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Improvisation Tips for Music Teachers

Improvisation often feels intimidating for music teachers. When you’re working with younger students, you might be worried about whether you can improvise well enough to set an example. But improvisation is also an essential part of learning. Elementary students who learn to improvise are more likely to have a grasp on technique and structure.

Not only is improvisation good for your students, but it also gives you valuable information as a teacher. You’ll learn about what grasp your students already have on music.

In order to create a new piece of music, students must use their current knowledge of structure and notes. They also create music in a spontaneous manner. That’s difficult for any musician to do, whether they’ve been practicing for decades or for just a few months.

You can do a variety of different activities during lessons to teach your students about improvising. Some of the activities might be structured, while others might be open-ended to allow your students to explore.

Here are some tips to help students learn to improvise. You can use a mix of structured and open-ended practices. With the structured ones, your students will be adhering to pre-determined rules while they practice.

1. Know What Needs to Be Known

Improvisation is advanced. New students will benefit from less structured activities since these allow them to do whatever they want. A fluid improvisation activity lets a student experiment with sound and become more familiar with their craft.

Meanwhile, structured activities should be saved for when students have been practicing for longer. You should have a sense of each student’s skill set and craft their practice with this in mind.

Know what your students need to know before they get started.

Listening

For example, improvisation is something that students do by listening. They need to have a lot of experience with listening to music. Not only should they listen to a lot of music, but they should spend time putting basic analytical skills to work.

It’s helpful for students to listen to music of the same medium as their practice. For example, piano players might listen to an acoustic piano, while violinists might listen to violinists. Singers might listen to a variety of acapella arrangements of songs to study different techniques.

Structure

In order to improvise effectively, students need a sense of the structure of music. This is where lessons about rhythm, time signatures, dynamics, and tempo can all come in handy. Students need to understand how a piece is structured if they’re expected to create the end of it.

This is also a place where you can learn a lot as a teacher. By listening to the choices your student makes while improvising, you’ll learn about their grasp on a structure. You’ll also learn about parts of musical structure that your student might need to work on a little more.

Of course, you want to be encouraging during improvisation. If you’re hyper-critical of your student’s attempts, they might become discouraged and uninterested in improvising. Always point out their strengths and what they’ve done right before offering any specific criticisms.

Vocal Improv

Sometimes improvisation activities will include vocal improv. That goes especially for singers, but it can apply to students learning other instruments too.

In order to use vocal improv skills, a student needs to have a strong listening ear. The most effective improvisation will come from students who can match pitch and recognize the vocal elements of a song.

Another aspect of vocal improv is tonal patterns. If a student is improvising with different tones, they will need to apply these to the correct pitches. Doing so successfully is very advanced and worthy of praise.

2. Use Different Strategies

The activities that you use with an elementary schooler who’s been playing for years will be different from the activities you use with a new learner. These are some great ways to ease students into the process:

  • Lead by example
  • Listen to music
  • Practice percussion
  • Learn in a big group
  • Learn in smaller groups

Some of these activities will depend on whether you’re working with a classroom of many students or just one-on-one with a single student.

Leading by Example

It’s easiest for students to improvise when their teachers have already shown them what to do. Your elementary students will benefit from you leading by example. This shows them what’s expected so they can imitate it.

You don’t need to be intimidated about improvising. If it’s been a while since you improvised anything, you can practice outside the classroom.

But even ineffective improvisation is a good example. If you’re really struggling, you can explain to your students where your struggles come from. When they see that their teacher might struggle with the activity, they’ll be less nervous about making a potential mistake themselves.

You can also simplify your model for newer students. That shows them that they don’t need to overthink it or do something complex. It relieves the pressure while also illustrating that their teacher is a creative person.

Listening to Music

The more music your students listen to, the better they’ll be equipped for improvising. Listening to music gives your students a chance to learn about rhythm and structure. You might consider having activities where you play an instrumental and then have your students make observations about it.

When it comes to the actual improvisation, you might consider having your students “listen” to their entry in their head. Give them a few minutes to think about how they might finish the piece.

By doing this, you help your students feel less like they’ve been put “on the spot.” They’ll also have a better sense of how long they need to improvise for. While they listen to the song in their head, they might pat the ground or their leg to keep the beat.

Practicing Percussion

Percussion activities can be a good warmup for elementary students. If your student is still new to the music scene, you can use percussion improvisation alone. Your student can tap the rhythm on their body, the floor, or some combination of the two.

It can be intimidating for some students to jump right into musical improv. Not only does this require a grasp of rhythm, but you also need to know what notes and pitches to use.

Percussion is much easier because it doesn’t require you to carry a tune. You can encourage your students to get creative with their percussion, making up different drum lines and completing the beat of existing songs.

Learning in a Large Group

If you’re a music teacher who’s working with an entire classroom full of students, you can do improvisation activities as a group. This allows the students to build off each other’s ideas before they need to make up their own improv.

One activity might involve having everybody improv at the same time. That will create a chaotic amount of noise, but it will also let students try out their ideas without the fear of being judged.

Another activity might be to sit in a circle and have each student add a new percussive measure to the beat. You could make a game out of it by seeing how many measures students can remember at once as you go around the circle.

Learning in Smaller Groups

This is another option that works best for teachers in a classroom setting. But if you tutor a handful of students at a time, you might also consider this. Have your students break into small groups and work with each other on creating a new part of a song.

That might veer closer to composing than true improvisation since the students are collaborating to create a new piece. But it will help them become more confident in their abilities prior to doing one-on-one improv.

You might also spread the group activities out across several lessons. Get your students comfortable and familiar with each other, then move into doing activities one-on-one.

3. Flexibility Is Your Friend

As you start to teach improvisation, you might be surprised by how much depends on your classroom teaching style. That goes especially for music teachers who are working with beginning elementary students.

Beginning students only have your direction to guide them. Their sense of how music works will be shaped by your lessons.

As a general rule, if you often do creative exercises with your students, they will have an easier time with improvisation. Creative exercises are any ones that encourage your students to explore music on their own terms.

The students will have an easier time making their own decisions if they’ve already done so. Meanwhile, if you have been choosing all of their music and the precise structure of their practice, they might struggle to make their own creative choices.

The really important thing here is that the students are given room to think. Instead of doing rote repetition of exactly what you say, they should have a chance to explore through their own choices.

Final Thoughts

Improvisation is just one part of music education, but it tells you a lot about your students. You don’t need to be intimidated by the work in front of you. Just get a sense of where to start and go from there.

Newer elementary students can benefit from group activities and practicing percussion. By warming students up to the work, you help them feel confident when they do get started with improv.

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