Classical violinist v jazzer


The violin is known mainly as an instrument in classical music. How does the jazzer differ from the straight player?

In technique, very little. We both need as much mastery over the instrument as we can muster, so we can play whatever we want. We both need to use techniques that are free from inherent limitation. By “inherent limitation”, I mean that the technique itself should not stop us from achieving our musical aims. For example, if we play with our palms flat against the neck, we have an inherent block to playing in the higher positions. If the point of technique is to enable the player to play anything they need to, then the only limit should be the demands of the music, and that applies to improvising as much as to playing composed music.

One difference arises because the classical player needs to play what someone else has written, so that the technical demands are created without reference to the individual player's ability. This means that when given a written piece, the classical player can go through the piece at sight, find whether there are any patches that are technically too difficult, and then work on them.

The jazzer, however, needs to be able to play whatever they come up with on the spot. This means there is no opportunity to work on any tricky passages. Now, what they come up with is, to some degree, determined by their technique. Most players will not come up with ideas that they find too much of a challenge to put into practice. So, while the straight player has to rise to the demands of the music, too often, the jazzer dumbs down the improvised music to fit the range of his technique. Very few play at the edge of their abilities.

Such self-limitation is an argument for jazzers to develop their mastery of the instrument. If technique is the limitation, improve the technique. What if technique is of little or no problem? Top flight classical players seem to have few technical challenges left, if any. More and more difficult music has been written, and they seem to be able to play it all. And yet, when asked to improvise, or even play a written piece with a jazz feel, all too often they have no success. Why should this be?

It is clear from this that technique alone is not enough. There has to be some underlying understanding of the structure of music – its syntax and semantics. In other words, the jazzer has to have a strong internalised understanding of music theory. Now, that does not mean that they have to know all the names of all the chords and cadences, or all the scales, and their notes. When we speak English, we don't think of all the phrase structures, the subordinate clauses or what part of speech we are using. All the same, in general we use the rules of grammar fairly well. We have a subconscious knowledge of these rules, and more importantly, of how to use and apply them, without necessarily being able to say what we are doing.

It is the same for the jazzer. As I discuss in my article on learning a standard, the jazzer has to start from this position of analysis. It may not be a formal process, but the mind's ear, at least, will be looking for root movements, tonality shifts, rhythmic forms, and all manner of other structures. Some do it consciously, others in a more intuitive fashion. By such an approach, the jazzer or improviser will build an internal store of rules of thumb such as how different notes work with each, the effect of tonal context on different notes, or what the interaction between tonality and time does for a piece.

On the other hand, most classical players are unlikely to analyse a classical piece in terms, say, of harmonic movement or phrase structure. I suspect that the very best do, but whenever I have done this with classical students, it has always seemed to be a new thing for them. This leads me to ask, “What happens when a player has bags of technique, but little internalised theory?” You end up with lots of clever violinistic (or saxophonic, guitaristic,or pianistic) tricks with no musical meaning or structure. This applies to players in both fields. A classical player who has not analysed a piece will not understand why the phrases break where they do, nor where the accents are supposed to fall. Equally, such a classical player, faced with improvisation will produce lines with no internal logic, and full of fast scales and arpeggios with no purpose. It is like hearing someone using lots of long words, whose meaning they do not know.

A similar thing happens with the jazzer who has learned countless licks, riffs and patterns, and wants to show them off. The technique is there, the vocabulary is there, but the understanding of what these motifs are for and what they do may not be. The player does not have an architecture in which the place these ideas – no understanding of context. In this case all you get is a bunch of unconnected, unrelated learned ideas that do not tell a story.

Telling a story is what both types of player are trying do. The classical player is telling a story that someone else has written, while the improviser is telling you a story that they are making up as they go along. Both stories need a beginning a middle and an end. Both need to develop through time, and the purpose of technique is to give those stories as much interest, power and content as the player can.