Jazz Takes a Bow: Improvisation for Strings

During elementary, middle, and high school years, string players are usually served up a standard dose of classical repertoire to master and perform. But for those teachers who are looking to give their students a wider musical foundation, introducing jazz and improvisation to string players can be a satisfying and meaningful experience.

“Jazz improvisation for violin is not new,” says Steven Chetcuti, music teacher at Somers Middle School in Somers, New York, “but it’s just not as commonplace because there are so many other places strings can expand to.” All the same, jazz violin has a long and venerable tradition, including such players as Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Mark O’Connor. The double bass, of course, is a mainstay of jazz. Viola and cello? Not so much. But Chetcuti has been integrating all four of these instruments into the music by inviting string players into his jazz improvisation classes. The crossover is very productive, opening up new techniques for strings while also showing the traditional jazz band members that strings can in fact improvise.

Chetcuti suggests that students “need to simply understand the concept of improvising” before they can begin to undertake it on their own. He recommends that string teachers first have their students listen to examples of improvisation player on instruments are typically part of a jazz ensemble: piano, trumpet, saxophone, etc. Once they have done this, they can then try out the techniques they’ve heard on their own instruments.

Read more about what method books and technology Chetcuti uses in the classroom in your next issue of Teaching Music.

This article has been adapted from an article of the same name by Cynthia Darling. Read the entire article on page 51 of the October 2009 issue of Teaching Music.


— Nicole Springer, September 24, 2009. © National Association for Music Education.