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Jazz violin | How to Practice & Play Jazz on Violin

 Learning how to play jazz violin is elusive for many reasons which I will discuss in this post. I will share two approaches to jazz violin for beginners so you can decide the best path for you.

Can you play Jazz on a violin?

 You can play Jazz on any instrument.  Is the violin considered jazz? Yes.

However, many violinists become discouraged from studying Jazz on the violin. I’ll explain why it is uncommon for classical players to learn Jazz and what you can do to overcome these challenges

Why is it Hard for violinists to learn Jazz improvisation?

The culture of music education

Most violinists learn music in a culture of classical music. The spaces, exercises, and community around violin teaching are devoted to studying the skills and perspectives taught in classical music.

These skills include keys, rhythmic and harmonic language, measuring musicality, and more. Because the paradigms and communities within music education are so different, Jazz feels like a different world for classical violinists.

Amplification

When playing with drummers and horn players the violin is hard to hear, both by the player and the audience. It is necessary to acquire amplification or play electric violin, which adds a barrier for violinists.

Before deciding how to amplify your violin, educate yourself about the pros and cons of an acoustic instrument pickup vs solid body electric instrument, the best amps for bowed strings, and how to use loop pedals with a bowed string instrument.

You’ll also want to know the basics of effects and how to achieve a good clean amplified sound, per this video below.

 How do you Practice Jazz Violin?

First, a distinction can be made between learning Jazz vs learning improvisation, harmony, and functional musicianship.

The term Jazz is used to mean different things by different people. A narrow definition of the sound of Jazz includes learning songs from the Real book with specific melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic language. This is arguably a difficult task that takes years.

To the question “Who is the best Jazz violinist?”, many historic and currently famous jazz violin players have demonstrated a love of jazz in their own personal ways, including Stuff Smith, Claude Williams, John Blake Jr (see tribute), Joe Venuti, Regina Carter (see interview) , Didier Lockwood, Eddie Lang, Michal Urbaniak, Jean Luc Ponty (see interview), Stephane Grappelli, Leroy Jenkins, Ray Nance, Zach Brock, Eddie South, Billy Bang, Svend Asmussen, Johnny Frigo, Ornette Coleman, and others. While these players are widely cited as among the biggest influences, the point of creative art is not to win, but rather, to make a personal statement. 

If you are a classically trained violinist you may be better off studying the fundamentals of improvisation, harmony, and rhythm as a bridge and first step to learning jazz improvisation.

I will discuss share differences between both of these approaches so you can decide whether to begin immediately studying Jazz, or rather begin to improvise in eclectic styles first and become a creative violinist. 

Starting with a broader “bridge” approach does not preclude you from learning Jazz.

Easier: Learn to improvise in eclectic non-jazz styles

Here are reasons why it is easier to begin studying harmony, rhythm, and improvisation in non-jazz styles.

  • Rhythm– Part of what makes Jazz difficult to learn for classical musicians is swing rhythm. Classical musicians are generally more accustomed to playing duple rhythms, while swing can be characterized loosely as being based on triplets. Beyond learning swing bowing techniques, the greater challenge is internalizing swing rhythm in your head. If you begin improvising in other rhythmic forms such as Bluegrass, pop, EDM, bossa-nova, Samba, Tango, or Rock, you will benefit from playing over rhythms you feel more used to, especially if you want to play in a fast style.
  • Scales- In many popular genres one can use the major scale or the pentatonic scale. These scales only go so far in Jazz. If you begin improvising with scales that are familiar, you’ll experience more early success.
  • Chords– Chord progressions in pop, rock, folk and some Latin songs can feel more familiar and easier to navigate.

A benefit of joining rock, blues, R&B, folk ensembles etc.. is that it is easier to gain access and fill a basic musical role. This is not to say that playing other styles well is necessarily easier than playing Jazz well. Just that filling a basic role may be easier. For example, you can learn the basics of how to join a band, which itself has a lot of etiquette and will be an important influence on meshing with Jazz bands when you’re ready. You will gain familiarity with arranging your own parts, playing the role of accompanist, and befriending the rhythm section. This can act as a “bridge” to becoming a jazz violinist, and it can pay some bills while you’re practicing to be ready for playing a Jazz festival or club under your own name, or as a side person in someone else’s jazz band

How To become a Jazz Violinist

1. Learn tunes. It's more than what you think

You’re not just going to learn the melody of the tunes. You should learn tunes in the following ways:
  • bass line,
  • the arpeggios,
  • the 3rds and 7ths,
  • as well as the scales.

Which tunes to learn

First, let’s consider the types of tunes, both harmonic forms, and rhythmic forms. There are dozens of albums where you can listen to these.

Harmonic Song Forms

  • 32 bar major includes songs like All of me, Take the A Train, …..
  • 32 minor includes
  • Modal tunes include So What, Impressions, Little Sunflower
  • Blues tunes include Billie’s Bounce,
  • Rhythm Changes are based off the chord progression to I’ve Got Rhythm by George Gershwin. Other contrafaqs (songs based on same chord progression with different melodies) include Confirmation, Oleo, and others

These harmonic forms themselves may not be more complex than songs in other styles. However the chords used often are. For example, a song such as Honeysuckle Rose which is 32 bar major, can be played in a way that uses less chords and less complex chords. A jazz player’s treatment of the song will often include reharmonizations as well as a denser harmonic rhythm (more chords per bar).

This goes back to why I suggested considering working on songs for a couple of years with simpler or more familiar harmonic structures as a bridge to Jazz.  For example, if you learn a traditional Mariachi song or a Pop song you might get by with learning 3 triads, vs nine 7th chords in a jazz song. For many classical players this type of bridge provides the best start.

Rhythmic forms

Another way to think of rhythmic forms is by asking the question, “What is the groove of the song?”

  • Latin Jazz includes Blue Bossa, Black Orpheus…  Caveat: The term “Latin” or “latin Jazz groove” does not do justice to the diversity of Latin styles and grooves. There are many types of Latin song forms including Tango, Bossa Nova, Choro, Samba, Meringue, and Flamenco, which itself includes 6 popular forms….
  • Medium Swing
  • Fast swing
  • Ballad
  • Waltz
  • Funk

Depending on how you define the term Jazz, a broader definition of rhythmic forms could include “global music” such as Flamenco, Tango, as well as Indian ragas, Appalachian bluegrass, Celtic, Balkan, as well as popular grooves like rock, EDM, House, or Hip-Hop,

Swing itself is arguably a more challenging groove for classical players because it is based on triplets and because it has a particular clave or “rationale”- meaning that accents can be placed in specific places in the bar.

This goes back to why I suggest you consider working on songs with more familiar grooves as a bridge to Jazz.

2. Learn Transcriptions of great Jazz and swing solos 

Pros and Cons of learnin by ear or through reading Written transcriptions

There is a good deal of debate about whether or how far you should go to learn transcriptions. Some people suggest you learn and memorize solos completely by ear. I think it depends on what type of learner you are and how strong you are at reading music. If you read well, there’s a benefit in reading jazz transcriptions. Because you will get melodies in your fingers and ears easily and quickly. Of course, it is absolutely necessary that even when reading, you are listening to the original solo to mimic the nuances of phrasing.  Some people argue that this is why it’s important to learn solos by ear. Again, I would say that if you have a sharp ear and memory, and if learning by ear feels good to you, go for it. There’s no harm in mixing both approaches.

Learn violin solo transcriptions, but definitely learn solos by other instruments (not classical instruments) including saxophone players as well.

Because the lexicon of Jazz is informed by a large “conversation” of recordings featuring all the individuals who made a contribution in their own way, there are more influential pianists, guitarists, sax, trumpet, and vocalists than violinists. And often violinists have copied the phrasing of other instrumentalists as well. It’s beneficial to consult the source.

Some of my available violin transcriptions include hot swinglatin, and funky

3. Bow Techniques for Groove and Swing

Whether you play swing-based rhythms and go all out to master Jazz, or whether you join bands that play non-jazz styles such as folk, rock, pop, blues, R&B, or Latin, you will need to learn a different approach to bowing, and there are a few reasons why:

1.Rhythm is felt differently by classical musicians. In jazz and/or any type of groove-based music, the pulse is important to keep steady and is marked by a clear beginning of the sound. Often in classical music, this is not true.

