An exploratory journey


“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research”

(Albert Einstein – German-American physicist, 1879-1955)


Research questions

The research questions that have been at the core of this research are:

  • How can (tonal) improvisation be an aid to learn about harmony in a way that experience comes first, using the violin as our voice? Where and how can playing from musical intuition and the building of harmonic awareness meet?
  • How can playing with basic elements of classical music help us to enter the music we perform ‘from within’, to enjoy the creative moment in connection with the repertoire we know so well and love so much, to ‘co-compose’…
  • What exercises/games can be developed for violinists - and other melody-instrument players -  in this field?


Surrounding these core questions, broader questions have been resonating:

  • How can (musical) improvisation help us and our students to ‘stay in the actual moment’ better when performing repertoire?
  • How can the ‘knowledge of the body’ be used more effectively when working with violin students in an improvisational way?
  • What can musical improvisation teach us about compositional techniques of the music we perform?
  • How can improvisation help us opening our (musical) imagination and playfulness more?
  • How does having experienced the harmonic world of repertoire more actively result in different performing of this repertoire?
  • How do we ‘know’ harmony…???
  • How does exercising oneself in tonal improvisation influence the ever further opening of our musical sensitivity?
  • In what way can we train ourselves and our students to come closer to creating music, instead of just reciting music?
  • What role does ‘visuality’ play?  What are the (vast) differences in entering music from a score or without any written notation?
  • How does visualising of the fingerboard of the violin strengthen improvisational skills? How does this work with visualisation of other aspects of playing the violin?
  • What are specific aspects of playing 'harmony games on a melody instrument'? What are violin specific aspects when playing out harmonic progressions?
  • To what extent can the route from ‘score to creative moment’ be strengthened by taking that same route vice versa? What can be learned from writing out one's improvisations? 
  • How can working in the way of this research help strengthen our capacity to be ‘non-judgemental’ when playing music?
  • What different relationship to the concept of ‘making mistakes’ do we develop when improvising?
  • What are the differences that listeners might experience when we compare listening to written repertoire with listening to improvised musicx?
  • To what extent can improvisation offer opportunities for the development of new concert formats, that will increase involvement and musical understanding of the audience?
  • How can we educate ourselves and our students to become ever more skilful in daring to be vulnerable, taking risks and showing ourselves in openness and flexibility?


The ‘surrounding-questions’ are surely too vast to be answered within the scope of this research, but their presence definitely influenced the main focus of the research.


A report of what happened

The process of this research was in a way ‘an improvisation’ in itself. The sequence of activities undertaken was very often a natural reaction to an intuitive impulse and/or to previous activities, things 'simply coming along', often proving themselves to be right and valuable in a later stadium. Many processes were happening simultaneously and were influencing each other.


An (to a certain extent) objective description of what has taken place is given below. It reflects a basic cyclic research model of ‘intuition/observation-experiment-reflection-adjustment-new observation/intuition-new experiment-and-so-on’. As every model does, it unavoidably presents a clarifying but simplified version of what ‘really took place’. Therefore, at the end of this paper in the appendix, a short additional text with a more imaginative and personal description of aspects of the process is added: ‘A deeper layer to the story, for believers only’.


The research has been based on four pillars:

a) practical input in the shape of lessons, seminars, participation in performances

b) time I spent experimenting, ‘practising’ in my studio (garden house)  and developing ideas

c) trying out the material with students in different settings – pilot sessions, one-to-one violin lessons, workshops given on different occasions

d) reading – and ‘playing through’ –  books and other existing material



a) Practical input

 Below an overview of the practical input




Relevant contents

Over 2015-2017

Lessons with pianist Bert Mooiman

  • ‘Grammar’ of tonal improvisation
  • How to play in a fantasy-full way over chord progressions
  • Figured bass
  • Improvising preludes
  • Schubert Waltzes
  • Play along recordings

Over 2015-2017

Lessons with pianist Karst de Jong

  • Improvisation and the harmonic series
  • Rule of the octave
  • Harmonic navigation
  • Personal style and taking initiative

