Friday, February 23, 2018

Intro To Melodic Improv

I am a member of the MusicEd Blogs Community on Facebook. We are collaborating for the month of February to share our best ideas for teaching melody! If you are not already following us on Facebook, you should click the link above. For today's post, I will give you some tips on how to teach melodic improvisation.

Improvisation! Does that word scare you? It used to scare me. I was not offered many opportunities to improvise as a student in school. Without experience and frame of reference, I had no idea how to approach teaching it. Thanks to my training in Orff Schulwerk, I have become very comfortable teaching melodic improvisation. I regularly provide opportunities for all my students to create and improvise both rhythmically and melodically. I hope some of the advice I explain below will help you feel more comfortable teaching improvisation.

1) Choose a Familiar Medium 

If you would like your students to improvise, they should have lots of experience playing or singing in unison on the chosen instrument. If you choose an instrument that is unfamiliar to the students, they may not feel comfortable or confident exploring their creativity. 

2) Start With Body Percussion

When presenting students with a new, challenging task, gradually ease them out of their comfort zone. Before I ask my students to improvise with pitch, they have lots of experience improvising rhythmically. Body percussion can provide a variety of sounds while still focused only on rhythm. Body percussion is also a great connection to something familiar. The 4 basic body percussion sounds are patsching (patting), clapping, stamping (stomping), and snapping. We first improvise on our "leg-a-phones" by patsching. Then, I allow them to have 2 sound choices--patsching and clapping. We gradually add stomping and then snapping. If I started with 4 sound options, they may be too overwhelmed. Remember to add only 1 element of change at a time. Start with a steady beat and then gradually add paired eighth notes or even rests. Improvising rhythmically with multiple body percussion sounds will make melodic improvisation with multiple pitches less intimidating.

3) Pentatonic Power

The pentatonic scale is a great place to begin with melodic improvisation. By removing fa and ti, there won't be any notes that "sound wrong". I use this "fake instrument" as a visual to show my students which bars to remove. When we are first improvising, we are mostly in the key of C so they know do (tonic) is the lowest pitch. But, I teach movable do and we often modulate to F and G. I also use la-based minor. If we improvise in minor, they know to end on la.

4) Limit the Freedom

Students will have greater chances of success if you limit their freedom of choice. Take baby steps. and gradually ease them out of their comfort zone. When I begin teaching melodic improvisation, I simplify the rhythm and begin with quarter notes only. I also limit the number of pitches the students can choose. We start improvising on one note do. Next, they can choose from 2 notes (do and re), but they must end on do. Then, they can choose from 3 notes- do, re, and mi. Eventually, they will have freedom to improvise with the entire pentatonic scale, but that would not happen in the first lesson. I also make sure they can feel the phrase length and successfully end on do before we add more complex rhythms like paired eighth notes. 

5) Provide a Framework

In addition to simplifying the rhythm and limiting the pitch choice, you should also provide a clear framework to structure the improvisation. I like to begin with short 4 beat phrases. In this example, I use the song, "Snowflakes". Each phrase begins with a skip from do to mi on the word "snowflakes". The full notation is below, but the lyrics are: Snowflakes gently falling, Snowflakes dance around, Snowflakes gently falling, Snowflakes touch the ground.

When we improvise to this song, I ask the students to repeat this phrase--"Snowflakes something else, Snowflakes end on G". During "Snowflakes" the students continue to play G and B as they did in the melody of the song. During "something else" and "end on", they improvise and choose any pitch in the pentatonic scale. Their final note must be G, which is tonic for this song. By alternating the improvisation with something familiar, the students are less intimidated. For a final performance, we would perform in ABA form. The "Snowflakes" song would be the A sections with the improvisations as a B section.

Another example can be found in a previous post with the book "Leap Back Home To Me". Students improvise on the phrase "Leap a-way" and then "Leap back home" This is the same rhythm with 3 quarter notes and a rest, but this time playing 2 measures at once. The phrases are still separated by a rest on beat 4 to provide a familiar structure. Eventually the phrases can get longer.

