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Teaching Improvisation in Elementary Music

Teaching improvisation in elementary music doesn’t have to be hard or scary. These hints make it a fun activity for teachers and students.

Improvisation. You either love it or you hate it. Even many music teachers are frightened to improvise in front of others. But teaching improvisation in elementary music classes doesn’t have to be difficult or scary.

With a little structure and a plan, you and your students can improvise and have FUN in the process.

See below for some tips and techniques to teach your students how to improvise naturally without fear.

How to Teach Improvisation in Elementary Music with xylophones

Create a Safe Environment for Improvisation in Elementary Music

The most important thing you MUST do is to create a non-threatening environment. Use the tips below to help your students feel at ease. Improvisation activities should feel natural and fun. And students will reflect the teacher’s attitude. If you are nervous and uptight, they will be too. If you have fun with it, they will have fun too. Let’s have some FUN!

Start Slow and Lay the Foundation

Give students very specific directions with simple improvisation activities. Do NOT expect students to create all new music from the start. “Add-on” activities are perfect for this purpose. Add-on activities use the same basic chant/rhyme/song but add new elements each class period. Students need time to process information. Don’t move too fast.

Use a Rhyme or Chant to Provide an Improvisation Template

Rhymes or chants work well to provide a structured rhythm that students can use to improvise. Have students snap the beat as they learn to recite the chant. Once they have the chant internalized, students should tap the rhythm as they recite the chant.

Students must have these foundational skills and be able to discriminate between beat and rhythm before proceeding with this type of activity.

Improvise Body Percussion Movements

Before asking students to create music, improvise using body percussion movements. If your students are more reserved, brainstorm together and create a “bank of movements” they may choose from. If your students are more outgoing, outline a few rules or guidelines to keep the activity from getting out of hand.

Then, guide students to improvise and create their own movements. Being creative is part of the process. Make it FUN!

Use Group Improvisation to Facilitate a Non-Threatening Environment

When teaching improvisation in elementary music classes, improvise in groups NOT individually (at least at first). Not only does this help students feel less “on the spot” but it lets students have more turns.

Set up the activity so that at least four students are improvising at once.

Improvise Melodies but Limit the Pitches

When students have a firm grasp of the chant rhythm and they can demonstrate that rhythm through body percussion they are ready to improvise melodies.

Begin by setting up xylophones or other barred instruments with only 3 pitches – Do, Re, Mi. Or, use a pentatonic scale (Do, Re, Mi, So, La) for older, more experienced students. As students chant the rhyme, they should improvise and play a melody to match that rhythm.

Encourage Students to End on Do

After everyone has had at least one turn to play, add another element to their improvisation. Ask students to end their melody on Do. This will help them develop a sense of tonality and be able to hear the “home tone.” This will help their melody sound “finished.”

Create a Game Atmosphere

Create a game atmosphere when teaching improvisation in elementary music. Set up a rotation pattern so that students move from one spot to another without stopping the activity. Starting & stopping uses up valuable classroom time.

Gradually Eliminate the Chant

Begin the activity by softly chanting the words as students improvise. As they gain confidence over several rehearsals, have them “lip sing” the words silently while they play the rhythm and improvise melodies.

Once students have demonstrated mastery of improvising a melody using the chant rhythm, allow them to create their own rhythm and melody. This is a BIG step. Be sure to maintain a group of students playing a steady beat undercurrent to hold the activity together.

Keep All Students Actively Engaged

Involve All students ALL of the time by chanting the rhyme and snapping the beat. You may also add unpitched percussion to keep the beat. I like to use Boomwhackers in pentatonic pitches to help keep the steady beat.

If all of this sounds great but you don’t have time to create an activity with these elements, check out our Improvisation Chant on TpT. This original chant introduces students to improvisation using all of the elements outlined in this post.

Use Rhythm Flashcards for Improvisation Activities

If your students are not ready to improvise an entire rhyme or chant, try improvising using Interactive Rhythm Pattern Flashcards. One of my favorite ways to do this is the “say & play” technique. Students say the rhythm pattern and then play the short pattern while improvising a melody.

See this post for more Ways to Use Interactive Rhythm Pattern Flashcards.

Teaching Improvisation Doesn’t Have to be Scary

Provide a little structure, relax, and enjoy. Teaching improvisation in your elementary music classroom doesn’t have to be scary for teachers or students.

Just improvise! 😊

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