Christian Howes: On Overcoming Improvisation Anxiety, Making Technical Practice More Creatively Satisfying, and Becoming a Better Friend to Yourself Through Music

I’m not sure if playing Twinkle Twinkle in Suzuki group class is an especially memorable moment in most kids’ lives, but one of my enduring memories is how cool it was the first time I heard the older kids in the back row play a variation and add various embellishments while the rest of us sawed away at the regular version. And I also remember how oddly thrilling it was to sneak in a few covert deviations of my own when I was a bit older and the teacher wasn’t looking in my direction.

However, over the years, this sort of improvisatory playing started to fade away from my playing. Or at least it wasn’t something that I took the time to cultivate.

Until I began taking some baroque violin lessons in grad school, where the expectation was that I add various spontaneous ornaments and such here and there.

I think 5-year-old me would have totally had a blast with this, but 25-year old me struggled. I felt really self-conscious, and couldn’t find the nonjudgmental improvisatory freedom that I played with as a kid.

Meanwhile, the other musicians in the baroque orchestra seemed to improvise so effortlessly, and naturally. Which made it all the more frustrating at first – but I eventually did start to become more comfortable being more improvisatory, and even began to rediscover some of the fun that I remembered having in Suzuki class.

We’ve talked about the benefits of improvisation or an improvisatory mindset from a research perspective before (like in this episode with Indiana University professor Pete Miksza), but I thought it might also be helpful to chat about improvisation from an applied perspective too.

As in, where do you begin? How do you practice the skill of improvisation? Are there benefits that transfer to our “regular” rep? And might there even be deeper, personal, cultural, and societal benefits as well?

Meet Christian Howes

Violinist, educator, and composer Christian Howes has been nominated by the Jazz Journalists Association as “Violinist of the Year,” toured and taught in the Ukraine and Montenegro as a cultural ambassador at the invitation of the U.S. Department of State, runs a popular summer music camp now in its 20th year (with alumni such as cellist Mike Block), and has released a number of critically acclaimed recordings.

He also happens to be one of those cool kids in the back row of Suzuki class that I grew up with in Columbus, Ohio. =)

In this month’s episode, we’ll explore:

  • The value of a more multicultural appreciation of music. (3:29)
  • How music can help us have a better relationship with ourselves (and what that really means). (6:56)
  • Chris’s take on the question of which is “better” – classical or jazz. (9:59)
  • How making music could perhaps help us get more in touch with our shared humanity? (17:21)
  • Where does one start with learning how to improvise? (And why the way we may be tempted to start sets us up for failure.) (20:29)
  • How to prevent overwhelm – not just in improvisation, but in practicing, shopping at Walmart, and life in general. (25:37)
  • Why it’s important to honor, not dismiss, our creative baby steps. (30:26)
  • I ask Chris how long it took to get to a level where he felt like he really had the ability to improvise something that he thought sounded great – which leads to a discussion of how important it is to “be cool” and respect, listen, and learn when joining a community of musicians that is new to you. (32:29)
  • Why it means we don’t have a good relationship with ourselves, if we feel the need to prove ourselves to everyone else. (36:18)
  • How do you evaluate your improvisatory creation? Like, how do you know if it’s any good? (38:50)
  • How to integrate improvisation into your daily technical practice – essentially merging creative work with technical work. (42:52)
  • Why do people play music in the first place? And what this question has to do with being more accepting of and having a better relationship with ourselves. (49:31)

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About 25 years ago, I heard Robert Levin the pianist playing the Mozart concerto and he improvised the cadenza. So every time he played it through this was a different cadenza. And that sort of blew my mind. And I’d never heard anything like that before, and never considered anything like that before. But ever since then I’ve been vaguely aware that there are folks in the classical music world who’ve spoken about the importance of improvisation. And I have the sense that maybe in the last five to 10 years, the interest in improvisation has become a little bit more prevalent or mainstream. And there might even be a little bit more research interest in this area as well. Right before you came, I was reading this study from 2014 of musicians, which basically found that the musicians who were trained in improv scored higher on certain measures of creativity and originality, compared to musicians who are not trained in improv. Seemingly, it was because improv training had what they call this releasing effect on the evaluation system. It just enabled these folks to stop self evaluating quite as much and generate more creative ideas in the moment, which seems like a really important performance skill in that we don’t want to be evaluating ourselves on stage necessarily inhibiting our ability to play more freely and creatively. But my experience with improv was sort of anxiety inducing, and that it sort of freaked me out the idea of trying to improvise. And so I think some of us might have these preconceived notions of what improvisation means that can be a little bit intimidating and scare us off and make it seem like this kind of training isn’t relevant to playing Paganini Caprices or solo Bach or orchestral excerpts. And so I wasn’t exactly sure where to start off the conversation. But you’ve been teaching and doing workshops for like 20 something years and a number of the folks who’ve participated in your workshops come from pretty traditional or high level classical backgrounds. So one thing I’m curious about is, is your sense of what draws some of these classically trained folks to seek out these workshops, or what they say they’re looking for when they when they start up with you.

