Improvisation Leads to Learning in Elementary Music (and Life)

Posted on December 7th, 2018 by Allendale Columbia School

By Lynn Grossman

Many folks associate the word improvisation with one thing: jazz music.

But creativity and improvisation are crucial aspects of comprehensive music learning. Improvisation is recognized as one of the four components of the National Core Arts Anchor Standards in music (Creating, Performing, Responding, and Connecting). What’s more, improvisation is a learned skill, and perfect for learners of all ages.

Improvisation in Elementary Music EducationI have made creativity and improvisation a central part of my curriculum within Allendale Columbia’s elementary general and instrumental music classes. As a result, I was invited to present two sessions relating to my work at the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) Conference in Dallas, TX (Nov. 11th-14th).

Eastman School of Music professor and Chair of the Department of Music Teaching and Learning, Dr. Christopher Azzara, delivered the keynote, Amplify: Inspiration. He invited me to present a session following the keynote. My session, “Applications of the Six Principles for Elementary Music,” discussed how we practice Azzara’s recommendations to achieve music comprehension and literacy in elementary school settings.

  1. A large repertoire provides context for creativity. In general music class, the selection of songs and chants has great impact on the learning experience, and it is specifically chosen to include a range of musical styles, meters, and tonalities.
  2. Tonal, rhythm, and melodic patterns provide vocabulary for creating. In class, students learn familiar patterns like “Do – Mi – So.” Pattern instruction is woven into every lesson with opportunities for first imitating (“echo me”), then comparing (“were my two patterns same or different?”), and creating (“can you chant a rhythm that is different from mine?”).
  3. As we listen to or perform music, anticipating and predicting what might come next is an important cognitive process. Guiding students to draw on their experience and intuition is a great starting point for improvisation.
  4. I help students develop their ability to reason, or learn skills for improvisation through the study of melodies, bass-lines, and inner harmony voices. Students label chords like “tonic” and “dominant,” and learn the structure and syntax for how harmony functions. Some simple ways students can build these skills might include adding a rhythm to the bass-line or creating their own major tonic to accompany a song.
  5. Reading, writing, and learning exemplars of improvised solos is a great way to learn new vocabulary and improve improvisation. As students share ideas in class, the group has the opportunity to echo or notate what was shared. Capitalizing on student examples allows us to learn from and borrow one another’s ideas.
  6. Creativity and improvisation provide excellent opportunities for students to reflect on their work. Some ways that I encourage reflection across multiple grade levels might include questions like, “Did your song end on the ‘resting tone?’”, “Was your pattern the same or different than mine?”, or “How would you write what you shared?”. This connection to composition is a powerful step toward music literacy.

Many education researchers believe that music learning is developed in a very similar way to language learning. Children move through four sequential vocabularies: listening, speaking/improvisation, reading, and writing. In language, as soon as children use words to communicate, they begin to improvise phrases and sentences.

The same is true in music, but instead of words, children use musical patterns (like rhythm or melodic patterns) to express creativity. Improvisation is a crucial step toward music comprehension or “audiation” – the ability to think music with understanding. As Azzara explains, “Improvisation means that an individual has internalized a music vocabulary and is able to understand and to express musical ideas spontaneously, in the moment of performance.”

In my second session at the NAfME conference, “Creativity and Improvisation in Early Childhood through Play,” I shared strategies for building improvisation readiness through the development of music vocabulary and intuition. I had an opportunity to highlight the work of AC students by demonstrating imitation and improvisation in play-based learning.

In music class, puppet play is a great tool for building rhythm vocabulary through interactive rhythm “conversations.” Not only do puppets take the pressure off student soloists, they also enhance musical interaction and provide opportunities for reflective discussion. With puppets or other props, students take turns posing musical questions and answers to one another. Another strategy shared involves “Songs Un-done” to help students use intuition. I enjoy writing simple songs for my students with the ending purposefully omitted. Students anticipate and predict the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elements while listening, then have opportunities to help create an ending as soloists or a group. An individual’s improvised responses indicate much about their musical understanding (or audiation) and is a great assessment tool. While activities like this feel like play in early childhood, they provide important opportunities to build foundational aspects of music literacy.

