Over the past 2 years, I’ve been introducing more and more creativity and improvisation exercises into my lessons. This blog post will explain why I’ve done so, what that looks like in the music lesson, and how you can get the most out of it by adding it to your at-home practice.
I hold this truth to be self-evident: Creativity play benefits children’s musical development (and the same goes for adults).
Most music lessons simply have children replicating the music of past generations. Adding creativity games and exercises to your child’s music lesson and practice sessions encourages your child to engage more deeply in music by creating music of their own.
At a bare minimum, creativity games and exercises will increase your child’s musical memory, develop their aural recognition skills, and improve their musicality. This will allow them to learn their standard-repertoire pieces faster and remember them more thoroughly. Additionally, your child will develop a stronger sense of agency and connection with their instrument. Finally, for some students, creativity may change music lessons and practice from a bore to a creative outlet for them to express themselves.
I first started to incorporate creativity and improvisation games into my lessons at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was looking for some way to make my group classes as engaging as they were in-person despite moving to a virtual format.
I had limited success with this, until taking Alice Kanack’s teaching training in her Creative Ability Development. This accelerated the inclusion of creativity exercises in my lessons, as I was better equiped for success. Her training helped me categorize the 1,100+ improvisation games of Jeffery Agrell and others into developmentally-appropriate levels. I’m now able to quickly identify what games and activities are successful and understand why. This has been a huge help in increasing student engagement.
What can I expect in Lessons?
My students spend the first few minutes of each lesson in a creativity exercise. For younger, inexperienced, and hesitant students, I start with miniature games with a minimal element of choice. Here are 3 of my favorite examples:
- Echo: Student claps or plays a short rhythm or melody; teacher plays it back. This develops aural skills. Additionally, even the most hesitant students have no inhibition when challenging a teacher or parent (I typically model this for students first).
- Donut Do: Student alternates playing “do” note and any other note in the scale while teacher plays a drone note or chord. This develops awareness of consonance and dissonance in music.
- Simon: Teacher and student take turns adding one note to a melody, making it as long as possible. This develops student’s musical memory and allows the teacher to subtly guide the shape of the melody.
- Scale Games: Any number of games where the teacher changes how a child will play the scale in real-time. For example, the teacher can point up and down to tell a student which note to play next.
As your child’s creative comfort zone grows, the games will naturally expand, giving your child more and more choices. Eventually, they will work with accompaniment, developing an awareness of form, and just about anything else you can imagine.
I try to include the parent as much as possible for many reasons. Primarily, creating music with parents is incredibly meaningful for kids. You can see it in their faces when I ask them to play a game with their parents. Additionally, adding more improvisers decreases the attention on any individual player. This allows a more significant “comfort zone” for hesitant creators.
Incidentally, any improvisation games are an excellent warm-up for students before moving on to playing their standard repertoire.
What will it sound like?
Music is a language and is learned like a language; in fits and starts. This can be best seen when students are first introduced to accompaniment tracks; some engage conservatively and sporadically while others babble incessantly. Both approaches, with proper guidance, will develop into extraordinary self-expression. However, you must allow your child the freedom to engage on their terms during this developmental time. More on that below.
Principles for Creativity and Improvisation:
Just like the rest of music lessons and practice sessions, creating rules helps elicit the best response from your child. Here are some guidelines:
Rules from Alice Kanack’s Creative Ability Development:
- There is no such thing as a mistake.
- Anything that sounds “wrong” is simply your child searching for what sounds “right”. Let your child discover “right” on their own. Avoid interfering in this process critiques or targeted praise.
- In group improvisation with experienced improvisers, “mistakes” are often a creative opportunity. Avoid creating shame around “mistakes,” as they can actually be opportunities.
- This applies to technique as well. If they are holding their instrument incorrectly, wait until working on repertoire to correct them (improvisation in groups often helps fix technical issues automatically).
- Listen and Appreciate
- Respect your child and other improvisers by quietly listening to their creations. Listening has the benefit of providing new ideas; the closer your child listens, the more ideas they can gather for their own creations.
- Express your appreciation for their contributions with your attention, thankful words, applause, or other means.
- Never Criticize a friend
- If there isn’t a mistake, there cannot be criticism. See Rule 1. With the support of friends and without criticism, untold explorations of musical magic can manifest.
What is the Goal?
Small Scale: Creativity has no goal, just do it for fun!
Medium Scale: To have students performing 100% improvised ensemble pieces at recitals and community events. Also, to give students the skills to compose music (composition = written down and edited improvisations).
Large Scale: To give your child the ability to use creative, out-of-the-box thinking to solve the most complex problems they will face. To be able to do this in a team setting. To improve real-time communication skills.
How can my child practice at home?
Incorporate as many of the in-class games as possible into your home practice session. For example, every parent can echo a clapping pattern that their child creates (or, at least, give it their best shot).
When your child is ready to start improvising with an accompaniment track, have them do so at every practice session. Practicing with the recommended tracks provides a different improvisatory education than the in-class games. In class, everything is new and spontaneously created with the other improvisers. Practicing with an accompaniment track for 1-2 weeks will allow your child to adjust and edit their improvisations as their comfort with the accompaniment tracks increases. This complements the in-class games perfectly and will rapidly accelerate the development of their improvisation skills.
Is there anything else?
This summer, I’m running an improvisation-based summer camp. If you’re interested, check out the webpage and register now! Space is currently limited to 20 campers.