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Improvisation Workshops in Primary Schools

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, one of the things that is of great interest to me is improvisation.  I am interested in this subject practically and theoretically but I have a particular desire to understand more about the ways in which it is taught, learned and assessed in educational contexts.  Over the last week I have been involved in a project in primary schools in which we have been introducing children between the ages of 8 and 11 years old to improvisation.  It has been incredible fun and very rewarding so I would like to share some information about the sessions in this week’s post.

The workshops were part of a wonderful project, entitled ‘Music, Sound and Electronics’ which was developed and run by Lauren Sarah Hayes for West Lothian Council and supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative.  This project consists of Lauren and guest musicians/composers/improvisers delivering sessions (each 1 hour long) in which the young people learn about music and sound whilst exploring electronics, designing and developing their own instruments and modifying/extending ‘traditional’ instruments , for example.  The project runs over 10 weeks and, each week, classes will work on a different topic and explore music and sound in new and interesting ways.  16 classes across West Lothian participated in the project which meant that, over the course of a week, approximately 500 students are involved.  I was asked by Lauren to write and deliver a workshop on improvisation (using electronic, home made and ‘traditional’ instruments) that would introduce the young people to improvisation.  In some ways, I expected this to be challenging as I believed that it might be difficult to encourage some children to get involved with the exercises – as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the sessions – including me!

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Overview:

When planning the workshop, I really wanted to make sure that I included activities that would (a) allow us to discuss the nature of improvisation and how it related to our experiences, and (b) to engage in meaningful processes that would encourage the young people to consider improvisation as a legitimate approach to music  making and the exploration of sound.  I felt that it was important to ensure that our discussions and exercises related to the ways in which they had been considering music and sound during the Music Sound and Electronics project and that it also linked to the general music education that they receive as part of the school curriculum.

  1. The sessions began with a simple discussion to get things started and I kicked this off by asking each class the question ‘what is improvisation?’.  Depending on what was said, this discussion unfolded in different ways, however, the answers given by the kids were very interesting (more on this below).
  2. Following this discussion, I performed a short improvised saxophone solo in which I experimented with different techniques and musical styles in order to present a variety of interesting elements of music.  This meant that (a) the kids got the chance to watch someone else improvise before they tried to, (b) they were inspired/encouraged to give it a try, and (c) they had the opportunity to discuss and comment on a number of aspects of the sound and music.  This not only provided us with an opportunity to link the sonic experience to the vocabulary and concepts that the children were already familiar with but it also meant that we were able to encourage them to comment and discuss their experiences and reactions, thus highlighting the importance of their individual and subjective contributions to discussions.
  3. Depending on time, some classes also had the opportunity to try some warm-up exercises that were intended to encourage listening skills and group cooperation.  Again, the youngsters responded well to this and enjoyed the activities.
  4. We then made sure that the pupils had instruments to play.  Some had brought their own (including, flutes, cornets, tenor horns, baritone horns, cellos, violins and even one home-made music box!) and others were give electronic instruments and noise-makers (such as speakers and circuits attached to batteries).  In the few cases where there were not enough instruments to go around, some pupils were asked to use objects that they found in the classroom to make sound with or even to play ‘body-percussion’ or to use their voice.
  5. When everyone had an instrument I instructed them to just go ahead and improvise!  This was a deliberate tactic to encourage them to play and to get to know how their instrument works etc but, each time we did this the class, when questioned immediately after the improvisation, informed us that they did not find this process particularly musical.  This paved the way for some planned exercises that were designed to (a) focus the improvisation and to make it feel/sound more musical, and (b) to provide stimulus for the young musicians to improvise to.
  6. One such exercise was to use some short, silent videos as stimuli, each of which could be said to have some inherent links to aspects of music such as pitch or volume or rhythm, for example.  We watched the videos, discussed how  the sound/music might be shaped by the images and about how we might create an appropriate piece of music to match the images, for example.  The kids responded very well to this and, in most cases, performed some very interesting improvisations that really reflected the images and drew on the class discussions about how we might improvise appropriately.
  7. Having spent nearly 40 minutes discussing improvisation, thinking about the music we were creating, criticising our performances and linking the experience to our previous musical knowledge, we ended by performing another large-scale free improvisation.  Following this, in every case, the class decided that this final performance was much more musical, communicative and effective as a way to create music.

