Teaching Improvisation in Elementary Music

Improvisation. You either love it or you hate it. Many music teachers are even frightened to improvise in front of others. Teaching improvisation in elementary music classes can be difficult. Read on for some hints for teaching your students how to improvise naturally without fear.

Yes! You and your students can improvise.

How to Teach Improvisation in Elementary Music with xylophones

Tips for Teaching Improvisation in Elementary Music

Creating a non-threatening environment is paramount. Use these tips to help your students feel at ease. Improvisation activities should feel natural and fun. Students will reflect the teacher’s attitude. So, if you have fun with it, they will have fun too.

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 a Template

Rhymes or chants work well to provide a rhythm that students can use to improvise. Begin by snapping the beat as students learn the chant. Once they have the chant internalized, students should tap the rhythm. Students must have this foundational skill and be able to discriminate between beat and rhythm before proceeding with this activity.

Improvise Body Percussion Movements

Before asking students to create music, improvise using body percussion movements. If students are more reserved, brainstorm together and create a “bank of movements” they can use. If your students are more outgoing, outline a few rules/guidelines to keep the activity from getting out of hand. Then, let them make up the movements. Being creative is part of the process.

Make it FUN!

Limit the Pitches

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

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 create 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.”

Use Group Improvisation to Facilitate a Non-Threatening Environment

When teaching improvisation in elementary music classes, improvise in groups. 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.

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.

Keep All Students Actively Engaged

Involve all students by chanting the rhyme and snapping the beat. You may also add unpitched percussion to keep the beat. You may even use Boomwhackers in pentatonic pitches.

If all of this sounds great but you don’t have time to create an activity with these elements, check out this 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 then play while improvising a melody. See this post for more Ways to Use Interactive Rhythm Pattern Flashcards.

Teaching improvisation in elementary music doesn’t have to be scary for teachers or students. Have fun!

Just improvise!

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