Most of my students love doing improv, but I find that the ability to create a good melody is very unevenly distributed among them. Some of them create great melodies just on instinct, and I don’t need to do much but encourage. Others stare at me blankly, repeat a broken C major chord over and over, or play an endless succession of one-fingered quarter notes that seem to be chosen at random. Regardless of their ability level, this exercise can help them think outside the box and create more interesting melodies.
What You Need:
- Piano Music (Whatever piece the student is currently working on is fine.)
- Blank paper
- Writing Utensil
- Cards with various curves on them. I use a set I drew by hand in about 5 minutes, but you could also print and cut up these.
What to Do:
- With the student, take a look at the piano music. Use the blank paper to draw the shape of the melody in the first phrase. Explain it as you go: “See how the second note goes up from the first? I’m going up on my paper. Then it stays there for three beats, so I’m going to draw a straight line. Then it jumps down to a lower note.”
- Have the student draw the melody of the second phrase.
- Whenever the student has got the idea, go back to the piano. Have the student pick one of the cards and create a melody based on that shape. It does not matter which way is up on the card: you can create different melodies depending on which way you hold it. Some of my kids needed me to do the first card to get them the idea. Some of them also needed several tries to get it right.
- After you’ve done several shapes individually, you can string them together to create a song. The student shouldn’t be doing any left hand accompaniment at this point, but you can do some as a duet part.
- If you’re doing this as improv, you’re done. If you’re doing it as a composition, you can then help your student write out the melody they’ve just created.
Here’s a rhythm activity I used this week with all my students. The basic version here is okay, but bland. It’s enormously more interesting if you use one or more of the variants below.
What You Need:
- Lay out your cards in a circle and place the bottle in the middle.
- Pick a time signature and write it on your paper.
How to Play:
- Have the student spin the bottle. When it stops spinning, they should draw that note after the time signature on the paper.
- Ask the students how many beats they have left in the measure. If it’s not complete, they spin again until it is. If they get a note that is too big to fit in the rest of the measure, they should fill out the measure with one (and only one) note that will complete it.
- When the measure is complete, have them count and clap it.
- Build a second measure with the same method. When it’s complete, they should count and clap both measures in succession.
- Repeat until you run out of time.
- To make it easier, limit the types of notes you include, such as only quarter notes and half notes.
- To make it harder, include harder notes such as sixteenths and triplets.
- To drill on a new rhythm concept, such as eighth notes, put a lot of the same card out so they are more likely to get that rhythm.
- To make it more exciting, include a Wild card. Wild means they can choose a percussion instrument from a selection you provide to play and count their rhythms.
- To reinforce after you have several measures, clap (or play) it as a round. Take turns being the person who starts or the person who starts at the beginning when the first person has made it to the second measure.
- To use as an improv technique, have them improv a melody on the piano based on the rhythms they created.
So much of music comes down to drill, and I’ve never yet had a student who didn’t enjoy this method of doing it.
What You Need:
- A set of plastic cups (any number you want).
- With a permanent marker, write a challenge on each one. For example, you could say Section 1, Section 2, Section 3, Section 4, Trouble Spot, Improv, Play by Ear, Review Song, Curved Fingers, Name that Note, Rhythm Flashcard, etc. It’s good if the majority of them are drill that need to be done, with just a sprinkling of more fun ones like improv or review song. My set has duplicates of the four section numbers so we can get to those sections more than once.
- Determine which part of the student’s current piece should be Section 1, which part should be Section 2.
How to Play:
- The student builds a cup tower. Whichever cup makes the tower fall is the next challenge. The student then has to do whatever is written on the cup, whether it’s play that section of the piece, clap a rhythm, name the notes on a predetermined number of flashcards, play a section with perfectly curved fingers, etc. Depending on the length of your sections, you may want to say they have to play it three times or just once, or that they have to play it until you are satisfied with the quality.
- Then build another cup tower and accept the next challenge.
While students of all ages enjoy this, the danger is that the older ones with better fine motor skills will spend a long time making a very good cup tower that doesn’t fall, and not get to the actual music. Here are some additional rules to make it harder. I usually start out without any of these rules, until I see how good they are at the cup tower and whether I need to do this.
- No more than three (or even two) cups can touch the ground.
- The teacher is allowed to randomly be a hurricane and attempt to blow things down.
- The student must jump on the ground next to the tower after every third cup to see if an earthquake can dislodge it.
Here is a quick, no-prep improv to do with students. All of mine enjoyed it.
The student can use any key on the keyboard. They’ll be using their imagination to play something that sounds appropriate, as you talk them through a thunderstorm. If possible, they should be playing continuously.
The teacher will talk through these steps:
- First, the rain is far away and not very loud.
- Gradually, it comes closer, so that the first raindrops actually fall on you.
- The rain grows steadily faster and louder until you are drenched in a downpour.
- Suddenly, there is a thunderclap! (But the rain continues.)
- And another thunderclap!
- There is a brief lull, as the rain lessens.
- With another thunderclap, the rain comes back in full force.
- The wind blows in fits and starts.
- Gradually, the rain moves off, getting softer and lighter as it fades into the distance.
- Until you are left with only a rainbow.
It’s quite interesting to see how many different effects different students come up with, following this same pattern.
Here’s a music game based loosely on Pictionary. I teach private lessons, so we never have enough people for the actual game of Pictionary. This is a non-competitive version for two people.
What you need:
- At least one set of cards with the letter names on them A through F.
- Optional: a set of cards with other musical concepts on them. I wrote these out by hand in a few minutes, but some examples would be: quarter note, whole note, soft, loud, crescendo, repeat sign, bar line, etc. It is important that you actual write these out; don’t use the symbol.
- A bag or bowl or something to draw the cards out of.
- Whiteboard (or paper) with a large staff on it. Click here for a paper version.
- Whiteboard markers (or other writing utensil)
- Put the cards in the bag or bowl.
- Determine how many points you are going for.
How to Play:
- The first player draws a card out of the bag and does not show it to the other player. If it’s a note name, she draws it, including the clef. If it’s a concept, she draws the symbol for it, such as “p” for soft, “f” for loud, etc.
- The second player guesses what was on the card. If he gets it right, a point has been earned. You can keep track of this with tally marks if you’re trying to be quick and simple. I did it with smiley faces, and most of my students enjoyed drawing those. You’re working together as a team, so there is only one set of points to keep track of.
- On the next turn, the second player draws and the first player guesses.
- The game ends when the points goal has been achieved.
- For pre-readers, use a printout of a keyboard, instead of a staff.
- For more advanced readers, specify an interval, such as a third. Draw the note a third above the note on the card, instead of the actual note on the card. The second player still guesses the note on the card, not the one drawn on the staff.
- To make the game move along if you’re running out of time, make the last one a double or nothing challenge, or a triple or nothing challenge.
- If the player draws a card and doesn’t know what it means, either set it aside and draw again, or show it to the teacher and have a discussion about it.