Refresh Your Music Program with Improvisation, Part 1

When teaching improvisation, whether to elementary orchestra students or your high school jazz ensemble, “The first thing to help students feel successful is to break it down into manageable pieces,” says Lisa Werner, the Wisconsin MEA state chair for jazz education.

Here’s how she does it:

Rhythmic Improvisation

Have students improvise on one note.

  • Pick the root of the key of a piece you’re working on and develop call and response activities.
  • Choose a rhythm and play that one note for a measure of 4/4 time. Have students echo.
  • Next, let students lead the call and response.
  • Extend the amount of measures students get to use. Gradually move from call and response to having students create their own 2 to 4 measure solos.

Pentatonic Improvisation

Give students a few more note choices.

  • Teach students the pentatonic scale that corresponds with the key of the piece you’re working on.
  • Stick with shorter amounts of time (1-2 measures), and lead students through their own creation of an improvised solo using the rhythms they discovered earlier.

Key Center Improvisation

Have students improvise on a scale.

  • Practice playing through the scale that corresponds with the key of the piece.
  • Let students build 2, 4, or 8 measure solos off this scale.
  • Encourage students to make use of space (rests) in their solos and keep experimenting with rhythms.


Adapted from “Improvisation: The Key to Refreshing Your Music Program,” by Lisa Werner, originally published in the April 2009 issue of the Wisconsin School Musician. Used with permission.

Lisa Werner is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher who teaches band and orchestra at North Lake School in northwestern Waukesha County, Wisconsin.

–Anne Wagener, October 7, 2009 © National Association for Music Education