Creative Improv for Classical Musicians, with Laura Nerenberg

We’re joined by violinist and Suzuki pedagogue, Laura Nerenberg. Laura is founder of Rideau Falls Violins where she teaches based on the principle that all children are born with the potential to develop a high level of instrument ability and creative ability.

Laura shares the inspiring story of how she learned to combine improvisation and classical violin – and how improvisation has impacted her teaching.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • Laura’s upbringing learning violin with the Suzuki method – and some of the myths and misconceptions people have about Suzuki’s ear-based approach.
  • How Laura didn’t realize until later in life that she had learned a lot about improvisation growing up with a jazz-pianist father.
  • The Creative Ability Development framework which empowers learners to improvise from the outset, and in a way that focuses on listening and personal expression.

Even if you’ve never improvised, or you’re an avid improviser keen to learn more, you’re going to love this conversation.

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Laura: Hi, I’m Laura Nerenberg from Rideau Falls Violins and this is Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Laura, thank you for joining us today.


Thank you. It’s my pleasure.

Christopher: I’ve been so looking forward to this one because you got in touch after hearing our interview with Diane Allen. And what you have in common with Diane is that you are a violinist and a violin teacher with a particular interest in improvisation. But actually, I think that’s maybe where the commonality ends in that you have very different backgrounds and very different ways of approaching things. And I’m super interested to unpack this with you, and hear some of your insights on improvisation and classical music and violin and how all of those things can go together. So before we dive into all of that, let’s start out at the very beginning, if we could with your own background as a violinist, when did you get started? And what kind of violin learning did you do?

Laura: So, I started violin when I was three and a half, using the Suzuki method. And the reason for that was we were living, my parents and I, I was an only child at the time, we were living in Canada’s Arctic, and there was a fiddler in our village. I was a toddler at the time, and my mother was really entranced with fiddle music. And simultaneously she heard an item on the radio about Suzuki violin. So when we moved to the big city after that, she signed us both up. And she quit soon after, but I obviously kept playing and the Suzuki method was a good fit for me. We moved cities a lot, and then I was no longer a Suzuki students after a few years just because we moved cities and found a different teacher.

Christopher: Got you. And longtime listeners and viewers of the show will have heard us mention Suzuki in passing, but it’s not something we’ve really covered in depth before. So I wonder if you wouldn’t mind taking a minute or two just to explain what is that particular approach to learning violin in particular, but I believe other instruments too.

Laura: So Suzuki method actually started with a violin. Shinichi Suzuki himself was a violinist and a violin teacher. And the basic premise that the core philosophy is that every child can learn. And so given the right environment created by the teacher, and by the parents at home, that every child can learn to play their instrument to a very high ability. Going along with that is the idea following the way we learn language, the idea that young children learn to speak before they learn to read, and so young musicians using the Suzuki approach, learn to play their instrument before they learn to read the music off the page.

Laura: Now, this has so many misconceptions because unfortunately, many stereotypes became attached to Suzuki trained individuals, especially concerning reading. My students learn the names of the notes on the instrument and the real names of the strings from the very start, the first few lessons, the first few lessons where they get the instrument. And in fact we’re singing the A Major scale with real note names from the first lesson. So the only thing is because the children are so young when they start, my beginners are age three to six, that it’s important for them to get comfortable on the instrument, learning music by ear by listening to recordings at home and developing a sense of the inherent logic of the instruments.

Laura: So they figure out the pieces by ear, we may give them a starting note the parent or I may give them a starting note. And then they experiment and they listen, is this, does it go up or down? Does it go to the next string? Does it skip or does it use stepwise motion? So we talk a lot about the building blocks of melodies while they are figuring out that logic in the instrument, and then I introduced reading using other materials. I don’t use the Suzuki books for reading. They weren’t intended to teach reading. It’s not a step by step approach for reading. It’s a step by step approach for the technique of that specific instrument.

Laura: I found it a really great fit for me now as a teacher, because during graduate school, I studied in performance. But I also took Suzuki pedagogy courses for two years, covering the beginning stages all the way through the end of book eight and there are 10 books for violin. And then I went and got teaching jobs after grad school. And I found that it gave me such a solid sense of how to start a beginner, but also how to transition through the different phases of a developing violinist.

Christopher: Got you. And one of the myths and misconceptions, or at least fuzzy topics when it comes to Suzuki that I’ve encountered is, I think often it’s associated with these very serious high level virtuoso musicians. And if you put your kid into Suzuki class, it’s because you expect them to become a concert master. And other people saying, because it’s ear based it’s all about perfect pitch and they have to have perfect pitch or it doesn’t work and there’s a lot of confusion about those two topics, but from your description just then, it doesn’t really sound like either of those things is particularly the case.

Laura: What I neglected to mention is Suzuki’s goal, his goal for himself and I believe that’s my goal as well, is not so much about producing top level players, but it’s about developing beautiful heart and about helping children through the study of whatever instrument is chosen, developing a noble sense of humanity. And I think a lot of this comes from Suzuki’s reaction coming out of World War Two, we kind of have to look at it from a historical context because he was Japanese and World War II decimated Japan.

Laura: And when he developed his theory about using a nurturing approach and praising every small step a child makes, but also practicing in a disciplined daily fashion. This was met with resistance among Japanese parents, especially mothers because of course at that time, it was mainly the mothers bringing their children to lessons and practicing with the children at home. Because the idea of pairing a very high respect for the teacher, which was already there in Japan, with showing sincere love and nurturing care for your child, and praising each of their small accomplishments was new, new to Japanese culture.

Laura: And in fact, I think that aspect really has been one of the ones that has made it so appealing for North American and Western culture is I think we typically already had this nurturing attitude toward children. I’m sure I’m throwing in such broad generalizations it’s almost illegal. But this is my perception and having spent time talking with many Suzuki teachers and teacher trainers over the years that I think it can be easy, in fact, in the Suzuki world, to get so nurturing that we kind of forget that we also have to have high standards, and ask our students and our children to repeat things many times which is required to acquire a skill.

Laura: I teach my own daughter, and I’ve been teaching her since she was two and now she’s 10. And even though we practice every day, I can’t say it always go smoothly. You still have to remind them to stay on track, and you still have to guide them. But to do it with love and sincere appreciation for those small steps is a cornerstone of the Suzuki approach.

Christopher: Terrific. Yeah, I have this really vivid memory and you’ll have to forgive me I forget the name of the book, but I read Suzuki’s own book on kind of the philosophy of the approach not one of the method books, but the short volume he wrote that kind of introduced-

Laura: Natured by Love.

Christopher: Yes, thank you.

Laura: I’m sorry. Natured by Love.

Christopher: Natured by Love. I remember it, probably eight, nine years ago, reading that book on a holiday and I have such a vivid memory because it was so striking the kind of language he uses and the kind of way he presents the whole journey of learning music. And it’s not at all what I was expecting from these little tidbits I gleaned about Suzuki method over the years. So I’m glad we unpacked that a little bit for those who are new to the area. And having heard my introduction, talking about improvisation and then I heard you talk a little bit about this ear start that the Suzuki method focuses on. Probably some people are like, “Oh, so they just naturally improvise from day one?” I don’t think that’s the case, though. So can you talk a little bit about your own experience, you were learning you use this ear base approach, but were you improvising back then in the early years?

Laura: Well, that’s a fairly interesting question, because I think my upbringing, musically speaking was a typical. I mean, I was a Suzuki trained student, but my parents had this approach of not having TV in the house at least till I was a bit older. And I only had records vinyl records. And my father is an amateur jazz pianist. So the concept of improvising was there in the house, I fell asleep to him improvising on the piano for his own relaxation every night for over a decade.

Laura: And so even though I didn’t improvise on my violin, I was aware of improvisation. In fact, I started improvising vocally when I was really young and I don’t even think I was aware, except that I have very vivid memories of my parents asking me to stop singing sometimes because I think it just drove them crazy. And I would listen to Vivaldi’s four seasons so often, this was one of my favorite LPs. And I have memories of singing it and singing one of the concertos I think spring and then deviating and kind of inventing my own melodies, but not really differentiating the two, not really packing Vivaldi and Laura. And that was probably the first time I’ve ever improvised.

Laura: Absolutely I never… I didn’t have a lot of facility on the violin. And this comes as a surprise to some of my students, but I found violin extremely difficult as a child and as a team. And I think it was only through sheer force of will and the fact that I loved making music so much that I ended up pursuing it in university because it never would have occurred to me to improvise on my violin. Now, I think if I had had a teacher who had introduced it to me in a way that made it approachable and doable, I would have done it because I was a pretty beautiful student.

Laura: But I did improvise on the piano. I studied piano starting at the age of six or seven. And when I was a young teenager, a little bit full of angst I’d come home from school and just sit at the piano when I was supposed to be practicing, and I would start my practices by improvising, again, not fully aware that that’s what I was doing, not labeling it. And I had invented a little chaconne, and I didn’t actually know what a chaconne was. But now in retrospect, I remember having done that I’d created a little baseline for myself. And I think it was in D Dorian again, not knowing modes. And I would play the bass in the left hand and just improvising the right over and over. And it was just a way to funnel whatever the stuff from the day when you’re 14, 13 and you have emotion to process. And then I would get into my practice, usually with a little prodding from my mom.

Christopher: Got you. And so how did you get from there to where you are now? Where did an improvisation on the violin enter the picture? Was it a natural extension of what you were doing on piano?