March 2016

Visit David Dolan’s classes at the Yehudi Menuhin School in London

  • Sing and play
  • Bach unaccompanied and improvising a bass line to it
  • Improvisation and classical phrasing and rhetoric
  • Modulating
  • Work with youngsters (age 11-18)

January 2016

Improvisation Intensive Talinn

  • Improvisation in many different styles
  • Opportunity to try things out on stage
  • Heterogeneous ensemble playing
  • Texture, density, finding ‘musical space’, musical decision making

Over 2015-2017

Improvisation sessions with cellist Bart van Rosmalen

  • Free improvisation
  • Interaction between physical movement and instrumental playing
  • Challenging the imagination and fantasy

October 2016

ICON Seminar

  • Improvisation in different styles
  • Expression and communication through movement

November 2016

Concert with Bert Mooiman in Badkapelkerk Scheveningen

  • Improvising Schubert Waltzes in concert
  • Free tonal improvisation in concert
  • Public participation: singing/'improvising' on a bass line



b) Time in the garden house

Experimenting, thinking about the development of the ‘invitations’, ‘practising’-  how to apply ideas from the different sources of input into violin playing, into educational material and into my own music-making. In the chapter: 'In the practise room’ insight is given to how these processes took place.


c) Trying out the material with students

Over the course of the research my new fascination entered the one-to-one violin lessons more regularly. Pilot-sessions on the exercises that were developed, have been held, with violin students from the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and with my pre-college students at the Academie Muzikaal Talent in Utrecht. Those sessions and lessons offered a very valuable opportunity to gain experience in ‘living the invitations out in the wild’ and enhance insight in their educational functioning. A report of these sessions is found in the chapter: 'Pilot sessions'.


An overlap of b) and c)

Over the course of the research there has been an ‘overlapping area’ of b) and c) – in the shape of enjoyable hours of ‘playing and practising together’ with close colleagues who shared the fascination for the subject. Those sessions provided a wonderful mix of ‘practising….but not alone…with immediate sparring of ideas and feedback’. Musicians who were involved in sessions of this kind are cellist Bart van Rosmalen, bassoon-player Mieke van Dael, flutist Philippa Davies, pianist Jan Willem Nelleke. Towards the end of the research a collaboration with extraordinary violinist Kees Hülsmann has started, offering the opportunity to share ideas from 'the violinist's point of view' - a collaboration that will be continued in the future.


All the activities mentioned above were recorded (mostly audio, sometimes video) and listened back to, which provided new ideas on how to continue and how to steer the direction of the research. The only activities that could not be recorded were the moments of experimenting with the material in one-to-one violin lessons with my students, because those moments mostly appeared spontaneously.


The last half year of the research (January - May 2017) has been dedicated to collecting the material, shaping the story of the different dynamics, alongside a continuation of activities as mentioned above. At times the writing down of the process had a contradictory, artificial flavour, as the exploratory journey is still as much in motion now as it was at the beginning of the research… With every ‘discovery’ made, new layers, questions, ideas and desires to play in yet another way emerge. One does not always want to catch a continuously moving process into the static cage of written text. Therefore, this text must be read as a still of a moving picture. I will surely continue the ‘research’ after June 2017. The period of writing did create a clearer view on the relationship between the different dynamics in the research, leading to conclusions, recommendations and reflections that are found in the chapter: 'Conclusions, recommendations, future plans'. 


d) Books and existing material

A full list of consulted books and other sources is presented in the 'Bibliography'.


The following seven books proved extremely useful and inspirational1

  • Laura Campbell – Sketching at the Keyboard
  • Pascale Boquet and Gérard Rebours – 50 Standards Renaissance & Baroque
  • Martin Erhardt – Upon a ground
  • Jeffry Agrell – Improvisation games for classical musicians
  • Nicole Brockmann – From Sight to Sound
  • Eduard Sarath – Music theory through improvisation
  • Daniel Coyle – The Little Book of Talent


