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?

Analyzing a Folk Song for a Grade-Level Song List

I’ve written about what makes classroom materials high quality, resources for quality materials, and how to put together a song list.

When you have your songs listed in a song list, it’s time to analyze them for their musical material and potential classroom use.

Here’s why.

When we analyze a song, we learn the material forward and backward. We approach it from several different musical and pedagogical angles so we have a thorough understanding of the material and how the musical elements interact.

If you do work as a wind, strings, or choral conductor, would you ever start a piece without doing a score study? Probably not.

Since the repertoire is the curriculum, it’s worth the time and effort to dive into the details of our songs.

Here is a simplified guide to analyzing a folk song. You’ll find more detailed methods out there, and I encourage you to pursue whichever level of thoroughness that would serve your students best.

I’ve made a snappy cheat sheet you can use in this process. It’s available in the Resources page here!

Let’s jump in.

 
Analyzing a Folk Song for a Grade-Level Song Listldpi.png
 

Two Analysis Uses: Classroom Use and Theoretical Analysis:

There are three major categories we look at when analyzing a song. One is the “bones” of the song, including its form, rhythmic content, melodic content. This is the analysis side.

The next category is how we can use it in the classroom. Is it useful for teaching any specific melodic or rhythmic concepts? Are there any games associated with it? What about movement activities? This side lists all the ways the material might breathe in your classroom.

The third category is all the “other” things that are helpful to include. This category includes additional verses, game directions, and stick notation.


We’ll use Frosty Weather as an example as we walk through the steps to take when analyzing a song for your classroom.

You can find this song (and plenty more) in the Folk Song Index page.

Frosty Weather (2).jpg

Analysis:

When we get into the weeds of analyzing a song, you’ll find a few variations in the details from community to community.

This is my personal process, but be aware it may not be the same as other Kodaly-Inspired teachers.

In general, most musicians who do a folk song analysis are interested in the song’s melodic content, rhythmic content, form, and origin. Many musicians also prefer to include cadences, length of phrases, motifs, melodic contour, and separate melodic and rhythmic forms.

What to Include in an Analysis:

  • Rhythmic Content: List all the rhythms in the song. Some teachers do this by the largest beat unit to the smallest. Some do from the smallest to the largest. Some teachers leave this step out for songs with younger grades. The choice is yours!

  • Toneset: List the solfege syllables in the song. Circle, underline, box, or find some other way to note the ending pitch. It’s helpful to include spaces between the solfege syllables when they are skips apart.

  • Scale: Looking at your collection of solfege pitches, determine the scale of the song. Your ending pitch will give you a good hint as to the tonality. Songs may be “chordal” (stepwise) or “tonic” (skips). A scale may also be modal, diatonic, or in a minor scale.

  • Form: Look at each phrase of the song. Are they similar? The same? Different? List the form in capital letters.

  • Country or Culture of Origin: Where is the song from? Who sang (/sings) it and why? What meaning do the lyrics hold? The more specific you can be, the better. For example, “African folk song” may be technically accurate, but we would get a richer cultural context by listing the specific people group within the specific country of Africa. Sometimes upon further research you may find that a song was not intended for use outside its community and needs to be taken out of your song list - perhaps it is a song with a spiritual or personal connection. We do our students and our global community a service when we treat cultural materials, such as music, with respect and acknowledgement of their origin.

 
Frostsy Weather | Victoria Boler

In Frosty Weather, we have four unique rhythms to list. Notice that the quarter rest is included in that list.

The toneset uses five pitches, including a skip. The resting pitch is do, so do is bold.

Since we have five pitches, they include a skip, and rest on do, our scale is do pentatonic.

When we look at the form, you could make an argument for AABA if you were to look at shorter phrases and only focus on the skeletal melody. However, through the eyes of a child, the slight variations in the melody and the length of the phrase make a case for AB.

The origin of the song is Ireland, and it is a song with a game. Both are important details.



