Founder's Blog

Teaching improvisation

The most common question I get from violin teachers is “How do you teach improvisation?”

A high school orchestra teacher told me about her attempts to introduce this musical skill. She asked the students to, one-at-a-time, take turns improvising over a simple chord progression.

Her students were paralyzed by a fear of failure. None of the 30+ musicians would consider this request and the effort to teach improvisation died on the first day.

When I teach improvisation, the students that have the least resistance are the very youngest players. Children that are under 9 or 10 years-old happily improvise. We trade phrases back and forth. They feel safe and free from judgement.

Once children hit 10 or so, they are starting to compare and judge themselves and others.

There are many ways to develop improvisational confidence. Like learning to swim, it is better to start in a shallow area — a group of 2 or 3 musicians. Confine yourselves to just a few notes.

And while, technically, there is no ‘failure’ in improvisation, students soon begin to quickly learn when a note works and when it doesn’t.

Papa John Creach, a great blues violinist once described his strategy of musical mistakes. “When I hit a wrong note, I go back and hit it again to make people think I meant it.”

Not that I encourage doubling-down on mistakes, but his story does give you a clue as to how much a musician’s confidence plays into the experience for both the performer and the listener.