Exploration, to Improvisation, to Composition

Ideas for exploring, improvising, and composing in the music room, using the song "Who has seen the wind"

This year, I took the position of elementary music co-chair in my district. After our first meeting, I sent out a survey, asking teachers to list their needs for professional development. A vast majority of the teachers—including me–wanted more information about improvisation. Knowing that improvisation is a bit focus on the Orff philosophy, I then approached three Orff specialists in our district and asked them to present a session with improvisational strategies. The session was so helpful and helped teachers to foster musical creativity with their process. I will list here the process for improvisation I adapted from the session, as well as a composition activity that grew out of the same improvisational activity. Note: A special thanks to Clinton Wright, Tina Wilson, and Jason Bash, for presenting the session, and to Ginger Littleton and Sue Leithold-Bowcock, whose template for composition helped me immensely!

During the session, Clinton, Tina, and Jason presented an improvisational activity for “Apple Tree,” in which students brainstormed adjectives describing apples, then explored and improvised word patterns, then explored melodies with that rhythm on barred instruments, and then students made more conscious choices about what they wanted to play on barred instruments, transferring the exploration to improvisation.

I loved the sequential process laid out in the session, and the choices given to students in creating their own patterns. A few of the Kodaly-trained teachers in the district got hung up on where this activity should fall in the rhythmic or melodic concept timeline, and at first, I struggled with this same question. But then after trying out the activity with my students, I realized that it is very beneficial for students to explore and improvise for the sake of creativity, and not to serve the purpose of preparing or practicing rhythm or melody!

I then took this process and adapted it for use with my fifth graders, who were practicing low la (they are a couple of years behind, as I began teaching them last year.) I used the song “Who has seen the wind,” as notated below.


Once the students were comfortable with the song, I went through the process below. This took several lessons, as I typically only planned 5-10 minutes in each lesson, putting one step into each lesson over the course of several weeks.

  • Image brainstorming: Students closed their eyes and pictured a windy day. What did they see? Hear? Smell? I wrote this list on the SMART board and saved each class list. Note: When Clinton, Tina, and Jason presented, they had students work with small groups and write their own lists. Examples of images they brainstormed included “fall baseball,” “flying leaves,” “breeze,” “howling wind,” etc. They were usually much more creative than I expected!
  • Body percussion/ pattern brainstorming: I then wrote 4 of these words/images on the board, in 4 boxes. I chose 4 words with different rhythms, so the pattern would be rhythmically interesting. For example, in the four boxes, I may have had:
    • Jump in leaves             Flying kites                 Fall baseball                Smooth
    • Each box was 2 beats long, so “jump in leaves” was ti-ti ta, and “smooth” was ta rest.
    • Then I had students create their own patterns and put those patterns on their bodies. For example, a student might say “smooth flying kites fall baseball smooth” while tapping his/her head.
    • Each time we tried different body percussion (lap, hands, feet, etc.) while saying a new pattern. I also had students find something in the room to play—but not an instrument. Students were hitting walls, hitting floors, “playing” stands, etc.
    • Then I had students raise their hands and offer one of their patterns. Everyone would try this pattern.
    • Pattern brainstorming / Deciding on class pattern:
      • In the next lesson, I had students do a few body percussion patterns again, and then students offered their individual patterns.
      • I then chose a pattern that I thought would work well as a class pattern and wrote that on the board.
      • All students clapped that pattern, then tried the pattern several times on different parts of their bodies and different parts of the room. Again, I saved this pattern so I could refer to it later.
      • Barred instrument exploration and improvisation
        • In the next lesson, I had students clap the class pattern, then go to barred instruments. The instruments were set up with the bars E, G, A, and B. Students tried playing that rhythm on those bars, in whichever order they wanted. I found it helpful for students to whisper the class pattern as they played.
        • During this process, students are at first exploring. Once they’ve played a few different patterns, I said, “Now think about what you liked about your last pattern, and what you might like to change. Let’s try it again.” At this point, it transformed from exploration to improvisation, because they were making conscious choices about what they were playing.
        • I rotated all students so all had a turn. If we had time, we listened to individual students playing their patterns. We also sang the song, played our improvisations, then sang again (ABA form.)

The improvisation session covered about this much, although I should say that while the process above sticks are pretty close to what was laid out in the session, I changed it and adapted it as needed.

I really enjoyed this process, as did my fifth graders, but I really wanted to transfer their improvisations to compositions. I just wasn’t sure how! In March, I went to the OAKE National Conference in Phoenix and attended Ginger Littleton’s composition session. There, I found a wonderful template that I realized I could use to move this activity into the world of composition. Ginger created the format with the help of Sue Leithold-Bowcock, who I teach with at Colorado State.

Based off this template, I created a worksheet for each individual class, so that each class’ pattern could be listed on the worksheet. I am attaching an example of student composition. Each worksheet included:

  • Rules. For this assignment, the rules were:
  • You must use the notes E, G, A, and B.
  • You must start on E.
  • You must end on E.
  • Boxes for stick notation
    • I notated the rhythm of each class’ pattern inside these boxes. Underneath, the students wrote the note names. This was a good process, as it was a great time to review basics such as not listing note letters under rests, and listing two sounds for a ti-ti.
  • Blank staff and word pattern
  • Here I had a blank staff, as well the class’ word pattern listed underneath the staff. This was the space for students to transfer their stick notation to the staff.

For the composition process, I followed the steps:

  • Students went to instruments, played around with their improvisations, decided what they wanted their composition to sound like, and wrote the letters in the stick notation boxes. If you don’t have enough instruments, you could have some students write in the stick notation boxes while other students improvise, and then switch so they can check what they’ve written.
  • In the next lesson, we reviewed the names of the notes on the treble clef staff, and then students got their worksheets and wrote the noteheads on the staff, based off of their stick notation composition.
  • After this lesson, I took all of the worksheets and checked the following:
    • If they followed the rules—if not, I underlined which rule(s) they weren’t following
    • If the noteheads were written correctly—if not, I starred that measure so students could re-check and re-write their work
    • Then, in the next lesson, I reviewed how to write stems. Then, I handed the sheets back out and had students work on their composition from whichever point they needed to. This took longer than the above steps—about 20-25 minutes. Some students had to finish writing noteheads, then begin writing stems, some students had to fix their noteheads, and others were ready to move onto stems. Once the students had finished writing, I had them show me their work and I checked it. Then, they went to instruments and tried playing their compositions.
    • After this, I then took a rubric, stapled it to their composition, and graded the papers.
    • After that, I scanned a couple of great examples and showed students those compositions on the smartboard. We spoke through the note names in rhythm, then sang the note names while I played the xylophone, then they sang the compositions on solfa.

This was a great learning experience for me, and for them! Through the composition process, I realized that with some students, I still had more work to do to practice note naming and writing, as well as more work with stems. Through the improvisation process, I realized that I needed to add more opportunities for creativity to my lessons! This was a great jumping-off point and could be adapted for any song and any grade level. Good luck, and have fun!


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