Invitations part I – not strictly tonal

Looking at the phrase: “I would like to invite you…”, most likely an experience of openness will follow. When we are invited to something we are welcome to be present. We will probably not know the exact space, content or field that we are welcomed to, but we are encouraged to just bring ourselves, to be present with all our peculiarities. We are given the freedom to accept the invitation or not, to stay long or short, to react to the occasion and to play our part in it in a way that suits our personal style and identity.


Considering the following two questions: “Did you enjoy going through this research paper?” and “How did you experience going through this research paper?” -  the vast difference between an open and a closed question - we will feel how the first question leaves a minimum of space after the question mark is put. The second question on the contrary opens a myriad of nuances and possible areas for an exchange of ideas and experiences that could follow the question.


In this same light, experiences with musical improvisation have convinced me strongly about the artistic and educational value it has: when we improvise music, the musical field is opened to the players invited. The size and contours of this field are flexible. They are closely connected to and shaped by the presence, input, personality, musical taste, level of playing and musical luggage of the players involved.


Therefore, the games and exercises that were developed in this research are called: ‘Invitations’.


Regarding the central focus of the research – how can the internalizing of harmony and playing/improvising on the violin meet: it is a permanent search to touch on harmony while staying in this ‘open space and playful mind-set’. At times this proves to be a challenging, difficult task, because of the delicate balance between musical instinct and structured approach of the mind mentioned before. Therefore, there are two groups of exercises in the following collection: the first group not strictly focussing on tonality and the second group with a focus on harmony. The alternation between the two groups of games can be helpful in keeping the abovementioned balance. By doing something tonally free(er) in between the more tonal/ harmonic improvisations we prevent our minds from becoming too ‘thinking’ or the session to become too analytical, theoretical (maybe even ‘dull’). The invitations that are not strictly focussing on tonality are brought up first, because in a lesson situation they will more likely serve as a starting point/warming up. Also -  in a way they are suitable for every level of playing and therefore can serve as a run-up to some of the games focussing on harmony.


The invitations are written with group sessions of 2, 3 or 4 violinists/string players in mind. With adaptation, it will also be possible to use the ideas in one-to-one teaching or possibly also in work with bigger or more heterogeneous (in sense of instrumentation) groups. The games and exercises can be used - although of course differently -  at various levels of musical development and playing. With adaptation they can also be used playing alone -  suggestions for that purpose are given in the next chapter: 'In the practise room'. In the descriptions, use has been made of the word ‘he’ to make the text easier to read. By this ‘he’ either ‘she’ or ‘they’ or ‘he’ is meant.


Two important remarks

We start with very simple steps, as is natural when learning something new. It is of great importance to respect everything that is being played – also elementary steps that are not yet ‘virtuosic improvisations that one might dream of’, also the moments that we might hear too many ‘clichés’ and (especially) the moments that we feel we are ‘making mistakes’. Only by enjoying and respecting every step in the process one can grow and develop skills further.

It is a great opportunity of our technological time that we can record so easily. Recording everything that is played is a great thing to do. Listening back can help very much in recognising typical sounds, phrases, shapes. It offers a ‘journal’ of the road taken and listening back can evoke new ideas. It will allow to create a collection of ‘instantly composed music’.



Table of contents of the invitations

Invitations part I – not strictly tonal

  1. Minis

  2. Playing S-words (and other words…)

  3. Q&A

  4. Move it

  5. Sing and play - 1

  6. Extended techniques

Invitations part II - focussing on harmony

  1. Ivvi

  2. Simple schemes

  3. Modulation game

  4. Sing and play - 2

  5. Unwrapping repertoire

  6. Violin and the figured bass

  7. A bass line for Bach

1. Minis

In playing Minis, we:

  • Deepen our quality of listening and reacting to each other

  • Challenge the use of our musical imagination

  • Warm up our instrumental playing

  • Explore very roughly compositional aspects of music, like – shape, phrasing, texture, thematic material, timing, silences, density, register, instrumental technique


Improvise a set of three short pieces of music – length approximately one minute. The only thing agreed on is that the next mini should be of contrasting character to the previous one. You can decide on the players taking turns in the starting of a mini.


Minis are a way of getting to know each other, a musical ‘saying hello’, an introduction to ‘the feeling of today’. A welcoming atmosphere, a ‘safe field’ for all players involved is the environment that they need.


After the minis stopped, it is of great value to take a moment to reflect on them. How did we like that? What were ‘events on the road’? What was the character or atmosphere of the pieces? How did we feel about our roles? Did we stay in the same role throughout the pieces or did we change roles? How did we feel about our communication? What about the register that we were in? How did our parts fit together, or not? What about pace, rhythm, tempo? There is something special to be found in the ending of a mini, very often this is perceived as ‘announcing itself’ by all players involved – sometimes quite a bit in advance: the ‘telepathic’ power of music.


