I improvise songs constantly in my daily life. I have a habit of putting everything to a tune. Have you ever heard of the song, We’re Off To Get Some Groceries? My husband has. How about my stormy rendition of Food, Food, Food? My husband’s heard that one too.
I improvise a lot in front of my students as well. Here’s why:
If I want my students to feel comfortable improvising, then I must also be comfortable doing it. I model what I expect every day. Improvisation is no different.
Mistakes Are Okay and an Important Part of Learning
Occasionally, while improvising a song, I get stuck. There I am in front of the kids singing a ridiculous improvised song about my scarf, when suddenly I stop, and realize that I have no word that rhymes with wiggly. The great thing about mistakes like these are that students will, more often than not, fill in the blank spaces I create (squiggly), thereby providing a snippet of improvisation themselves.
Plus, we know as musicians that mistakes are our vitamins. They help us grow even if they aren’t always fun to take.
Seriously, I don’t know how I would ever get through bus duty every day in sub-zero temperatures if I wasn’t out there singing a song about my face being frozen. I’ll let you guess what I sing when it’s raining. Hint: it’s not improvised, and it involves a twirling umbrella.
If you’re wondering how you can infuse some improvisation in your own classroom, here are some ideas I gleaned from Roger Sams and John Feierabend. I attended their sessions at our conference this year, and I came back with several new ways to teach improv in my classes:
- Ask your students to pretend they’ve landed on a different planet, and they don’t know the language (kindergarteners love this). To communicate, you improvise nonsense syllables. Start by demonstrating four beats of nonsense syllables, then have your students echo you. Tell them that you will ask them a question, and they have to make up a reply. The more ridiculous you sound, the more fun your students will have responding.
- Once students are comfortable improvising four-beat speech patterns, begin introducing improv with rhythm syllables. Improvise a simple pattern four-beat pattern. Then, explain to students that you want them to improvise a four-beat pattern back to you using the same rhythms. As you and the students speak the patterns, hold up four fingers. Point to each finger on the beat as you speak. This helps students keep on track (and helps to avoid accidental twenty-three beat patterns from eager students). Tell students, if they can’t think of anything, they should just speak the beat.
- In my own experience with teaching improv, I’ve found that even my least confident students will improvise a pattern if I repeat my pattern several times in a row. Something about the monotony encourages them to branch out. If you do this exercise for a minute each time you see the class, they will become comfortable with it and begin taking more “risks”. I even have students asking if they can use more challenging rhythms, to which I reply, “of course!”
What kind of tricks and tips do you have for teaching improvisation in your classroom?