Laura: It was absolutely not a natural extension of what I was doing on the piano. At the end of graduate school, I had had some colleagues who had participated in a program in the US, I, of course live in Canada. And it was a program that specialized in improvisation jazz and fill music. And I thought this would be so great. Plus it was free. If you could send an audition and they accepted you, all you have to pay was airfare. And you had four weeks in sunny California, which really appealed to me.

Laura: And so back in 2001, I was accepted to this four week program. And I went so excited to dip my toes into improvisation. I could play a few jazz standards just by ear with my dad, but I never improvised, I would just play the melody, and then he would improvise. And then I play the melody again at the end. So I was really excited to learn about this. And I went there with huge high expectations. And it turned out to be a really interesting program in that we had a big chunk of our time devoted to just being in an orchestra rehearsal, which after years of youth orchestra and university orchestra that was really familiar, only we played jazz arrangements, but still you’re not improvising, you’re reading the part.

Laura: And then there were these jazz classes for the newbies because this program had very seasoned improvisers, and also straight classical musicians, which I was a part of. And I remember going to… There were some jazz swing classes, which basically just consisted of us playing a descending mixolydian scale over and over to a swung beat, it didn’t really feel like we were learning anything. And then we would just watch really good players play but not really play ourselves. And then there was a blues class and I was so excited because I really liked the blues. And I was like, “I think I could do this if weren’t a key that weren’t too crazy,” because improvising in harder keys on your instrument is harder even if you’re a good player.

Laura: And I got there and there was a Grammy Award winning coach, I think this is going to be so great. And they had some great backup players playing a groove for us. And they explained the blues and they put it up on the board and what the notes were that we could play. And then they went around the room to the newbies, then I realized I was about fifth, and there were about 10 of us, that this so called wonderful coach was yelling. If he perceived that you didn’t quite know what to do, if you were searching and you didn’t quite have a confident approach from the start, he would just yell a note at you and tell you to play that note.

Laura: And when he came to me, because I hadn’t quite decided what note I was going to play, and perhaps I looked a little hesitant. He just yelled a note. “That wasn’t really the note I want to play, but just give me a second. I have a few notes to choose from. I’m just looking and I’m listening and you’re interfering with that process.” Now, hindsight it’s 2020 and I realized now what was happening that he interfered with my process, not only because he was being aggressive about it and truly yelling to cut through the sound of the band, but also he didn’t give me a chance to just listen, see what my options were. Or not even see my options were, so just use my ear and see what it was I chose to play.

Laura: And so I left that class so dis-heartened. And I mean, I had looked forward to it so much and so it was like plummeting, an emotional plummeting, and a musical plummeting and thinking there must be a different way. And I think I probably just went and got a coffee and read a book for while to try to put it out of my mind. And that evening, came back to the practice rooms to practice as one does in these summer music programs, and one of my colleagues who was actually there to study violin, but was also a really fine pianist. He was in a practice room, playing piano, and I think heard a while and I knocked on his door and we started chatting about the day and I just told him about this experience that I found very disappointing. And he said, “Just a second, just a second. I’m developing a new system. I’m actually a jazz pianist. I know I’m here for violin but jazz piano is my main thing.”

Laura: And he said, “You’re good player. You know E major, you know how to play an E major. Mendelssohn Concerto last movement. I know you know that.” So he just started arpeggiating and he would record with no really perceptible sense of time and no change. It was just E major and here he is on the keyboard. And I unpacked my violin and I started to play and time stood still, or time went by really fast, I lost complete sense of time, which I didn’t know what goes on in the brain when we improvise, and we’re in that flow. I know that’s because the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the medial frontal cortex lights up and so we do lose a sense of time. And also I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and bliss and capacity to do this.

Laura: So we finished playing and again, I have no idea how long we played for. It felt like no time at all and it felt like hours and I’m sure I had a huge smile on my face and maybe I even welled up a bit. And I thanked him and we talked some more and then I just went on my day, I probably didn’t even go and practice I probably went back to the dorm just to revel in that. And that experience sat with me for years. After that California four weeks intensive program, I participated in some jazz camps, pure jazz camps outside of Ottawa, which is where I live.

Laura: And they were really focused on jazz, and we would be in a combo and that experience of just knowing that I can access that freedom, that that was available to me, given the environment. So there is a link, of course with Suzuki that the environment shaped the outcome. Knowing that that was accessible to me, really made everything else possible. It made it possible for me to be in a jazz combo, not be too sure of the chords because they’re going by fast and deciding not to let that worry me too much. And just using my ear and listening and finding notes I could and I took lots of lessons and participated in these camps, that that first experience with that colleague, sowed the seeds for seeing that capability in myself, and I’m sure it sowed the seeds for seeing that capability in all my students.

