Music Teacher's Helper Blog

“Get It Going!” Improvisation Mini-Series Part 2

After last month’s article, are you still looking for:

  • A few ideas for a fresh new way to start off a lesson?
  • A few quick improv games to use in a group setting?
  • A reward activity for a student’s hard work on an assignment?
  • Starter ideas for the next composition:

In each part of this series, we are exploring a different angle in the music creativity process. So, today we are going to explore improvisation with an activity I call…

“Walking the Dog!”

Excuse Me? You may be wondering what exercising your pet has to do with improvisation techniques? I have found this to be one of the best and ways to help my students to understand and practice development of motifs and phrases. Most people can relate to having a new pet with fond recollection, and so you’ll immediately have their eager attention to try this exercise when you greet them with “Today we’re walking the dog!”

The Motif: A Mini Melody

I first ask the student to play a mini, or baby melody, 3 or 4 notes (recommend mostly steps and maybe one larger interval). They can be played in any order and rhythm. Once he has done this, I ask him to repeat it a few times (so that it works its way into the memory). You may have them name their motif, preferable a dog’s name! (I know this sounds like I’m talking to a little kid, but older students…even adults, seem to relate fine!)

Learn Some New Tricks!

Next, we will explore different ways to manipulate the motif (turn it upside-down, play it backwards, repeat on different registers of the instrument, try it in different keys for more advanced players, now try to sequence several motifs together, moving up or down on the scale.) Here the younger students (and many of the older ones) will enjoy thinking of this process as teaching your puppy some new tricks. This may be a good place to stop, sending them home to “practice with the new puppy”.

Ready to Explore?

By now, hopefully, manipulating the motif has become fun and more easily done. It’s time to take the puppy out and introduce him to the outdoors. Use the motif as a starting point, taking off from there into a longer musical expression. I have the student imagine taking the new puppy for short walk around your yard. You may choose to give them an example, playing a musical idea roughly 4 measures in length. Once the student has accomplished the “walk around the yard” ask him to play the phrase again, matching it as closely as possible to the first time. Explain that the puppy needs to get familiar with his own yard, so we’ll do a couple of walks around the yard.

Now let’s take the puppy exploring to the neighbors! Here I find it’s important to not strictly time the phrase, as this time you will encourage the student to start on a musical journey that will take off from the original phrase, and go someplace further away…someplace new, exciting and different! (The phrase will probably get longer and that’s OK!) For building a nice first section to a piece, we would now go back again and do a trip around the puppy’s yard, to give a nicely rounded A B A form.

Now Keep it Going!

For the sake of learning to further develop an idea, and extending or “spinning out” a melody, instead of going back again to the original phrase, now ask the student to take the puppy down the block, and then around the block, and now to the next neighborhood over, around town, etc.

Go give it a try! Always offer positive comments when teaching improvisation! Encourage the student to play through and not stop to fix things, as there are no wrong answers possible! Build on the things that are done well, and encourage growth where it is most needed!

PLEASE RESPOND with your results and ideas, so that in the next few months we will have a nice collection to draw from and get some creativity going in our music studios. I can’t wait to hear your ideas!! Check in again soon for my next one!

Thanks for checking in, and have a GREAT day!

For more ideas and tools for teaching music creativity, check out my teaching materials at!

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1 Comment

  1. Aron B.

    Nice posting. While I am not a music teacher, I was looking for ways to develop several of the musical motifs that I am currently working on. And your posting does that in a way I had never considered. So, many thanks and I will have to check out some of your past postings as well.



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