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Using Improv isation as a

Teaching Stra Itegy

By J a n i n e R iv e ire

Trying to implement the Natiional Standards for Music Educationl has led me to the important
i!.coaclusionthat improvisation is a valuable teaching tool. Rather than thinking about it as yet anoth-
c: t1iing to teach in the already ttoo-short music lesson, I have started using improvisation activities
reinforce music learning. B)r doing this, I am not only addressing Standard 3 (improvising
melodies, variations, and accompaniments), but also giving the students and myself the chance to
develop our improvisational skilIls and overcome our fear of improvisation.
Daily participation in improvisational activities can help everyone learn to enjoy improvisation.
This holds true for general muisic classes and performance ensembles at any level, but getting
improvisation activities into perfformance-oriented classes presents a particular challenge. The chal-
lenge ensemble directors face is breaking away from the traditional rehearsal model and creating a
time slot in each lesson or reheaarsalto step away from notated music to focus on auditory skills or
Many educational approaches, especially those that target early
childhood education, emphasize the importance of playing
with or manipulating an idea or skill to deepen understand-
ing of it. What is manipulation? Literally, it means han-
dling, or moving with the hands. More generally for
musicians, manipulation is using the body (finger mus-
cles, vocal cords, arm movements, breath) or the mind
to explore different ways of making or using a particular
sound or combination of sounds. The kind of manipula-
tion of musical material done in improvisation causes
the brain to process the information differently, using
more of the cortex and strengthening a student's ability to

Sample Improvisation Games

Let me illustrate the benefits of improvisation by outlining three scenarios: a beginning strings
class, an intermediate band classs, and an advanced choir. In the classroom, I try to treat all improv-
isation activities like those descrribedbelow as games that allow students to have fun as they explore
and learn. The materials listed iin the Suggested Reading sidebar can give you addi-
tional ideas.
Solos and Conversations with Strings. In the beginning string class, stu-
dents have recently learned the first four notes on the D string: D, E, F-
sharp, and G. They have played the notes pizzicato in many written
exercises, and they have had free time to experiment with the notes.
They have also been bowing open strings in a variety of rhythms. Today
will be their first time bowing thlese fingered notes, using both hands at
the same time.
There are several possible imIprovisation activities for these students:
(1) playing an open-string acconipaniment (arco or pizzicato) while stu-
dents solo arco; (2) manipulating the rhythm of two pitches (arco) over
a tonic-dominant harmonic pattEern, which can be created by the teacher
on a keyboard or with Band-in-aI-Boxor by the class using open strings or
pizzicato on assigned pitches; arnd (3) "conversations," having pairs of stu-
dents face each other and play nmusicalphrases back and forth, using only those
four pitches. Each of these activities can help students achieve the goals set forth in Standard3 and
reinforces performance skills as well as the concepts of harmonic progression or form.


Soloing over a neutral harmonic background, as in the first activity, can be done with any new
note set or with a skill in which the note set is not necessarily crucial. The neutral harmonic
background is best with quartal or quintal chords, voiced widely (as with open strings in an
orchestra). One can also create a neutral background with rhythm patterns on unpitched instru-
ments, laps, or a unison pitch.
Playing set pitches over an alternating tonic-dominant harmonic background, as in the sec-
ond activity, helps students develop the feel of tonic and dominant by allowing them to discov-
er dissonance and intuitive voice leading. The third activity, conversations, allows students to
develop an understanding of phrase structure, call-and-response form, various articulations and
dynamic levels, and voice leading. Students strive to keep to the established pitch and to repeat
parts of what the other has "said" in their own responses, as people do in real conversations.
A Registers Gamefor IntermediateBand. In the intermediate band class, students have learned
to play a new scale, using some new notes or fingerings. To develop facility with the notes of the
scale, set up a registers game. This game, typically for groups of three, takes one instrument each
from the high, middle, and bass registers. Students proceed to improvise freely, using notes from
the scale in only the assigned octave. The assigned octave should use the most new material and
be appropriate for the register needed.
Encourage students to move rhyth-
mically slowly at times (e.g., with W
half or whole notes) and quickly
at other times (e.g., with eighth
notes). The effect is similar to
Dixieland-style jazz. After some
time working in small groups,
students can share with the large

Improvisationgames are one way to help

ensemble members master Standard3.

*S~~'~ r(~lg ~ ( I'

* Azzara,Christopher."AnAuralApproachto Improvisation."
Journal86, no. 2 (1999):21-25.

