Improvisation Tips for Elementary Music

Improvisation is one of the best methods we have for figuring out how our students are working through musical materials. That’s because the cognitive process in improvisation requires students to build upon previous knowledge to create something new. Improvisation is also spontaneous, so students generate this new material in the moment. Spontaneously generating new musical material based on previous understanding is an impressively advanced skill!

There are different kinds of improvisation activities that your students will find valuable. They range from open-ended, free activities (like a young child “playing around” on a metallophone), to highly structured in their form, melodic content, and meter (like a vibraphone player improvising over a 12-bar blues progression).

These tips apply to structured improvisation. That means that you are putting some parameters around the form you want the improvisation to take. The exact parameters you’ll use will depend on your students, their musical abilities, and your unique educational goals.


 
Elementary Music Improvisation Tips
 

1. Prerequisites for Improvisation:

Improvisation is an aural skill. Students will need lots of experience and understanding of the musical element before they’re asked to improvise with it. This includes singing, speaking, playing, reading, writing, listening, and analyzing. In addition, here are two important prerequisites to think about:

Audiation:

In improvisation, students must draw conclusions about music based on their understanding of music’s structure. Students are essentially making guesses about what musical pairings will sound good together. For this to work well, they need an established tonal, rhythmic, and structural landscape.

Tonal Patterns and Vocal Improvisation:

Vocal improvisation is a particularly challenging task because of how much preexisting aural skills it takes. When they improvise vocally, students draw on tonal patterns. If a collection of tonal patterns are not secure (for example, m r d; mm r d; m rr dd d), students will have limited success with vocal improvisation.


Elementary Music Improvisation


Students need a strong aural foundation before they’re ready to tackle improvisation


2. Strategies for Successful Improvisation

Improvisation is wildly rewarding and fun, but it can also be intimidating. Here are some of my favorite ways to scaffold the process:

Elementary Improvisation Tips

Model it:

It’s not surprising that students experience more success with improvisation when their teachers model it for them. When you provide a model, students see that their answers don’t need to be elaborate or complex. It takes some of the pressure off to hear examples of what the teacher considers to be “good” improvisation. Also, if students see you as a creative agent, they’re more likely to engage in creative activities themselves. When you participate in play-based activities like improvisation, you’re setting the example for a play-based process.

Think it in your head:

Have students practice aurally before they’re asked to give a physical response. That helps them internalize how much time they have to make something up. In my experience, improvising within a metered time constraint (phrase) is the most challenging aspect for students. I recommend having students pat the steady beat as they inner hear the phrase to reinforce the amount of time they have to improvise.

Body Percussion:

Before playing instruments, I almost always have students improvise on body percussion. This is a valuable scaffolding strategy that helps students internalize the spatial awareness they’ll need on instruments. Jumping straight to instruments works with some activities and some students, depending on their musical skill level. However, when in doubt, I find it’s best to add this extra step.

Group Practice:

Have the whole class perform their improvisation at once. It will sound chaotic, but students need a safe place to “test drive” their rhythmic and melodic ideas.

Small Group Practice:

After an aural and group practice, ask half the class to share their improvisations at the same time. Then switch. Gradually narrow down the number of students you’re asking to share. This doesn’t necessarily need to happen all in one lesson.


Elementary Music Improvisation


Scaffold the process before you ask students to share their ideas


3. Improvisation Success and a Culture of Creativity

The amount of teacher-driven versus student-driven activities in your classroom will impact how your students handle improvisation activities.

If students are used to you making all the musical decisions (what to sing, what to read, how to perform, how many times to repeat, etc) and simply following musical directions, they may not be comfortable jumping straight into improvisation.

If the teacher does all the thinking, and the students are only responsible for doing what the teacher says, the creative ownership rests solely on the teacher. This may make for a tricky transfer of ownership when the students are asked to do the thinking.

However, if students are used to having ownership over musical decisions like what instruments to use, how to move, what the form should be, and what parts should be included, they will be more comfortable with the innovation and creative thinking needed for improvisation.

You can read about how I use improvisation in my warm up routine here.


Elementary Improvisation General music


Strive for a culture of creativity instead of isolated creative activities.


The next post will be full of actionable ideas you can use to encourage creative improvisation in your classroom.

What are some of your favorite improvisation invitations?