Grade-Specific Games for Learning in Elementary Music

PreK Music: Using a puppet to model “same” and “not the same”
Ostrich Puppet in PreK
In PreK, puppets are a great way to teach musical vocabulary. Here, students have opportunities for imitation and improvisation in a rhythmic context. By listening and comparing the puppet response with the teacher or student response, students demonstrate their knowledge of “same” or “not the same” – an essential step for improvisation.

Using puppets to inspire group and solo rhythmic improvisation in second grade
2nd Grade “Monster Puppets”
By second grade, a student’s rhythmic vocabulary has grown, and instruction is more formalized. With their “monster” puppets, students improvise in a group setting or as the soloist, then use music vocabulary to reflect on their work. A next step might be to write down, or “notate”, the soloist’s rhythm patterns together.

Using puppets in melodic improvisation in second grade
2nd Grade Melodic Improvisation
After learning the song together, I modeled improvisation by performing the original antecedent phrase “On a cold dark night how the owl hoots” and improvised a new consequent phrase “ooo”. Students each practiced their own new melodic phrase endings, then took turns sharing individually.

Improvisation as inspiration for composition in second grade
2nd Grade Singing and Writing
Improvisation is a natural springboard for writing, or composing, music. After having several experiences improvising phrase endings with the song,  “Cold Dark Night,” students practice drawing the contour of their musical idea, then transfer their melody to music notation on the staff.

Drawing on intuition through unfinished songs in third grade
Song “Un-done”
After learning that my students loved the piece, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” I composed this related song with the ending purposefully “un-done.” Students improvise a melodic idea to complete the melody. I set limits to encourage students to stay in the context of minor tonality: “Your phrase should end on the resting tone.”

Taking Improvisation into Adulthood

It is my hope that all children continue making and enjoying music into adulthood. I also know that the improvisation skills they are learning can apply to life in other ways: improving listening and aural discrimination, synthesizing patterns in-the-moment, improving timing and rhythmic coordinating in the body, building resiliency through performing and skill-building (“reason”), learning how to interact within a creative process using cooperation, embracing spontaneity, and even entrepreneurial thinking and creative problem solving while designing performances.

My ultimate goal for students is musical independence, where students can listen to, perform, and create music with the same level of understanding that they bring to language. I am excited to have had the opportunity to share ideas and bring home new techniques to help students at AC continue to build music literacy. One topic I’ve become interested in is helping students make connections within their repertoire. Just as it is beneficial to understand text-to-text connections in language arts, recognizing similarities in songs like “Alabama Gal” and “Make New Friends” allows students to apply and transfer knowledge and creativity in new ways, and increase their vocabulary for improvisation. So, what do these two songs have in common? They share the same tonality (major), same meter (duple), and the same harmonic structure (learned through the bass-line).

You’ll be able to see some of this at our Winter Concert on December 18th, where third, fourth, and fifth grade students will be performing examples of their classroom projects. These include songs like “A Ram Sam Sam” and “Alabama Gal.” Students will be performing melody, bass-line, and harmony parts on ukuleles, recorders, xylophones, and other percussion instruments. Also on the program is the poem “As I Was Sitting in My Chair” set for percussion ensemble. Along with this poetic main idea, students have composed unique rhythmic sections for ensemble performance and will take turns soloing (improvising!) on percussion instruments. These arrangements include examples of student choice, creativity, and improvisation woven throughout. We are very excited to share our learning with the AC community!


Lynn Grossman

Lynn Grossman

Lynn Grossman specializes in elementary general and instrumental music education. She studied bassoon performance and music education at the Eastman School of Music where she earned both her bachelor's degree and master's degree, and she taught K-2 music in the East Irondequoit School District for eight years. Lynn is the President of the New York Chapter of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning (NY-GIML), which provides professional learning opportunities to music educators. She has co-presented her work in the US and the UK and is co-author of a chapter in Envisioning Music Teacher Education (Rowman and Littlefield). She enjoys professional collaboration and research in music education and enjoys teaching music to AC's Pre-Primary and Lower School students!
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Posted in: Authentic Learning, Fifth Grade, First Grade, Fourth Grade, Highlights, Kindergarten, Lower School, Second Grade, Third Grade

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