Today’s episode of The Anacrusic Podcast is brought to you by my FREE Music Teacher Workshop, The Ultimate Music Lesson Planning Roadmap. Head to anacrusic.com/workshop to snag your seat!
Why you should always start with your voice, no matter the concept you’re exploring with your students.
How to use different modes of active music making in your improvisational sequence.
How to lead composition activities both with and without notation.
But before we even dive into anything, it’s important to note two things. Number one, understand that improvisation has to happen early and often. And again, we talked about this last week, but it is so important to reiterate. Improvisation should not wait until after students can read, write, and identify musical concepts. We don’t need the literacy components to be “known” before we ask students to start exploring the musical language. So give yourself permission to break whatever rules you’ve created for yourself. Plus, we’re going to dive into why and how we classify improvisation when we do have notation involved.
Number two, give yourself permission to just start. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I know it’s hard to let go of the reigns and give students some of the control in your classroom, especially if you’ve never done it before, but this idea of giving your kids choice is essential to facilitating their understanding of the musical world, apply it to their experience, and ultimately create lifelong musicians, which for me is the ultimate goal. We want to have musically literate and fluent students in our classrooms.
Now, as a very important aside, it’s essential that we talk about the current state of our world, just as a reference point. At this point in time, many music teachers are officially packing up their classrooms for the school year, even if they are still engaging in distance learning due to Covid-19. With all that is going on, particularly with our heading into the summer, it’s very easy to fall into survival mode for these last few weeks, and even as you look forward to the new school year in the fall. Now this is not a guilt trip, and I 100% understand the survival mode and the fact that you have likely hit your stride when it comes to distance learning. But I encourage you to focus on ways that you will put the music making first, no matter how you are asked to teach in the fall. Remember, that if we are being asked to teach digitally, we are music teachers teaching digitally, not digital teachers teaching music. There’s a difference between those two statements and it’s where your focus lies. So focus first on making as rich of a musical environment as possible, and then figure out how you can adapt it to whatever teaching situation you may find yourself in now or in the future.
So let’s start talking about the topic at hand. Improvisation. I just want to reiterate that this is a topic that has literally had me have my knickers in a twist for most of my 30 something years on this planet. And truth be told, it really wasn’t until I flushed out the learning sequence framework for my own teaching, and figured out how to appropriately apply different modes of active music making that it really started to make sense. Because improvisation is not about having these complex structures and processes for what to do when, it’s really about the opportunity for choice.
So in order to think about ways that you can give students choice, it’s important to think about the very simplest way that we can explore different types of musical concepts. And although there are a million different musical concepts that we could go down the rabbit hole with, whether it’s form or expression or something else, it’s easiest for me to use rhythm and melody as examples, mostly because they lead to a very specific mode of discovery in the learning sequence framework. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Think about the simplest way that students first experience a rhythmic or melodic concept. When I interviewed one of my mentors, Dr. Julie Scott for the podcast, and I’ll link the episode in the show notes, she said something that has really stuck with me, and I’m paraphrasing here, but “melody is first explored with the voice, and rhythm is first explored with the body.” Now this could send us into a spiral about movement and the different types of movement and eurhythmics and all that good stuff, and that’s a topic for another podcast, but I think that that statement is 100% the truth. I would even take it one step further and say that melody is first explored with the singing voice, and rhythm is first explored with the speaking voice, and then the body.
So if we’re going to talk about improvisation and how it’s a path to musical fluency, it’s essential that I give you another quick rundown of the learning sequence framework, just in case you’ve missed it before on this podcast. This is the way that I sequence everything and anything that I teach, and if you want more details about it, you can head to the link in the show notes. But very quickly and crudely, it’s made up of seven different steps in three different phases. The three phases are a pre-teaching phase, a core teaching phase, and a post-teaching phase. Today we’re going to talk about the core teaching phase, which consists of exploration, discovery, and extension. Which again, very very crudely just means doing music without notation, leading students to notation, and doing music with notation. But please, if this is a new concept to you, check out the link in the show notes for more information and how I describe this entire process. It’s completely changed the way that I teach, differentiate instruction, and honestly fill myself up as a teacher.