Yeah, that’s a great question because, you know, just yesterday I was teaching here in midtown Manhattan. And at the end of our two day – I call them creative strings workshops or creative strings boot camps – at the end, I asked that question of some of the participants and we had, for example, professional classroom teachers who teach strings in middle school or high school. We also had a private studio teacher here in New York, who teaches mostly adults actually. And then we had a couple people who were professionals outside of music, but who want to continue to play the violin. And then we had somebody who was literally had a show at Carnegie Hall two nights ago who showed up and a graduate of Juilliard who I actually met when I first taught a class for you. So that’s the range of people that I get at these classes, which I think is important because it is such a range and I asked them yesterday, why do you want to do this. One person who had another career, their career is not music. He said, I want to follow through on something in my life, he said, I feel like there’s been so many aspects of my life that I haven’t followed through on all the time growing up, I want to follow through on music. And with these, these concepts are going to help me to have a deeper relationship with music and go out and play in a jam session, for example, but then, another teacher, a classroom teacher, she said, I want to pass on to my students, the things that I did not receive from my teachers. And I’m driven as a pedagogue and pedagogy is like my art. And I feel like I really want to give the students these things. And by the way, you know, these these things, not just improvisation, but arranging and composition and fluency with harmony and rhythm. And I guess we could say, a more multicultural appreciation of a range of styles of music. These kinds of things have been suggested as standards within the education system in America for maybe 15 years, so the teachers would like to be giving our kids all these things in addition to what we learned through Suzuki, or through high level classical playing, not just improvisation, but it’s really, it’s a world of skills or a set of skills and perspectives that I’m advocating we give to people. Other people talk about that they want to connect more with music. So in fact, someone who had graduated from Juilliard, very high level player, he said, I realized that what I really want to do with music is I want to connect with people. And he said, I realized that if I go and I see a musician playing in the subway or on the street, I can’t connect with that musician. I don’t know how to have a collaboration, like a musical collaboration with that musician, which that resonates with me because I know that’s, that’s true. Like as classical musicians, we’re just in this kind of bubble in the way we think about music and talk about it in the skills we have. It makes it hard for us to translate with musicians, whether they’re in the participatory cultures, as it’s known sometimes, or the Jazz Studies canon, the way that I kind of wrapped up that conversation we had last night after these two really intense days, what I said that, that I heard from a lot of these people, was that people want to have a relationship with music, they want to have a better relationship with music, somehow. And I feel like part of that has to do with our relationships with ourselves. Like a therapist will tell you that your job is to be your own best friend. You have to accept yourself, be aware of yourself, encourage yourself, be a conscience to yourself. Part of our journeys, as humans is to be is to have a relationship with ourselves. And I think that music is a forum and a vehicle for people actually Do that. So it’s not just improvisation. But it’s a lot of skills and knowledge that we don’t get that is holding back people from having that deeper relationship with themselves through music.

Can you say more about that? Actually, I mean, there are a couple things that I want to go back to. I’ve never thought of music that way. And I wonder if you could say more about it so that I understand a little bit more clearly where you’re coming from with that?

Well, there was another woman yesterday who I believe she’s a professional teacher. And she said that she felt like she was an introvert. And that one time someone had asked her who you playing for. And she realized that she was playing music for herself that music was you know that she was her own audience. So when you talked about that pianist who improvised that cadenza, most classical musicians cannot do that. We just can’t do it because we just haven’t learned the information. And I think that then we have this sense of fear. And once we realize how disconnected we are from other musicians how we can’t be a part of it. So some people in my workshop are talking about that how they felt like they couldn’t be a part of these other scenarios. I used to feel like when I was… you must have felt this too, you know how like, your parents or like friends would always ask like play me a song. And then you like you get your violin out and you’re like, Okay, what can I play? Well, maybe you’re working on like the Sibelius Violin Concerto, or, or Vivaldi? Well, if you play it, it doesn’t really sound as great as it could without the accompaniment. It’s, you know, so there’s always this sense that we’re limited in our ability to communicate the music, because we don’t really understand the music that fully. So now, going back through it, like when I work with my own kids, or with my students, I always accompany them when they play on the violin. Like even I don’t even read the piano part. Like I’ve learned the music like in the Suzuki books, so I have at least a sense of, Okay, here’s the chord structure of this song or the chord structure of this song. And there’s a sense of empowerment that comes from that. So it’s not just about improvisation, it’s about just empowering yourself with knowledge. But I think, if whether it’s like, that we feel held back from connecting with other people, we feel like we’re not a complete musician. I think people want to be self expressed. I think people want to have more variety. They want to connect with different types of musicians, different kinds of people. They want different types of projects, they want to share their own work out there, like make a YouTube video and share it, like have a spontaneous musical moment with your family or in your community or at your church or like at the Irish pub or whatever. And so then people have a lot of fear and a lot of resistance around it. It’s like, you kind of like, hide from that reality. In fact, one of my mentors, a person who I really, really, really respect a lot. And I’m super grateful to he’s a great musician in the classical world, I’m not gonna name him. But I asked him, I said, Do you think that, uh, do you know that there’s a difference between like classical symphonies and like jazz music or other forms of art? And he said, Yeah, he said, You know, like, like a Beethoven symphony is like, timeless, and it’s like a work of art. It’s gonna be remembered forever. And you can’t really compare jazz or other kinds of music to it. I get what he’s saying. And I really love this person. I mean, he’s, you know, I don’t hold it against him or something. But also I feel like it’s problematic. And in today’s world, it’s more important than ever to kind of look at the assumptions we have about different paradigms of thought, different cultural paradigms. And, yeah, I mean, people are doing that everywhere and have been for 50 years in music in a way, we’re not acknowledging our own faults that way. Because to me, it’s very parallel.

Can you describe how that transition was for you like going from working on the Sibelius concerto to then having that learning curve of discovering different languages, essentially in music and styles and how to become more comfortable conversing. And that sort of way?

