7 Improvisation Experiences for Young Children

Charlie Brown and Snoopy

I was looking through one of my old issues of Jazzed magazine and came across a short article for piano teachers and those wanting to help children play the piano better. Specifically, it's on the subject of improvising. I thought I'd share it with you and maybe you'll find some treasures in it, hopefully.

7 Improvisation Experiences for Young Children 

      by Dr. Daria S. Hanley

One of the new components of JEN is our focus on jazz for K-8 musicians. Our intent is to offer sessions at each conference designed to show how to engage young children with jazz music. We have already started putting K-8 educational materials and information on the Jen website. My expertise as a music teacher and music education professor leads me to offer the following activities to try with young children that teach them the fundamentals of improvisation.

1. Replace the Phrase


Ask children to create scat syllables to replace a phrase in a familiar song. Example: Have them sing Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho in a swing style and ask individual children to replace the "and the walls came tumbling down" phrase with scat. Ask children to sing Joshua on neutral syllables such as "doo" "bah" and "doot" instead of using lyrics and invite them to add their scat phrases.

2. Call-and-Response Conversations


Ask children to create cell phones using cardboard, Styrofoam, tin cans, or other arts and crafts materials. Have them form partners and "talk" to each other using scat syllables. Ask the child who is responding to listen to the sounds his.her partner is making and incorporate some of the same sounds (or similar) sounds in the response. Repeat asking children to converse over a blues progression.

3. Diamond Follow the Leader


Ask children to create 4-beat rhythm patterns with body percussion, instruments, found sounds, movement, etc. for others to imitate along with a track such as Rockit (Herbie Hancock) or My Baby Just Cares for Me (Nina Simone). Have them form groups of 4 and ask them to stand in a "diamond" formation. Identify the first leader and have him/her create patterns until you call "switch" where everyone turns to the right and a new leader begins.

4. Make a Chain


Provide a 4-beat rhythm pattern as the prompts for this improvisation. Distribute a variety of rhythm instruments and ask children to form a circle. Invite them to perform this 4-beat rhythm pattern on their instrument. Establish a steady pulse on a hand drum. Ask individual children (one at a time around the circle) to create their own 4-beat pattern to add to the chain starting from the top each time so all patterns repeat in preparation for the next/new one.

5. Improvisation Needs Vocabulary


List music vocabulary words (dynamics, tempi, rhythm instrument names, etc.) on small cards and place in an empty saxophone case (or fishbowl). Ask children to draw a card each week to add to their class vocabulary. Have them write the words and definition in a journal or on a worksheet. Design an activity for children to improvise incorporating their new word and/or it's meaning each week.

6. Riff off Children's Books, Poems, and Chants


Identify children's books, poems, and/or chants that feature jazz sounds, jazz artists, etc. Ask children to use their voices to explore different ways to read and/or sing the text. Have them create their own phrase or use words in the text to accompany the book (Example: Read A Tisket, A Tasket (2003, Ella Fitzgerald, Ora Eitan, illustrator) and guide children to speak "tisket a-tisket, a-tisket, a-tisket" while you perform a swing pattern with brushes on a hi-hat. Read Before John Was a Jazz Giant (2008, Carole Boston Weatherford, Sean Qualls, illustrator) and ask children to speak the repeated text improvising with their voices by exploring vocal ranges, tone colors, and dynamics. Have them improvise bongo accompaniments as you read (or sing) This Jazz Man (2006, Karen Ehrhardt, R.G. Roth, illustrator) Ask children to read Jazz Baby (2006, Carole Boston Weatherford, Laura Freeman, illustrator) and then write their own verses using music vocabulary.

7. Pentatonic Expressions


Remove bars from Orff instruments (xylophones) or use step bells to isolate only the notes in a pentatonic scale. Ask children to engage in call-and-response, fill-in-the-blank, or free improvisation within a specified pulse using this scale. Guide children to write a class pentatonic composition with "holes" to provide space for improvisation. Invite individual children to take solos in the "holes."

If you like Jazz, here are some resources you may want to add to your music library:

jazz101 jazz201 JITC (Jazz Intensive Training Center)

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"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you." B.B.King
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