Approaching Improvisation as a Classical Violinist

How I took my first steps towards improvising.

Note: This is a shorter version of my bachelor thesis with the same title, which can be found in full here.


There is a story about Niccolò Paganini which dates back to 1825. Paganini was playing at the Teatro Del Falcone in Genoa and was asked by King Charles Felix to give an encore of a piece the king had liked during a performance in Genoa. But since Paganini had improvised, he was unable to repeat the performance and is said to have given this as his answer. As a result, he is said to have been expelled from the Kingdom of Sardinia for two years. The episode is the origin of the Italian expression “Paganini non ripete” - “Paganini does not repeat”.

Approaching improvisation as a classical musician may feel daunting - our identities are usually strongly tied to a canonized repertoire where the goal is to realize the composer’s intentions as closely as possible. The practice of improvisation is most often absent in the education of classical musicians today, even though it had a central part in European art music in previous centuries.

I will share some of my thoughts and methods on how one could overcome this barrier. Like much else in music, improvisation is something that has to be practiced if you want to improve, and I will provide some exercises, or games that I found useful for this purpose.

How Do You Improvise?

Improvisation, it is a mystery. You can write a book about it, but by the end, no one still knows what it is. When I improvise and I’m in good form, I’m like somebody half-sleeping. I even forget that there are people in front of me. Great improvisers are like priests, they are thinking only of their God.

Stéphane Grappelli Frets Magazine, 1981

Improvisation is, as Stéphane Grappelli pointed out, an elusive and puzzling concept since it concerns creative processes that largely occur on subconscious levels. So how can approach improvisation in a systematic way? During a conversation with musician Arve Henriksen, a trumpeter who has much experience playing in different contexts, he gave me the recommendation to use the skills I learned as a classically trained violinist as much as possible when improvising, or in other words use the abilities one already possesses. He also mentioned a set of three methods that are useful when approaching improvisation, namely: imitating, copying, and composing.


Imitation can be used in an improvisational context to both respond to something we hear and to express certain ideas. Imitating does not mean we have to replicate something perfectly. We can imitate someone playing a different instrument than ours by perceiving a certain feeling of rhythm, tone, style, or other expression. We can also imitate sounds that are not generated by an instrument at all, such as bird song or the sound of an engine.

To use a realistic example, assume that we want to improvise in the early hot club-style jazz of Grappelli. We can choose to imitate his bowings, vibrato and accents. The notes we play might differ completely from the ones Grappelli are playing and might not sound great in the beginning, but by imitating some of the basic elements of the “style”, we have found an entry point towards starting to improvise. To make an analogy, in order to adapt to a new culture or social context, one can imitate what other people are doing in order to learn its manners and conventions.


Copying is an element that is closely related to imitation. Whilst it might appear contradictory to consider copying as a method of approaching improvisation, it can be a useful tool to unlock doors to musical freedom. Similar to someone learning a new language by repeating new words and phrases, we can try to copy other musicians to learn a new musical language.

This can be done practically by transcribing or by copying phrases or licks. If we play a piece exactly like someone else played it, we might not consider it to be improvisation. However, similar to when we speak, we use phrases or idioms that we know, yet we have the freedom of choosing when and where to use them, as well as the option to vary and change them in our own way.


The last element of improvisation can be considered to be composing something new in the moment. One can argue that all great compositions (along with art and literature for that matter) once started as improvisations. This might be the most obscure of the mentioned methods - how are we able to create new musical ideas from nothing? The philosophical answer might be that we generate ideas from everything around us along with all our experiences. Although I also believe that there are more practical and systematic ways of creating music in the moment, I believe one has to come up with and explore one’s own methods of doing so.

Personally, I found some compositional methods particularly useful, specifically on the violin. One way is to play with patterns, for example by repeating a certain fingering pattern on different strings, as well as trying out different permutations. Another is to use a certain hand frame by for example, arpeggiating a major/minor sixth on two strings and transposing it to different places on the fingerboard, with a third (and perhaps fourth) open string being played simultaneously, creating some interesting harmonies. I also believe knowing music theory is an important element to composing, since by rationally knowing what notes belong to a certain chord or key, we can improvise by combining these notes in different patterns and rhythms that work in a harmonic context.