Sure, yeah, I mean, probably one of the first time like, when I was about 16 years old, there was a kid. He was like the last chair, second violin. And I was the concert master in our high school orchestra. But he always came in with these four track tapes that he made at his house where he would write his own music. And like you, I mean, he would play the drums and he would play the bass and play the guitar and he would sing. And those things are kind of easier to do just at a at a basic level, like an entry point level, then play the violin, right? Like you can strum a guitar and you can learn a couple chords in a day or two and so, so he was really creative, and then everybody was hovering around him, like, you know, and I was jealous of all the attention he got. And I thought, like, well people, obviously don’t care about my Paganini, you know, or whatever that I’m working on, you know? And so I had this thought like, well, he’s a creative person. And I’m not. And I’m pretty sure that most classical musicians have that thought I’d be if I had to put odds on it, I would think that you had that thought. In fact, you even kind of implied it with what you said earlier about feeling like you know, about improvisation or even theory. And so then that was, that was like one experience where it made me think really hard about that. And I thought I want to, I want to push back on that idea and see if I can prove it wrong. Like maybe I am creative. Maybe I do have something that is uniquely me, that I can offer. Which goes back to that first thing we were talking about, which maybe I didn’t answer, as well as I could have, but this idea about that we want to have a relationship with ourselves. We want to feel proud of ourselves. I mean, Noa you know, I knew you since you were like three years old and you were like, the way I always felt about you Is that you’re just this incredible, incredible prodigy. I won competitions and like concert master chairs and all these things, but you were like, just another level. And so I feel like I can relate, you know, to this idea that like, each one of us wants to feel like we have something special to offer. I think it’s really hard to do that in classical music. I mean, playing in an orchestra is awesome. And playing in string quartets. It’s awesome. But sometimes you can feel that sense that if I’m not going to be Itzhak Perlman, or Hilary Hahn or Joshua Bell, it can be really deflating. I think if you let it, I don’t I don’t think I was ever deflated by that. Like, I never felt like sad that I couldn’t play the violin as well as you or whatever, you know, but, but I can understand how people would feel that. And if you’re creating your own thing, then that’s not relevant anymore. Like that kid was last year second violin, but he had something special that everybody was more interested in than my Paganini and so, you know, this idea that we want to have a sense of pride in ourselves, and acceptance of ourselves and appreciation of ourselves. I feel that now, as a violinist, about myself, and it’s not even that, like, everybody’s going to understand all the kinds of music that I make or like all the music that I make, but I like it. And like maybe somebody likes it. And it’s like, that is worth something. So I’m talking about, like, kind of having a relationship with yourself through what you do. I think it’s so important. I mean, does that shed a little more light on it?

It kind of makes me think of how I think there’s some folks who will take a look at the Strauss Sonata and find their own way of expressing what they think the Strauss Sonata means or what it says to them and, and that’s incredibly gratifying and satisfying. To be able to hear yourself do that and put your own stamp on it to make it your own as teachers are always telling us to do. And for others, that might be satisfying, but there’s a whole other aspect of satisfaction that comes from like you said, creating something that didn’t exist before. That’s a different type of satisfaction that they may also be looking for it sounds like in some of the people that you come across and I mentioned the Strauss Sonata because in most cases with the repertoire either I, you know, really love to piece or I didn’t understand it, and I just didn’t play it. But the first time I ever came across feeling like hmm, I don’t know what the point of me playing these pieces is. I was listening to think it was recording of Kyoko Takezawa playing the Strauss Sonata, and sure there’s little things here and there that I might have done differently. But I was like, Hmm, this is about as good as a Strauss Sonata could sound or needs to sound like I don’t know what I can add to it. And I was like, you know, a little bit deflated. I still wanted to learn it because it was a great piece to learn and play, but I was like, Huh, I don’t know why anyone would ever have to hear me play this. And I was like, I guess I need to find something else to play.

Yeah. Well, I’m glad you said that too, because I just want to stress that. Yeah, I think that you can get all of that joy and depth from playing classical music for sure. And I’m not trying to say that you can’t. I think having a sustainable relationship with music is also an important thing for both for teachers and for players. Because when you think about after high school, what happens for most people, like, if they don’t become a professional, are they going to be a part of a community orchestra? Not everybody’s gonna be like Condoleezza Rice, who famously set aside Sundays for like string quartet chamber music with her friends, which would be nice if we all did that, or if we all had time to do that, or whatever. I think this idea of having a sustainable, more organic relationship with music, I’m really big on the idea of like that music should just be shared everywhere. Like in every situation, it’s like, you know, you sing your kids a song to lull them to bed or sometimes I get out my guitar now and I’ll play a song, you know when my kids are going to bed. But it’s like you get together with family, people should play music. On the street, people should play music in church, people play music, like, everywhere, because music is really humanizing. Whatever environment music is happening in, if it’s a hospital or if it’s a war, it’s like the street corner, or like a living room, whatever environment like it’s humanizing that environment, somehow. I think it makes people get more in touch with just their humanity somehow. So people are gonna feel more trust, people are gonna feel more free, people are gonna feel more love when there’s music around, I would argue, and so we should play more music. And that’s one of the ways that I feel like classical music, kind of… It doesn’t encourage that because it’s like, No, you have to have a concert hall, and you need to have music stands and air conditioning, and a conductor. It’s like a lot of things that get in the way. Even like I said earlier, like you need an accompanist to play a song. So that’s another powerful motivation I think why we can learn classical music… And… and also so it’s, it’s like more sustainable relationship with music like sharing more music in the world, but also making deeper connections with other musicians being able to connect with other musicians and also get creative self expression as part of that. But I don’t think you have to necessarily be a genius composer or even be able to do your own cadenza on a Mozart concerto to be more creatively expressed. It’s like if you go down and there’s some, some cats like on the street, that are playing music, let’s say there have a drum circle and you just want to join that drum circle, you might play the drums, like all you do is find the beat and then you just within that there’s a structure that includes a lot of freedom. For you to be expressive, but you do the same thing if you had a violin or a cello, if you kind of opened yourself up to what it would take to do that