Christopher: Fantastic. Yeah, I think it can’t be underestimated how important that mindset is when it comes to improvisation. It depends on your background for sure. But we literally, we call our first improvisation module inside musical you approaching improvisation. And it’s mostly just about mindset and about thinking about making mistakes and about taking some ownership and agency of the sounds you’re going to make on your instrument, because I think until you flip that switch, and you say I can improvise, there’s no point learning all the scales and the rules and the vocab is there.

Laura: No.

Christopher: So I think it’s so interesting to hear you had that critical, pivotal experience. And what I’d like to know most is you mentioned those ongoing jazz workshops, but could you tell us a bit more about how you built on that, once that gateway had been opened for you? I’m sure people listening and watching they’re like, so was she just magically a great sounding improviser after that or did she still have to learn how to improvise or how does that work?

Laura: So I think that all of us as musicians, and I think this is regardless of level, I think there’s a lot that we can access that we don’t access when we play. And I think that experience of feeling that I could with that colleague in that practice room, then gave me this courage, but also allowed me in circumstances that followed being in a jazz combo at a camp or because of the experience at the camp, a musician hearing the play and saying, “Oh, she’s kind of good. She plays jazz violin, but it’s not like Stephane Grappelli. It’s her own thing,” and then asking me to come play. I started playing for these brunch, jazz brunches at this little restaurant in Ottawa. So very small audience, very small band and I play on just a few tunes.

Laura: And what that did was, because I had grown up listening jazz I already knew the language without knowing I knew the language. It had already been sown. Those other seeds, the seeds of understanding the jazz language had been sown. And my father had never formally taught us very much, but he did explain a little bit how jazz works. At first we play the tune through and that’s called the head, and then each player in the band might do a solo over the chord progression or the chord changes of that. So I knew that again, these are things he had mentioned when I was young. And sometimes with parents you selectively listen even when they can be just brilliant lessons and things you’re going to use later on.

Laura: So he had said these things and then it was like a part of my brain opened up and these ideas came back, reinforced by my experiences at these jazz camps, and then playing with actual jazz colleagues. And I started going to jam sessions in Ottawa. And it’s not like New York City. I mean, there’s some great players, but there’s also room for less experienced players at the jam sessions, and definitely I was a very experienced classical player, but definitely less experienced. And I had a good friend who was a bass player and we would go up and do totally experimental stuff at the end of the jam session when people were not really paying attention and enjoying a few drinks.

Laura: And that was, again, that was great, because it just gave me the chance to play. And so I think it’s a combination of luck, because there’s luck involved, but also having had the early experiences of being exposed to jazz. Now, that doesn’t say that if you didn’t have the early experiences of being exposed to jazz, that you can’t compensate for that I had them all accidentally because I thought to play jazz and play jazz albums in-house. You can certainly do that intentionally and listen to jazz on your own and go to shows and listen to recordings and nourish your understanding of jazz harmony that way. And then through listening it will inform the choices you make when you play.

Christopher: Cool. Well, I knew we were kindred spirits to begin with. But so much of what you just said is perfectly aligned with the kind of philosophy we take at Musical U, where we really encourage people to believe that they have a lot more musical knowledge dormant inside them than they realize. And with the right tools in the right approaches, they can really leverage that to sound good quickly, rather than needing to study everything from scratch. But I want to make sure we clarify something for those following along and you emphasize jazz there and the importance of that early jazz education. Were you doing that because jazz is particularly important for improvising in general, or is it because in those years, your improv was in a jazz context?

Laura: More the latter. In those years, my improv was more in a jazz context, in part because that’s what was available to me. In the early 2000s, it was jazz that was available to me and it didn’t occur to me to introduce improvisation to my students until I was invited to participate as a teacher to a teacher workshop. There was a guest teacher. Her name is Dr. Sarah Smolin and she’s based in Ithaca, New York. And she came up to Ottawa to give a workshop to one of the big Suzuki schools in town and I’m an independent teacher, and they very graciously invited me to participate.

Laura: And she talked about this philosophy called creative ability development, which focuses on teaching improvisation to classically trained string and piano students. And I stat with… I mean, I don’t think I breathed for the whole workshop, it was so in line with what I was doing with jazz, and it was the perfect timing for that. And so right away, she and I really hit it off and I invited her to come listen to some jazz with me. I had a friend who was playing and we went and we talked so much and she encouraged me to nourish my own creative voice by attending a wall-to-wall five day improvisation workshop not focused exclusively on jazz, but really focused on the gamut, called the art of improvisation.

Laura: And I did that in the summer of 2003. And that made it so that I wasn’t able to just improvise in jazz, but because I had all these classical chops when we go to school and learn all our concertos, I was able to improvise in a classical setting, or put down my violin and play the drums. I mean, it was such a magical five days and it left me feeling like I was even more capable than before. And so much so that I kept looking at the calendar every year to see the next time I could go and I did end up going again in 2007. And having an even better time because by then I’d already been teaching improvisation to my students more regularly, I’d been performing more, and I was more confident in my abilities as an improviser.

