Should Classical Violinists Learn to Improvise?

violinA few weeks ago the Washington Post published an article about musician Hannah Hanh and her struggles with improvisation.  As a classical violinist, she hadn’t had much training for spontaneity, naturally. The article points out improvisation as a technique that has fallen by the wayside for many performers these days. And it asks an interesting question: Can (and should) classical musicians learn to improvise?

We’ve talked a lot about improvising on the guitar and drums, but where do classically-trained musicians enter the picture?  Is the skill really necessary, and is it beneficial to learn?


In fact, most great composers – Bach, Mozart, Brahams – were known first for their improvisation skills before they continued on to pen history’s greatest tunes.

Even though you may not the chance for an improv solo on the concert stage (unless you’re part of a jazz group or training to be Lindsey Stirling’s understudy, that is), the ear training involved can certainly help any type of musician. Plus, it’s a great way to add a little excitement to your practice sessions!

To get you started, here are some great ideas for learning how to improv within your normal studies:

– Start with one note at a time.
Select a key and range, and then close your eyes and just play one note at a time.  Simply learning to trust yourself and your instincts is a great place to start.

– Work with other musicians.
Once you’ve learned to trust yourself, it’s important to know how to communicate (musically) with others. Ask a friend to play a scale, and improvise on top of it. Feel free to start with one note at a time, as mentioned above, and then move into simple phrases. Work on mirroring each other, harmonizing with each other, and bouncing ideas off one another.

– Listen.
Learning how to improvise doesn’t need to be limited to your instrument.  The next time you’re listening to a song, sing along with a harmony or add in phrasing where you see fit.  The key is to listen to what’s happening in the melody line, and understand where there are empty spaces.

– Add embellishments.
Think improvising needs to be complex?  Wrong!  Even if you’re just adding in an extra embellishment or ornamentation, you can consider yourself an improviser.  Feel where it should belong in the music, and take it from there.

– Jump in.
The best advice you’ll receive when trying to learn how to improvise is just to jump in and do it.  Sure, you can teach someone music theory, but learning to trust your instincts takes practice – a lot of it.  So dive in.  Don’t be afraid to play a wrong note, because really, there are no wrong notes. Once you truly understand that freedom, run wild with it and have some fun.

Readers, what other tips have helped you learn to improvise?  Leave a comment below, or stop by our Facebook page to share them with the community!



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Photo by M-Tradeau.

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