Musical Choice: Steps to Take Before Improvisation

Improvisation is the process of generating original musical material in real time. When we improvise, there is little predetermined about the performance. This means students need to have an extensive musical vocabulary internalized and ready to use on the spot.

When students are working with a new element, they may be ready to make musical decisions before they’re ready for the advanced skill of improvisation.

Read more about how I use improvisation with la, sol and mi, and 16th notes

Improvisation is one of the highest musical processes for our students, since it necessitates individually synthesizing knowledge and skills in a new situation. If your students aren’t ready to improvise, they can still make musical decisions that express their individualism and creativity.

Here are ideas some to consider.


 
Steps Before Improvisation | Victoria Boler
 
 

Whole-Class Choice

Making alterations as a whole class lets you model the process of creative choice. It’s as simple as having the class vote on a change, and performing the change all together. This could be done with virtually any musical skill, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

Form:

  • Switch the A and B section.

  • Repeat the chorus twice.

  • Repeat the whole song.

  • Mix up the phrases.

  • Sing all the rhythms backward.

Words:

  • Pick a word and find a substitute with the same rhythm

  • Pick a series of words to perform on body percussion (for example, snap on the numbers in Open the Gate and Let Me In, Sir)

Expression:

  • Choose to perform the song or rhyme loudly or quietly

Accompaniment:

  • The class comes up with an ostinato to speak with the song

  • Students vote on the instrument category (woods, metals, skins, shakers, scrapers) to play the ostinato

  • Choose phrases to sing as solos and phrases to sing as a group

 

This option is valuable if your students need a concrete framework for musical decisions. There is a significant amount of teacher input in this process, and less individual student input. These parameters make for a great starting place with musical choice, and you can use the same creative prompts with individuals or small groups in future lessons.

 

Rhythmic building blocks

Building blocks can be the anchor some students need when they create a new musical idea. They’re valuable because they include teacher-created parameters (what rhythms will be used, and the length of the phrase, etc.).

When preparing an element, you can use iconic notation on your cards or the orthographic words themselves. When practicing an element, you can put the standardized Western notation. When we’re in the practice phase, I like to put both options on the side of the card and let students choose their preference.

For example, with the rhyme, Bee Bee Bumblebee, my students can choose to use the side with bee images, or the side with western notation.

How to use rhythmic building blocks

When you have your phrase created from rhythmic building blocks, there are infinite ways you can use these creative decisions to inspire other musical decisions.

  • Students can perform it in a rondo with the song

  • Use the rhythms as a B section

  • Choose one phrase to use as an ostinato

  • Go on a “museum walk” to see the other rhythms in the room

  • Transfer the rhythms to body percussion or unpitched percussion instruments

  • Do literacy activity where the teacher claps a group’s rhythm and all students listen to determine whose group was chosen (use this as a transition to line up or move to your next activity),

  • Have student groups clap their rhythm and have the class dictate it with their building blocks

 

Pick your favorite phrase

In this activity, I like to use options extracted from the song itself, especially at the beginning. Students have contextualized this material which makes it easier to draw upon on the spot.

Choose a song your students enjoy, then create variations of the rhythms to play as a B section.

When the song is over, students choose one of three options on the board.

Built My Lady a Fine Brick Houseldpi.png

For example, in Built My Lady a Fine Brick House, we get done playing the game and singing the song, then students choose a “house” on the board to play.

Before students choose their house on their own, we do a group practice of each individual rhythm so students can practice the flow of each activity

Version two

Even if your class as a whole isn’t ready to improvise original musical material from scratch, you probably have a few students who would enjoy the activity and find success with it.

Built My Lady a Fine Brick Houseldpi.png

For a variation on the same activity, add an additional empty eight beats to the phrases on the board. I like to give a visual cue for the number of empty beats the student has to fill, especially at first.

This is a great transition to more fluid improvisation activities. At some point when students have had enough practice with the activity, you can invite everyone to make something up.


 

There are so many ways to facilitate student choice and creative expression without improvisation.

These are a few ways to help students make musical decisions before they move to improvising on their own. These ideas are not replacements for improvisation. Instead, they are ways to build your students’ decision-making muscles so they’re ready for more intentional improvisation later.

What are some of your favorite ways to offer musical choice in your room?