Minis often turn out to be ‘free tonal’, or at least have a certain tonal centre1. A pentatonic ‘smell’ tends to be attractive and accessible, stimulating nice rhythms. Minor scales tend to be easier to access than major ones. Minor scales offer more possibilities, the diatonic chord on the second degree of the scale is diminished ‘for free’, meaning you have two diminished chords to play with - one on  the second and one on the seventh degree- and diminished chords being ‘chameleons’ offer a lot of continuations that all can feel ‘fine’. Minis that have no tonal centre – ‘sound minis’ – can also be enjoyable, see: extended techniques.


 Variations on the minis:

  • Choose three colours and play three mini’s accordingly. For example: white – red – white with little dots in all colours
  • Choose three titles and play the minis accordingly. For example: a dream – storm – sunshine (See also the next Invitation – Playing S-words)
  • Decide that rests are going to play an important role
  • Choose limitations for the minis. For example: instrumental/technical aspects – “let’s play a pizzicato mini, a g-string mini, a harmonics mini, a tremolo mini”. Musical limitations – “let’s play a mini with long notes, a mini in which you are a low voice and I am a high voice, a mini on three chosen notes


About setting limitations: there can be a benefit in ‘getting bored’ with material, because it makes one search deeper for ways to contrast, express, create variety. If it cannot be in the choice of notes to use, we will search for texture, timing, colour, dynamic, rhythm more.


Soprano and improviser Claron McFadden puts it like this2:


“the task of free improvisation from ‘nothing’ can be very



nothing includes everything! Therefore it is very helpful

to work

within very

limited boundaries at first in order to discover how much

can be made

out of very little”



2. Playing S-words (and other words….)


 In Playing S-words, we:

  • Browse our inner catalogue of characters to be expressed in music

  • Stretch and deepen our emotional range

  • Strengthen our ability to find the best sounds for a given character

  • Learn more about our own musical identity

  • Explore ways to create contrast in music


In the English language, the amount of words starting with an S depicting different atmospheres or characters is enormous. Take some time together to brainstorm over those words (‘solemnly, solitude, silence, sparkle, screaming, shivering, spiritual, shy, singing, stumbling, shouting, sleepy, serenity, silly, stubborn’, etc…). Choose one, two or three, take a moment to ‘get into the word’ and play a piece that goes with it.

In contrast with the minis, the length of the pieces that are played is not specified, but left to evolve naturally. In the same way as with the minis it is valuable to reflect on a piece after it has finished. One can come back to Playing S-words later on, applying the ‘technique’ of S-words on improvising over harmonic progressions. For example: a ‘stumbling’ version of a harmonic skeleton can be a strong exercise to ‘know the skeleton’ in a more free way and it challenges the internalising of the progression.


 Variations on S-words:

  • Playing D-words, A-words, other words
  • As mentioned above: applying the S-words as an extra level to tonal invitations.
  • Integrating speech of the word by one or more of the players alongside the musical playing.
  • A step in between ‘the word’ and the musical playing: to ‘move’ the word first (see also: Move it).

In other languages than English, other letters are more likely to be chosen first. In the Dutch language for example the D offers more evocative options than the S.



3. Q&A

In playing Question & Answer, we:

  • Gain insight in structure, shape, characteristics of musical phrases

  • Improve skills of musical communication

  • Learn about timing and duration of musical sentences

  • Train playing melodies by ear on our instrument


 In pairs – one player plays a musical question and the other player  gives a musical answer. A few questions and answers per pair of  players creates a short piece.


Obviously, the choice of different styles in which Q&A can be played is immense. Also, the levels on which Q&A games are worthwhile doing are covering the whole curriculum of a musician’s training, a start can be made during the first violin lessons.


When the Q&A are played without the mention or intention of tonality and harmonic scheme, they will mostly turn out to be in a sort of ‘modern tonal’ style.

When we position the Q&A game in a tonal environment and more classical style, it provides great opportunities for increasing awareness of harmonic development, modulation, phrasing, musical structure. In the second half of the invitations the ‘tonal Q&A’ will be addressed.



  • Play a Q&A in ‘non-violin’ sounds (but with the violin)
  • Decide beforehand that we will not play questions and answers of the same length, but consciously make variations in length and duration
  • Play a Q&A without metre of rhythm
  • Decide that the answers will be in contrasting character to the questions
  • Start the answer with repeating the beginning of the question, then continuing differently.
  • Improvise canons (see below)


Improvising canons3: Decide about  a metre (for example 4 beats in a bar). Player 1 sets up a one bar  phrase, player 2 repeats it. When this goes smoothly, player 1 plays  over the barline also on the first beat of the next bar, thus playing  together with the beginning of player 2’s repeat of his phrase. When  that goes smoothly player 1 keeps playing when player 2 repeats what  he plays (just a bar later), thus creating a canon together.


