difficult, because you have come to identify yourself as an expert. Both can be true, i.e., that you are an expert musician and instrumentalist, and at the same time a novice in jazz or improvised music.

 

In studying improvisation or jazz, you are embarking upon a journey to obtain an entirely new and different skill set. It will take time. In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell refers to a study which holds up the “10,000 hour rule,” i.e., it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years at 3 hours per day, to effectively master any given discipline. Even accounting for your accrued mastery on your instrument, you might want to allow yourself a few years.

 

 

For many musicians switching from classical to jazz, the discomfort of accepting your new status as a “novice” is intolerable. It can threaten one’s self-esteem and cause all sorts of defensive thoughts/behaviors to arise. One of these is denial.

 

The sooner you accept the truth about where you are in your development, the sooner you can begin to make progress. You still get to take credit for the mastery that you have developed over years of practice. You have a lot to be proud of in taking the plunge into something new. Ultimately, by forging ahead in a discipline which is totally new to you, you will come out stronger for it.

 

If You Sound Good, You’re Probably Not Practicing

One of my most accomplished students frequently arrives to his lesson with a list of concerns and questions including things such as sound production, shoulder rests, posture, etc. These are all good questions for approaching classical music, but they strike me as distractions for a jazz student.

 

Most of the things I notice holding him back are related to gaps in his grasp of harmony; “playing the (chord) changes.” This is a consistent thing that comes up which he continues to evade. It’s not that he can’t execute ideas on the violin – it’s that he can’t conceive of the ideas because the harmony is challenging and eluding him. I continually give him exercises for internalizing the harmony, and he continually avoids doing them.

 

I have to be ever vigilant in my own practice to make sure I’m not “practicing” what is comfortable, but rather addressing the gaps, the uncomfortable areas. Every day you practice you are faced with one crucial challenge, which is to practice effectively. Make it count. Practice the things that matter.

 

Michael Davis once also told me, “if you sound good, you’re probably not practicing.” Most of your practice time should be devoted to things which you don’t sound good doing, or you’re uncomfortable with. Once you sound good and feel comfortable, it’s time to move to something else. This is equally true for classical players.

 

 

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

 

Concerning growth in jazz or contemporary styles, there are several ways you can go about drilling harmony such that, over time, you assimilate and internalize the information (and once you have internalized harmony, the understanding will never go away). I’ve covered these in other articles, but to recap:
1) Articulate the chords on the violin in various forms (as double stops or arpeggios in all inversions or shapes), being sure to play properly voice-led inversions when the chords fall into progressions. It’s not enough to play chords and arpeggios in root position.
2) Play the voice-led chords on the piano (or guitar). You can also play the root/3rd/7th in the left hand on the piano and improvise, rubato, in the right hand.
3) When listening to music, focus on the harmony instead of the melody. Transcribe the harmony in any music you listen to. When in doubt, refer to the bass line for help. If needed, sing the bass line up an octave to find your starting pitch.
4) Play voice-led arpeggios or double stops of chord progressions, including both chord pairs and/or longer progressions.
5) Harmonize melodies or solos in double stops, either as diatonic thirds, 4ths, 6ths, 7ths, or 2nds.
6) Play 3rds and 7ths of chords in various comping styles. Play root/3rd/7th voicings of chords. Play voice-led upper extensions of chords. Walk bass lines.
7) Harmonize the melody by landing on the downbeat of each chord with any combination of root/3rd/7th
8) Play 4-note melodic patterns up and down first position, changing the scale through the chord progression.

Perfect Practice - Jazz and Improvisation for Classical Violinists 3

One is typically only able to focus on this kind of practice for so long. So, if you practice 2 hours in a day, you might want to spend a third to half of your time drilling these harmonic exercises. The rest of the time can be spent on other things.

But if you ignore this practice, you are just stalling. It will never come easily, and there’s no way around it. You have to practice the important things or you will just be living in denial,  and on some deep level, you will be frustrated. On the other hand, make these a regular part of your practice and you will see results over time. The rewards are worth it.

 

 

Sign up for a free trial to learn improvisation with me online at the Creative Strings Academy. Learn more about the intensive week-long Creative Strings Workshop.

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