Developing improvisation skills with young children is far more achievable than you think. We need to develop simple on the spot decision making and enjoyable exploration. Age-appropriate, level appropriate and right from the first lesson.
Lots of teachers are a tad intimidated by improvisation. They don’t feel confident improvising themselves and consequently struggle to teach their students. It’s no wonder when our perception of improvisation is complex and virtuosic.
Let me reassure you that those jazz riffs can go back in their box for now.
“I had yet another lightbulb moment with the Balloons game!! Starting the skill development of improvisation with choosing balloon colour is so radical. I love that improvising in the more conventional sense is also carefully scaffolded from the very first session, just like every other skill. You should write about that!”Estelle, Doremi Teach: Piano member
Well ok then! Here are my Top 5 Improvisation Activities I use in the first piano lessons with young children.
Improvisation #1 – Warming Up
This is the shockingly popular Balloons warm up activity I shared last month. I won’t repeat myself because you can pop along here and read all the details. Basically your student chooses the colour of their imaginary balloon, and usually yours too! Then you have fun blowing it up and letting it go! Lots of stretching and pitch work makes this the perfect starter for every lesson. It breaks the ice on singing and also on improvising!
Improvisation #2 – Action songs
Do you know the so-mi song Hey Hey? Much loved by Kodály music teachers. You can replace “singing” that with any action, clapping, marching, tapping, jumping, waving. Children love to think of new actions and they have lots of ideas. If you take it in turns to change the action then they are also developing multi-tasking and thinking ahead because they are thinking of their next action while performing yours.
Improvisation #3 – Story songs
I have one student who I’ve been teaching for a couple of months and he really struggles to make decisions. Even choosing his balloon colour worried him initially. He’s so anxious about making a mistake that his mind goes blank.
Imagine my surprise when I introduced this song in our last lesson.
It’s a simple la-so-mi song used by Kodály music teachers. The melody is simply ssllssmm. At the end of the song you say “Wolf? Are you there?” The child has to say yes or no. If it’s no, they have to give a reason. For example “No, I’m brushing my teeth.”
Oh my goodness my little student LOVED it. He had so many examples that we played it twice as long as I’d planned. He never got to eat me because he never said yes!!
Could he have done this so successfully if we’d started with this song? Is the song special, or is it the careful preparation over the last few months that has helped him succeed? A topic for our community discussions after I’ve seen him again next week!
Improvisation #4 – Free Play
I want my students to be enthused about their instrument and their lessons. I want them to experience every single key on the keyboard and be excited about the opportunities for exploration, storytelling and creativity.
We start by improvising based on different verbal stimuli like Scary Bear, Raindrops, Ballerina. I might play for them if they’re uncertain. Keeping my virtuosity (lol, I wish) under wraps. The idea is to inspire but not intimidate.
Then we play the game. They choose four situations or characters. For each one they improvise sounds. Next week, after drawing their pictures and practising their sounds, they have to secretly choose one for me to guess. All I have to go on is their musical sounds. We chat about how hard it will be for me if their pictures are Butterfly, Ballerina, Fairy and Stars. I need contrasting pictures with contrasting music: High and low sounds, loud and soft sounds, scary and happy sounds.
The following week they are always excited to show me their creations. Some children will have coloured them in in great detail. Some improvisations will be quite random with no musical sense and perhaps no end! Sometimes a child will have a more structured creation with musical elements such as a steady beat or a clear story.
The one thing they all have in common is control. They make their own choices and it’s up to me to make them work so they feel they’ve succeeded.
That isn’t it though. We will refer back to this activity as we progress, tying their new knowledge about musical elements back to their creative decisions.
Improvisation #5 – Level-Up
Levelling up completed pieces with improvisation is a joyous experience. Did you know it can be done right from the very first pieces?
The first song we play on the piano is my own composition Black Crow from Doremi Piano Sing and Play. It’s a simple so-mi song, each word on the beat.
We work on pitch recognition and pulse with this song and then they play it on two black keys a skip apart, where so is F sharp or C sharp. Once they are confident they can start improvising. As the crow flies high in the sky, the child chooses another skip position higher up the keys, and another and another. Each time it’s different. Each time the child chooses which set to use.
Of course this has another benefit too, it reinforces which end of the piano has the highest pitches. In fact there are so many benefits to this song I should write another blog post on it! – Remind me later!!