The Fiddler’s Secret to Foot-Stomping Improvisation

My sister, Kristina Miller, recently brought her fiddle to the bluegrass scene in San Francisco. Jamming there is rousing fun, and the most impromptu thing you can imagine. She finds a bar and some other musicians (ideally a banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and bass), someone calls a tune, and the others strike it up, taking turns improvising and backing up the soloist. Kristina and her fellow musicians are like ancient bards, re-crafting existing pieces in a performance unique to time, place, and audience.

The fiddler models what every artist longs for: instantaneous inspiration. Energized in the moment by audience and fellow musicians, she creates fresh music out of thin air. To the artist who has run dry, this kind of inspiration may seem like a gift, unpredictable as a bolt of lightning. But Kristina will tell you differently. It’s exciting, but it isn’t magic.

“When you’re improvising, you’re not creating something out of nothing,” she says; “there’s the chords, the melody, the different building blocks.”

The art is in the way you combine those blocks.

“Hard” and “Soft” Skills

Kristina’s insights reminded me of Daniel Coyle’s Little Book of Talent and The Talent Code. Coyle insists that talent isn’t a gift bestowed upon you by the muses, or by your genes. You build it through persistent practice.

Coyle describes discipline and creativity in terms of “hard skills” and “soft skills.” Hard and soft skills use different parts of your brain and require different methods of practice.

Hard skills are high-precision skills, and every art has its own set. They are techniques that need to be exact and reliable. Dancers have to learn complex positions, movements, and rhythms. Fiddlers spend years perfecting bow-strokes, scales, and fancy licks. To learn these skills, you have to repeat them carefully, until they’re built into your neural pathways. It can feel as inspirational as a pilates workout; but these techniques are your tools, and you need them on hand if you ever hope to create.

As you practice your hard skills, you can mature into the soft skills. These are highly flexible skills that depend on intuition: the ability to respond to patterns, feelings, and possibilities. They allow you to use your hard skills in creative, interactive ways. Think of two bantering conversation partners, a novelist crafting plot twists, bluegrass musicians passing around a tune. To develop soft skills, you need to experiment over and over. Failures actually help expand your responsiveness and creativity. Kristina says she needs a space where she feels safe making mistakes because fiddlers have plenty of opportunities for messing up. In a jam session, you may have to pick up a tune you’ve never heard before and be ready to improvise on it when your turn comes.


The key to developing soft skills is what Coyle calls ignition. This is the “emotional rocket fuel,” the passion that catalyzes artistic creativity. Kristina’s sources of ignition are social. She finds motivation in the community and the friendly social pressure. It’s a feeling of ignition and inspiration all rolled into one:

There’s the feeling of fear, the excitement because you never know quite what’s going to happen. The pressure to play something good, to wow the audience and your friends surrounding you. Because you know you’re going to get your brief chance to shine, maybe 16 measures, and that’s all for that song. And then sometimes you get that feeling of confidence and peace and freedom. That’s what you really want, when music just flows. It’s like skiing. You’re just going going going, and you might swerve or stumble, but you just have to keep going, and hopefully you’ll make it to the bottom alive. It really is exhilarating.

I asked her what advice she had for fiddlers and for anyone hoping to break into the art scene. Here’s what she said:

In a way, discipline brings freedom. Forcing yourself to practice regularly, as well as attending jams or other places where you’re pushed outside of your comfort zone, even when you’re not feeling it, will help you eventually get there. You can’t wait until you’re good enough to go into the circle, because you’ll never get good until you start somewhere.

Magical as it feels, inspiration is really as predictable as a formula: Skill + Ignition = Creative Inspiration. If you trust that inspiration is something you can access, you’ll no longer sit down to your work wondering, do I have it today? You’ll just get to work—experimenting, revising, and trying again.

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