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

anatomy of a groove christian howes


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

Sound familiar?

Mastering improvisation requires a balanced practice regimen, just like mastering a concerto, which is why I’m laying out a common sense approach to practicing improvisation in a new 18-video playlist entitled “Anatomy of a Groove“. Watch it, save it to watch later, or share it here:



I’d love to hear your thoughts on the playlist. Feel free to comment below this post.

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


The conversation within the classical community around improvisation and contemporary styles is convoluted, and the main reason for this is that classical musicians and educators, most of whom have only had cursory introductions to improvisation and contemporary styles, are unable to see the forest for the trees.


Rather than glazing over the subject, I’d like to see consensus develop around a curriculum, i.e.,  an extensive collection of lessons/skills/knowledge.


Jazz teachers around the world have developed a type of curriculum, but it can be alienating for classically trained musicians who aren’t looking to go “all in” and become outright jazzers. Classical musicians need a curriculum which makes room for jazz but doesn’t depend on it. They should be open to new realms of musicianship in which the pursuit of jazz is not requisite.

Here are three pillars of a prospective curriculum for expanding the musical 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 reasonable range of contemporary musical styles


“Creative Strings” podcasts, online courses, summer conference, and outreach activities are based around presenting the body of information corresponding to these three pillars. Here is a break down of various modules which apply:

a) Tonal improvisation/arranging/composition.  A major component of this involves internalizing voice leading relationships within basic harmonic structures common in contemporary popular music.
b) Internalizing scales and modes: practical approaches to applying the use of modal/scale-based improvisation and composition
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 these genres and applications


The video playlist above hits many of these subjects from the standpoint of a case study – an approach to learning a new tune. The tune itself is based on a simple two chord vamp. Hence, an “Anatomy of a Groove”:

anatomy of a groove skills

The funky two-chord vamp is reminiscent of Grover Washington’s “Mr. Magic” or Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon”, and the backing track was made using my Yamaha Electric Violin with simple effects and a loop pedal.


How to practice arpeggios 

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


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 bass line on violin, viola, or cello


How to voice chords (aka play the inner voices)

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) Ghosting arco at the tip of the bow
2) Chopping at the frog of the bow
3) Strumming guitar style striking the strings on all subdivisions
4) Strumming guitar style without striking the strings on all the subdivisions


How to practice pentatonic scales 

Efficient ways to practice and internalize pentatonic scales on violin, viola, or cello


How to practice blues scales 

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 on violin, viola, or cello.


How to identify the components of a good solo

This introduces the second half of our playlist and explains that, beyond being informed by a knowledge of the bass line, inner voices, and rhythmic structure, a good solo is comprised of diversity, repetition, and made more feasible when you have a “deep bag of tricks”, based on a series of criterion.


How to groove on violin, viola, and cello

One of the elements of any good solo or musical performance has to do with how to groove. Whether on violin, viola, or cello, or any other instrument really makes no difference! By monitoring your groove factor when you practice improvising, you can play concise or restrained ideas that are still compelling.


Using phrasing “algorithms”


Like harmony, rhythm, style, and many other elements of improvising a solo, the element of phrasing is a good one to focus on in order 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 


Here I discuss strategies for using motific development in your improvisations.


How to improvise better by playing less


Here I discuss the “discipline of restraint”, also known as the discipline of improvising better by playing less. Often we make the mistake when improvising of taking too many unnecessary risks at the expense of the music. In other words, we can restrain ourselves to only play when the lines we play will be clear distinct ideas, grooving, in the changes, etc..


Criterion for grading your improvisations 


In this video I discuss criterion for grading, or scoring/measuring, your improvisations. Criterion could include phrasing, rhythm, pitch, tone, cohesion, surprise/diversity, or others you might think of. While it’s important for beginning improvisers to remove all judgement, the more you advance, the more useful it is to record yourself and notice how your solos hold up against different measures. This should never be something you take personally, but rather a way to constantly evolve your craft of improvisation on violin, viola, cello or any instrument, in any style.


Playing cool 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 cool jazz licks on violin, viola, and cello, or any instrument :)


And more bonuses… some “play after me” videos, and a special exclusive on how to use effects with electric violin/cello.


I hope you’ll agree with me that the subject deserves a full-bodied curriculum. “Anatomy of a Groove” is an abbreviated case study that looks at many approaches to mastering a simple two-chord vamp. It’s a tiny glimpse into the curriculum that Creative Strings continues to develop through literature, instructional videos, outreach programming, podcasts, and much more. Let us know what you think in the comments below and please do share and subscribe!