Makes me think a little bit what it might be to join a pickup basketball game or pickup soccer game or something, you just have a common set of skills or understandings and you just kind of join in and have because you were talking about setting up a performance and what you described now sounds more like I heard someone on your website, use the word jam. And I think that’s what makes chamber music so much fun that you’re, yeah, there’s music in front of you. But within that there’s a lot of improvisational stuff happening and spontaneity and engaging with one another in a particular way. And when chambers groups are fun, it’s because there is that sense that you’re all kind of on the same page. And it’s less fun when people are trying to go in different directions, or feels that way. I’m tempted to ask about this idea of deepening one’s relationship with music or deepening your relationship with other people through having an expanded shared language of skills like with jamming and whatever the technical term for that might be. But maybe I wonder if the the more important question is, is where to start? I mean, especially if this is something that feels completely foreign, is it something that one can start getting comfortable with in little tiny baby steps may be in the context of working on orchestral excerpts, or etudes, or whatever it is that that one might have in front of them at the moment.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this. And most of the time when people think about starting to improvise, they think about trying to improvise over a song. And that’s hard, depending on the song, because they probably don’t know the, the chords for the song. There’s some aspect of like playing over that song or in the example you gave, improvising the cadenza that goes to the Mozart Piano Concerto. Most classical musicians are not ready to do that and what they should do, if they want to do that type of thing, which is to create like an improvisation that conforms, tonally and rhythmically to like the structure of, you know, a piece of music, they should study that. But in the meantime, there are structures over which you would be very comfortable, and you could be improvising, both tonal and non tonal and also both with pulse and without pulse. So what I like to help people do is to think about musical structure in a more broken down way. And then give them exercises that they can start being really creative in that broken down way. An important part of this, by the way, is that you want to have really, really clear limits, because when you limit your choices, it makes it easier to make it choice. So if I said for example, okay, Noa, I want you to improvise. But you can only play the note A or the note D, in fact, you can only play an open A or open D. And you’re going to have to be in this rhythm like this: -snaps fingers to a pulse- So, the

A, A, D, D, A, D, D, A, A

that’d be pretty easy for you to do. In fact that would be kind of like boring, which is exactly what I want you to feel because that’s the opposite of feeling like nervous. Right, which I’m guessing or I think you would agree with as a performance psychologist that being bored is the opposite of being nervous. Maybe I’m wrong. So we want to make it like a task like this and give you these creative exercises so you can start getting used to it. So you do the same thing. Like I could change it up and say like, let’s do it with triplets -scats-

Unknown Speaker
So I’m giving you structures that you understand, which is like these two notes. And this rhythm. As long as you understand those things, then you could do it. And I wouldn’t give that to a three year old, because a three year old doesn’t understand triplets and they don’t know what an A or a D is. And so in the same way, I wouldn’t ask you to improvise over a Mozart Piano Concerto, because presumably, you don’t know the piece in that way. Like you don’t understand it, in that way. You understand that the chord progression and how to create a melodic language that fits over that or harmonic language that fits over that, even if you understand it on paper that’s different than being able to apply it on your instrument. So I could go on and on about this. But basically, I’m going to try to give you structures that you can use and give you really clear limits so that you can practice improvising, like those those examples I just sang. Those are examples of me improvising. And you could do that as long as you have those clear structural limits and prompts. And as long as you’re willing to go through those exercises without judging yourself, and just for the sake of the process, because my friend told me, if you want to be a composer, compose 100 pieces of music and then throw them all away, and then you’ll be a composer and I feel like the same is true of an improviser, like do 100 improvisations without judging them. You want to throw them all away, and then you’ll be ready to start evaluating and posing some kind of value system on the things you’re doing. The idea in the back of my mind when I’m giving you these kinds of problems, I’ll give you another example. Let’s say that we’re going to use the notes A and D again, but this time, we’re going to say you can only do phrases that have five notes or less. So

A, D, D, D,

so that’s one then I’d do another one,

D, D, A, A, D

D, A….

That was six Actually, I broke my rule.

