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.
In this week’s lessons, we are working on improv. I start out with asking the student to play something that sounds happy and bouncy. Then they play something sad and gloomy. If necessary, we talk about what these things mean in a musical sense. High or low? Staccato or legato? Major or minor? Forte or piano? Allegro or Adagio? A lot of my kids don’t really need that explanation. They get it naturally.
At that point, I bring out a short picture book. Theoretically, any book would work, but my absolute favorite is “My Many-Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss. It’s short, it’s got interesting artwork (not by Dr. Seuss), and it covers pretty much every emotion possible, which makes it easier to decide how to vary the music. I read the book while the student improvs the soundtrack. If I think they can improv it better, I make a suggestion based on the emotion we’re going for. This helps with those students who are liable to play pretty much the same thing every time.
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Last week I played Connect 4 with my students. Here’s how the basic game works:
What you need:
- Music note flashcards
- Anything to use as markers (coins, pieces from other board games, erasers, etc.)
- Lay out your note flashcards into at least four columns and four rows. More is better, at least for more advanced students.
- Divide the markers by color or shape between you and the student.
How to play:
- When it is your turn, place a marker on one of the flashcards and say the name of the note.
- The first person to get four in a row wins.
- For pre-readers, use cards with only the letter. To place a marker on that square, they have to play that note on the keyboard.
- For readers who have only learned the C position notes, lay out all the flashcards. If they want to claim a space with a note they haven’t learned, they should say only whether it’s higher or lower than the notes they do know.
- For more advanced readers, use cards with ledger lines or intervals.
- For an extra twist, make it Gravity Connect Four, where all pieces automatically fall down to the lowest available flashcard in their column.
- For a bigger extra twist, make it Reversi, where if you flank an opponent’s pieces, they are replaced with your pieces. In this version, the goal is not to get four in a row, but to complete the grid and then count up who has claimed the most flashcards.
Continuing our theme of composing activities, here is a composing challenge that I use with multiple levels of students. I have sometimes given this out on the first or second lesson. I’ve also given it out for much more advanced students. The real difference is what elements you tell them they must include in their song. Do they need a certain form? Key signature? Intervals? Chords? Articulation? The most beginning students are told only that they need to think about speed, hand position, and dynamics. There’s no limit on how complicated you can get with the more advanced students.
Here’s a technique my students love. We use this when:
(1) we need to drill a repeated section in a song
(2) they haven’t learned the whole song yet, but they really need the completion sense of playing a whole song
(3) we need to keep practicing a song but they’ve run out of the power of concentration they need to make it through the whole song
(4) we’re practicing sight reading, but they feel overwhelmed by the length of the song.
First we talk about what a relay race is. A relay race is one where you run as a team. First one person goes, and when that person finishes, the next person goes, with everyone taking turns until the race is finished. We can play a song that way too as long as we divide it up into sensible sections. (You can get into a discussion about musical form or phrases here, but that isn’t necessary.) The student may play the first line, I play the second line, the student plays the third line, and I finish off the fourth line. Then we may do it again with the parts switched.
This works especially well for songs in an ABAB form. For example, it’s very easy to teach even a beginning student to play the first phrase of Jingle Bells. It falls into a nice five-finger pattern in either C major or G major, and the third phrase is an exact duplicate. They’re usually very excited to finish the song, but they have more trouble remembering (or reading) well enough to finish it off. With relay playing we can have all the satisfaction of finishing a song they know, even though they’ve only learned one phrase!
**This post originally appeared on my other website here