* Bechtel,Ben."lmprovisationin EarlyMusic."MusicEducatorsJournal66, no. 5 (1980): 109-12.

* Bradshaw,Merrill."Improvisationand ComprehensiveMusicianship."
Journal66, no. 5 (1980): 113-15.

* Camilleri,LelioA."ModularApproachto MusicCognition."Interface18, no. 1-2 (1989): 33-44.

* Campbell,PatriciaShehan."Unveilingthe Mysteries of Music Spontaneity."Music EducatorsJournal78, no. 4 (1991):


* Dobbins,Bill."Teaching Know IsWhatYou Get."Jazz Educatorsournal18,no.3 (1986): 14-17,


* Erwin,Joanne."Beyondthe Page."TeachingMusic3, no. 3 (1995): 28-30.

* Findlay,Elsa.Rhythmand MovementApplication
of DalcrozeEurhythmics.

* Gordon, EdwinE.JumpRightIn:TheMusicCurriculum.
Chicago:GIA, 1985.

* Hall,EdwinT."Improvisationas an Acquired,MultilevelProcess."Ethnomusicology
36, no. 2 (1992): 223-35.

* Hickey,Maud."TeachingEnsemblesto Compose and Improvise."MusicEducators

Journal83, no. 5 (1997): 17-21.

* Keetman,Gunild.Elementaria.Translated
by MargaretMurray.London:Schott, 1974.

* Keyes,Christopher."TeachingImprovisationand Twentieth-CenturyIdioms."MusicEducatorsjournal86, no. 5 (2000):


* Mickolajak, TeachingMusic 10, no. 5 (2003):41-44.

MaryT."BeginningSteps to Improvisation,"

* Sarath,EdwardW."Improvisationfor Global Musicianship." Journal80, no. I (1993): 23-26.


* Schafer,R. Murray.CreativeMusicEducation.
New York:Schirmer,1976.

* Whitcomb, Rachel."Step by Step:Using Kodalyto BuildVocal Improvisation,"

TeachingMusic 10,no. 5 (2003): 34-38.

Registers (the separation of lines by vocal repertoire, such as opera arias, played repeatedly, and the resolution
an octave or more) make counterpoint that traditionally has included to tonic is gradually delayed to give
more palatable to the novice. The improvisation. For example, they students time for extended explo-
interval of a minor ninth is less dis- might work collectively on an aria of ration. A live pianist may be best
tressing or stressful to the ear than a appropriatedifficulty that has a caden- here, but prerecorded or synthesized
minor second, for example. In this za and then discuss the use of scales, accompaniment can work. The lack
way, more than one person at a time arpeggios, and perhaps even trills in of individual exposure involved in
can achieve free improvisation within an improvised cadenza. Listening to individualized mass practice is use-
an agreed-upon key. Students learn to recorded examples may help kindle ful the first few times this game is
respond to their partners by alternat- this exploration by providing exam- played; volunteers can share their
ing active and sustained lines (creat- ples of common patterns used. results after everyone has practiced.
ing "rhythmicwindows") and discov- Students can practice individually and These advanced choral students
ering how to create cadences. then share their version of the final could also use improvisation to work
Cadenzas and Dissonances with an phrase. on improving intonation of har-
Advanced Choir In the advanced Improvised cadenzas can happen monies in a given piece of repertoire,
choral rehearsal scenario, students in a classical, jazz, or pop context. especially one that uses cluster
have begun to improvise original Students should begin by listening to chords or other dissonances. A tradi-
melodies over assigned chord progres- numerous examples. During the tional approach might involve iden-
sions. Students can now work on game, the cadential harmony is tifying one or more difficult chords
Phase Time Allotment Energy Activities

Introduction/Warm-ups 8-10 minutes Moderate Transitionalactivities; preparingfor music

making;tuning,when appropriate;warm-ups,
includingscales, rhythms,and harmonies;
cross-listening;and adjusting intonation

Review/Old repertoire 5-15 minutes Moderate, moving to Playinglearned material, reinforcing what was
lower new in the last rehearsal, observing dynamics,
correcting rhythms,emphasizing phrasing,etc.