Laura Campbell – Sketching at the Keyboard

This book is an ‘intrinsically practical approach’ to raising awareness of harmony. The subtitle of the book is: ‘Harmonisation by Ear for Students of All Ages’ and the book is written ‘To the memory of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze who insisted that the sound, the feel and the enjoyment of music must be experienced before the use of notational symbols’. Elements that are attractive in this book are the clarification of the connection between harmony and historical development of Western classical music, as well as the relationship between harmony and the ‘harmonic series’  (sequence of overtones). There is a focus on register, texture, musical contrast, classical structure and on rhythmic accompaniments as a help to find harmonic structure. The other attraction of the book is that it  is constantly referring to learning about harmony in an ‘active’ and ‘creative’ way – it is challenging the reader throughout to ask questions and to experiment: ‘what pleases your musical ear better?’ -  ‘How would you define the differences of those two versions? Try both!’. Theoretical ‘knowledge’ is therefore always following experience, never ahead of it and point of reference is constantly the reader’s own musical intuition. The book builds up from very elementary steps (which almost everyone can do) to guiding readers who are a bit accomplished at playing the piano towards a deeper and experience-based understanding of harmonic structure and towards becoming skilled in creating - composing themselves -  accompaniments and arrangements to existing melodies. There are many ‘heart-felt’ phrases in the book. The only ‘drawback’, is that this book (naturally, see its title) does not make readers play anything on a different instrument than the piano when working through it.


Pascale Boquet and Gérard Rebours – 50 Standards Renaissance & Baroque

This book offers a beautiful richness of old chansons and dances that form a base to our Western classical music. Through the book the context and shape in which improvisation might have taken place in the 16th and 17th century comes alive vividly and there is attention for the similarity in approach of this tradition and jazz improvisation of our present time. The limitations of music notation are made explicit (how can all the subtle differences in performance be caught in notation!?) and a clear overview of the wonderful aspects and developmental opportunities  of improvising music is given. The book has two parts: an explanatory part, with texts and examples on various aspects of improvisation in baroque and renaissance time, illustrated with examples and a second part that hosts the ‘collection of the 50 standards’ – communicated to the reader in music scores, with a vast amount of comments, variations, suggestions and historical notes.The collection of the standards is a great resource to find ‘simple schemes’ that can be used for a myriad of ideas to play with in different styles and on different levels. The fact that the location and time of the various standards is given, is helpful in building a deeper understanding for the history of our music The subtitle of the book  - ‘avec Variantes, Exemples & Conseils pour Jouer & Improviser sur tous Instruments’ -  already points out that there is the possibility of using the content for every instrumentalist, playing on the violin with it is very accessible. The book is edited in an esthetic way and has a format that 'sits well' on a music stand, therefore it can be used easily while playing.


Martin Erhardt – Upon a ground – Improvisation on Ostinato Basses from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Centuries

A very clear guide on improvisation on ostinato basses in a historically informed way. The first part of the book offers an historical overview of the bass lines and dances. The second part of the book is a hands-on guide how to exercise oneself in becoming a skillful improviser and these methods are also suitable for group lessons. It offers wonderfully clear steps to take, starting with simple pendulums, gradually building up to full grounds – exercising oneself in playing note-to-note (melody to bass line) first, then learning about ornamenting (‘diminution’) the melody. The harmonic basis of the exercises is explained very well. There is focus on dramaturgy, personal creativity, affects (being the different characters and moods), psychology (how to deal with mistakes). There is an enormous amount of practical, hands-on advice and practice suggestions. Two play-along CD’s (one in A=415 hertz, one in A=440 hertz) give an opportunity to practice. Although the book’s title indicates a focus on ‘early music’, it can be an inspiration to every musician, also players focusing on different time periods. The sound and instrumentation on the play-along CD’s however do steer strongly in an ‘early music’ style of playing.


Jeffry Agrell – Improvisation games for Classical Musicians

A book with an astonishing abundance of ideas for games to use in improvisation sessions for musicians of all instruments, in group lessons or alone, in different styles… the subtitle of ‘500+ Non-jazz games for Performers, Educators and Everyone Else’ covers the content well. In the book there is no music notation to be found, in line with the strong input of the book that improvisation games should happen aurally. There is a good build-up, the book starting with simple steps and games, that every player can easily step into. There is an introduction in the ‘who, why and how of improvisation’ in part I, followed by the games in part II. These games cover practically all parameters of improvisation: warm-up games, rhythm games, dynamics games, melody games, form games, harmony games, bass line games, energy mood games, depiction games and much more. The chapter on harmony games expresses the same thought that is at the basis of the present research2:

