Throw a hoodie over a solid chunk of ice, and you’ll have a good representation of what I look like all winter long. Like many of you, I don’t enjoy being cold. However, I do enjoy finding new songs that fit the frigid season. I discovered Snow, Snow, Fly Away in the Kodály Center. It’s a children’s rhyme hailing from Scotland and is purportedly sung by children during the first snowfall.
Sometimes, I can look at a song and know exactly what concept I want to focus on. This was not one of those times. While there are several concepts worthy of teaching within the song, I decided to go a slightly different route. Instead of focusing on pitches or rhythms within the song, I thought it might be fun to use this song as a springboard for rhythmic improvisation.
IMPROVISATION USING RHYTHM INSTRUMENTS
My idea for this song, is to add four measures in between each repeat of the song to allow students to improvise. How you structure improvisation depends largely on how much improv your students have experienced beforehand. Here are a few tips to follow for encouraging confident improvisation:
- Model improvisation, in every class, every time you see your students. It doesn’t need to be a long drawn out thing. Improvise a quick song as you move to sit down at the piano (I’m going to sit down at the P-I-A-N-O, piano). This action will take you all of 10 seconds, but is a great example of improvisation for your students. If you do this every day, you may be surprised how quickly it rubs off onto them. Possibly to the annoyance of people around me, I do these types of improvisation in everyday life. And it didn’t take long before I caught my husband doing the same.
- Give your students a chance to explore their instruments and improvisation before any formalities. For example, if you’ve just passed out rhythm sticks, give your students about 15 seconds to improvise a rhythm on their own using a steady beat. True, nobody will hear each other over the racket, but that’s sort of the point. This exploration time gives them proof that they have the ability to improvise. Also, improvisation can be messy, and that’s okay!
- Give them the choice of steady beat. Don’t put too much pressure on students to improvise the first time around. Give them the choice of playing the steady beat. This will help to relieve anxiety in your shy students and helps them warm-up to the idea of improvisation. Some students need extra observation time before they feel comfortable in these situations.
- Make it easier than they expect. Even If your students are familiar with barred sixteenths, eighths, and quarter notes, don’t force them to use those in an improvisation exercise. Have them start with quarters and eighths, then gradually add in other rhythms later on. It’s important that they build confidence from the beginning, so that they feel empowered to take on more challenges in the future.
- Give honest praise. Students can see through fake praise from a mile away, so make sure it’s always honest. There are many things to praise in improvisation. You could praise their imagination, effort, technical skill, focus, or their ability to stay on the beat.
- Leave them wanting more. Be sure to end the improvisation portion of the lesson long before it becomes monotonous. If you’re not sure when monotony sets in for your students, ask them if they want to “go again”. If most say no, then move on to the next part of the lesson.
- Have students get in a circle with their rhythm instruments. Sit in the circle with them, making sure to have a drum or other instrument to keep the beat.
- Sing the song twice through by yourself. During the first improvisation section, just play the steady beat. During the second section, improvise using quarter and barred eighth notes (or any rhythms you want your students to use). Explain to your students that these are their choices; to play the steady beat or improvise using those rhythms. Model the singing and playing a second time.
- Starting with the student next to you, each student will play the steady beat or improvise during each improv section. You will continue to sing the song each time. Continue doing this all the way around the circle (sing, improv, sing, improv, etc.)
- During the second time around the circle, drop out and have students sing the song. Encourage students to improvise instead of playing the steady beat. Note the number of students who switch from steady beat to rhythms during the second go round the circle. Ideally, all students will improvise to some degree during the second time around. If not, no worries. You can use this same format to practice improv with any short song. Over time, with experience and modeling, most of your students will feel comfortable with improvisation.