Cook Up Some Improv Strategies, Part 1

Teaching children (and sometimes yourself) to improvise isn’t always covered in teacher training, but MENC member Herbert D. Marshall discovered some attitudes, techniques, and resources that helped him:

Marshall focuses on three experiences he wants to provide his students.

Exploration—finding personal boundaries, using all options, pushing limits. May involve little preparation and encourages spontaneity, builds confidence, permits divergent opinion. (“Demonstrate all the impersonations you can do with your voice: people, animals, things.”)

Creativity—applying some conditions or limits, but allowing for a great diversity of choices. May involve some planning and building a useable repertoire of possible responses. (“Chant a rhythm that’s different from mine but uses the same amount of time I used.”)

Improvisation—more defined expectations, parameters. There’s no correct/incorrect response, but there are musical ideas from the learner’s repertoire that are obviously better choices. (“Demonstrate stationary free flow in the A section, then locomotor-bound flow in the B section.”)

Before improvising, “children need a large repertoire of whole songs and chants appropriate for their age and culture,” Marshall says. “Use a variety of sources such as series texts, folk song collections, and world musics.”

“Whether you elect to explore and create in the jazz, folk, or other idioms, children need a broad listening experience, a substantial repertoire of patterns, and most important, permission to think outside the box,” Marshall says. “Create a classroom environment in which divergent thought is valued. … Imagine what a stimulating change of pace music class will be if creativity and diversity are nurtured.”

For teachers new to improvising, Marshall urges finding a supportive environment where you can practice modeling for students. “Find an improvisation buddy or group with whom to hone your skills.”

Read more in Marshall’s article, “Improvisation Strategies and Resources for General Music,” in the Spring 2004 issue of General Music Today.

Read Part 2.

Marshall’s Recommended Resources

Building a Jazz Vocabulary: A Resource for Learning Jazz Improvisation by Mike Steinel (Hal Leonard)

Conversational Solfège by John Feierabend (GIA)

Learning Sequences in Music: A Music Learning Theory by Edwin E. Gordon (GIA)

Jump Right In: The General Music Series by Beth Bolton, Cynthia Taggart, Alison Reynolds, Wendy Valerio, and Edwin E. Gordon (GIA)

Now’s the Time: Teaching Jazz to All Ages by Doug Goodkin (West Music)

Adapted from “Improvisation Strategies and Resources for General Music,” by Herbert D. Marshall, General Music TodaySpring 2004.

Herbert D. Marshall is associate professor in music education at Baldwin-Wallace College Conservatory of Music. He taught general and instrumental music for eleven years in public schools in upstate New York.

—Linda C. Brown, April 14, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (