How to Practice Improvisation on Violin and Cello: A Case Study

how to improvise on violin
"Anatomy of a Groove" is an abbreviated case study that looks at many approaches to mastering a simple two-chord vamp. It's a glimpse into the curriculum that Creative Strings continues to develop through literature, instructional videos, outreach programming, podcasts, and much more.

anatomy of a groove christian howes

Are you wondering: How do I Improvise on Violin, Viola, or Cello?

Although classical musicians are taught to develop a balanced practice regimen from an early age, they often feel lost when it comes to practicing contemporary styles, improvisation, and related subjects.

Sound familiar?

Mastering improvisation on the violin requires a balanced practice regimen, just like mastering a concerto.  I’m laying out a common-sense approach to practicing improvisation in this 18-video playlist entitled “Anatomy of a Groove“. Watch it here:


Before I go through the contents, let’s rewind and think about the overview from which it stems.

Rather than glazing over the subject, I’d like to present a curriculum devoted to improvisation for classical string players.


Classical musicians need a curriculum that makes room for jazz but doesn’t depend on it.

Jazz curriculum can be alienating for classically trained musicians. They are more open to realms of musicianship in which the pursuit of jazz is not requisite.

Here are three pillars of a curriculum to expanding the training of classical musicians:
1) Musical Creativity: Improvisation, composition, and arranging
2) Harmony and Rhythm:
     a) internalizing and understanding harmony in terms of the construction of bass lines, inner voices, and melodies
     b) internalizing rhythmic claves or grooves
3) Exposure to a range of contemporary musical styles

“Creative Strings” podcasts, online courses, and outreach activities are designed to present strategies corresponding to these three pillars. Here is a breakdown of various modules which apply:

a) Tonal improvisation/arranging/composition.

Internalizing voice leading within basic chordal structures.

b) Internalize scales and modes:

Practical approaches to applying modal or scale-based improvisation

c) Blues- including cultural/historical,  literary, and musical basic analysis.
d) Non-tonal improvisation-  including solo, small ensemble, and large ensemble settings
e) Amplification and effects
f) Right-hand and left-hand techniques for string players relevant to contemporary styles and ways of playing


The video playlist above hits many of these subjects from the standpoint of learning a tune. The tune itself is based on a simple, funky. two-chord vamp, reminiscent of Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic” or Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”. The backing track was made using my Yamaha Electric Violin with simple effects and a loop pedal.

anatomy of a groove skills


How to practice 7th chord arpeggios on violin, viola, or cello

The harmonic structure of the vamp is outlined as a recurring progression of two chords. How to practice the 7th chord arpeggios is covered as one of many steps to internalizing the harmonic structure of this vamp.


How to create a bass line 

The process of creating a bass line is covered as well as some of the right-hand techniques available to play a funky bass line on violin, viola, or cello.


How to voice chords, play the “inner voices”, or comp on a bowed string instrument

1) Identify the 3rd and 7th of each chord.
2) Find the closest “voicing” on violin, viola, or cello so that you move the smallest possible distance between both double stops.
3) Apply rhythmic variations.

How to create comping patterns (from a rhythmic and technical standpoint)

1) Ghost arco at the tip of the bow
2) Chop at the frog of the bow
3) Strum guitar style, striking the strings on all subdivisions
4) Strumming guitar style, without striking the strings.


How to practice pentatonic scales 

This video covers efficient ways to practice and internalize pentatonic scales on violin, viola, or cello.


How to practice blues scales on violin, viola, or cello

Efficient ways to practice and internalize blues scales on violin, viola, or cello. The blues scale is just one workable strategy (of many) for creating effective improvisations.


How to identify the components of a good improvised solo

This video explains that, beyond the bass line, inner voices, and rhythmic structure, a good solo is comprised of diversity, repetition, and a “deep bag of tricks”, based on a series of criteria.


How to groove on violin, viola, and cello

One of the elements of any good solo or musical performance is groove. By monitoring your groove when you practice improvising, you can play concise or restrained ideas that are still compelling.

Using phrasing “algorithms” to expand your improvisation

Like harmony, rhythm, style, and other elements of improvisation, phrasing is an important way to build strong improvised solos. In this video, I discuss how to practice using “phrasing algorithms” to improvise on violin, viola, or cello.


Using motific development in your improvisation

This video covers ways to develop a motif.

How to improvise better by playing less

Here I discuss the “discipline of restraint”, to improvise better by playing less. Often we take unnecessary risks at the expense of the music. Instead, we can restrain ourselves to only play clearly distinct ideas, in the groove and in the changes.

How to evaluate your improvisation

Metrics of evaluation include phrasing, rhythm, pitch, tone, cohesion, variety, et al.  As you advance, record yourself and notice how your solos hold up against different measures. This is a way to constantly evolve your craft of improvisation in any style.

Playing cool (Jazz or blues-influenced) licks

In this wrap-up video, I give you a chance to test your ear and try to play licks back to me. Feel free to use the rewind button in this video demonstrating how to play jazz licks on violin, viola, and cello, or any instrument :)
Bonuses include a play-along video and a demo of how to use effects with electric violin, viola, or cello.
I hope you’ll agree that the question of how to improvise on violin, viola, and cello deserves a full-bodied curriculum.
“Anatomy of a Groove” is a case study that uses a simple two-chord vamp. This post is a tiny glimpse into the curriculum that Creative Strings offers through literature, instructional videos, outreach programming, podcasts, and more. Let us know what you think in the comments below and please do share and subscribe!





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