2. Rhythm becomes a more important (or different) focus than projection in groove-based music.

Groove Bowing

A major goal of classical violin playing is projection. This requires using a lot of bow. It also requires planning bowings and practicing these pre-planned bowings.

When improvising, especially on groove-based music, it is important to prioritize rhythm over the projection.

There are several ways to organize this practice explained in this video:

Swing Bowing | a special sub-category of groove bowing

Some things to keep in mind for swing bowing which are different from classical bowing technique include

  • mix of slurring and separate bows
  • amount of bow to use
  • articulation
  • placement within the bow

Study harmonic & Rhythmic Language 2 WAYS

  1. Study licks. Learn 2 or 4-bar phrases and transpose them into several keys.  This is the equivalent of learning harmonic or rhythmic anecdotes.
  2. Study the DATA of harmony and rhythm. This is also known as voice leading. Voice leading on bowed string instruments is especially problematic for a few reasons. To master voice-leading without giving up altogether or delaying the process it’s important to have the right system.
Some musicians study licks. Some study voice leading. I recommend doing both.
When we break down rhythmic data, we can find many exercises to internalize rhythmic information. When we break down Harmonic data in a Jazz context, there are several specific subsets you should know

Voice leading Scales on 7th chords

Pentatonic and Blues scales, Diminished, Whole tone, Melodic minor, Major bebop and Dominant bebop scales are common scales used in Jazz.

Each of these scales has specific applications over different types of chords.

To avoid common pitfalls, there are recommended ways to learn jazz scales on violin faster

Voice Leading Chords and Arpeggios on 7th chords

Before working on 7th chords, I recommend you build a harmonic foundation with triads.

The most common 7th chords are minor 7, major 7, and dominant 7.

Next are half-diminished, fully-diminished, and minor major 7 chords.

There are many more forms of chords. 7th chord arpeggios should be memorized individually and then in combination with voice leading.

The process of practicing and memorizing arpeggios can be discouraging if it is not organized. To avoid overwhelm, use a system that makes it easier to memorize chord shapes on a bowed string instrument.

An Often Missed Secret

Practicing Free improvisation, when structured correctly, can give a classical player huge advantages for many reasons.

While it is usually not recommended for beginning Jazz musicians, I believe classical musicians uniquely benefit from splitting a part of their practice to play in the Chromatic Universe.

The creative process is separate and different from the learning process in our mind. If your time and energy is spent memorizing new information you will easily become tired. A big reason people give up on improvisation is that they are trying to be creative over musical material which they have not yet sufficiently studied and learned. Chromatic and/or non-tonal improvisation allows you to be creative regardless of your current technical or theoretical level of knowledge or ability. It also allows you to get more from your practice time by using a different part of your brain and staying focused.

Structured free improvisation provides a way to strengthen creative muscles, develop a personal language, and sound original in any style

Conclusion

Now you have:

  • A general map: how to study Jazz improvisation on violin, cello, or viola. 
  • An alternative: a “bridge” to Jazz applying harmony, groove, and improvisation in other styles, aka gaining fundamental skills of a functional/creative musician. 

Next Steps

There are many resources linked above to help you practice and understand individual steps of the journey to becoming a more functional, creative musician.

To stream my courses and books covering all of these individual steps, take a trial of my DIY home study course.

You’ll want a practice plan that considers your holistic goals, (whether professional or amateur), your learning style, resources, and what you want your musical life to look like.

This can best be accomplished with the support of a mentor.

Having mentored thousands of string players from many abilities and backgrounds, I recommend you book a private lesson with me. In our lesson, I will help you reach your goals and avoid common pitfalls.

New students can take a Free private lesson with me with a trial of Creative Strings Academy.

Also consider my weekly group classes, where you will play the whole time with my prompts. Unlike typical violin lessons, we go through fundamentals of harmony, groove, improvisation AND Jazz.

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