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Observations:

Two things really stuck out for me during the sessions this week, partly because they are so encouraging and secondly because they apply to every single class we saw all week (approximately 500 kids in total).

Firstly, during the group discussions at the start of the workshops, many of the young people were able to give great definitions of the term ‘improvisation’.  These definitions included people stating that it was ‘…when you make something up on the spot‘, others suggesting that it was ‘…changing and adapting things as you go along‘ or even simply just ‘free-styling‘.  In some of the workshops these definitions were offered immediately and in others, I needed to work a bit harder to tease a suitable definition out of the class.  However, the really interesting thing for me was that, once we had established a definition of the word ‘improvisation’, some of the examples that the kids gave were excellent.  So, for example, when I asked the follow-up question ‘what type of people improvise?’, I was given some wonderful answers – some of which I didn’t expect to hear.  Many people mentioned musicians, artists and writers or other types of creatives but, there were three other categories that I was delighted to hear the young people use as examples:

  • In almost every class there was one pupil who gave the answer ‘teachers‘, when asked who improvises.  This was often followed up with examples of teachers ‘making things up as they go along‘ or ‘changing what they are doing on the spot‘.  I found this very encouraging but I was surprised to see that some of the teachers seemed embarrassed by this – as if improvisation in their job was not not necessarily something positive…
  • Football players (soccer, for our American friends)!  A number of the young people mentioned that football players improvise their way through games.  Yes, they have an ultimate aim, which is to win the game, but they don’t know how they will do this and they need to make this up as they go along.  This was very interesting to me as it showed that the young people didn’t simply see improvisation as a means to generate some type of artistic product and that it may be considered as a process through which problems can be solved.
  • Another very encouraging answer that was given by many of the classes when asked about the type of people that improvise was ‘everyone‘.  Again, this showed that people were aware of the fact that daily life is full of improvisation and that conversation and other everyday interactions are almost always improvised.  In fact, one particularly eloquent young man in a primary six class (approximately 10 years old) in the final session of the week said: ‘There isn’t a script for life – if there was, then who’d have written it?  And who’d have scripted that…? Then you’d get an infinite regression… so we all improvise all the time‘.  (I have to admit that I was slightly taken aback by this wonderful philosophical answer!)

In each of the categories above, the improvisational element is dependant on the improviser being aware of their surroundings and the actions/contributions of others.  Developing this understanding and fostering it in the young people while they were improvising was one of my main learning intentions for the workshops.  So, to hear some pupils providing such thoughtful answers in the introductory discussion was very encouraging.

Secondly, I was struck by the fact that almost every single pupil (with the exception of 4 or 5 over the whole week) was absolutely engaged in a creative group music-making workshop.  Yes, in every class there were a number of young people who already receive instrumental lessons and are, as such, used to thinking and talking about music but these children are the minority.  Although we try not to pigeon-hole children or pedal stereotypes, I was delighted to see the children who we might describe as ‘shy’ or ‘introverted’ engaging in the exercise and exploring sound and music in an expressive and musical way as part of a group activity and discussing the way it made them feel.  Also, a couple of teachers informed me that they were delighted to see some of their pupils with behavioural issues being so involved.  In these cases, it seemed to me that the idea of participating in a workshop in which they were permitted and encouraged to make music and explore the ways in which instruments can produce sounds and noises was new to them.  Certainly, when discussing the workshop after we had finished improvising a number of students noted that they enjoyed being allowed to make noise and that music was much more fun when they could decide what to play! Also, almost without exception, every one of the young people said that they thought that this was a fun way to make music and that they would like to do more improvisation.

In my opinion, improvisation is one of the most important aspects of music education but, one that is often neglected because it has particular connotations or that it seems prohibitively difficult to do or to evaluate, for example.  I was delighted to have had the opportunity to work with these young people and hopefully show them that improvisation is (a) fun, (b) natural, and (c) something that anyone can and should do if they want to!

I thoroughly enjoyed running these workshops and was delighted to be a part of Lauren’s wonderful and innovative Music, Sound and Electronics project.

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Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education'.

3 thoughts on “Improvisation Workshops in Primary Schools”

  1. Great article and project Zack, well done. We can all learn from this, that music should always be fun and not burdened by to many rules and regulations. Easy to say but not always easy to recapture the magic of youth. Sigh

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