This is a great training to the ear and to the concentration, to polyphonic listening, and to harmonic awareness in the sense that ‘player 1’ will try to hear in advance what the two voices together will sound like.


4. Move it!4

In working with Move it!, we:

  • Learn to involve the knowledge of our body in musical expression and musical practise

  • Explore the transition from movement to sound

  • Extend our emotional range and observe physical reactions that go with that

  • Work on rhythm as something very physically-based


 In a group, choose 5 distinctive short gestures and act them (for  example: ‘punch’, ‘push something very heavy’, ‘glide’, ‘float’). Half of  the group will act the movements physically and at the same time the  other half of the group will ‘improvise them’ on their instrument. Change  roles. To create a piece, one group starts (without instruments) with a  gesture, at a certain moment the next group joins in the same gesture,  taking it over. Group 1 stops and group 2 gradually changes the  gesture into another gesture. When group 1 ‘understands’ what the  new gesture is, they take this gesture over, group 2 stops and group 1  ‘metamorphoses’ the gesture again into another one. After having done  this physically without instruments, do the same game, but now in  sound, thus creating a piece.


 Move it! can very well be used in combination with repertoire.


Variation 1: in combination with repertoire. Take a piece of repertoire that is currently being worked on, or that is well-known to all players. From this repertoire choose distinctly different passages and find gestures that go with these passages. Act the gestures in a random order. Either make the transitions between the different gestures fluid, or pause in between. Then do the same with instruments, improvising the gestures in sound, in the same order. Then play the passages that correspond in the repertoire again.


For example: working in this way with Béla Bartók's 'Roumanian Folk Dances' has proved to be very enjoyable and bringing forth great development in expressing the different characters of the dances.


The placing in the room can also be taken into the game. This physical moving from one place to the other significantly strengthens the sense of ‘a different voice or person’ as well – creating the feeling of a ‘mini-opera’.


A combination of Move it! with work on harmonic progressions can very much deepen the sensitivity for the shape, colour, development of intensity of a harmonic progression. For example: ‘moving’ the Monte sequence (see below), one will not make the same movements throughout the sequence. The development of the progression will naturally need to be expressed in the movements.



5. Sing and play – 15

When we Sing and Play, we:

  • Build a strong connection with our inner musicality

  • Train ourselves to make the road from inner imagination to playing on the instrument a ‘smooth and easily accessible’ path

  • Strengthen the skill of polyphonic hearing

  • Make the physical involvement in our music making bigger


In improvising music (whether it be ‘mini’s’, S-words, Q&A’s, or something else), use the voice together with the playing (if the instrument allows you to do so) or in alternation with the playing (if the instrument does not allow you to do it at the same time).


Think of the voice in a broad spectrum:  ‘jabber-dabber-talk’, humming, whistling, scatting, just making noises, screaming, yawning, sighing, laughing, ‘breathing audibly’, singing, whispering. Experiment with how voice and (violin) sound can mingle or contrast. Pay attention to what it asks from the mind to do both – a good ‘preliminary exercise’ to internalised polyphonic hearing.


On all levels of playing and musical development: singing is the core of music-making and by singing what we play on an instrument we will be able to dis-cover (uncover) the music in its full richness – questions we ask ourselves about phrasing, articulation, colour, character can be answered by singing it!



6. Extended techniques

In playing with Extended techniques, we:

  • Experience the physicality of making sounds out of materials

  • Explore how sounds and atmosphere/character are connected in a less conventional way

  • Learn about traditional instrumental technique and how to personalize this technique

  • Challenge our sense of musical risk-taking and  challenge our imagination


 Build an ‘imaginary picture’ (For example: player 1 says: ‘we are  outside’, player 2 adds: ‘it is dark’, player 3 adds: ‘and windy’, player 1  again: ‘I hear sounds of people far away’ and so on…). Then play a  piece using ways to produce sounds from your violin that are not the  commonly used violin sounds.


There are two groups of ‘experimental technique’ sounds: sounds that are using the violin in the way it is built for, but just in more extreme way – for example: glissandi, flautando, bowing behind the bridge, bowing on the bridge, using the bow in direction of the string instead of rectangular, combining pizzicato of right and left hand, playing with too much weight on places on the string where that does not happen normally (scratching..), playing notes with an indistinct pitch, col legno sounds on unusual spots of the string and so on. The other group are sounds for which we use the ‘physical material’ of violin and bow in ways that it was not originally designed for – for example: tapping on the wood with the knuckles, polishing movements over the strings (sheeeh, sheeeh), sounds of ‘polishing’ on surfaces, plucking strings behind the bridge and so on.


Extended techniques can be a helpful game to open up a sense of freedom and ‘out of the box’ feeling, preceding or finishing off a session on harmonic awareness.


Continue to next page