Improvisation Inspiration

These are some of the videos and sites that I found particularly useful when approaching improvisation as a violinist. I believe the ideas and techniques they showcase can be applied to improvisation in any genre or tradition.

Darol Anger’s 8 Paths of Improvisation

Here, Darol Anger presents 8 techniques to improvise over a tune, and I find them to be a good starting point for improvising over a melody in any genre. To summarize the video, the 8 techniques are:

  1. Ornamentation
  2. Adding eighth notes between melody notes
  3. Changing the rhythm of the melody
  4. Developing motives/fragments of the melody
  5. Arpeggiating chord changes
  6. Adding an additional voice to the melody or harmony
  7. Combining “licks”, or already learned patterns
  8. “Free” improvisation - playing without any rules

Improvisation in Indian Classical Music

Although improvisation is largely absent from today’s Western classical music, it is an integral part of Indian classical music. This site provides a practical introduction to the basic improvisatory elements of a raga, which is a great musical format to explore improvisation. Briefly, a raga consists of three main parts:

  1. Vistar - An elaborative part with free tempo, where the tonality of the raga is introduced.
  2. Jod - A middle segment where a steady pulse is introduced.
  3. Taan - A final section where notes are played in rapid sequences, often with an element of surprise.

The Chop

If you aren’t familiar with chopping, it is a percussive technique where the bow is dropped and dragged down the length of the string rather than perpendicular to it. I found that when improvising with other musicians, being able to play the rhythm is a great way to fill the musical space when you’re not playing the melody. Chris Haigh’s video is a great introduction to learning different chopping patterns that can be used in different musical genres and contexts.

The Art of the Groove

The Turtle Island String Quartet was a large spark in my curiosity for improvisation, mixing classical music with elements of jazz and folk music. In their lecture series, “The Art of the Groove” from 2000, they showcase how traditional string quartet musicians can take on different roles. The players are constantly switching between 4 different main duties:

  1. Providing a beat
  2. Providing harmony
  3. Playing the melody or improvising over it
  4. Playing fills or a countermelody

Practicing Improvisation

I believe that a good starting point to improvisation is to limit oneself to a certain ruleset, in the form of an exercise or a kind of musical game. Below you can find a list of some of the exercises I came up with, incorporating the elements of copying, imitation, and composing to different degrees. One of my goals when creating these was to approach improvisation in a multifaceted and open-minded way, without being tied to a certain genre, culture or tradition. I consider these exercises to be of more of an inspirational rather than formal nature, so feel free to change and improvise with them so to speak!

Solo Exercises

Exercise 1: Find the Note

Sing a random note or multiple notes, then try to find them on the violin as fast as you can.


Increase the number of notes you sing before playing them. You can also choose to restrict yourself to a certain position on the violin. Some apps play random notes with adjustable tempos.


This is a fairly simple exercise, yet it trains the fundamental ability to play what you hear, something not commonly practiced in classical music education. When doing this exercise, I find myself listening for recognizable intervals or relations to tonal centers, but mostly I try to go by and let the fingers guide me.

Exercise 2: Imitating Birds

Freely improvise with sounds that imitate birds.


Imitate other animals, or sounds from other objects (a train) or landscapes (a forest).


Connecting music to mental images can be a useful tool to come up with improvisational ideas. You also have to be inventive and creative when you reproduce non-instrumental sounds on your instrument, perhaps using unconventional techniques or even creating new ones. It is also a freedom to play something on the violin without having to think about the musical context, and instead shifting the focus towards sounds.

Exercise 3: Scat Singing

With a metronome set to ♩=60, sing a phrase with a swing feel, then try to repeat it on the violin.


Experiment with the length of the phrases. You can also try to perform call and response, alternating between singing and playing every phrase. Finally, you can also try to sing and play at the same time.


This exercise was inspired by a video by jazz violinist Eva Slongo. When we sing, we get a natural feel for phrasing and rhythm that is desirable to mimic on our instrument. When combining the two means of expression, we are thus reinforcing the connection between them. This exercise is also a good opportunity to practice how bowing affects phrasing.

Exercise 4: Improvising within a Scale

Choose a scale. Play a continuous stream of notes of the same length, but avoid repetition of the same intervals.


Try out different subdivisions in your chosen tempo, such as quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, as well as triplets.