Christopher: So something we’ve covered a fair bit on this show before is the apparent mystery of improvising, because for those who don’t do it, it can seem so mysterious, so magical. And when you look around, there are various schools of thought on how one learns to improvise. And I won’t take us down a rabbit hole there, but it prompts me to want to ask, thinking of that art of improvisation workshop you attended. You mentioned that five days back-to-back all improv focus different genres, but what were they teaching? What were they equipping you with to take you from, I’m doing improv to I’m now better at doing improv?

Laura: So I have a confession to make. I peeked at one of the instructors notebooks, I think we were laying our cases down on a table and I saw some open notebooks, and I saw my name and of course, anyone who sees their name is drawn to it. It’s possible not to be I think that’s psychological. And somehow, I don’t know if they still run the the workshop this way because there must have been 50 of us or 70 of us participating, it seemed quite large. There were notes about what my goals were because when I’d registered, I’d said, one of my goals as an improviser, was to be comfortable in the higher positions. Was for my improvisation technique to be at the level of my playing technique, because I felt like my playing of orchestral music was here and my improv, like I never went past third position or below. I really stayed in the lower part of the instrument where I felt comfortable.

Laura: And so incredibly at certain points in the workshop… At one point in the workshop, one of the instructors had me stand. I’m pretty sure it was in front of everybody. We’d have these big sessions every morning and then we break up into smaller groups throughout the day. And he had me play and sing at the same time, in fourth position on the A string on the violin and my voice is not as high as it was in 2003. But he said, “Just sing what you play, or play what you sing,” rather. And there must have been some background something maybe he said at the piano. I don’t really remember. And all eyes were on me. It was a very weird experience. But he was David Darling who’s one of the great improvising musicians of our time, Grammy Award winning Renegade cellist, maybe renegades the wrong word, but I think he was seen as a renegade for at least part of his career.

Laura: And here, he was telling me to do this. And so I did it. And that connection between my voice and my playing was very meaningful. That was another very meaningful experience. And I’m going to pair that with four years later when I returned in 2007. I had a private lesson with him, I said you could sign up for private lessons. And I didn’t really know what we were going to do if he was going to have me do exercises and he said, “Oh, you, you can play.” We were sitting with his cello and I unpacked my violin, and we played for an hour. There was no format. There was no talking there was only laughing we would finish something and then we’d laugh. And I think it was like two enormous 30 minute pieces that we just created spontaneously, and was so incredibly inspiring.

Laura: And again, it’s a situation where you suddenly feel this is possible and accessible to me, given the environment that I’m in. I know for a fact I’m a person who feeds off the musical energy of my colleagues, chamber music is my absolute favorite thing to do. And I have a trio and I always feel so energized after we rehearse. And so I know that practicing alone with recordings is not the same. But between those chances that you have to have those really great experiences with colleagues, you do have to find a way to keep nourishing your own creative voice. And so I feel very fortunate that I’ve had these incredible group experiences, and one on one experiences. But also I’ve found a way through the creative ability development approach to keep the creative juices flowing, so to speak.

Christopher: Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit more about that if we may, because I believe it’s a big part now of how you teach improv to your students. What is the creative ability development framework?

Laura: So the creative ability development is a philosophy that uses musical improvisation to nurture and grow the creative side of the brain. So just the way the Suzuki philosophy is about helping children become noble adults. The creative ability development is about developing the creative ability in the brain, over and above its use in music, but it uses music improvisation as a vehicle as a tool for that. The person who developed the philosophy, her name is Alice Kanack, K-A-N-A-C-K and she has her own school in Rochester, New York and you can definitely look her up online.

Laura: And she came up with this philosophy in the 1980s when she was teaching violin in New York City. Her background is as a violinist and violistin composer and she had in her teaching studio someone who I’m sure she would agree because she told me this, we would call the unteachable student. I use air quotes, and that’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s a student who doesn’t seem to be able to learn, given any approach, whether it’s scales, or just read a basic orchestra part. And so I think this was a student who’d been passed from one teacher to another. And so here the student arrived in her studio and she mentions the student in her own philosophy text, which is found at the beginning of all her music publications.

Laura: And she just thought, okay, maybe he needs a different approach. And because she had a composition background, a master’s in composition, she just started playing on the piano some basic chord structures in the easiest key for violin, which is A major, that’s the first key violinists learn in. And pretty soon he was able to play in tune because he was tuning to the piano and choosing the notes he wanted to play. And so if he wanted to C sharp if you mind said, I want to hear C sharp, he would adjust his finger to make sure the C sharp was in tune with the chords she was playing on the piano. And so she had kind of an aha moment where she thought, wait a second, this is not just a way for us to pass the time in the lesson. He’s actually getting something really profound out of this.

