Beginning Improvisation

Happy Thursday everyone!  This is Amy and I hope you all are having a great start to your spring.  I'm on spring break and it snowed last night!  That's Colorado for you!

This blog post comes out of a conversation that I had with Tanya a few weeks ago.  It was nearing the end of the grading cycle and she mentioned that she hadn't assessed her first graders on improvisation.  So we started discussing different ways and materials to use with improvisation and this has been on my mind now for a while,

Improvisation, when taught in the Kodály classroom, should be taught the same was as all other musical concepts: through singing!  Just like a baby learns to talk, improvisation is going to be done through imitation at first.  I also do a lot of guiding them through making decisions and set them up for success as best I can.

One of the easiest songs to start with is Chop, Chop Chippity Chop:

Why is this song a great one to start with?  First of all, the improvisation is at the end.  Eventually, the students give you suggestions of things to put in the pot.  The very first day I do this with the kiddos they don't give any suggestions of vegetables to put in the pot.  Instead, I tell them what things we're going to put in the pot and we all keep a steady beat.  The objective of the first day is for them to learn the chant and to be able to keep a steady beat with the chant.  Given the students and the class, we might even do the same activity a second day.

When we're ready to move on, I use vegetable cards like these:
As a class we draw a card at the end of the song to see what is going to be put in the pot.  This is an unconscious experience with chance/improvisation.  Then the next day, individual students get to use the cards to say what's going to be put in the pot.  Finally, depending on readiness skills, they'll make up their own vegetable at the end.

The next level of improvisation that I use is improvising text that is IN the song.  We'll look today at "The Minister's Cat":

I like this one for a few reasons:

First, it's a short little chant (a.k.a.- it's spoken so they're only going to be thinking about improvising something by saying it.  Or in other words, they don't also have to think about matching pitch).

Second, they only have to think about ONE word that they're going to make up.

Third, it's an adjective or descriptor to something that is familiar and known: a cat.

Starting out, we use steps similar to the ones used for "Chop, Chop."  The first day they are not going to make up anything but rather keep a steady beat. They need to know the song well before you expect them to change one of the words.  (Think of it this way: this is the preschool/kindergarten/1st grade equivalent of a jazz musician knowing the chord changes in a song that they'll improvise on so they need to know the "framework" of the song).

Again, similarly to "Chop, Chop", I'll use some adjective/choice cards with them for the next level:

And we'll do this as a class for the first lesson, using the cards to change the adjective in the chant.  Then, the next lesson or step, individual students will use the cards and the final step would be for students to make up their own adjective or improvised word.

One more level/type of vocal improvisation for today and that's improvising sung text. Again, we're talking baby steps to improvisation so this will be an example where the students change only one word in a fixed tune:

Breaking it down, the first day we'll play the game with "Good King Leopold" but my Stick Puppet is the the king or queen.  (BTW, Melissa & Doug have a really cute king and queen stick puppet!).

This one is trickier for improvisation because of the singing.  You're going to be asking the student to not only improvise a word but they're also remembering the text of the song and thinking about pitch matching.  Like all musical concepts, you're looking at readiness skills before you move on.

So, the next step after having the teacher/puppet be the king/queen is to have a student be the king or queen. Breaking it down into baby steps, I'll use suggestion cards so that they're focused more on singing in tune and timing:

And to make it more fun I put them in the King/Queen's jewels (gotta love Easter Eggs, and sorry this picture has a rhythm in it instead of the card.  Again, I'm on spring break, lol!):

With this one you're also looking for your "ringers."  You know, those kids that came into your class knowing how to match pitch, the ones that you use as a vocal model for other students.  You'll want use your "ringers" for the first few students to play this.  Mainly, this is going to help the other students remember the tune of the solo part.  If you use a student that isn't matching pitch the rest of the class quickly forgets the "tune" of the solo part.

So, using the suggestion cards the king or queen sings the solo part by themselves, inserting the way to "ask again" in their solo phrase.  Of course the next step would be for students to make-up/improvise the adverb in the solo phrase.

I hope you can use one or more of these activities with your little ones!  Have a great April everyone!


  1. Great ideas, Amy! I've never seen "The Minister's Cat" before...very cool!

  2. Great topic! I know I need to do more improvisation in my classes, but have been a bit hesitant to do so, especially with my older kids, because they get so self-conscious. I like your ideas for sequencing so that it's a little less scary, though, and I would love to see more posts on this subject!

    One question: My beginning kindergarteners love "Chop, Chop Chippity Chop," but we've never used cards before, as the kids don't seem to have trouble coming up with their own items to put in the "stew." What kind of benefits do you see with the cards?

    1. I think that stems from me having taught at an Enlish Language acquisition school for so long and almost all of my spanish speakers didn't have the vocabulary yet for some of the vegetables. Non-music related it reinforces reading and it helps the visual learners make a connection to the song & also acts as an "action grabber/maintainer."

  3. I use Chop, Chop..... and my kids LOVE it. Just to clarify though - the improv is simply coming up with what veggie to put in the pot? Or do they say it in rhythm? Thanks for all the great ideas! :)

  4. What happens when the child sings "yes" in Good King Leopold? :) I'm guessing a chase game!


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