But let’s first start with improvisation in exploration. This is where we treat improvisation as experimentation. But it’s not blind “go music-ing,” rather it’s set up with specific parameters by you, the teacher, to give kids the experiential vocabulary by which to experiment. Whew. What in the world does that actually mean?
Start with the voice
Take for example, the familiar song “Apple Tree.” And if you aren’t familiar with this simple song, or perhaps you just know a different version than I, let me sing it for you really quickly (and please excuse any bugs in my voice, because I record podcast episodes very early in the morning because, well, kids). Singing:
Apple Tree, Apple Tree
Will your apples fall on me?
I won’t cry and I won’t shout,
If your apples knock me out! (6:30)
Let’s also just isolate the first motive, “apple tree, apple tree” or “ti-ti ta, ti-ti ta” or “so-so mi, so-so mi.” (And again, if you used different rhythm syllables than I, that’s great, and that’s a discussion we can have on another day on another podcast episode, but just know that the syllables you use won’t impact the effectiveness of improvisation). These are the first pieces of musical literacy I introduce to my students, at least in terms of concrete rhythms and melodic elements that they can identify, read, and write.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because we’re still just talking about exploration, and identifying, reading, and writing comes later in the learning sequence. For the sake of today’s episode, let’s stick with talking about the rhythmic elements found in “Apple Tree” and how I would sequence an improvisation experience for my students.
The first thing I would do is really make sure that they owned the song. That means we’ve sung it, we’ve played the game, they’ve kept the steady beat, they’ve clapped the rhythm with and without singing the words out loud, and a plethora of other things that would really make sure the musical content is in their bones. What comes next? Well, before you set them off to the races coming up with their own patterns of ta and ti-ti, they have to have the opportunity to try something. And lucky for us, the first line of Apple Tree gives us the exact rhythmic building blocks we need to create new patterns.
So a first look lesson might look and sound like this. After singing the song and playing the game, try echoing speech patterns with your students like this. “Echo me, my turn first: apple tree, apple tree.” “Apple, apple, apple, tree.” “Tree, tree, apple, tree.” “Apple, tree, tree, tree.” After they’ve echoed the same speech patterns, ask them to do something different. So it doesn’t matter what they do as long as it’s not the same as you. This is the first foray into improvisation, because you’ve built a bank of vocabulary, although it’s only two different elements, and given them an experience from which to draw from.
One thing to note is that often when you say “say something different,” particularly the first time you do it, and particularly with simply ta and ti-ti, your students will try to do the opposite. So if you say “apple tree, apple tree” you might find that the whole class says “tree, apple, tree, apple.” This isn’t wrong, but you can allow for a bit more freedom if you set it up with a few parameters. First, it’s a great idea to use icons to illustrate the patterns. That way you can show that something different that “apple tree, apple tree” can just be switching out one beat, like “apple apple apple tree.” If you want to see some visuals to illustrate what I’m sharing, check out the blog post that’s linked in the show notes where I have some pictures to show with this exact activity.
The other thing you can do to aid them in not feeling like they have to do it “right” the first time, is to tell them it’s going to be a class train wreck or gobbley gook or however you want to say it. A good way to illustrate this point is to have everyone say their name on the count of three. They’ll hear that no one was saying the same thing, but everyone was right because they were saying their own name. This usually frees up some of the apprehension about “correctness” and gives students the opportunity to own their own decisions. Also, another thing to note, is that these steps I’m talking about today are baby steps. Like one step per lesson over time, particularly if your class is new to improvisation and choice. It takes time for them to get comfortable—but not as much time as you might think!
