We need a clear, positive definition about what is missing from traditional classical-music education, including improvisation.
By Christian Howes
Christian Howes advocates for ‘creative string playing.’
(String players interested in studying my teaching related to improvisation, harmony, gear, music biz and more, check out my new Creative Strings Lesson Videos here
The so-called ‘alternative styles’ movement needs to be rebranded and a clear manifesto declared. In fact, the term itself is misleading and confusing. What does it really stand for? What are its members advocating? It’s like a political party without a clear message.
Much like a “party of no,” the term seems to rely on its opposition to the status quo of classical-music education, rather than standing for something. Like “alternative rock” or “alternative schools,” this term can only last for so long. Let’s find a clear, positive purpose, instead of saying “we are the other guys. ”
I mean, sure, I get that the movement advocates for the legitimacy of musical styles outside of classical music. But isn’t there more to it?
The term itself begs all sorts of other questions. For example, just which styles qualify as alternative? We should take a more comprehensive look at what’s been missing from classical-music education and encourage the development of these skill sets and knowledge.
But first, let me say, I’m both a proud Suzuki dad and a classically trained violinist. I’m on your side! I’m grateful for all the things I learned from my classical teachers. But there were some things missing, and these are what proponents of alternative styles should stand for.
1. Teach improvisation and composition
Classical-music education does not generally encourage or foster creativity in these ways. I would argue that improvisation and composition are among the most valuable aspects of music making and music education, and that this idea is in line with the value that every person is unique, with his or her unique contribution to make. Improvisation and composition should be valued as highly, or more highly, than anything else. After all, creativity is the ultimate equalizer (for example, there are many violinists who might play faster than me and more in tune, but because I’ve practiced so much improvisation, there is no one who can sound like me).
The cellist at the back of the section will always feel inferior to the principal cellist when measured only according to orchestral repertoire, but if the same cellist is encouraged to create his or her own music, then that musician also can be judged in terms of originality.
Think about your favorite artists. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Jimi Hendrix all stand out based on their originality and not just their virtuosity.
A common purist response to this notion goes something like this: before we teach improvisation, a student must first learn proper technique. But I’ve never heard any justification for this claim. In fact, I’d suggest that creativity, when taught early, helps to build better technique.
2. Teach the theoretical and analytical understanding of Music’s construction
Let’s face it, most classical musicians can’t listen to a song and tell you how it’s put together (i.e., the chords, the bass line, the groove). Mozart could do this because he understood how the various components of music fit together. Jazz musicians can do this because they train themselves to listen to the chord progression, the rhythmic clave, the bass lines, and so on, within the music. So they can take a song apart and put it back together.
Improvising over tonal music requires some kind of understanding about how chord progressions work and how to create a melody that goes over a chord progression. In free jazz, or avant-garde improvised music, chord progressions aren’t going to be an issue. But when talking about most popular tonal music, a musician needs to have some ability to analyze harmony, namely chords, in order to formulate an approach to improvising over chord progressions.
if you are interested in learning more about string improvisation, I recommend my new lesson videos plan
or check out the Creative Strings Workshop
At age 13, I was proud of the “ears” I had developed from my Suzuki training, but grew to find that my relative pitch had come with serious limitations, including an inability to pick out chords. Yet ear training and theory can be taught and studied in a way that yields a much higher return on our investment as string players.
To read the rest of what I wrote, please go to the article in Strings Magazine here:
To learn directly from me about improvisation, harmony, gear, music biz and more, check out my new Creative Strings Lesson Videos here
The Creative Strings video lessons are a great tool for learning improvisation and harmony on the violin for beginning and more advanced improvisers, and for everyone in between (like me!). The videos and Violin Harmony handbook really help fill in the gaps that other traditional improvisational systems leave. It’s wonderful to finally have a method specifically tailored to improvising on the violin that really understands the nuances of the instrument and can deliver the content in a fun, easy and creative way. Thank you Christian for sharing your knowledge and making this available to anyone who wishes to learn to improvise!
This is especially worthwhile for any string players (violinists, cellists, violists, etc…) interested in things such as jazz violin, blues cello, playing bluegrass on viola, free improvised music , etc…