Improvisation Part 1: Rhythm

Hi, everyone!  This is Jamie Parker. Like many of you, I am on spring break this week. Each year on break, I like to set aside some time to think about how my students are progressing and where they still have room to grow before the end of the year. One skill area that seems to need improvement each year is improvisation. Personally, improvisation has been an area of weakness for me, and, as a result, I feel the need to add purposeful improvisation activities to my lessons. I have decided that I’ll spend the next couple of blog posts discussing different improvisation areas, and today I’ll be going over rhythm improvisation.

(Thanks to Sonya DeHart, Kelly Benefield, and Melonheadz for the graphics)

When doing rhythm improvisation activities in my classroom, I tend to start with four-beat rhythm patterns. Before I hold my students accountable for any patterns, I always go through the following process:
  • I tap and say many four-beat patterns and the students tap and say the patterns back.
  • We have a discussion about each of our known rhythms and the amount of beats each rhythm takes up.
  • I tell the students to think of their own pattern. Then, I give them a little think time.
  • The students say their patterns at the same time as the rest of their classmates. This “babble” time gives them an opportunity to practice and revise.
  •  I ask for some students to volunteer on our improvisation activity.

Here are some of my favorite rhythm improvisation activities:

I. Rhythm Conversation
My students and I imagine that we are in a land where the only known language is rhythm language. The only way we can converse with each other is by tapping and saying different rhythm patterns. I have structured this activity a few different ways:
  •  Option 1: The students sit in a circle. The teacher goes around to each student and performs a pattern to him/her. Each student responds with his/her own pattern back to the teacher.
  • Option 2: The students are grouped in pairs or small groups. The students converse with the others in their group with rhythm patterns. You might set guidelines on how long the conversation should last.
  •  Option 3: The students sit in a circle. One student performs his/her rhythm and the entire class copies the pattern. Then, the next student in the circle performs his/her pattern and the others echo. This keeps going until all students have had an opportunity.

I like to use this activity when my students are very confident with a new rhythm. Sometimes, I require that they must include 1 of the newest rhythm they know. I’ve also used this activity when my students have learned a new fingering on recorder. They play a rhythm using only their newest note.

II. Rhythm Improvisation to Form
In this activity, students improvise on the “b” or "c" section of a known song.  Here is the structure I follow:
  • The students read the rhythm of a known song
  • The students discover the rhythmic form of the song. I like to use songs with the form “a a b a” or “a b a c.”
  • I remove the “b” and “c” lines of the song.
  •  In place of the “b” and “c” lines, students create their own rhythms.

Here are some of my favorite songs for this activity:
  • Hot Cross Buns
  • Rain is Falling Down
  • Let Us Chase the Squirrel
  • Dinah
  •  Canoe Song

III. Add Rhythm Interludes to Known Songs
I love when I can find songs in my folk song collection in which I can add improvisation activities. One of my favorite songs to do this with is Who’s That?:

Students will sing individual classmate names on “Student 1” and “Student 2.” After the song is over, student 1 will tap and say a four-beat rhythm and then student 2 will knock and say a four-beat rhythm. The song will continue with new individuals improvising.

I hope you have a restful break!

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