Laura: And so she developed a full methodology, including pre-recorded tracks, and at the time, cassette tapes, and now CDs and hopefully in the future MP3s, where children play along with a given track for two to three weeks as a creativity etude. And the tracks range from two to five minutes long. And the child does it for about as long as they want. Sometimes I have students who want to do it twice when they’re at home and others, it’s a longer track, they’ll just play for 45 seconds or so as long as they do it regularly the same way we ask our students to play scales and etudes and other technical exercises.

Laura: And the approach is so step by step and mirrors the key structure of Suzuki book 1 for violin and then she wrote and recorded one for viola and cello so it mirrors the key structure for viola and cello, which is a fifth lower than violin. And then she wrote one for piano, and I believe for piano it focuses on F sharp pentatonic and then C major in the mode of C. So for violin for instance, it starts in A major and then goes to D pentatonic and B minor blues, and B minor blues and D pentatonic is the same notes. It’s really easy on the violin, actually. You don’t have to think about it too hard. You just say what fingers to use and what strings and suddenly the violinist is improvising in D pentatonic and everything sounds good because in the pentatonic scale, every note sounds good with every other node. So it’s incredibly satisfying.

Laura: And then it’s until the end, there are 28 tracks in that first book. At the end, it’s all G major and the modes of G. So the way the recordings are structured, you’re playing in G major first and then you tell your student, it’s still in G major, but then it’s in A Dorian, or D Mixolydian. And they don’t have to know that. They just have to know they still stick around in G major, and you could suggest it’s in G major, but you might want to start on an A, you might want to hang around A if it’s an A Dorian, for instance. But I’ve sort of gotten a few steps ahead, but that’s a little bit of the approach. Did you want me to give a little demonstration?

Christopher: Please do, yeah.

Laura: Okay, so I’m going to turn on my Bluetooth speaker and my iPad here. So the very first exercise that I get my students to improvise with, the first track has a title and it’s called What’s The Answer to My Question? And that’s because the violin on the track plays a chord progression, a baseline, but plays it in a soprano register. And all my students learn to sing that before they play. So they start by singing it. And there’s a periodicity to this particular track. So first, the violin plays that baseline in a soprano register, and then it gets transferred to the cello in the left hand of the piano and there’s different harmonizations. No, the harmonizations are the same, but different textures of accompaniment.

Laura: And when you hear it, it’s going to sound quite thick, because beginning improvisers need a place to hide. They need to go into the music to find what their voice is, and this process can take up to three years of daily practice of the exercise so that we’re not getting, right away, hardcore playing. In fact, it often surprises parents that they’ll have a very outgoing child who plays their pieces like this and then they improvise like this. One other thing I want to say before I play is, Alice came up with three rules that I have passed along to my students as well. And when it’s time to improvise, we create a bubble protected by these three rules.

Laura: Rule number one is that there’s no such thing as a mistake. And that includes technique on the instrument. So once we get everything set up beautifully, the mom can’t come and fix the wrist and can’t say, “Your pinkie is not curved.” We leave the child alone and of course, we want everything set up beautifully before we start. Rule number two is applause and silence. So we keep quiet while that child is playing and we clap at the end to show appreciation for the effort and for the creation. And when we play together when I do improvisation games with all my students, we clap to say thank you for sharing your idea with me, because of course, we know great improvisers borrow from each other constantly.

Laura: And then rule number three is never criticize a friend. And this is a very important rule for parents, especially the most diligent parents, who will say, when the child’s searching for a note, “Why don’t you just play a C sharp? Just play an open string,” and who get to feel a little bit of anxiety. And I know it seems like I’m parodying, but the anxiety is real. They really want so much for their child and they don’t realize that this is like watering a seed that you water the seed and give it sunlight, but you don’t yell at it if you don’t see a sprout right away. Because of course, it’s developing the root first. So a lot of the work is going on behind the scenes and very quietly as the child’s voice emerges.

Laura: So, with that long preamble, I’m going to play what is called the creative ability development twinkle. It’s what’s the answer to my question and you’ll pardon my voice because I’m going to sing the way I asked my students to sing. Then I’m going to play like a somewhat beginner student would play, a students who can play the A major scale and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Laura: (Plays Vioilin)

Laura: It’s a pretty long track it’s about four minutes long. And it’s so lovely because the periodicity of the chords allow the child to experientially understand the concept of a passacaglia without burdening them with the label passacaglia when they’re five. We can attach a label later on.

Christopher: And for those who aren’t classically trained, what is a passacaglia?

