Cook Up Some Improv Strategies, Part 2

MENC member Herbert D. Marshall shares improvisation activities he’s found successful in the classroom:

First, Marshall emphasizes having “good class control and rapport with and among students” and points out that students must “know a wide repertoire of songs, chants, and patterns” Simplicity is key; use

  • Interesting rhythm patterns 2–4 beats
  • Tonal patterns of 2–4 pitches that outline one harmonic function (similar to ostinati in a singing game or Orffestration)
  • Simple songs in major, minor, duple, and triple, with obvious phrases, motives, and repetition.
  • Simple hand signals that mean “same” and “different.”

“When your precocious students start to become too familiar with the song or chant, you will be able to harness that energy by inviting them to invent a new twist for the song,” says Marshall.
Marshall likes starting with movement. “Once they have successfully used their bodies—and observed their peers—acting out ‘same’ and ‘different,’ most children will be willing to play or chant rhythms that are different. … Use same and different movement and rhythm activities to lay the foundation, and praise students who take risks.”

Some Ideas

  1. Ask the class to reverse or invert 2- and 3-pitch patterns (e.g., sing do-mi-sol and guide students to sing sol-mi-do or another variation). Do the same with dominant patterns. Use voices or pitched percussion.
  2. Sing simple folk melodies without words–ones that have a brief final phrase that melodically moves from dominant to tonic. Ask student to invent a new ending that starts on sol and ends on do but gets to do in a new way. Once students invent endings, they can invent variations on other parts of the tune.

“By limiting choices in this manner, students can concentrate on making changes at obvious and predictable points in the song and can formulate a plan,” Marshall says. “Listen to students improvise with their voices before letting them use pitched percussion or recorders.”
Creating parameters for improvisation may seem to negate spontaneous creativity, but Marshall’s early attempts to nurture spontaneous improvisation resulted in students who “spontaneously refused to improvise.” These activities are now his favorites, “because students beam when they perform their own musical ideas, and I learn so much more about what music skills they possess and can access.”

Read Cook Up Some Improv Strategies, Part 1.

Adapted from “Improvisation Strategies and Resources for General Music,” by Herbert D. Marshall. Read more in the Spring 2004 issue of General Music Today.

Improvisation Lesson Plans

Strategies for Teaching Music K-4 General Music Standard 3A—Students improvise rhythm answers on timpani or hand drums in response to rhythm questions played by a teacher or classmate.

Strategies for Teaching Technology, General Music K-4 Standard 3C—Students use scat singing to improvise over a familiar song.

Strategies for Teaching K-4 General Music Standard 3D—Students improvise, with a partner, an accompaniment pattern using nontraditional sounds.

Hong Tsai Me Me (Elementary and Middle School)—Students improvise melodies using pitched and nonpitched instruments.

Strategies for Teaching Middle-Level General Music Standard 3B—Students improvise 4-measure melodic variations on a given melodic phrase in a major key.

Improvising Original Melodies (Senior High School)—Students improvise original melodies in a variety of styles, over given chord progressions.

Strategies for Teaching General Music Standard 3E (Senior High School)—Students improvise, vocally or instrumentally, original melodies over a two-chord progression in the key of C major.

Find other improvisation lesson plans in MENC’s My Music Class (search on “improvise”).

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 21, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (