Music Teacher's Helper Blog

“Get It Going!” Improvisation Mini-Series Part 3

Jump Start Your Creativity!

…with Mozart or Beethoven! At one time, using another artists idea to build a masterpiece was considered an homage, a great honor! (These days it’s called plagiarism!) So, we won’t need to take it straight off the page, but gleaning another artist’s great idea and using it as a springboard into improvisation or original composition, is something quite worthwhile.

I would like to share just a few improv/composition exercises that use previously written music as a starting place. Since I have discussed in my earlier articles more specifics on motifs, development and form, please refer back to Parts 1 and 2 of “Get It Going” if you haven’t previously had a chance to read them!

Theme & Variations

This is probably the most obvious place to start. I’d suggest to start by listening to some examples. Here are a few suggestions:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” (K. 265 / K. 300e)

Ludwig van Beethoven, 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120

Max Reger, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, Op.132

Make a simple lead line chart of a familiar tune (I like to use Twinkle, Jingle Bells and Jesus Loves Me, to name a few).

  • Write (or have the student) write out the melody line. You may choose to use just the starting note for the melody, and then only the lyrics.
  • Using the most basic chord choices (I, IV and V in the given key), play the melody, and let the student figure out which chord sounds best on each downbeat. It generally works well to start out with a chord on beat one of each measure, then fill in any extras that are needed. Write the chord names or symbols above the words with which each is played. (Folk Songs Fake Book by Karen Ziegler, Piacere Music Press, has many wonderful lead line arrangements in easy-to-play keys.)
  • Play the melody while the student explores different accompaniment patterns (left and right hand possibilities!) Next, have him play the melody and vary the rhythm, key, articulations, etc. Now send him home to come up with one, two, maybe even three different variations!


  • Choose an existing composition (pick something easier than the students’ current playing level).
  • Using self adhesive strips, like Post Its, cover up random sections of the music. It might be every other measure that is hidden, every other line, or just the right or left hand notes indescriminately.
  • The performer starts by playing the music, as written, and fills the blank measures or sections in with improvised notes.

“Jump Start” Compositions

One of the first creativity tools I developed came from the idea of a jump start from a preexisting piece of music. The idea evolved from a music teachers group in Colorado for whom I presented on the topic of Teaching Composition. Prior to the meeting, each member received a copy of an existing composition (don’t worry…it was one of my own! I take the copyright law very seriously). The catch was, they got only the first eight measures of music. The rest of the page was blank staves, with a challenge for them to finish it!

The day of the meeting arrived. To their own surprise, half a dozen of those teachers, most of whom claimed not to have composed at all prior to that, had completed or nearly completed compositions! They attributed their success to having something to start with.  What fun it was to hear that eight measure theme take off in such different directions! How uniquely wonderful each was.

Try it!

  • Choose a four to eight measure exerpt from an existing composition .
  • Have the performer choose one or two musical elements from the exerpt to use as building blocks for the improv or composition (i.e. motif, altered motif, rhythm, accompaniment pattern or bass line).
  • Extend and develop the elements from the previous step as the improv unwinds to add interest and direction. (see “Walk the Dog” in last month’s article for more help with this!)
  • As the performer becomes more at ease with his improvising, have him strive for balanced amounts of repetition and variation, and musical form.
  • To avoid plagiarism in case the composition is later performed or published, simply alter the “starter” segment to make it the performers own.

My book, Jump Starts for Composition, Piacere Music Press includes 16 composition “starters” for this very use.

Tips for Successful Improvising

  • Always start small and build s-l-o-w-l-y to keep the process of creativity rewarding! Frustration often comes from starting too big, too soon. Some of the most beautiful moments in music are profoundly simple.
  • Take a minute before starting to close the eyes and imagine the mood, shape, character, etc. of the impending improvisation.
  • Pick a SLOW tempo-or one that can be maintained, keeping the flow of the music steady throughout.
  • Always keep the music going! New improvisers will often stop playing when they’re not sure they like the sounds that are being created. Remember, there are no wrong notes here…use the questionable tones as stepping stones on the way to some better ones!

Thanks for Reading!

P.S.  In case you’d like my comp/improv blog articles in hard copy…I’ve published them in a 23 page book form: Music Creativity in Bloom ~ Dozens of Inspiring Ideas to help you teach Composition and Improvisation. You may find this and more music creativity teaching tools at

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