ready to go past playing prescribed parts?

Perfect Practice – Jazz and Improvisation for Classical Violinists/Cellists

Perfect Practice
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).

My former classical violin teacher, the late and widely beloved Michael Davis, taught me many things as a classical musician that later influenced my study and teaching of Jazz and Eclectic styles on violin.

He insisted, “If you can’t finish everything in three hours, you’re not practicing efficiently.” The saying, “practice makes perfect,” wasn’t adequate in his view. Better to adopt the mantra, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

How can you streamline your practice if you want to go beyond playing prescribed parts?

Many of my students have developed practice habits conducive to making gains as technicians and classical players. These same habits often exclude their growth in “creative” studies. This does not suggest that practicing technique, harmony, and improvisation are mutually exclusive; quite the opposite is true.

It’s advantageous to consolidate the practice of all the skills that align with your values. 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 more profound sense of ownership in the problems solved.

You Are a Novice

Regardless of how long you have studied your instrument as a classical musician, consider yourself a novice when you begin studying jazz or improvisation.

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 classical instrumentalist and a novice in jazz or improvised music.

Studying improvisation, harmony, eclectic styles, and related subjects is a journey to obtain a new and different skill set. It will take time. Even accounting for the accrued mastery of your instrument, if we accept the 10,000 hours rule, you might want to allow yourself a few years.

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

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

If You Sound Good, You’re Probably Not Practicing

One of my most accomplished (Jazz leaning) students frequently arrives at his lesson with a list of concerns and questions, including tone 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 things I notice holding him back are related to harmony: “playing the (chord) changes.” This is a consistent issue that 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 give him exercises to internalize the harmony, and he avoids doing them.

I have to be vigilant in my practice to ensure I’m not practicing what is comfortable but rather addressing the gaps and uncomfortable areas. Every day you practice, you are faced with one crucial challenge: to practice effectively. Make it count.

Practice what will move the needle in skills aligned with your values. To do this, you must constantly clarify your values, vision, and goals. They may change over time. As this happens, your practice routine should change with it.

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 you don’t sound good doing or are uncomfortable with. Once you sound good and feel comfortable, it’s time to move on 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 internalize harmony, the understanding will never go away. I’ve covered these in many articles, videos, and courses, but here are some highlights:

  1. Articulate the chords on the violin in various forms (as double stops or arpeggios in all inversions or shapes), and be sure to play voice-led inversions properly when the chords fall into progressions. It’s not enough to play chords and arpeggios in the root position.
  2. Play 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, notice or transcribe the harmony instead of the melody. 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, especially pairs of chords.
  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 melodic patterns up and down in the first position, changing the scale through the chord progression.

Perfect Practice - Jazz and Improvisation for Classical Violinists 3

One can typically only focus on this kind of practice for so long. If you practice 2 hours a day, you might want to spend a third of your time drilling some harmonic exercise.  The good news is that your technique needn’t be neglected while you work on harmony. For that matter, you can also practice improvisation at the same time.

If you ignore this practice, you are just stalling. 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.


Ready to start?

Try hundreds of my free Play-Along lessons, which are suitable for many styles and at all levels.

Practice along with my Blues violin masterclass.

Practice along in the Jazz Manouche or Hot Club style to Avalon, Nuages, or Dark Eyes.

Practice along to a more advanced Jazz violin masterclass.

Practice along in Fiddle styles traditions like Bluegrass

Related posts:

50 Un-Jazz Improvisations for Unaccompanied Violin

Rez Abbasi- On Practice, Improvisation, & Composition: Creative Strings Podcast Ep. 30

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