6) Rhythmic Building Blocks

When students can improvise successfully with quarter notes, you should add paired eighth notes. Orff utilizes speech to make rhythms seem more familiar to the students. We often pair 2-beat rhythm patterns with words and call them rhythmic building blocks or rhythmic building bricks. Here is an example of these rhythms with types of shoes--flip flop, tennis shoe, penny loafer, boot.

This activity was used with the poem "Cobbler, Cobbler". You can find more information about this lesson by clicking the link. Before improvising, we would compose 4-measure rhythmic patterns. Each student creates their own pattern to perform verbally and then notate. Before moving to the barred instruments, we choose one rhythm and notate it on the board. When we improvise, we are still in rhythmic unison performing the rhythmic phrase we notated on the board. After a few times experiencing this stage with different types of building blocks, I will give the students the opportunity to improvise with their own rhythm instead of a group rhythm. In order to end cleanly together, I always ask them to choose a quarter note and quarter rest as their last rhythm. This note will also be do. So, for the first 3 measures, it may feel like chaos, but on beat 4, we are in unison again. 

7) Gradually Shrink the Ensemble

Performing solo is very intimidating. Performing something you have created can make you feel even more vulnerable. So, here are some tips to gradually ease your students into improvising a solo.
First, they must be comfortable singing/playing in unison with the group, then in unison with small groups, in unison with partners, and finally performing a provided melody as a solo.

When approaching improvisation, continue the same pattern with large group, small group, partners, and soloists. On the barred instruments, I like to separate into 2 groups with woods vs. metals. For 4 groups, I separate like this: 1) glockenspiels; 2) soprano/alto xylophones; 3) soprano/alto metallophones; 4) bass xylophones/metallophones. You may separate differently based on your instrumentarium. You may choose to separate based on rows or numbers.

8) Differentiation

Differentiation seems to be an education buzz word in recent years. Improvisation is the best way to provide differentiation for your students. By letting the students improvise, they have the power to create a melody appropriate for their skill level. If they are struggling, they may stick to more simple rhythms and limit their choice of pitches. If they are more advanced, they may choose more complex rhythms and may explore more than one octave on the instrument. Remind the students that if they feel overwhelmed they can always simplify their rhythm or pitch options.

9) Self-Assessment

Exploration is usually unstructured and would consist of hitting random notes. Improvisation may begin as exploration but should move past that phase into purposeful musical choices. I provide a few questions for my students to assess their own performance.

Keeping a steady beat is important to feel the ends of the phrases. If your students cannot keep a steady beat while improvising, they need to simplify the rhythm or have fewer pitch choices. Ending on do is a must. In order to sound finished, we should end on the tonic. Lastly, they must ask themselves if their melody was sing-able. Could they try to sing and repeat what they just improvised? If they are leaping all across the keyboard, the likely answer is no. Encourage them to begin with stepwise movement, gradually adding skips or leaps. By giving them a rubric, you make them responsible to assess themselves and they will begin improving their performance each time.

10) Be a Model

My last tip for you is to BE A MODEL!!! If your students don't see you improvising, taking risks, and making mistakes, they won't be as confident to attempt their own improvisation. Create an environment that is safe and welcoming of all musical ideas. Show your students how to give praise to those who are succeeding and positive support to those who need extra guidance. If you are relaxed and comfortable, they will have fun and have no idea that melodic improvisation is supposed to be scary and difficult. Best of luck!!!


I hope you found something of value to help your confidence in teaching melodic improvisation! If you have any additional tips you would like to share, feel free to leave comments below. I would also love some feedback if you have done activities similar to these. If you would like more ideas about teaching melody, don't forget to follow our MusicEd Blogs collaboration for the entire month of February. You can find all past posts on the Facebook blog.


  1. Agreed 100%! So important to structure it clearly and limit options so that students aren't overwhelmed.

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