Today I would like to share a basic improv activity that you can customize for your students. Before my students tackle this activity, they have already done a couple of partner improv activities, such as my story-based improv activity (found here) or improvising a melody on the black keys as I play a duet.
This improv activity will help students learn three important skills:
1) How to improvise with a steady beat, using 4 beats per measure.
2) How to create a melody that matches a given chord progression.
3) How to use a simple form to organize their ideas.
Are you ready to improvise? Let’s go!
Step 1: Choose the rhythm for your melody.
While some students can naturally improvise with a steady beat, for others this can be a struggle. Set students up for success by giving them a rhythmic template to guide their improvisation.
The best way I have found to do this is by using silly rhythm words. Together, we create two short sentences, each containing four beats, which students can alternate throughout their improv. For inspiration, you might use a student’s favorite food, their name and the name of a friend or a pet, a favorite movie, a favorite sport or activity—anything goes! An example from a recent improv with one of my students: “I like pizza. Yum, yum, yum!”
Step 2: Choose your chords.
For a student’s first improv, I suggest using the chords A minor, G major, and F major to create a four bar progression that can be repeated (Am-G-F-G). These chords are close together on the piano, so they are easy to maneuver for even young students. Students also enjoy the minor, slightly Spanish sound of this chord progression. Once students get the hang of improvising, any four bar chord progression will work!
Step 3: Choose your melody.
Now we will create a melody to fit to the rhythm words we chose. For a first improv with the chords above, I suggest students use the first five notes of the A minor scale: A, B, C, D, E. I give students two rules for creating their melody: 1) Start each measure with a note that is in your chord, and 2) Use mostly steps. Of course, we know that composers break these rules all the time, but these two principles will help students create tuneful, consonant melodies on their first try—building a sense of confidence.
Step 4: Organize your ideas with a simple form.
I tell students that just like a story, their improv should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is an easy way to get students used to grouping their ideas into sections and using contrast to delineate the sections of their improv.
- Beginning: encourage students to create a 4 measure introduction using the four chords from their progression. Broken chords work especially well for this purpose. Students can use one of their rhythm sentences to structure the beginning of their piece if they like.
- Middle: the middle of our improv will be formed by the 4 bar chord progression, repeated to form an 8 bar phrase, along with a right hand melody using the rules above.
- End: encourage students to create an ending using the tonic chord of their chord progression; in this first example this would be an A minor chord. This ending can be as fancy as broken chords played hand over hand up or down the piano, or as simple as a single low note.
By following these four steps, students can create a short piece that makes sense melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically—a great first step for more complicated improvisation experiences! The great thing about this activity is that it can be repeated and customized—experiment with using different chord progressions, adding more rhythmic patterns, alternating blocked and broken chords in the left hand, lengthening the number of measures in each section…the possibilities are endless!
What do you think? Do you encourage your students to improvise? Please share your experiences in the comments!