So after echoing something that’s the same, and then having the opportunity to do a question and answer improvisation (doing something different), your students will likely be ready to come up with their own 4 or 8 beat improvisation. If you’re looking for a way to structure this, I suggest making opportunities for improvisation as the “B section” for a known song. So if you’re playing Apple Tree, perhaps after the line “if your apples knock me out” you draw students attention to the board and they have the opportunity to improvise 8 beats with “apple” and “tree.” You could build this Rondo a million different ways, with the game, practicing beat vs. rhythm on different unpitched percussion instruments, or even use the improvisation B section to rotate barred instruments if you’ve worked out an arrangement with a simple drone and ostinato.
Different modes of active music making (moving to rhythmic movement (locomotor), body percussion, and instruments)
Improvisation doesn’t have to end with speech in exploration. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t. Just like I mentioned that improvisation shouldn’t be “saved” for a later part in the learning sequence process, different modes of active music making shouldn’t be saved for later either. If we want our students to be musically fluent and have the opportunity to be their most musical selves, we have to differentiate instruction through the power of active music making. )11:48_
So what does that mean? Well if you want to incorporate body percussion, choose one level for apple and another for tree. So what was “apple tree, apple tree,” now because “clap clap stomp, clap clap stomp.” And then all your kids would start singing we will rock you, although probably not because I feel like kids these days don’t know that song. Okay, that’s sad, but I digress.
After body percussion, or even before, why not incorporate locomotor movement? Perhaps “tree, apple, apple, tree” becomes “walk, tiptoe, tiptoe, walk.” There’s no rule that says that students can’t improvise with body percussion and movement. As a matter of fact, they should! That 100% rounds out the aural, visual (especially if you’re using the icons I mentioned) and kinesthetic prep needed before we can head on into the discovery, literacy moments with our students. Use it and give them choice. It could be as simple as taking the same improvisation rondo set up I mentioned earlier and subbing movement for speech.
And of course, anything that you do with movement, especially body percussion, can easily be transferred to instruments. There are a couple of different ways to do this. You can have students play the whole rhythm on a solo instrument, or work in groups where those with hand drums play “apple” and those with tubanos play “tree.” But now we’re moving more into the type of activity that would require teamwork, and more specifically, decision making that is no longer spontaneous.
Composition with and without notation
Here is my perhaps not so radical notion about composition. It is purely an extension of improvisation. The only difference between improvisation and composition is that you can remember and likely right down your choice, rather than having it being purely spontaneous. And, I might argue, it doesn’t require the musical literacy or formal notation element to create compositions. For example, if you’re using the icons I was referring to earlier, and again you can take a peek at the show notes to see it first hand, but think about how those can aid students in not only feeling more secure with improvisation and making spontaneous choices, but also in creating and deciding on patterns that they like. It’s not the notation that makes composition different than improvisation. It’s the decision. And therefore, you can have your students composing before you even have a discovery moment.
But what is absolutely beautiful about this continuum between improvisation and composition is that when you do it early and often, even without notation, adding in the notation and having an informed exploration, its seamless. The extension process would look exactly the same, just with the added twist of notation. And wouldn’t that make life so much simpler? If you could draw those relationships between experiences with just one added things, with just one new step? That’s the magic of an improvisational sequence, and that’s the magic of the learning sequence framework.
But to summarize what we’ve talked about today, first and foremost, stop freaking out about improvisation. Break it down into it’s smallest parts and do it one step at a time with intention. If you’re working with a melodic element, use your voice. If you’re working with a rhythmic element, use your voice. Give your students a vocabulary of experience to draw from before you ever ask them to make a spontaneous choice. Use echo imitation, same, different, and then give them structure (4 beats, 8 beats, etc) to keep going independently. Think about how you can extend improvisation through different modes of active music making, again just adding one more twist to the experiences and the exploration your students have already done. And finally, give them the chance to make decisions even without notation, so that when the time comes to make a decision with notation, it’s a familiar process.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. This is a topic that is so near and dear to my heart. I really believe that improvisation should be a central component to all your music teaching and the experiences you create for your kids. I hope that after hearing a brief synopsis of my process, it’s something that you’ll try soon and very soon.
That’s it for today friends, check out the show notes for the links that I mentioned, and I will see you at the free music teacher workshop later this month. Take care friends.