Laura: Oh, the passacaglia is a composition based on a recurring bassline. Usually, it’s in three. This passacaglia is in two so usually a passacaglia will be 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. And over top of the bassline, the melodies and the counter melodies will change, but the harmonic structure will stay the same.

Christopher: Thank you. And I think that gives a really great taste of what this approach can look like and what you might be doing in your lessons with your students. I wonder if we could use that maybe as a way to pick apart what matters and what doesn’t in this world view on improvisation because as I alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of different schools of thought. And in particular, what I’d love to hear you speak on is the relationship between improvising and instinct and music theory rules and memorized vocab and ear training skills. When you’re teaching your students improvisation, what’s the balance between those or which feature and which don’t?

Laura: So the younger the students is, the less information you give them that is not relevant. And that is not relevant, I know is subjective. But with a student that starts with me. So let’s say it’s a five or six year old beginner, we allow the setup to happen, I will probably do some improvisation using the piano with a different book, just as we wait for the physical to gel on the instrument. And then when we move to the violin, because at that point, they’re only playing in A major, I may say stick to the A and the E strings just so they don’t go on the low strings.

Laura: So they’re the three rules that govern how improvisation happens in the studio. And then there are rules or parameters for each of the exercises. And it’s hard to balance those two because sometimes a child will make what I call ugly sounds on purpose. So they know there’s no such thing as a mistake. So they’ll look, sometimes they’ll stare right at their mom, which is a bit of another topic. But as long as the instrument is fine, we know that there is music out there that is not beautiful. We know that there is art, great art that is not about beauty, but it’s about a search for truth, or it’s about sarcasm, or cynicism. And I think it’s okay to let a child do that.

Laura: But coming back to the theory, I will just tell them the finger pattern. So if they only play an A major, all I have to say is you can play any note you want on the A and E string. If they play in other keys, if they play, for instance, also in G major, but they’re starting improvisation, and we start an A major I will say just stick to the A and E strings and keep your second finger touching your third finger. And this can seem anti-theoretical, and it’s not that I’m not teaching theory to my students, when my students will learn scales, learn the name of the scale and the name of the notes, and they know what they’re playing. But when it comes time to improvise for young children, that’s too much information.

Laura: Now, the differences with teenagers, I’ve often been asked to teach workshops. I’ve worked with a string program at a local arts high school where I’ve gone several times over several weeks to work with the grade nines there. And in that situation, they need more information. They need information, because for them, it’s a comfort, they need to know why they’re being asked to do this. And of course, teenagers are usually self conscious, particularly when asked to do something outside of their comfort zone in front of their peers. And so when I do work with preteens and teens who have not been improvising from the start, I give them a lot more background information. It’s a little more wordy.

Laura: And when I work with my own teenage students, I do say, “Today we’re going to learn the blue scale.” And we learned the blues scale and I even have some written materials. “We’re going to play it off a page. We’re going to do a B minor blues. And let’s play this B minor blues or we’re going to do D Dorian. And Can anyone tell me D Dorian is in the same key signature as what key?” And they… “Oh, okay,” and they try… I said there’s no sharps, there’s no flats. “Okay, it’s C major.” So we’ve definitely talk about theory with my older students. So it’s about being sensitive to the needs of those children.

Laura: Now, my older students now have all been improvising since they were little. And so when I introduce a key to them, it’s not a burden, because they already know how to improvise and they know that if they play a C sharp in D Dorian or an F sharp, they will hear it immediately, first of all. But me having told them the scale is less important than how they decide… What they decide to do with that note, that “outside note”, note outside of the key. I don’t know. I think that answers your question and then some.

Christopher: It’s really helpful. Thank you. And is there any… How do you help them develop their judgment or their taste or their experiential output in improvising? I ask because we do it a certain way at Musical U and I’m curious to know, is that conversation happening? Are you exploring with them, “Hey, how did that improvisation go?” Or is it kind of respected as a closed bubble that that’s that and they do it their way?

Laura: So that’s a really good question. And if I notice that a student, who… If it seems like a student hasn’t really been practicing their improvisation, and I think that would be when I’ve assigned the exercise, when they come to it, and they don’t really seem sure at all of what their choices are, then the first question is, how often did you do this, this past week? Because if I just assume they’ve done it every day, then that’s not helpful. So, assuming they’ve done it every day then… I have this one student, and he’s a real, real analytical teenager, he’s going to be a brilliant scientist, he’s going to make some fabulous discoveries. And he also plays the violin. He tends to fall into this one bowing pattern that he does all the time. And that’s where he’s comfortable. Now, the notes always change but he’s always doing the same slur pattern.

Laura: So, once in improvisation is over. Like you said, I don’t go back and analyze it with him. We don’t take it apart, but I then add another rule. I’ll say, “Okay, I want you to do this exercise again. And this time, every time the passacaglia comes back, I want you to change articulations.” I said, “It can be as simple as doing one legato, one staccato, one legato, one staccato if you want to do that.” And then he’ll do that. And I’ll say, “Okay, let’s do a different rule. How about this time, you have to change rhythms every time the passacaglia comes back?”

