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Improvisation Circle in Music

This page describes what is and how to set up an "improvisation circle" in music, and offers suggestions on extending this activity.

Jenny Boyack, contract director and facilitator for the Massey University, College of Education's Arts professional development programme in schools, wrote the following material that outlines how to set up an improvisation circle, describes an improvisation circle, and offers suggestions on extending the improvisation circle activity.

How to set up an improvisation circle

The teacher places six classroom percussion instruments (e.g., hand drum, triangle, two-tone woodblock, guiro, finger cymbals, tambourine) in a circle on the floor. Six children volunteer, or are chosen, to sit behind the instruments – one child to each instrument.

Performers are instructed that they can play the instrument in any way they choose provided that they do not damage the instrument or anybody else.

One person (initially the teacher but this role can be taken on by a child) is the conductor. The conductor moves around the circle tapping players on the shoulder to start them playing and tapping them again to stop them.

Description of an improvisation circle

An improvisation circle can be geared to any class or skill level and has almost unlimited possibilities for development.

Turning this activity into a lesson requires identifying a learning focus for the children.

The focus could be linked to the PK strand, Developing Practical Knowledge in Music, by teaching to a learning outcome such as:

  • Children will be able to play a variety of classroom instruments using a range of techniques and elements of music.

The focus could be linked to the DI strand, Developing Ideas in Music, by teaching to a learning outcome such as:

  • Children will improvise musical patterns within a group setting by using instruments to respond spontaneously to a cue.

The focus could be linked to the CI strand, Communicating and Interpreting in Music, by teaching to a learning outcome such as:

  • Children will respond by playing their musical ideas to make an improvised class piece of music. They will evaluate their performance and modify their ideas to make new versions of the improvisation.

Suggestions for extending the improvisation circle activity

  • Keep the audience actively involved in the music by directing their listening in some form or other. Leave time for talking about what they have heard and learned as this validates their role as listeners. The audience can be invited to give feedback about the things the performers will have been too busy to hear for themselves.
  • Introduce more than one performing circle at a time. You could introduce the same, or different instruments, in the two groups. Conductors and performers can then start to make decisions based on what is happening in the other group.
  • When children first begin taking the conductor role, limit them to starting and stopping each performer twice only. This prevents epic productions, which go on forever and have the audience twitching in their seats. As the children get more adept and experienced at controlling the activity, you can keep the "twice-only rule" but allow children to break it if they have a really good reason to do so. For example, they may want to establish a "dialogue" between two instruments.
  • Suggest to the performers that they focus on one or more of the elements of music. For example, you could ask them to think about, or show (depending on how directive you want to be) fast and slow, or loud and soft, or beat and no beat.
  • Make suggestions about the mood or the setting of the piece. For example, you may ask them to create spooky music, machine music, jungle music, storm music, etc.
  • Introduce pitched instruments, for example, recorder, guitar (children can achieve wonderful effects without knowing how to play the guitar conventionally). Introduce percussion instruments. I would suggest restricting the notes used initially and gradually allowing more and more – you could start with notes G and E then introduce the pentatonic e.g. E/G/A/B/D. You could also give them the notes of a chord to use such as C/E/G.
  • Introduce the voice as an instrument. Before doing this you may like to get the children involved in some vocal exploration and experimentation. Find some recorded examples of children using their voices in different ways. They could be instructed to use, or not use, words.
  • Using a theme such as "Antarctica" you could discuss the "soundscape" you would imagine there, for example, coldness, sharpness, wind, bleakness, and extremes. Lead a discussion on the sorts of instruments that may represent aspects of that "soundscape" and invite children to show how those sounds could be made. Discuss the use of silence as well as sound to convey the vastness of the landscape, if that is an aspect they want to communicate in their piece. You may also want to experiment with a smaller number of instruments.
  • Provide listeners with an A4 sheet with instrument symbols down the left hand (short) side. Invite them to listen (not watch) and show the progression of the piece using graphic symbols, for example, heavier marks for louder places, zigzags for staccato playing. At this point, ask them to form into groups of three or four and to construct a group score of the piece using crayons on newsprint. The group score is then given back to the original group to play. Invite them to answer questions such as: Does it sound the same? Are the symbols clear? There is potential here for more discussion and for the reworking of scores. This sequence leads into reading and writing music notation.

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