Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rhythmic Improvisation

I'm so excited about some of the feedback I have gotten since launching my blog! Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read and comment! As promised in my last post, I am going to dive into some of the warm-ups from my "Pick a Stick" jar. Today's focus? Improvisation!

Teaching and assessing improvisation were among my greatest challenges as a beginning teacher. Those of you who know me know that I love structure, organization, and predictability. So, improvisation was definitely outside my comfort zone!  I had very little experience with improvisation in my training and struggled to find ways to help my students improvise that were meaningful, feasible, and engaging.  Thankfully, I was able to watch and learn from a few AMAZING teachers who opened my eyes to a new perspective and approach to improvisation. Now, I love improvisation activities and my students do, too! They are a great way to practice rhythms (and melodies), encourage creativity, and keep your kids challenged and engaged. Here are some tips and tricks that have worked for me for rhythmic improvisation.

1. Setting Parameters

Improvisation can quickly turn from a purpose-driven, meaningful learning experience to mass chaos if you aren't careful! Students love to improvise, but they also love to be silly and goofy. Therefore, I always try to give my students clear expectations and guidelines for rhythmic improvisation activities.  I specify the number of beats or the rhythms that students need to include in their improvisation in order to keep them on-task and learning. I also use my parameters as my basis for assessment.

2. Using Visuals

One of my biggest "a-ha" moments came last year when I saw a video of a teacher leading an improvisation activity for her students. She provided a visual of the empty beats for students to follow while they improvised. I have adapted her work to create a rhythmic improvisation warm-up I call, "Finish the Phrase." I use templates like these one to guide students through 4 and 8 beat improvisation ...

While students improvise, I help them by tracking the beats with a pointer or my hand. I have seen a HUGE improvement in students' ability and willingness to improvise rhythms by using this template. Now, whenever my students draw "Finish the Phrase" from the warm-up jar, nearly every hand immediately flies into the air. They think they are hilarious when they say, "rest-rest-rest-ta" or, "tika-tika, tika-tika, tika-tika, tika-tika" and they love the challenge of making their rhythm different than the people who have gone before them. Using these templates, I can include an improvisation activity in 2 minutes of my lesson.

Even though most of my students love to improvise, I definitely have kids who struggle. Therefore, I also try to use visuals as a way to help them feel more comfortable and successful. When we are playing a game like "Drop 4, Add 4" or doing improvisation away from the board, I offer my students notecards that have beat bars drawn on them, so that they can track the beats while they improvise. They are super simple, like this...

As students become more comfortable, I encourage them to work away from using the notecards. However, they are a great tool for getting started. Even if you simply draw beat bars on the board, giving students sometime to track helps it feel less scary and more manageable! 

3. Adding a "background" layer

I have found that my student's are more engaged when I add a background track to our improvising. One of my favorites to use is "Limbo Rock" from Rhythmically Moving CD 2. You can also use a simple GarageBand loop to add some spice to your improvising!

4. Keeping it Simple

As you can see, all of my improvisation warm-ups are very simple. I have used these activities with 1st graders all the way through middle school choirs and have found them to be easy, fun, and (most importantly) great tools for practicing the skills we are learning.

I would love to hear how you include improvisation activities in your classroom! If you are looking for more ideas on improvisation, check out my TpT store for my complete set of rhythmic improvisation warm-ups and activities! In this kit you will find all my explanations and materials for "Drop 4, Add 4," "Swap 4,""Finish the Phrase," and using rhythmic improvisation flashcards.  You can also download my free sample set! 


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