Laura: And so the way you address what could seem to be like a student being stuck in a certain way of playing, this is assuming the student is actually practicing, it’s just to create another rule. It’s just to give them another parameter to be within or I’ll say, “Okay, now this time, it can only be staccato, and you have to put at least two rests in there. I want to hear to rest if you need to take your bow off the string you take your off the string,” or a student who’s really afraid to go in through a position to improvise are up higher than first position, I’ll say, “This improvisation is only in third position. You have the choice of how many notes you want to play,” basically telling them one note is fine, but they’ve got to get in third position and stay in third position for the minute and a half, or whatever it is.

Laura: And of course, even if I say, “You can only play one note, if you feel like it,” they will inevitably play more notes. And maybe try to go down and then giggle. But it’s never seen as a discounting of what their previous improvisation was. I never have had to go there because then what’s happening is they will not feel safe. And, above all, I want them to feel like they’re safe because through that feeling of safety comes freedom. And then the paradox with improvisation is the more strict you make the parameters, the more creative they need to get, and the more that will push them gently, not necessarily totally out of their comfort zone, but I like to think of it as making their comfort bigger.

Christopher: Absolutely fantastic. Thank you. Well, that really adds a lot of interesting detail and ideas, I’m sure for some in our audience to take away and start applying for themselves. You’ve been using this approach in your teaching for over a decade, I believe and working with children and with adults. Recently, you’ve been moving more into helping other teachers adopt some of these ideas. Could you tell us a bit about what you’re up to over on your Facebook page with that?

Laura: Yes, well, I’ve been a creative ability development improvisation teacher trainer and coach since 2016. And I’ve held in-person workshops here where I live and also in Montreal, and informally in the United States. When I was teaching at a Suzuki Institute, some colleagues who knew what I was up to said, “Please, please, we have an hour and a half free, can you give us a workshop?” So we found a room and this camp and without any of my notes, I did a teacher training session. So I’ve been doing these in-person teacher training sessions, and now I’ve started to go online, which has been really interesting.

Laura: So on my Facebook page at Lauren Zarya Nerenberg, if you go to Facebook, and if you can’t remember, my middle name is Zarya, you can just search up my whole name and eventually you’ll find me. I’ve been posting videos about different aspects about teaching improvisation to children. Because I’ve been doing this for so long and I have maybe a slightly unusual background with the jazz having nourished my creative side when I was young. I realized that many, many classical teachers are interested in offering this to their students, but they’re just not sure where to start. And for many of them, they assume improvisation equals jazz. And of course, we absolutely know that’s not true.

Laura: I believe you’ve had Jeffrey Agrell on your podcast. He’s someone that I’m familiar with and I’ve been in contact with him and I’ve heard him on other podcasts as well. And he said something once that really stuck with me, he said, “For the vast majority of the history of music, creating our own music, improvising was a normal way of music making.” And it’s only relatively recently in the history of music, that it’s left the world of classical music and has been relegated to other genres. So jazz for sure and country and fiddling. And then in the classical world, it’s only the organists who still improvise regularly. And that’s great for them and it’s great for the parishioners and for the bride and groom, but I think it’s something that’s lacking.

Laura: And if we think of Johann Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, these are the monuments of the world of classical music and they were also incredible improvisers, very much admired for their skills and as improvisers. It just so happened that these three were triple threats. They could improvise, they could play brilliantly and they could compose. Well, that’s great. I think most of us are not going to be triple threats, but that doesn’t preclude us from also doing these other things. Not only playing the music written by another person, but by allowing ourselves to see what we have to create.

Laura: And just because I’m not Stephane Grappelli, or I’m not Wynton Marsalis or Miles Davis, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have something to say, and that it ends there. I think we wouldn’t tell someone to stop learning to play the violin, or you’re never going to be Itzhak Perlman, so you might as well quit now. Thank goodness, you’re not going to be Itzhak Perlman, the world doesn’t have room for millions of Itzhak Perlmans. But I think the same way amateurs feel drawn to studying an instrument, why should improvisation only be reserved for those who may already be creative? More air quotes.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, it’ll come as no surprise to regular listeners to this show that I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said. I really applaud the work you do and I’ve really enjoyed digging into some of the videos on your Facebook page. So I’d really encourage anyone to check that out. We’ll have a direct link in the show notes. If you can’t remember, Laura Zarya Nerenburg to type into Facebook search, and we’ll also link to the other resources mentioned in this conversation. Laura, it’s been such a pleasure as I suspected it would be to get to unpack some of this and hear more about your teaching approach. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today.

Laura: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure for me, Christopher.

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