So, the idea behind it is that when you’re creating something, you have basically infinite choices. You’re drawing from like an infinite universe. Because creating something is just making a choice, it’s just choosing. So what I want to do is break down those infinite choices into more manageable buckets. Basically, like a drop down menu. So it’s like if you go to Walmart, and you go shopping, or the grocery store and you ask somebody, you know, in your family, hey, do you want anything from the store? They’re gonna be like, they can’t think of it. But if you give them those buckets, it makes it easier like Well, do you need something from produce? Do we need household appliances? Do you need meat? Do you need drinks, it makes it easier. So it’s the same thing here. So I’m gonna look for those drop down menus that make it easier. So what I came up with was, the first one is emotions. The second one is techniques. The third one is musical elements and the fourth one is everything else. Anything other than a, b, and c. So if I said to you play something, think about the idea of happy. Think about the idea of sad. Think about the idea of confusion, anger, that’s something anybody can relate to. And then you could use that as a reference point or as a lifting off point for your improvisation or your composition. It doesn’t have to be literally sad or happy, it can’t be anyway, but it’s just like it’s a lifting point. It’s a direction it gives you that focus. Same thing with techniques would be like anything having to do with right hand technique or left hand technique. So I might say I want you to use bouncing bow strokes, improvise using bouncing bow strokes. And then for musical elements, could be like, you know, use these notes use these rhythmic parameters, use this meter or phrasing, style, or density, or form, all these kinds of things. As you can see just those three buckets, feelings, techniques, and musical elements, you can do a lot with that. Then the other category is just sort of like for whatever else, you know, sometimes people play triangles, circles and squares, or colors or shapes, or like accompany a movie or a dance or like think of a memory or like, whatever, it’s just kind of like, you can use whatever you want to inspire, or as a reference point for a creative choice or creative action. But most of us suffer from writer’s block, which is just the paralysis of not knowing where to start. And this is how you fix that because you say, Oh, you you can’t think of where to start. Okay, well here, pick an emotion, pick a technique and pick a musical element there. Now go. It’s very clear, you know, I can get anybody to not be paralyzed because those give them something to do. The other problem is, is being in a rut or what I call being in a rut, which is when that someone’s creative, they just do the same two or three things every all the time. But again, this fixes that. If someone comes up to me and they play and they’re like, I can’t stop doing the same things that I always do, so I’ll fix it for you. Okay, just play it only triple stops now. Chances are they weren’t playing triple stops, that’s not one of the three things they were doing. So where I’ll say play in fifth position, or just pizz, put your bow down, use pizzicato. As soon as you start drawing from those, structural parameters and constraints, makes it really easy to be creative. And what’s really important though, is is that what I’m advising you to do, engaging in these creative process exercises, is still not playing overtop of like a structure, like a piece of music, or something that you can’t do. The same reason I wouldn’t say like and I’m making an assumption here, Noa, but I wouldn’t ask you to play over like a fast 13/8 groove because I’m assuming you probably haven’t studied playing over 13/8 like a ton. I haven’t. So I also would be uncomfortable with playing over 13/8, but it’s like if it was 4/4, I would feel comfortable with that. So I might, and I would assume you would, too. So I would say, hey, play over this, you know, this, this, two and three and four and play over that clave, that rhythmic framework. This is what people get wrong all the time. And I think you probably read that book, which is called “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” But the idea is that when we’re learning stuff, we’re thinking slow. When we’re an expert in something, we’re thinking fast, or anything that’s instinctive, we’re thinking fast. And so the big mistake that people make, is they try to they try to be creative over stuff that they haven’t learned yet. Because you can’t be creative and thinking slow at the same time.

So that’s the biggest thing. And then what happens is I always get this objections from people they’re like, okay, so you showed me how to be creative, but, but this doesn’t really count right? Because it’s atonal or it’s not like, I just want to be able to play over that hip-hop tune or like that rock tune, I’m like, No, this does count. That’s the point you’re missing, you’ve missed the point, it really does count, it’s gonna take a while for you to be able to play with that rock tune. It might take you a couple years to feel that, you know, but you can study that I can show you how to study that. Like, there’s lots of things you can do to be able to wail over a rock tune or like come up with a cool solo or whatever. But you didn’t need you just need to study that. In the meantime, there’s all these things you can dial in, in these creative exercises, which by the way, are going to also apply when you’re playing over that rock tune. Because it’s like, once you have the harmonic information and the rhythmic information, you sort of learn more about rock music, and the culture of rock music and what’s expected and once you get to that point, you’re still gonna have to bring all these other things into it when you play your solo. It’s like how are you structuring that solo? You know, how are you structuring it rhythmically? How are you structuring it in terms of the arc, in terms of the emotions, in terms of the techniques in terms of the variety? Because those are all the things that are going to make it powerful at the end of the day. Sorry that was a very long ramble. Noa, I’m sorry about that. I don’t know if I even answered your original question.

No, that’s good. I imagine people get impatient, right. I mean, thank you sort of alluded to that, like, what do you like, how do they? And I know this is not the right question, because once we get fixated on a timeline, it changes things, but I’m gonna ask it anyway. Do you remember how long the process was for you to get to a point of feeling comfortable being able to do those things that might have done it’s sort of like playing tennis or like you see these people on TV, it’s like, oh, I want to be able to play like that guy. And we know that we’ll never get to that level. Exactly. But like, I still want to be able to hit a slice backhand or like a topspin one handed but you know, like, it’s aspirational. And how long did it take you to get to a point where you felt like, Oh, this is cool. I’m doing something that’s meaningful to me.

Yeah, it depends, though, on the situation. Because you know, there are things that are shared in common, but there are also things that are just different. So it’s like, maybe the difference with tennis, I’m not sure I’m trying to think of the analogy, but it’s like, you might spend some time and play in a rock band. And then like, that’s really, you learn a lot from that and you feel really comfortable. But then all of a sudden you like, and now I want to go do play like music in Brazil, let’s say, you know, and go to the carnival and play it and then be like, Wait a second. I have to start over again, though. You know, so, I think that if you want to join, there’s many these kind of communities where people play music in different kind of ways. And there’s, there’s overlap, and there’s, there’s also differences.

Um, I think when you go first enter this kind of community, what’s really important is to be is to be cool. And I this analogy, I don’t know if people like it or not. But I use this analogy of like, if I were to go to a bridal shower, I’ve never been to a bridal shower. Okay? So if I were to walk into a bridal shower, and then try to, like, run the show, like, that would not be cool. Because like, presumably, there’s gonna be a lot of people at the bridal shower that have been to bridal showers before, like, they have a way of doing things at bridal showers. So the best way for me to be cool is to like show up and ask questions, or maybe just not say it and say like, please let me know if I can help you know, or you know, or Is this okay? If I do this? Or is it okay if I do that. And it’s like having that type of attitude is so important. When you’re when you’re like a newbie, I guess in a in a new community. And what we tend to do as classical musicians, is we put so much… we like invest so much of our self esteem in this idea that we’re experts at music. And so then when we go into another community, on one hand for people, it can be shocking, because like, literally, someone’s playing at Carnegie Hall, but then they’re feeling like they’re gonna break down. If I asked them to like just improvise a couple notes in the scale, they’re like freaking out so hard because it’s something they can’t do, you would be able to explain that better than I can. But I feel like it’s because they can’t bear to have this dent in their armor around being an absolute perfect musician. So they just can’t, it feels like a contradiction to them, and they just can’t deal with it. So that’s the reason that a lot of times, if a classical musician goes to play with a street musician, for example, it’s not even occurred to them that they should be actually deferring to the street musician, in terms of the language, in terms of the conventions, in terms of what’s right and wrong, when to play, when not to play, how loud to play, how to talk about the music, everything. If you want to have a good interaction with that street musician, you need to be respectful of that street musician. Again, the analogy of the the bridal shower. I don’t want to go into the bridal shower. Trying to run things, or pretend as if I’m an expert at bridal showers. The thing is for me to be deferential and kind of humble and try to be helpful, which is different than being apologizing for myself. So I don’t need to apologize for myself and just be like, hey, I’m excited to be here. I’ve never been in a bridal shower before, please let me know I can help. Like, that’s the attitude you need to have, if you want to go play with any community of musicians.

