The Art of Improv

For classical players, borrowing from jazz and bluegrass traditions can provide the first steps toward improvisation and more confident playing

If you’re a classical player and are interested in spicing up your playing with improvisation, consider borrowing from jazz and bluegrass. You can learn a lot about creating your own motifs and figures and incorporating them into your own playing by starting with some exercises and borrowing ideas commonly used by jazz and bluegrass players.

Violinist and fiddler Martin Norgaard, assistant professor of music education at Georgia State University and author of many jazz string method books for Mel Bay, has some suggestions.

1) Dilly-Dally Around

Most classical players practice their scales exactly how Kreutzer and Flesch (and their teachers) tell them: They start at the root, go up an octave or two, come down note by note, and end on the root.

Norgaard suggests trying this: Start on your root and go up, but pick a different note to end on before descending. Come back to your root and then ascend to a different note, descend to a note other than your root, and so on [Ex.1].

“I call this dilly-dallying up and down the scale,” Norgaard says.

Even that relatively simple exercise is improvisation—it introduces the element of choice, he says. “This exercise will help you learn the scale better because it forces you to practice with more flexibility,” he adds.

2) Skip Around


First, make sure you’re comfortable with practicing scales in broken thirds [Ex.2].

Then, dilly-dally up and down a scale as described earlier but include some intervals of a third instead of simply playing the next note on the scale.

You can mix in consecutive thirds with parts of your scale or scatter individual thirds throughout the scale [Ex.3].

“Thirds are the most often used skip in tonal music,” Norgaard says. “Practicing with skips helps flexibility in scale usage. Players who think they know a scale very well often have problems improvising on a scale using skips, to their surprise.”

3) Add Rhythms

Make up some jazzy rhythms or get started with a simple jazz rhythm [see Ex. 4].


Swing the eighth notes and experiment with syncopation. Use the scales, including scales with skips, that you’ve been practicing. When you’re just starting out, go ahead and use a metronome, and to keep things simple, stay just in the first position, says Norgaard. You can also experiment with some bluegrass rhythms. Try this one to start out [seeEx. 5].

For inspiration, Norgaard suggests listening to early Miles Davis for jazz ideas and any fiddler playing with Bill Monroe for bluegrass ideas. You can also use a play-along recording or software package such as Band-in-a-Box as an accompaniment.

4) See the Chord

To help you visualize chord tones on the fingerboard, pick a scale and identify the tonic triad. For example, say you pick a C major scale and the C triad.

Then improvise on the scale so that the notes of the triad, the C, E, and G in this case, are played mainly on the first and third beats of each bar [Ex. 6].

This exercise helps you emphasize underlying chord structures and visualize the chord tones on the fingerboard, bridging theory and practice. “If you can emphasize a particular chord in your improvisation, your thinking resembles that of an advanced jazz player,” Norgaard says.

It helps a player learn to emphasize chord structures and chord progressions and therefore the direction of a phrase.

“It’s the first baby step toward being able to play on changes (improvising melodies that fit the underlying chord progression), which both jazz and bluegrass players do,” he concludes.