New material/Extension 5-15 minutes Lower New concept or skill in new or familiar
of technique music. Material introduced verbally by instruc-
tor, demonstrated or modeled, then attempt-
ed and practiced collectively by students

Manipulation/Improvisation 8-10 minutes Moderate Opportunities for students to wrestle with

the new material in an individualizedand cre-
ative manner; improvisation games

Closure 4-10 minutes High A musical activity in which all perform a

meaningfulsection of music they know and

U *6

and structuring a game of singing in chord against which to create the Ride" require no particular instru-
and out of tune with a specific chord dissonance. It can be used in a group mentation. This is fun but challeng-
or voicing of a chord. Stack it, setting to improve intonation of ing material from which to develop
breathe, sing it again deliberately off individual chords, or it can encour- improvisation activities. Class explo-
pitch, and then return to the correct age melodic improvisation that ration of an excerpt of one of these
chord within a set time (perhaps one embraces dissonance while also works can spread student awareness
beat). The choir should check the training students to hold a pitch beyond the traditional classical
chord against the starting pitches. against other parts' dissonance. This repertoire and help them develop
A more improvisational approach can be a particular challenge to different habits of listening and
is to further individualize and vocal students, but it is not exclu- thinking.
expand the exploration: while the sively a vocal problem.
group holds the chord, one student Alleviating Fear
or a small group of students deliber- Repertoire for Improvisation An important key to any of these
ately sings dissonances (that they Repertoire from the mid- to late- activities is to consider your students'
discover themselves) and then twentieth century by such com- and your own anxiety about improv-
resolves them by returning to the posers as Harold Budd, Christian isation. Many musicians and students
original chord. This teaches several Wolff, and others uses graphic or fear improvisation for different rea-
things: comfort with dissonance, the narrative scores that require a much sons, but it is important to remove
ability to stick to an assigned pitch, freer interpretation of symbols or the element of fear and allow the
careful tuning of harmonies, and lis- instructions than traditional nota- musical mind to play. That is the
tening to others in the ensemble. tion. Imagine interpreting this essence of improvisation. If the anxi-
Over time, a teacher can extend instruction: "choose to play (or not ety level is moderate to high, then be
how far the students should wander to play) between one and seven sure to call these exercises "games,"
in their improvisations. When stu- sounds." Or imagine interpreting the since games are usually perceived as
dents sing longer phrases to disso- sound of symbols like these: * * *. nonthreatening activities.
nance and back, they learn to create Composers using such symbols may You can most effectively reduce
melodies on the spot without fear of provide a key for interpretation, but anxiety by creating an encouraging
dissonance. they often do not. Pieces such as environment. There must be trust in
Dissonance search works best Wolff's "For 1, 2, or 3 People" or the room. Students must feel safe to
when there is a constant pitch or Pauline Oliveros's "The Klickitat experiment without being berated or