I think it’s, I mean, it makes perfect sense. But I think it’s much easier said than done and makes me think of the research on growth versus fixed mindsets. You know, Carol Dweck’s work and how there’s a tendency for us to want to prove ourselves and I think that’s probably what you’re speaking to. I mean, even for me, my own experience with improv was, you know, I was a little kid I don’t know if this was this Suzuki thing or if my mom just encouraged me to do this, or maybe some of the teachers we had at Capital (University) did this but, but I remember just randomly playing stuff that I made up off the top of my head and recording it, and that was sort of like a regular activity that I that I did somehow, over the years. I stopped doing it at some point. And then when I came back to it, I was probably in my early 20s. It was like post, Juilliard, post grad school, and I kind of on a whim joined this baroque orchestra at Indiana University. And the expectation was that I improvise a little ornamentations. And that seems like well, how hard can that be, right? Like just a different few wiggles at random places. I had a really hard time with that. Like, I don’t even know how to explain why I had such a hard time with that. But you know, I was playing for this really well known respected musician who had been I think the concertmaster at the MET years before and I wanted him to think that I was good and he didn’t know who I was, where I came from, or anything and I wasn’t able to demonstrate I was any good, because I was just locked up by this and so certainly frustrating and all that’s to say, I think, yeah, it’s certainly easier said than done.

That’s interesting, you’re saying, because we have this need to prove ourselves. Yeah. I mean, again, that goes back to what we were talking about earlier. I feel like with like, who you’re proving yourself to, you know, I think we want to prove ourselves to ourselves, right like for, for healthy psychology, it takes me back to like, if I’m trying to prove myself to everybody else, it means I don’t have a good relationship with myself. I don’t, I don’t like accept myself for who I am. And I feel you know, or like if I really am a friend to myself that I wouldn’t feel that I needed to prove anything to anybody else. Which goes back to what we were talking about earlier.

I actually want to jump back to the kind of practical applied stuff that you were explaining a little bit ago. You know, whether it’s starting off with a blank piece of paper, essentially improvising these little tiny, five or six note figures. And then you talked about at some point after throwing away the first hundred or so evaluating… So what I’m assuming you mean recording yourself so you can hear what’s actually happening. But evaluate how like, how would we know to evaluate something that we’ve just created?

Yeah, well, you can evaluate the same ways that you would as a classical musician, which is like, how’s my intonation? How’s my articulation? How’s my quality of my sound? So all those things can still apply if you want, but you’re going to develop a hierarchy of what’s important to you. And so that’s, that’s one of the things that, for example, like John Coltrane, maybe his tone quality maybe wasn’t as important to him as like, the angularity of the lines, and the swing, the soulfulness of the ideas, for example, which is a lot of why a lot of times you have a classical musician that might feel that like, a jazz musician doesn’t pay attention to their sound. But they do. It’s just that they created a hierarchy of what’s more important to them. So like, if you create if like, if I’m creating something, I’m thinking about the idea I’m creating, it’s almost just as important as the way I perform the idea. For classical music, where it’s, it’s 100%, how we perform the idea. It’s not we’re not creating an idea. I think that you can develop those values. And part of that is you making a choice about what those values are. So again, I feel like as classical musicians, we probably already have some biases around what we think are important, like our tone, like our vibrato and things like that. But when you start to create ideas, you’re going to develop values around it. So is it balanced? For example, is there a balance between space and sound and even if you’ve set out to to create something that is like 80% sound versus 20% space? And then you create something else that has 20% sound versus 80% space. If you play around with that for a while, then over time, you might get a sense of what feels balanced to you, and what you tend to like to do. And then when you’re improvising, that becomes one of the criteria that you apply to, to that piece. When you evaluate it. Is it too dense for my taste? Or is it too sparse for my taste, for example, rhythmic intention, I think, a huge one for me from again, from like working with Bobby Floyd, for example, who every note he plays is really 100% in the pocket, as they say, like rhythmically specific. Developing that value as an improviser being like, I’m gonna have a rhythmic melody, melodic rhythm, I guess. I’m gonna have a clear melodic rhythm and then just focusing on that and then listening back and judging for the melodic rhythm. Tension and release is something that we’re going to monitor in classical music, but also we can monitor in improvised music did I create? Did I release the same amount of tension that I created, for example, which like Markand Thakar, great conductor, he wrote a book on that talks about, we always want to create a certain amount of tension and release the same amount of tension. And that’s how we create this kind of invisible artistic experience for the listener. So I think there’s a lot of ways that you can you can evaluate the work, you can evaluate it in terms of does it… is there variety? Are you using the same ideas? Are there some ideas that feel more interesting to you and others that feel less interesting? And then a big one for me is just to subtract the things that you don’t like, just to notice like the bad habits and take those away. Because actually I feel like you can, you can do so much more by just by just doing that. It’s just like taking away the unforced errors. So it’s like, okay, like this, oh, I didn’t need to play that note. Okay, why did I do that? Oh, okay, I’m gonna I’m not gonna do that next time.

