Question and Answer Improv

Some of my students create beautiful melodies by instinct. Most don’t. I’ve been stymied in my attempts to teach them improv, not because they can’t grasp what the left hand needs to do, but because they can’t grasp what the right hand needs to do. That was the part I thought would be obvious, but I was wrong. I’ve been working on melodies with them for months now and today we had a breakthrough with this activity.

Question and Answer Improv Activity
A coin-flipping lesson activity

What You Need:

  • A coin (any kind)
    • I used a silver dollar because an unfamiliar coin generates interest
  • One die to generate a key signature
    • I used a blank die and wrote on the sides: C, G, D, F, Am, and ?
    • It would work just as well to use a regular die and assign each number one of those key signatures.

Setup:

  • None

Explanation (to the student):

  • Today we are using a technique that many composers have used, called Question and Answer Phrasing.
  • One of the most famous examples is in “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The first part is the question:

twinkle 1

  • We can’t stop here because we didn’t end on the home note (C). It leaves us wondering what comes next.
  • What comes next is the answer:

twinkle 2

  • The answer does end on the home note (C), but that’s not the only thing that makes it a good answer phrase.
  • Note that the question is exactly two measures long. The answer is also exactly two measures long.
  • Note that the question uses quarter notes and half notes and it likes to repeat the quarter notes.
  • The answer continues that rhythmic pattern and the use of repeating notes. This is what makes it a good answer. If we didn’t do anything like that, it would be as if I asked you, “What’s 7 plus 2?” and you said, “Sharks!” That answer doesn’t go with that question.
  • We want our answer phrases to go with the questions, so they need to be the same length and use similar rhythms, articulation, or note patterns. Above all they need to end on the home note.

How to Play:

  • The first person flips the coin. If it lands on heads, the flipper should then improv a question phrase. The other person will then improv an answer. If it lands on tails, the other person should improv a question phrase, and the flipper should then improv the answer.
    • The question should:
      • Use C major. Do not end on C.
      • It should have definite rhythm and either one full measure, or two full measures.
    • The answer should:
      • End on C.
      • Be the same length as the question and fit in stylistically. Be as lenient as you want here.
  • Repeat with the other player flipping the coin.
  • When the student has the hang of it, you can add a wrinkle. Use the die to determine what key signature the melody should be in. (Even some of my younger students can handle this. Just show them where to put their hands and tell them to stick to just the five notes their fingers are on.)

 

Variations:

  • To make it easier:
    • Stick with one measure only and stay in C major.
    • Count out loud if you need to.
  • To make it harder:
    • Change the time signature.
    • Make the phrases longer.
    • Require them to move beyond a five finger pattern.

 

Zap It (Rhythm Review)

This is my spin on a traditional educational game listed on many places on the Internet. I use it for rhythm, but the principal can be used for anything. My version is a little different. It’s for two players only (teacher vs. student). The kids love beating me, and they have yet to point out that they always win. It takes a bit of prep work to create the game in the first place, but absolutely no setup during or right before each lesson.

What You Need:

  • Popsicle or craft sticks with rhythms (or whatever you’re drilling) written on one end
    • You can buy different colors or sizes to make different levels of rhythms.
    • All the rhythms are two measures long. I have mixed time signatures.
  • A few sticks with “Zap It!” written on one end
  • (Optional) A few sticks with “Instrument” written on one end, plus a selection of percussion instruments
  • An opaque container to hold your sticks

Setup:

  • None

How to Play:

  • The student draws a stick. She identifies the time signature and then counts and claps that rhythm. If she gets it right, she keeps the stick.
    • In reality, I have the kids do it again until they get it right, so they always keep the stick.
  • As teacher, I draw a stick. I identify the time signature and then count and clap the rhythm. If I get it right, I keep the stick. If the student catches me getting it wrong, the student gets a chance to do it right. If the student gets it right, she can keep the stick instead of me.
    • I do this strategically, not only to make sure they are paying attention during my turn, but also to ensure they always win the game.
  • Alternate turns until someone draws a Zap It! stick. At that point, everyone counts their sticks. Whoever has the most sticks is the winner.
  • If someone draws an Instrument stick, they draw another stick to get a rhythm and can choose a percussion instrument to use instead of clapping. They keep both sticks at the end of the turn.
Zap It! (Rhythm Review)
Zap It! (Rhythm Review)

Beat Your Score/Build Your Dream (How to Drill Anything)

We practiced notes on the staff this week with this method, but you can use it to drill anything you have a set of flashcards for.

What You Need

  • Set of flashcards
  • Timer
  • Blocks or Legos or any other building toy (optional)

Setup

  • None

How to Play

  • Set the timer. I chose a 30 second time limit.
  • While the timer is running, flip the cards for the student one at a time. When the timer goes off, count the number of cards answered correctly.
  • If you are using the blocks, they’ve earned that number of blocks to begin building whatever they want.
    • Some of my students are old enough to feel that blocks are beneath them. That’s fine.
    • I only give them a short time to build, so I discourage risky building strategies. If it falls, we go on anyway. They’ll have another opportunity later.
  • Set the timer again. The point on the second round is to see if you can beat your first score. Whether they do or not, they can add that many blocks to their structure.
  • Repeat as many times as you want.

Variations

  • To make it easier, limit the flashcards. For example, use only C position notes or only bass clef notes.
  • To make it harder, add more flashcards into the stack. If you’re drilling notes, require them to both name the note and play it on the piano.
building-blocks-717309_1920
Beat Your Score/Build Your Dream (How to Drill Anything)