“For most musicians, the harmony that we learn in traditional music theory classes is not as deeply rooted as it could be. It is primarily the pianist who experiences harmony through her instrument, and usually only by reciting from the printed page (unless she is fluent in figured bass or baroque ornamentation). To enjoy a deep, meaningful, and lasting understanding of harmony, we need to do as jazz players do and use harmony by improvising (although we don’t have to play in a jazz style). This will take some time, depending on the player’s background and instrument. However, using improve games to learn about theory and harmony ensures the best and most expeditious results” 

The book focuses on ‘all instrumentalists’, so naturally specific advice on how to play with the ideas on the violin is not included. It was challenging and fascinating to explore how the ideas from the book turn into instrument (violin) specific material.


Nicole M. Brockmann – From sight to sound

In essential ways ‘opposite’ to the book by Agrell above: firstly, this book is written by a string player (the author is a viola player) and although the subtitle mentions the games in the book to be for classical musicians in general, it is perceivably presented from (and for) a string player’s point of view. Much of the repertoire that is mentioned or used in the book is string player’s repertoire. Secondly, this book does start – as the title points out – with written notation and offers exercises and techniques to ‘get away from the scores’ and enter improvisational exercises. The relationship between these exercises and classical repertoire is made clear. This going back and forth between well-known repertoire and improvisation games surely provides a new ‘way of appreciating, 'understanding’, of this repertoire. There are some worthy exercises on modulating. The exercises and games in the book can be used in groups or alone. Sometimes the elaboration of exercises and next levels that could be taken, stop quite early. One could expect something more to follow that would deepen the experience and improvisational skills.


Eduard Sarath – Music theory through improvisation

This book is an extremely profound work, with over 300 hands-on, creative exercises integrated in an extensive text on music theory. The book comes with a play-along CD (tracks being in a jazzy style) and an accompanying website for listening tracks and additional information. Different music styles are focused on (from John Coltrane to Schubert, from Jazz to Bach). The theory is explained in a clear way, building up from a basic level gradually. There is a  worthy chapter on figured bass realization, and although it is focusing on ‘realization at the keyboard’, there is useful advice for non-pianists as well. The fine balance between theoretical ‘knowledge’ and practical exercises makes this book an outstanding (and long-lasting) source of inspiration and information.


Daniel Coyle – The Little Book of Talent

The author of this book conducted a research into talent development by visiting talent hotbeds (in the fields of tennis, skiing, music, and a charter school with extra-ordinary developmental results) and by visiting research centres investigating the new science of talent development. His research resulted in two books: firstly ‘The Talent Code’ and subsequently this ‘Little Book of Talent’ that organizes all the advice from the first book in a very concise way. The book is based on two assumptions: ‘we all possess talents’ and ‘we’re unsure how to develop those talents to their full potential’. Therefore, the book offers  52 tips on development of talent – in three groups: ‘getting started’, ‘improving skills’ and ‘sustaining progress’. It calls upon a basic truth: ‘small actions, repeated over time, transform us’. In line with this, the book starts with a quote by Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

The book proved extremely helpful within the present research: as this research is strongly involving the acquiring of new and different skills than one had before, the tips of this book came in very handy. Some examples of the tips described in this book, which streamlined with and fuelled the work of my research3:

“Tip #19 – Don’t do ‘drills’. Instead play small, addictive  games

 Tip #27 – Close your eyes

 Tip #28 – Mime it

 Tip #33 – To learn from a book, close the book

 Tip #21 – Think in images”


Research by D. Dolan, J. Sloboda, H.J. Jensen, B.Crüts and E. Feygelson4

In their highly interesting research, called 'The improvisatory approach to classical music performance: An empirical investigation into its characteristics and impact', the authors of this research have conducted experiments that give evidence that music that is performed in an improvisatory way, has a different impact on the listeners: the data provide prima facie evidence that improvised performances of the classical repertoire can heighten musical quality and audience engagement. The experiments included EEG analyses and questionnaires on the side of the public and were based on a classical trio performing the same repertoire twice, with and without the adoption of an improvisatory approach. 


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