As classical musicians, we are often used to practicing scales ascending and or descending stepwise. While this is certainly useful for playing classical repertoire, we can most often play more melodically when mixing intervals. Getting other scale patterns in your fingers is thus a helpful tool to play a solo in other genres.

Exercise 5: Double-Stop Melody

Choose a scale and a double-stop interval. Improvise a melody with these two elements, always playing two notes simultaneously.


Try out thirds, sixths, octaves, fourths, and fifths, or more tricky intervals like tenths. You can also improvise a melody with a combination of several double-stop intervals.


Double-stops are another element of classical violin playing, that is expected to be prac- ticed with ascending and descending, stepwise motion. However, I often identify a lack of progress and motivation when doing this type of practice. When instead improvising a melody, I find my left hand being much more relaxed and my ears more open.

Exercise 6: Feeling the Pentatonic Scale

Find a backing track in any minor key. Play a solo in the pentatonic scale of the tonic.


Add notes to the scale, such as the flatted 5th, the 9th, major 7th (E-flat, B natural, and G-sharp in the key of A-minor).


This exercise was inspired by videos with the musician [Rotem Sivan] ( ). The pentatonic scale is a very useful tool to approach improvisation since it works well over many diatonic chords in the same key in genres such as jazz, pop, and rock. When doing this exercise, I try to focus on creating melodic lines, and on tension and release - especially when adding notes to the scale for variation.

Exercise 7: One String with Drone

Improvise freely on either the A, D, or E string, while simultaneously playing a drone/bourdon using the open string below.


Try playing either very fast or very slow.


I like this exercise for multiple reasons. Firstly, it forces you to practice on the whole string, which is often avoided, especially on the A and D strings. Secondly, by adding a drone you become more aware of what notes you are playing when improvising, by feeling their relation to the drone’s root note. Finally, I found this exercise a good opportunity to practice being relaxed when performing shifts, only using my head on the chin rest when shifting downwards.

Exercise 8: Mini Raga

Pick a scale and play a (tanpura) drone with its root note in the background. Improvise with notes from the scale in the style of a raga.


Begin with a free tempo (alap). Optionally build on with more rhythmical sections (a jor and a jhala). Finally, you can add a rhythmic cycle (tala) to the jhala with a chosen number of beats.


This exercise provides a fun way to explore any tonality. Using a drone in the background makes you aware of the intervals between the melody and the root note, but also makes intonation easier. Having multiple “sections” in mind also forces you to plan ahead and think about the overall structure of your improvisation.

Exercise 9: Two Note Blues

* Play along to a twelve-bar blues backing track in any key. You are only allowed to play 2 notes of your choice.*


Allow the notes to be played in any octave, or increment the number of chosen notes. Try to play in keys that you are not too comfortable in.


This exercise was recounted in an interview with Fiona Monbet, who in turn learned it from her teacher, Didier Lockwood. It is a great example of how restrictions can open new doors in your playing. In this case, you can for example focus on rhythm and how you use the bow to generate a groovy sound in a blues, a musical form that is found in many different contexts.

Exercise 10: Improvising over a Tune

* Pick a tune with chords and a melody you know by heart. With a metronome giving the beat, improvise within the structure of the tune.*


Try out tunes from different genres, such as folk melodies, pop songs, or jazz standards.


Being able to improvise around a melody is a fundamental skill in many genres, yet it can be tricky to know how to approach the concept. I find the techniques by Darol Anger to be a good starting point and apply them to a tune you like. This exercise also makes you more aware of the harmonic context of the melody line, something often omitted when playing a melodic instrument such as the violin.

Exercises for Two (or More) Musicians

Exercise 11: Pass the Note

Stand with your back against your musician friend and vice versa. One plays a note on their instrument and the other tries to find it as fast as possible. Then you pass a new note back to your friend.


Increment the number of notes passed each turn, or include double-stops.


This is an ear-training exercise that is very similar to Exercise 1, but being two musicians has the benefit of both being fun and allowing you to be more versatile with the rules.

Exercise 12: Counterpoint with Half and Eighth Notes

One musician begins by playing two half notes. When finished, eighth notes are played instead, while the other musician joins by playing half notes, followed by eighth notes, and so on.


Either decide on a tonality beforehand or rely solely on your ears. If you are more than two musicians, you can add quarter notes and whole notes.


