Essential Improvisation – Workshop Notes

denver-improvisation-workshopI just taught a workshop in Denver last weekend for the Scottish Fiddle Club of Colorado, and I thought that the subject matter would be useful to the rest of the world as well.

We covered these topics in a lot more detail, but I think that you can get some use out of the workshop notes even if you didn’t get to attend.  AND, if you think this would be a great workshop to put on for your fiddle club, Suzuki Violin Group, or other group of musicians or music educators, drop me a message.

If you have any questions about the notes, leave a comment, and I will answer your questions.

Essential Improvisation Downloadable Resources

Essential Improvisation – Workshop Notes

Things to Keep In Mind:

–        Have Fun.

–        Listen for the chord changes.

–        Learn the melody!

–        Get comfortable with your instrument.

–        Get used to being uncomfortable and living on the edge.

–        You can’t play it wrong.

–        Practice Improvising.

What Is Improvising?

Types of improvisation: Jazz, Fiddle and Old Time vs. Texas Style vs. Scottish and Irish

–        Jazz – Follow The Chords.

–        Fiddling – Follow the Melody.

Ways we can Improvise

–        Rhythms (push or pull the melody, syncopation, stretch or compress notes.)

–        Notes (subdivide or combine notes, neighboring tones, chord tones)

–        Bowings (change the rhythmic feel by altering the bowings.)

  • Keep the down bow on the down beat
  • Fiddling is Dance music (don’t lose the rhythm of the tune!)

What is important when improvising in fiddling styles? (melody!)

How do we get at the heart of the melody?

–        Strip out any notes that you can while leaving the song still being recognizable as the song.

–        Create Context by listening to as many different versions of the song as you can and leave what they have in common.

–        Look at the melody that people would sing (if there is a singing version of the melody.)



Tune origins and names in different traditions

–        Many fiddle tunes have become ubiquitous, and exist under many different names, styles, and traditions.

–        Do your research, and try to find the oldest version of the melody you can, and listen to how the tune has evolved over time.

–        Tunes don’t have words – instrumental

–        Songs have words – intended to be sung.

–        Some tunes started as songs, and others started as pure tunes. Some have existed as both for so long that we don’t know which came first.

–        Basic melody – What defines the song or tune.

Practice Improvising

–        Learn the Melody using the methods above (Simplify, Sing, and create context)

–        Learn licks that fit into this tune by “borrowing” licks from other versions of the tune that you listen to.

–        Practice playing around with the melody slowly on your own. Try different licks that you have learned. And, try creating some new licks. Take your time, and if you like it, work it out.

–        Work your licks up to speed.

–        Go to a jam and try your new tunes and licks out. Go ahead and live dangerously. It’s better to take a risk and fail than to play it safe.

–        When in doubt (or lost) return to the melody.

–        Play off of the licks that the other musicians add to the tune.

–        This is where new licks are created and inspiration lives.

Comments on Chords:

–        Most songs only use chords 1, 4, 5.

–        If Additional chords are added, 6m is the next most common.

–        If you have to take a solo and don’t know the melody, revert to following the chord changes.

Soldier’s Joy Chords (Simple):

D/// D/// D/// A///

D/// D/// D/A/ D/// repeat


D/// A/// D/// A///

D/// A/// D/A/ D/// repeat

Miss McLeod’s Reel Chords (Simple):

G/// G/// G/// D///

G/// G/// G/D/ G/// repeat


G/// G/// G/// D///

G/// G/// C/// D/// repeat

NOTE: Miss McLeod’s Reel often starts on the second part as listed here.

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  1. Hans Lueschen says

    Thank you Vi,

    This is really helpful. Just want you to know how much I appreciate Fiddle Tune a Day and the inspiration you are providing to us aspiring fiddle players. This has opened up a new world to me.

    I already play Soldier’s Joy so having the three versions is very helpful. Also, Miss McCloud is on my “to learn” list so thanks, I didn’t have the chart.

    If you get a chance check my taquitobro videos on You Tube. Mainly guitar and vocals so far but someday I’ll put up a fiddle tune too.

    Thanks again for your help and dedication,


    • says

      Hi Hans, You are very welcome. I’m really glad that Fiddle Tune a Day has had a such a positive impact on you and others. To provide a little inspiration to a fiddler makes my day, but to open up a new world is enough to make my week. I just watched high fashion queen. Your cowboy shirt and shorts are pretty awesome. Looking forward to your next fiddle post.


  2. says

    hoiw far east do you go to conduct fiddle camps.?? I,d be very interested in attending but Colorado is a little distant….|I live in KENORA, ONTARIO…Eastern Montana and n. Dakota or .S Dakota would be acceptable….??? sincere;ly JOHN

  3. says

    Great stuff!

    I recognized the output of Finale Printmusic…

    Since you have confessed to being a computer geek, I recommend that you look into an open-source music notation language called LilyPond ( It’s got a fairly long and difficult learning curves, but once you get past that, it’s actually faster, easier, and less frustrating to use than Finale. That’s because it’s really a programming language. If you want triplets, you specify the triplet over a given span with specified values, and LilyPond will do exactly what you tell it to.

    Finale will handle things like triplets however it wants to, and after having to go back and re-do things like triplets four or five times to get them the way I want, I’ve pretty much given up on Finale.

    And I REALLY like the price of LilyPond: $0.00

    Once you become fluent in LilyPond, it’s just a matter of typing in what you want the music to look like, and you can do that just about as fast as you can type (or dictate with Dragon Naturally Speaking, which isn’t free, but not horribly expensive, and does a pretty good job in revision 12.5).

    BTW, the tutorials for LilyPond were written by programmers, so don’t get the idea that you can just jump into them somewhere in the middle, because you can’t. You have to start at the beginning, and work through *every* example, because every step requires you to master each of the prior steps.

    • says

      Thanks, Howard. I am pretty sure that I saw output from LilyPond a few years back and it wasn’t up to snuff for what I was looking for. I have been using finale since 2004, and am pretty quick with it. I definitely appreciate open source projects, and use open source software in a number of my applications, but I also appreciate good usability, and value my time. I may look into LilyPond again when it comes time to consider upgrading again. 😉

      Keep in touch!

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