Image Map

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

teaching improvisation

With more focus on creating in the new National Core Arts Standards, more music teachers are looking at ways to incorporate improvisation and composition into their classrooms. It can be intimidating and nebulous to think through concrete ways to "teach" improvisation, especially with young students, so I thought I would share some of my favorite tips and strategies for teaching improvisation today.

1. Start with narrow parameters

The key to getting young students to successfully improvise is to give narrow parameters. I usually start with body percussion, and I limit sounds to maybe 3 or 4 (clap, stomp, and pat legs, for example). I model first by having students echo my 4-beat body percussion patterns using those sounds, then I tell them they will take turns "being the leader". I count 4 beats with my fingers while they make something up with the sounds I used (and I point out which ones we are using before they start making up their own), the class (and I) echos their pattern, then the next person makes something up without pausing between. I have limited the parameters to just a few beats and a few sounds, and presented their chance to improvise as a chance to do something they just saw the teacher do, and everyone gets a turn.

2. Don't give them much time to think

I almost always structure improvisation in a similar way to what I described above, with each student getting 4-8 beats to make something up and then moving straight on to the next student with no pause. While limiting the parameters, this also forces students to truly make something up on the spot rather than planning it out in their head, because the beat continues no matter what. I tell students that if they blank or space out and do nothing on their turn, nobody will remind them or wait for them- they will simply have "improvised" a 4-beat rest. There is also a certain amount of emotional safety in this type of structure for students who might be nervous, because when they are waiting for their turn they are engaged in listening to others' improvisations rather than waiting and stewing.

3. Encourage them to try new ideas

Although I make it clear that I will accept any improvisation that doesn't "break the rules" of the activity, I also encourage creativity by pointing out students who did something unique or interesting after everyone has gone. I try to make sure students have more than one opportunity to improvise as well, so that students who maybe weren't very creative or expressive the first time have a chance to try something new once they see the kinds of ideas that others come up with. One of the great things about this is that it is often the youngest students and students with learning disabilities who shine the most because they are less inhibited in their thinking- so they are the ones who turn a regular stomp into a hop, or decide to gliss on the xylophone instead of just playing one note at a time.

4. Gradually add musical elements and/or broaden parameters

One common progression I use is to start with body percussion, maybe doing it once with 3 or 4 sounds and then again asking students to add their own, then transfer to barred instruments, starting with just 1 note, then 2, then maybe a pentatonic scale, then any note. If I just went straight to "OK, everyone make something up on the xylophone for 4 beats!", students would be overwhelmed, but by going through a gradual progression, students are actually excited by the freedom when given fewer and fewer parameters!

5. Keep it short and frequent

If you're going through a list of standards and skills you want to check off your list, it can be easy to just think of improvisation as an isolated skill you teach over the course of a few lessons. I try not to approach hardly any skill in this way in elementary general music, but with improvisation in particular I think it is important to give students frequent opportunities throughout the year to improvise. Students need to feel comfortable enough to really start to get the hang of it, and they won't feel comfortable if they're only asked to do it once a year. Improvising can be naturally included when students are learning new rhythmic, pitch, form, or other concepts. If you're teaching a new instrument, have students improvise 4 beats on the new instrument to practice playing their first few notes. If they are learning about Rondo form, teach the class a short song for the A section and have 4 students each improvise 4 beats for each contrasting section. It is a great way to not only incorporate improvisation naturally into students' experiences but also to practice new skills and concepts in a fun and engaging way!

I love including improvisation in my music classes. What are your favorite strategies for teaching improvisation with young students? Leave a comment with your ideas and suggestions!

Want more? Subscribe here to the Organized Chaos newsletter and get music teacher ideas and resources sent straight to your inbox!


  1. I agree with every single one of these, especially the last one! You're right; it's so easy to think of improv as a stand-alone unit, but just like any other skill, it takes frequent practice. Thanks for sharing! #fermatafridays

    1. It's one of those things that I think doesn't require a lot of prep or effort but often gets lost in the shuffle, and then we wonder why students can't do it when we finally get around to it!