An Elementary Improvisation Study

One of the marks of an independent musician is the ability to improvise.

Amy Beegle wanted to find out more about fifth-graders improv abilities and the interactions produced while improvising. Using the collaborative creativity approach and two classes of elementary students at the school where she was the general music teacher, she focused on 16 children in four focus groups.

“The principal guiding questions were (a) What is the relationship between children’s social interactions and the products of improvising music? (b) How do children respond to different prompts? and (c) How do children express strategies for improvising and values of what constitutes improvisation of sufficient musical integrity?” said Beegle in her study.

Beegle gathered data over a 12-week period using audio and video recordings, daily field notes, and interviews after students’ viewed their own performances on video. She discovered that

  • All children in the study used a similar planning process.
  • Musical roles and relationships often paralleled social ones
  • Children’s music changed based on the nature of the prompt (poetry, art, music).
  • Children viewed prompts along a continuum of providing freedom of expression.
  • All the children in the study, according to Beegle, demonstrated the ability to “work together to make it sound good,” both during planning time and in the process of performing.

The study supports what Beegle called “the advocacy of small-group creative work … As the children in the current study participated in small-group planned improvisation, they gained skill in listening and performing in ensemble, communicating, group problem solving, decision-making, and sharing improvisational techniques and musical ideas with one another. Finding a balance between freedom of choice and useful constraints is key to inspiring and maintaining children’s creative musical growth.”

MENC member Amy C. Beegle is an assistant professor of music and music education at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. Adapted from “A Classroom-Based Study of Small-Group Planned Improvisation with Fifth-Grade Children,” published in the October 2010 Journal of Research in Music Education, Volume 58, no. 3, pp. 219-239.

–Ella Wilcox, March 30, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (