How to Teach Improvisation and Harmony to Classical String Players (Part 1 of 3)

This series on Teaching Improvisation and Harmony has been adapted from a presentation by Christian Howes (founder of Creative Strings) at the 2021 American String Teachers Association National Conference.  You can view the original presentation in it’s entirety plus interactive play-along sections, below.

The importance of teaching improvisation and harmony in the string teacher's classroom

Today’s string students deserve a music eduation that is culturally diverse and relevant to the world that they live in.

If you’re a classically trained string teacher or musician, bringing improvisation, applied harmony, contemporary styles, and related subjects into your string music curriculum will allow you to:

  • Increase student interested and retention by providing them with the skills to play the music they like
  • teach a more culturally diverse curriculum that gives students the opportunity to engage, honor, and celebrate musical traditions from many cultural backgrounds
  • Foster a sustainable relationship between students and their violin, viola, cello, or bass after school
  • prepare students for a wide range of musical career opportunities beyond orchestral work

Two important branches- applied harmony and creative improvisation

Implementing a pedagogy which transcends the current limitations of many classical-based training programs requires tackling many sub-areas including improvisation; arranging and composition; rhythm and groove; and contemporary styles (whether jazz, folk music, pop, rock, R&B, EDM, hip-hop, etc.)

It’s too much to tackle right off the bat- so for this three-part series, I’m going to focus on two big-picture skills that can prove incredibly useful in a wide variety of areas:

  • creative improvisation (parts 1 and 2) 
  • applied harmony (part 3)

Applied harmony includes things like tonal improvisation, arranging, accompaniment, composition, etc while creative improvisation focuses on expressing ideas (often in free or non-tonal contexts).

A lot of string teachers and students assume that applied harmony and improvisation must be taught and praticed together, simultaneously as one topic. I respectfully disagree.

In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” , author Daniel Kahneman addresses what he refers to as a dichotomy between two systems of thought- fast and slow. The two interact in complex ways to drive our everyday behavior, but are nonetheless distinct systems.

Fast thinking is unconscious, instinctual and often emotional- like ducking a tree branch.

Slow thinking requires concious effort, and is more methodical. It’s what we do when we’re learning something new- like learning an unfamiliar dance.

In a similar way, although performing musicians often use both applied harmony and creative improvisation in their performances, I believe that they can and should be thought of as separate systems in our pedagogical approach to the string classroom.

Applied harmony is most analogous to slow thinking- most of us need time, analysis, and practice to do it.

Creative improvisation is more like fast thinking. Anyone can do it.

Don’t believe me? Read on and I’ll explain.

If you want a more interactive experience (including sections that you or your students an play-along to)- feel free to watch the video of my ASTA (American String Teacher’s Association) Conference Presentation above

How to Practice and Teach Creativity to Classically Trained String Players (violin, viola, cello).

Now you may be thinking you need to understand harmony first- but trust me- you don’t.

In order to set students up for success we need to do two things when we introduce creative improvisation:

  • ensure that students are using fast thinking by only using materials and techniques that they already know*
  • set obsolulely clear limits (aka parameters or rules) to the improvisation

*This is the part that you, as their classroom, orchestra, or studio teacher, would be best positioned to know. All my exercises can be easily adapted for players of all ability levels and interests.

For an example, check out my icebreaker starting at 2:16 in the video above– or check out the written version below.

You can replicate this exact pedagogical sequence (or come up with your own variations) and use them in your classroom or studio whether you’re a Suzuki teacher, fiddle teacher, orchestra teacher, or any kind of string instrument teacher.  The important thing is to introduce new choices to the students one step at a time.

This is something I go much more in depth in with string teacher trainings.


An Icebreaker Exercise for Creative Improvisation

How it works: The key to the following icebreaker is that I go from very strict limits to complete freedom.

We start with very strict limits (one note, one tempo, no rests) because in order to train ourselves to be creative we first need be calm and comfortable, rather than freaked out.

If you start with giving them all the choices, students may feel overwhelmed.

But anyone can make a binary choice without much deliberation.  It’s what students do in school- they follow instructions and complete tasks.

So that’s what we start with.  “Choose this or that”.

 And by making this creative exercise about following the instructions and making the choices limited between a and b it becomes a real, natural catalyst of the creative process.

It might even feel boring, but feeling like it’s boring is the opposite of the intimidation and the freak out that a lot of times people feel with the creative process.

So that’s what we’re trying to do-  help you and or your students to not feel freaked out about improvising music. 

That’s why we start with rigid structural frameworks ( rules) because:

  • the more limits on our choices we have,  the more clear and easy it is for us to choose
  • -and creativity is just a matter of choosing. you choose what note, how long, how loud ,how short,  etc 

On the other hand, the more “freedom” we have to “play anything you want”, the more paralyzed we feel to actually improvise or compose anything. This is known as writer’s block.

We’ll get to more soon in Parts 2 and 3 (coming soon).

Teachers: As you go through this exercise with yourself and your students, make sure to suspend judgement. 

Don’t let yourself (or your students) read into things and try to make things “good”.  There is no “right” or “wrong” here.  

Step-by-Step Directions for my Creative Improvisation Icebreaker for Violin, Viola, Cello, and/or Bass
Step 1: Play one note, one rhythm

My Directions: Play the note D in a constant, reoccuring rhythm.

Teacher’s Notes:  I like to start with an open string because it’s easy- all string students can do it. Feel free to adjust according your classroom or studio. 

You and your students will notice that there’s a very limited number of things that you can improvise like:

    • the articulation
    • the tone quality
    • the volume
    • the direction of the bow
Step 2: Play two notes with a reoccuring rhythm

My Directions: Play A and D in a constant, reoccuring rhythm

Teacher’s Notes:  Again, I chose open strings because it’s the most accessible.  Remember that we want to give students options that they don’t have to think hard about so that they’re using fast, intuitive thinking.

Step 3: Use all the notes in a diatonic scale

My Directions: Play any notes in the D major scale.*

Teacher’s Notes: You can substitute any scale that your students are fully comfortable with instead of D major- or even any collection of diatonic notes if they don’t know a full scale yet (e.g. “open strings and 3rd fingers”)

Step 4: Use any notes that you want

My Directions:  use all 12 notes in your improvisation.

Teacher’s Notes: Because many of us are used to diatonic, tonal harmony, it’s especially important to approach this step from the standpoint of curiousity and not judgment.  

Step 5: Add rests

My directions: Continue to use all the notes, but add rests.

Teacher’s Notes: Here, we’re now giving the students even more choices by adding a new dimension- varying rhythm.  In the video version I combine this and the next step together- as always, feel free to adapt to your classroom or studio’s level.
Step 6: Vary the meter

My directions: Continue to use all the notes and rests, but play triplets instead of duples.

Teacher’s Notes: In my own online group classes , I have the rule that my students can always adjust the exercises to their level however they see fit.  For example, if a student doesn’t feel ready to choose from all the notes AND rests AND play triplets, they can limit themselves to fewer notes again.
Steps 7, 8,9, etc.

Keep gradually removing restrictions for yourself and/or your students one at a time until there are none.  The very last exercise should be free improvisation- with no rules.

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