Classroom Use:

This is the fun part.

Look through the song for rhythmic elements, melodic elements, or anything else that stands out to you as a teaching tool.

As with the analysis portion, different teachers have varying levels of detail they put into these categories. Here is a simple collection of things to consider.

  • Rhythm: List the rhythmic element that could be taught with the song. We want to look for new rhythmic elements that are surrounded by known elements, so be sure to look at the context of the whole phrase. For young students, you can also include steady beat, rhythm of the words, and fast / slow in this category.

  • Melody: Similarly, when we list melodic elements that can be used in the classroom, we want them to come before and after a series of known pitches. You can also add high / low in this category.

  • Game Type: Teachers tend to have their own classifications for games. Game identifications such as acting out, circle, chasing, choosing, dance, finger play, partner, or winding will get you started.

  • Other: What other possibilities do you see with this song? How might it live and breathe in your classroom? This is where teachers can get creative and detailed in their folk song analysis. Here are some ideas to get you started with this section:

    • Do you associate it with a book? Would it be useful during a specific season? What is the theme or subject material? Some songs are useful for teaching the notes on the staff. Some songs fit well on barred instruments because of their sticking pattern and melodic contour. Some songs may inspire a student-created ostinato activity. Some songs may have natural phrases or words you could extract for rhythmic building blocks. Some songs may have intervals and a pitch collection that fall nicely on a C or F recorder.

 

Now let’s look at Frosty Weather.

Classroom Use Folk Song Analysis

Even though this song uses five unique rhythmic elements, I don’t see a full phrase that would lend itself to extracting a specific rhythm. The first two measures could be a good example of steady beat, but when students continue the song they’ll run into beat subdivisions that may be confusing. Measures two and three use “ta-mi” (dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note), but that displaced sixteenth note isn’t surrounded by smaller beat subdivisions that would help make it obvious to a child.

When we look at the melody, we see three clear instances of the “s-m-r-d” pattern. That’s a great melody to extract here. The one measure without that pattern (measure 3) has pitches that students already know and will recognize easily because of their interval order (s-m-s-l).

The game listed in the source is a circle game, so that’s what I put in this category.

I have my own activity I use with this song that differs from the source activity. Since I use this song to work on open and closed space, that goes in the “other” category.


Also Include:

With an analysis and classroom use complete, there are just a few more details to check off.

  • Source: Our songs don’t exist in a vacuum, so it’s important to list where you found your materials. If a song is from a printed book, I like to list the book information and page number. If I learned the song aurally from a primary or trusted secondary source, I list the name of the informant, the date, and location the song was shared.

  • Game Directions: If a song has any games, dances, or activities associated with it, be sure to include those directions. If I have my own variant of the game, I like to include it along with the game listed in the song’s source.

  • Rhythmic and Melodic Notation: This may be one of the more tedious steps to the process. List out the rhythm of the song in stick notation. As you rewrite the song, pay attention to the phrases, and shoot for one line per phrase. Under the stick notation write the solfege syllables.

 
Frosty Weather Analysis | Victoria Boler

Jill Trinka has this song notated in one of her books. I’ve included her book information and the page number at the bottom of my printed music as the source.

Frosty Weather Source

There are two sets of game directions here. One is the game from the source. The other is my own variation. I want to include both so I can reference them.

The stick notation shows the rhythmic and melodic content separated by phrases. Notice that the last portion of the song is spoken, so I’ve included the rhythmic notation without a melody.


By the time you’re done with this analysis, you will know the song forward and backward, upside down, and around.

Even though this is a simplified version of the process, it takes a sizable amount of time to complete. I encourage you to consider the level of detail that works with you and your students the best, and leave the rest out.

You can find my collection of folk materials in the Folk Song Index.

And don’t forget to grab this cheat sheet in the Resource page.


Happy analyzing, and happy teaching!

 
 

I LOVE talking about music education, so if you’re into it, shoot me a discussion topic or question. I’d love to hear from you.