This exercise was inspired by a video by the musicians Adam Neely and Ben Levin. I find that there are two main ways of approaching this exercise. The first is free counterpoint, which allows you to be progressive harmonically but leads to more chromaticism and dissonance. The second option is to be more imitative of the melodic material, leading to something sounding more like a canon.

Exercise 13: Improvising Grooves

One musician starts by making up and repeating a short groove. The other musician improvises freely on the groove.


If you are more than two musicians, either do collective improvisation or add fills, beats, or harmony to the groove.


This exercise was inspired by performances by the Turtle Island Quartet. They often rotate the roles of either having the beat, playing harmony, doing “fills” or soloing between the members. When giving the beat on the violin, I find it useful to use extended techniques such as chopping or tapping the instrument.

Exercise 14: Melody and Accompaniment

Pick a tune with chords and a melody you are familiar with. One musician improvises the melody with ornaments and the other one improvises accompaniment over the chords. Shift the roles and repeat.


Try out different ways of accompanying the melody, such as playing broken eighth notes, harmony, and adding a beat or sixteenth notes with chord shapes in your left hand.


This is similar to Exercise 10, but by being two (or more) musicians, the accompaniment always hears its relation to the melody, and it also becomes an exercise of playing together. Being able to play accompaniment from chord symbols on the violin is a useful skill in many types of genres when the usual accompanying instrument is absent or busy playing a solo.

Exercise 15: Free Improvisation

Go completely free, anything is allowed!


If you want some kind of guidelines or structure, play with elements such as dynamics and textures. Or make up your own rules!


As a classical musician, I find free improvisation to be a very liberating and fun activity. Admittedly, I was slightly skeptical about the concept and its progressive value. However, after trying it out a few times, I realized that it is an excellent way to keep your ears open to what is going on around you and respond by imitating, copying, or compos- ing something. It also allows you to be creative with different timbres, means of sound production, and dynamics depending on the auditory context.

Personal Reflections

It is generally accepted that there is no universal metric for measuring the quality of art, or its beauty. This is certainly the case when it comes to musical improvisation, where there is no written music to serve as a reference, and where each performance is meant to sound different from another depending on its performers’ instincts. Thus evaluating one’s progress when learning to improvise becomes a highly subjective as well as spiritual matter. Nevertheless, I believe there are certainly elements of improvisation that I have improved in after spending time practising it.

One such element is the unblocking of inner obstacles, and daring to improvise in different contexts. As a classically trained violinist, there is a certain ideal of both reproduction and control, as in being able to accurately repeat a phrase and to play it expectedly, without “mistakes”. Whilst these ideals are not unimportant in improvisation, I found that embracing the feeling of inconstancy and insecurity unlocked new doors to being free while playing, without judging oneself too much.

Moreover, I find that I have certainly become better at improvising, but mainly within certain forms or idioms. In folk music, one can become better at inventing variations on a melody. In jazz, one can learn how to play phrases within certain chords. In Indian music, one can improve the ability to build intensity towards a musical climax. There are certainly endless ways of approaching and expressing these skills, and what is good or bad is often a matter of personal taste. Nevertheless, I find that the more one is familiar with and aware of the canvas within which one is painting, the freer one can be when improvising. Or to use an analogy: the better you know the language of a musical region, the better you can communicate with musicians and listeners who speak the same language. Luckily, some vocabulary (e.g. the pentatonic scale) is similar across multiple genres, meaning that the ability to improvise in one context often is transferable to other contexts.

Finally, I have through my exploration of the improvisational landscape also gained a better understanding of my identity as a musician. In the classical world, there is often a linear attitude towards developing as a musician. Progress is usually measured in metrics such as technicality, accuracy in rhythm and intonation, and how well the composer’s intentions are realized. These elements are certainly not unimportant in improvisation, however the focus instead tends to be on finding and expressing one’s own voice. With this change of perspective, I found my classical background to be of help rather than a hindrance, as it has provided me with additional technical tools and versatility to express myself when improvising. Inversely, improvising has helped me become less dogmatic in my approach to performing classical music. At the end of the day, the important things to me when playing music, are being in the moment, the emotions one is feeling, and the message one is conveying. I strongly feel that the time I spent approaching improvisation in recent months has deepened my connection to these musical elements, and has opened my eyes and ears towards a new path to music making.