belittled for what they perceive as and then increases in energy to a individually with the harmonic
wrong notes or bad sounds. Teachers high level by the end of the lesson. background so that you can assess
and classmates must all agree to The high energy helps to build stu- their learning.
ground rules of behavior (e.g., no dent motivation. My goal has been If the new material is a skill, such
laughing or grimacing) and cri- to place improvisation activities in as shifting to a higher register, then
tiquing (e.g., there are no wrong the high-energy part of the profile you need a different activity. One
notes, only ones you would change if for maximum benefit. possibility is for each student to take
you played it over). As the teacher, Table 1 shows the procedural out- a passage from the new material and
you are the model for this behavior line I have developed. Remember expand it to create a little exercise
and must hold everyone in the room that every lesson or rehearsal will that they practice for a minute, and
responsible for maintaining a stan- have one or two very specific objec- then share. Or you can ask students
dard. Without trust, students will tives and one or two general objec- to play any notes in the lower regis-
only reproduce what they have seen tives. Time indications are ranges for ter for one measure and then play
or heard before, and that is not varying lesson times, from the thir- the first beat of the next measure on
improvisation. ty-minute class to the fifty-five- a particular note from the higher
All these activities allow the minute class. register, then rest and repeat. In this
teacher to informally assess individ- Which improvisation activity is way, the students practice arriving at
uals' grasp of improvisation based on planned depends on the objective of a particular goal tone from a variety
the pitches provided. The level of the lesson or rehearsal. For example, of self-created lead-ins.
complexity or difficulty of the stu- if the new concept is cadence or It can be time-consuming to plan
dent's performance provides a fur- tonic and dominant, then you would these activities, and it is not always
ther window into the student's work with students to identify easy to surrender rehearsal or
achievement and understanding of places in the repertoire where domi- instructional time to them, but this
the skill or concepts being assessed. nant or tonic cadences occur and approach is effective and genuinely
As students become comfortable have them play those excerpts. For instructional. If applied consistently
with the activities, they may become improvisation on that concept, give over a period of months, your efforts
useful for formal assessments as the students the chord pitches to will be rewarded by increased stu-
well. choose from for tonic and dominant, dent motivation and achievement.
set out a harmonic background, and
Planning let students create short cadential Learning through Play
The crucial change I have had to phrases from the notes available. At This is discovery instruction,
make in structuring the arc of the first, all students can play whatever which is very powerful. It works
rehearsal or lesson has been creating they want while all others are also within the higher levels of cognitive
a time slot for manipulating new playing. After this free practice time, processing: application, analysis,
concepts. I drew this idea from a dis- ask students to take turns playing and synthesis. Students learn to
cussion about lesson structure with
a colleague who applies principles of
Education through Music (ETM) in o m
her teaching.2 The lesson plan for-
o MENCResources
mat she uses recognizes the impor-
tance of giving a child time to play
with or manipulate an idea or skill The following MENC resources offer more informationon improvisa-
to deepen and personalize his or her tion.To order books or back issues of any MENC magazines,call 800-828-
understanding of it. We find this 0229. Past articles are also availablein periodicaldatabasesat many libraries.
idea in Orff-Schulwerk as well.
Improvisation is the ultimate manip- * Inks,Kimberly(Burns)."Standard 3 Is RiskyBusiness:PracticalIdeasfor
ulation activity, and so I believe it is
Improvisationin the Classroom."TeachingMusic 12,no. 5 (2005):22-26.
the most powerful tool for that
phase of a lesson. * Madura,Patrice D. GettingStartedwithVocalImprovisation.
Lesson structure also relies on
MENC, 1994. Item #1626 ($11.25, MENCmembers;$15.00, nonmem-
pacing and the teacher's manipula- bers).
tion of the class's energy level.
Robert Culver's work from the 1980s * Marshall,Herbert D. "ImprovisationStrategies and Resources for
describing the master teacher and General Music."GeneralMusicToday17, no. 3 (2004): 51-54. Available
the class energy profile is key in for- online to MENCmembers at
mulating this lesson structure.3 An
effective lesson begins with moder- * Volz,MicahD."lmprovisationBeginswith Exploration."MusicEducators
ate energy, slows down for the Journal92, no. 5 (2005): 50-53.
detail-oriented work of extending
technique or learning new material, '1134- -01


explore their instruments, which
may unlock the secrets of practice
time for some students. This atti-
tude of exploration can inspire more
from the student who only does Designed for Professional Educators
\'1I 1;(
what the teacher suggests and does- Combiningall lessonsfromMusicAce?
andMusicAce?2, MusicAce?Maestro
n't think to go beyond what is ,o

is a completeseriesof 48 engaging - ' .

expected but who has talent to go -^ music lessons and games that teach
beginningmusicstudentsof all ages the
beyond what is happening in the . . basics of music theory, rhythm,pitch,
class. Furthermore, students devel- note reading, listening, and the keyboard.
op a habit of listening more acutely,

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ready for grade-level benchmarks in
the improvisation Standard.
Using this approach, students are
learning to improvise in a low-stress
setting. When it's time to address the
more difficult aspects of the improv-
isation Standard, such as improvis-
ing an actual melody in a particular
style, the task is less frightening,
because the attitude of playful exper-
imentation has already been shaped.
1. Consortium of National Arts
Education Associations, National
Standardsfor Arts Education (Reston, VA: .' w-I^ a
2. Developedby MaryHelen Richards
in the 1960s, EducationthroughMusic
(ETM)uses "song-experiencegames"as
a startingpoint for learningaboutmusic
and everything else in a young child's
life. Thereare particularlystrong corre-
lations for success in literacy building
and English-language learning. For
more informationabout ETM,visit the Inspirational Music Training in Beautiful New Hampshire
Richards Institute of Education and
Research'sWeb site at Summer 2006 A unique, creative
3. Robert Culver, "The Master
TeacherTraining approach to music
Teacher Profile" (workshop, Texas
Music Educators Association Annual Institute training through
Conference,San Antonio, TX, February Young Musicians improvisation and
1987); or The Master Teacher Profile: Program composition.
Elements of Delivery and Work in the
Classroom, DVD (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Division of University (415) 648-4710
Outreach, 1988). ?