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Teaching Improvisation in Elementary Music

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

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Are you on team “I love improvisation” or “I hate it”? Even some music teachers get a little nervous when it comes to improvising in front of others. But don’t worry, teaching improvisation in elementary music classes doesn’t have to be a scary experience. In fact, it can be super fun and approachable for everyone involved!

Let’s dive in and explore some tips and techniques to structure improvisation activities for success.

How to Teach Improvisation in Elementary Music Class Images include xylophones and classroom instruments

Create a Safe Environment for Improvisation in Elementary Music

To make improvisation a success in your elementary music class it’s crucial to create a safe and non-threatening environment. Keep the following tips in mind to help your students feel at ease and ready to embrace the activity.

Improvisation should feel natural and fun and your students will take cues from your attitude. If you’re feeling nervous and tense, they will pick up on it too. But if you approach improvisation with a sense of excitement and playfulness, your students will be more likely to do the same. So let’s get ready to have some fun!

Start Slow and Lay the Foundation

When introducing improvisation to your elementary music class it’s important to start slow and lay a strong foundation. Provide your students with specific directions and simple improvisation activities. Don’t expect them to create entirely new music from the start.

“Add-on” activities are perfect for this purpose, as they build upon a basic chant, rhyme, or song with new elements added in each class period. Remember to give your students enough time to process information and avoid moving too quickly. When you take a slow, steady approach you’ll set your students up for success and help them build a solid improvisational skill set over time.

Improvise Body Percussion Movements

Before diving into music improvisation start with body percussion movements. If you have more reserved students brainstorm together and create a “bank of movements” that they can choose from. If your students are more outgoing, set some rules or guidelines to ensure that the activity remains organized, focused, and safe.

Once you’ve laid this foundation, guide your students to improvise and create their own body percussion accompaniments with a familiar chant or song. Remember, creativity is a key part of the process! Encourage students to let loose and have fun with it. By starting with body percussion movements and gradually building up to musical improvisation, you’ll help your students feel more comfortable and confident.

Use a Rhyme or Chant to Provide an Improvisation Template

Rhymes or chants can provide a structured rhythm that serves as a foundation for beginning improvisation in your elementary music class. As your students learn the chant have them snap the beat as they gradually internalize the rhythm of the words. Once they have the chant memorized, guide them to tap the rhythm of the words as they recite the chant.

Students must be able to differentiate between beat and rhythm before engaging in the structured melodic improvisation described below.

Use Group Improvisation to Facilitate a Non-Threatening Environment

In elementary music classes begin teaching improvisation in groups rather than individually. Not only does this help students feel less pressure to perform, but it also allows them to take turns and get more practice in a supportive setting.

Set up the activity so that at least four students are improvising at once. Choose instruments with varying ranges and timbres so students can hear themselves. A sample instrument grouping might include the following barred instruments.

  • Bass xylophone
  • Alto xylophone
  • Alto metallophone
  • Glockenspiel

Improvise Melodies but Limit the Pitches

Once your students have a solid understanding of the chant rhythm and can demonstrate it through body percussion they are ready to move on to melodic improvisation.

To get started, set up xylophones or other barred instruments with just three pitches: Do, Re, and Mi. For more experienced students, you can use a pentatonic scale, which includes Do, Re, Mi, So, and La. As the students recite the chant, they should improvise a melody that matches the rhythm.

This activity encourages students to think creatively and experiment with different musical ideas. With time and practice, they’ll develop their improvisational skills and be able to create increasingly complex and interesting melodies.

Encourage Students to End on Do

Once all students have had a turn to improvise a melody, you can add another element to the activity. Ask them to end their melody on the note Do. This will help them develop a sense of tonality and recognize the “home tone” of the melody. By ending on Do, their melody will sound complete and resolved.

Encouraging students to experiment with different ways to end their melodies can also help develop their improvisational skills. For example, they could end their melody on a different note or even try ending on a chord instead of a single note. This type of experimentation can help students think creatively and develop their musical intuition.

Create a Rotation Pattern with a Game Atmosphere

Add a group of students playing unpitched rhythm instruments or Boomwhackers as beat keepers. The beat keepers help maintain a steady beat and provide a foundation for the improvisation activity.

To keep the activity flowing set up a rotation pattern for students which allows them to move from one position to another seamlessly without stopping the activity. This helps to create a game-like environment and keeps students more excited and engaged. And, when you eliminate downtime and keep the activity going, students will have more opportunities to play and refine their improvisation skills.

Gradually Eliminate the Chant

When you begin structured melodic improvisation, softly chant the words as students improvise the melody. Over time, as students become more confident, have them silently “lip-sing” the words while playing the rhythm and improvising melodies.

Once students have mastered structured melodic improvisation using a chant rhythm, guide them to create their own rhythm and melody. This is a BIG step, so be sure to maintain a group of students playing a steady beat to hold the activity together.

Keep All Students Actively Engaged

Engage ALL students ALL of the time in chanting the rhyme, snapping the beat, and adding unpitched percussion to maintain the rhythm. I like to use Boomwhackers (pentatonic pitches) to keep a steady beat.

If you don’t have time to create a structured improvisation activity for your students, take a peek at our Improvisation Chant. This original chant provides a comprehensive introduction to improvisation while incorporating all the elements discussed in this post.

Use Rhythm Flashcards for Improvisation Activities

If your elementary music students are not yet prepared to improvise an entire rhyme or chant, you can start with simple Interactive Rhythm Pattern Flashcards. One technique you can try is called “say and play.” Students say the rhythm pattern and then play it while improvising a melody. This approach can help them develop their improvisation skills in smaller, more manageable chunks.

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 elementary music can be a fun and rewarding experience for both teachers and students.

Just improvise! 😊

Meet the Author

Terri Lloyd is a former elementary music teacher with over 25 years of experience. She holds a Bachelor of Music, a Master of Science in Education, and a Technology Certificate in Instructional Design.

She is currently active in music education through blogging, workshops, and curriculum development. She serves on the music staff at her church and volunteers for an after-school children’s program. Terri is an active musician in the community, performing in a local Big Band, pit orchestras, and various events.

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