How much of this would one do every day? And again, that’s not maybe the best question because then we get locked into formulas of time. But…

Well, one thing I will say about that, that I think is an opportunity that’s missed is that you can consolidate this creative process with your technical practice. So for example, if you practice an hour and a half a day, and the first 30 minutes of that is just like slow technical practice. I would recommend that you combine the slow technical practice with creative practice. There’s no reason not to. You can also combine it with other things like like internalizing harmony, like, practice the key of F sharp major, internalizing patterns in F sharp major. While noticing things about your posture, adjusting things in your left hand, adjusting things in your right hand, but just consolidate those things. And I’ve, you know, probably get in trouble with it, but I, it’s kind of tongue in cheek thing I say to people is like, you know, you can throw away your Flesch and your Galamian books, because and sometimes people get mad about me saying that, but but there’s there’s a point, which is that people do these warm ups. I know there’s benefits from warm ups, there’s benefits from Galamian and Flesch, mostly from fingerings. If you’re improvising, you’re going to have a completely different relationship with the violin. You know, you’re going to have other problems, you’re going to create your own problems, and you have to solve them, solve them like Galamian and Flesch has a very limited set of problems that you have to solve. But if you’re improvising, you’ve got limitless problems that you can create and solve. And I’d wonder what a performance psychologist would say about the the efficacy of when a student creates their own problems and solves them versus solve somebody else’s problems that were given to them.

Can you give me an example of what sort of problem that might be?

Yeah, well, like, let’s say that I play B flat on the G string, and I need to go up to E flat on the E string. Well, that’s not in Galamian or Flesch, I just created a new problem. I mean, that’s a shift that’s not in the repertoire anywhere, let’s say maybe it is, but I mean, you get my point. I mean, it’s like, you know, or a certain triple stop or a certain double stop or a certain string crossing. Like, when I’m improvising. I’m constantly creating my own problems. They’re not in a book. It’s like, you know, it’s like a move from the left hand or a move to move in the right hand.

I wonder if you can say also a little bit more about this idea. And I think you might already be speaking to it, but combining the creative with technical practice, like how, how exactly would you combine some of the things you described earlier in terms of being more improvisational with the technical?

So for example, you know, if you practice Carl Flesch, it’s like, -sings- Right. It’s like these kind of things that you’re supposed to work on. Well, Michael Davis was our teacher. We both shared two teachers, Ginny Christopherson and Michael Davis. I don’t know if Michael told you this or if you remember this, but he always told me, scale practice is a means to an end. It’s like you only have five or six objectives. You’re trying to play in tune, you’re trying to shift, you’re trying to come up with make a sound, you’re trying to play vibrato, right? Isn’t that the thing? He’s like, and so this this scale practice is just a means for you to work on those things. So when you work on the scale, I want you to think about your shift, I want you to think about your intonation and solve those problems.

So thing is, you could do that with improvisation, you could still have the focus be on your intonation or your smooth bow, or whatever, but you’d just be improvising instead of playing that same exercise out of Flesch -sings- you could improvise that but while I’m thinking about shifting or my, my right arm or whatever

Makes me think of a couple things. One, I stumbled across this video of violinist Pamela Frank, talking about skill practice. And if I understood her correctly, she was advocating for playing scales much more musically than I think we tend to. Because the idea being when you’re on stage, you want to be playing musically. And that’s a slightly different skill set in terms of the motor skills involved than playing the scale, cleanly, but in a very dry kind of generic musically devoid kind of way. And that seems obvious in hindsight, but it never would have occurred to me to play a scale musically or try to… also makes me wonder, with the improv, applied to technical practice. So it’s talking about this physical therapist who was describing how, you know, my wife talks about this too, to when she sight reading or learning new rep that she’s sore afterwards. Because when we’re sight reading, we tend to be more tight, physically more tense. And I wonder, does that have you noticed that coming up when people are improvising and having to be mindful of making sure the tension doesn’t creep in?

