Improvisation. Where to begin as a teacher? How do we guide our students as they explore music that isn't on the page? A few years back, Angela Dwyer shared some ideas about introducing improvisation on our ukuleles in this post, which is a great place to start. We’ve got even more for you to consider and explore below!
There is a balance between freedom and constraint and we as teachers can help guide our students towards finding that freedom by building in some boundaries or starting points. Introducing improvisation isn’t as simple as saying play whatever you want and expecting students to know what to do or even feel comfortable jumping in. Structure and scaffolding will help give them something to hold on to as they take those tentative first steps.
I used such a process in a recent improvisational activity with some of my ukulele ensemble members for a project I was involved with. The idea was to create an end product (recording) to be used in performance, but also as an experience of what it is like to be fully immersed in music and sound creation. As noted in Higgins and Mantie (2013), improvisation involves embodying “risk-taking, reflexivity, spontaneity, exploration, participation and play.” (p. 39)
Structure and scaffolding will help give them something to hold on to as they take those tentative steps into the unknown.
We began the session by warming up with a familiar song to help the group relax and connect with each other as they stretched and moved their hands and voices. Building a comfortable and safe space to explore is of utmost importance.
From there, I used a multi-part instrumental exercise I’d created, Movement in Four Parts, (download here, listen here), as a starting point. It was inspired by James’ Bach Prelude, with each of four parts taking one beat in a measure. With each subsequent run-through, we began to migrate away from the score.
Things became more creative and exploratory with each round as players grew in their confidence and pushed their improvisations further. The temporary Sonic Dream Ensemble emerged in that space for that afternoon, exploring sound and creativity in a way these musicians might not have been comfortable with on their own or without the scaffolding.
James has always been a big advocate for improvisation, exploration, and experimentation, and you’ll find a treasure trove of ideas and activities sprinkled around Uketropolis. Can you paint a picture with music? Can you sculpt sound? In one of James’ recent podcasts, How to Make a Sound Sculpture, he explored this very approach to the creation of music.
Where can we go with musicking? How about the C Salutation meditative exploration, or a dive into delay effects in House of Mirrors? In the Uketropolis Jazz course, James guides you through IMPROV 101, a step-by-step beginner's guide to soloing in jazz. So much to sink your teeth into if you’re looking to test the improvisational waters yourself, or bring it to your group or classroom.
Take your students on a sonic adventure this spring and let us know how it goes!
Cynthia Kinnunen is a music educator and researcher based in Guelph, Ontario, and is part of Team Uketropolis. Header design: Suvi Coulson.
Edmund, D. C., Keller, E. C. (2020). Guiding Principles for Improvisation in the General Music Classroom. General Music Today, 33(2), 68-73. doi:10.1177/1048371319885361
Higgins, L., & Mantie, R. (2013). Improvisation as ability, culture, and experience. Music Educators Journal, 100(2), 38-44.
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