My studio has been decorated with a beautiful collection of paper snowflakes with wintery musical accompaniments! Each unique paper sculpture was lovingly created by one of my students. The collection started with one lonely snowflake, and gradually grew into a populous cluster that dangles from the ceiling, over the end of the grand piano.
What a rewarding activity this turned out to be…the students were immediately drawn in upon entering the studio and seeing the snowflakes created by the others. Within minutes they were cutting out their own unique snowflakes, and shortly thereafter, recreating their snowflakes in sound. This is fun and easy to do, even if you have had very little experience in teaching improvisation!
As my students arrived for their lessons, they were intrigued by the added decorations hanging from the studio’s corner. I handed them a scissors and white, square sheet of paper, and said, “We’re making snowflakes today!” Most of the older ones had cut snowflakes out of paper before, and needed no direction to get started. For some of the younger students, the paper was folded into quarters, once in half from corner to corner, and then in half again. Some opted to give it one more fold, into a wedge shape. Cutting out the folded point must be avoided. We had some exceptions to that guideline, so we just taped the pieces together and ended up with some wonderful 3D snowflakes!
As the students began cutting out little wedges and half circles, half heart shapes or diamonds from the folded sides of the paper, we pondered on the fact that every snowflake created from the beginning of time is unique in its own way-no two the same! WOW…can you get your brain around that one?! As each student continued to cut, I asked him to think about the characteristics of his snowflake. I suggested that he think of three or four words to describe his creation. “How does it look? How does it feel? If it makes noise, what kind of sound would it make, etc.?” When the snowflake was completed, it was hung from the ceiling, using a piece of blue or white curling ribbon. (Don’t fall off the chair you are standing on while doing this like I did!)
Notice, the students were not told that there would be an improvisation involved, until their snowflake was finished. This kept them focused on enjoying that particular part of the experience, without having to think about how they would later do their improvisation. And now, on to the really fun part…
This is improvisation, so however the student ends up doing it, make sure you are encouraging. Say something like, “Now you get to express your snowflake with music!” Let them know, whatever they end up playing is the absolute perfect thing! I asked the student to turn to the piano, press down the damper pedal, and put each hand over a group of black keys (or white keys, or a particular scale…of course, adapt for other instruments!) You may also ask him to close his eyes, or to keep them on his dangling snowflake while he just lets his fingers start to wander on the keys, thinking about his descriptive words as he turns the snowflake into a musical expression. Now, if time allows, he can pick one of the other students’ snowflakes, describe it, and put it to music. At the next lessons, you may introduce musical form, choosing two contrasting snowflakes. Calling them “A” and “B”, have the student improvise two contrasting sections. Then ask him return back to “A” to finish his improvisation off. Now he’s on his way to improvising with musical form. Use your judgment with each student, keeping things simple enough so that there is a sense of accomplishment with each improvisation.
This turned out to be such a refreshing way to start our December lessons. It provided an opportunity to slow down, and to start the lessons on a positive “note”, rather than the sometimes regretful, “Things are so crazy this time of year, I wasn’t able to get much done” or “My mom drove off with my books.” Even my voice students, with little or no piano background, enjoyed improvising snowflakes on the black keys. It was easier for them to try it on the piano first, and then to put it into singing!
I’m looking forward to adapting this activity to other seasons (hearts for Valentine’s Day, flowers, autumn leaves, etc. ) I like the snowflakes especially because of the textural interest that they create. You could also use precut pictures from a coloring book with crayons, or have the student do a drawing, or cut something from a magazine. Instead of hanging the artwork from the ceiling, you could put it into a studio improvisation scrapbook, or have each student make his own scrapbook, adding improvisation materials weekly or monthly.
Please try this, and share how your students enjoy this activity. Do you have similar ideas you’d like to add? Next year, I plan to record the students while they create their snowflake improvisations, so that I can give each student a CD including all of the pieces, entitled maybe, “Snowflakes in the Aire!”
Happy improvising! 🙂