Probably for me, it’s the opposite. I mean, probably anybody could say that, that they… And in fact, I remember, you know, in different times in my life, I would get nervous in a classical situation, but then, if I was in a nonclassical situation, I wouldn’t be nervous. And probably kind of how I still am today. So, I think, I think for a lot of people, it would be that way. Now, if you’re just starting improvised and you’re freaking out about it, then okay, that’s different. But once you get into a space of, improvising, I think it can really open you up like yoga really, like improvisation is, to me, it feels like meditative. It really does. And the focus of that meditation when you’re improvisation improvising, it could be very kind of about emotions, like a therapeutic way. But it could also be very, like technical practice way. Meditation. I’m gonna improvise but the only reason I’m improvising right now so I can focus on my vibrato not so that I can make something that somebody says that was good or not. It’s like I’m just practicing, but I’m improvising. Versus I’m practicing, I’m playing one long tone for five minutes and see what opens up in my feelings. Just, it’s a pure meditation. Or maybe it’s just some long tones, but I’m really just trying to tap into like feelings just like you would if you were holding a downward dog or whatever. Right and you know, vinyasa or whatever. This is really important, I think, and I’m curious what you think about this Noa, because why do people play music. Emmanuel Ax said during a masterclass with, Yo Yo Ma, he said, young kids, they start playing music to make their parents or teachers happy. And we hope that later on that they’re going to fall in love with it. Which I think is what happened for you and me probably so many of us continue to play music because we want to please our parents, or our teachers, the internalized parent, the internalized teacher. And I feel like that’s got to be analogous for our lives, like how we go through our life, like we’re judging ourselves, like, we’re yelling at ourselves, you know, or when you’re improvising. It’s partly getting through and saying, like, whatever I play right now is okay. And it’s not always the reason for playing to make something that’s good. Or that’s going to impress someone. It’s like just to hear the song that I make right now. And be okay with whatever sound that is. Like as a yoga teacher will say, like, you know, wherever you are right now is where you need to be just notice it. Observe But accept it. And I feel like it’s so important for us to be able to play a note on a violin. And just notice it and let it be what it is because there’s beauty in that note. And the teachers out there will tell you, I always ask the teachers this I’m like, so you’ve got 10 students in your suzuki studio. So when those students come to you, do you do you… do you hear beauty in every one of those kids. And usually they’ll be like, of course, like teachers, I feel like they kind of see perfection in their students. They see how each one of those students has this really beautiful thing to give. And so of course, they want them to get their third finger down and the fourth measure of you know, the Vivaldi or whatever, but they recognize this special thing that that kid has when they play the violin. I think as part of being a Suzuki teacher is having the ability to have so much love and give so much to these kids. But oftentimes those same teachers out I’ll tell them, I’ll say like you need to bring that see that in yourself. Like whatever you play on the instrument, you need to hear that and be able to recognize that same beauty in you because I hear that you need to hear it in yourself. And a lot of these teachers are the ones they’re breaking down just as much as the high level performers going to Carnegie Hall, and their own resistance around just choosing a note and playing that note, it’s powerful. It’s not just about making a cadenza on a Mozart. It’s not just about playing jazz, it’s not about one thing. That’s what I think it’s about our relationship with ourselves. Ultimately.

I do remember it took me a few months of being prodded and encouraged to do these spontaneous ornamentations in Baroque music, but I do remember leaving my teacher’s studio that day, you know, it’s been a couple decades. I don’t remember if it was feeling empowered or but it was a very positive feeling. I think it was some combination of feeling empowered and satisfied and excited and proud of myself for this part, I do think I remember it was a feeling of letting go. That was really nice. It wasn’t a sense of how I had thrown a ball perfectly inside this hole from a distance. It was more, I just like go and something cool happened. And it felt good. And so that was my experience. But I wonder if a good place to wrap up would be to ask you if there’s like a story that comes to mind or a particular student or musician or something that someone said that kind of speaks to what you just described about how people change or how it could change your experience with making music.

I’ll talk about how, what it means for me, because I told you the story about how when I was 16, and that kid I was really jealous of that kid that was that was creative. You know, I probably could have said the same thing about like you, you know who was not for your creativity, but for your virtuosity, probably there was maybe a little bit of jealousy of Noa Kageyama has incredible virtuosity, you know. And so by embracing this path, I feel like I don’t have to suffer from those, either of those things. Because I feel like I have something that’s me that I do on the creative side, which I can be just feel satisfied with. When you’re a creative artist, I feel like truly, there is no competition. When you’re playing classical music, there is a competition. I mean, there’s chairs. You’re like first chair, say like, you get the job or you don’t get the job. As a creative artist, I feel like there’s Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin. We couldn’t choose between the two of them. They’re both amazing. And they’re different. And so there’s room for you and I both to be in the same room and celebrate each other and celebrate ourselves. So that’s what I would say is that for me, that’s been the big thing is to feel a sense of pride and enjoyment in what in what I do. And I do see that from a lot of teachers and a lot of players as well from doing this work, you know, working with me in various ways, or through the various curriculum that we do at creative strings from our podcasts and our summer camps and our blogs and videos and visiting the schools and stuff. So that’s why it’s the mission. I’m just going to stay on it my friend.

Bonus: a few improvisation exercise examples

As we were wrapping up the interview, I was curious to hear what improvisation exercises might sound like, so Chris took out his violin and recorded a few examples of how you might create your own hybrid improvisation/technique exercises along the lines of what he described in the interview. You can listen to those exercises here, if you’re curious as well:

…and then listen to an example of how it all eventually translates on stage:

Christian Howes with Robben Ford – Groove Merchant (Live)


[1] I mentioned Robert Levin improvising a cadenza at a summer festival one summer (1:38) – here’s a taste of this, where you can hear him improvising the cadenza of Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto, K. 414:

Improvising Mozart with Robert Levin

And if you’d like to do a deeper dive, here’s an interesting lecture Levin gave in 2012, where he walks the audience through various Mozart scores, illustrating and demonstrating what Mozart seems to have intended (and does a free improv, Mozart-style, at 1:01:34):

Robert Levin: Improvising Mozart

[2] I mentioned a video where violinist Pamela Frank described practicing scales more musically (46:47) – this is the one, and the bit about scales is near the end:

Pam Frank on How to Practice Intonation

[3] Here’s the full performance of Chris and Bobby Floyd (whom he references at 41:11), playing This Little Light of Mine, that you heard at the end of the interview:

This Little Light of Mine – Christian Howes & Bobby Floyd

And I also put together this short YouTube playlist of random performance videos across the last couple decades, if you’d like to hear Chris perform across a range of styles.

But if you’re more inclined to learn and experience the fun of improvising yourself…

How to study with Christian

Chris has a ton of free resources available online, from the various instructional materials on his website to his YouTube channel.

But if you’ve felt overwhelmed or lost when trying to explore other musical styles in the past, and learn better with a little more structure, support, and guidance, the upcoming summer months might be a great time to take advantage of his free 30-day Creative Strings Academy trial. You’ll get all sorts of practice exercises, videos, and music – and also a free one-on-one Skype lesson to ensure you start off on the right foot. (And no, there’s nothing in it financially for me if you do join; but of all of the summer skills projects one could take on, I think this would be a pretty fun skillset to develop!)

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