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Do You Want to Improvise? Lesson Plan

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Lesson Plan #: AELP-MUS0215
Submitted by: David Demnitz
Email: ddemnitz@workingfamilies.com
School/University/Affiliation: Greenburgh Eleven UFSD, Dobbs Ferry, NY
Date: October 7, 2003

Grade Level: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


  • Arts/Music

Duration: 45 minutes

Description: An opportunity for elementary instrumental music students to learn to improvise.

National Standards of Music Education published by the Music Educators National Conference (MENC) :

  • Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
  • Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
  • Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
  • New York State Standards for the Arts :
    Standard 1: Creating, Performing, and Participating in the Arts
    Students will actively engage in the processes that constitute creation and performance in the arts (dance, music, theatre, and visual arts) and participate in various roles in the arts. Students will compose original music and perform music written by others. They will understand and use the basic elements of music in their performances and compositions. Students will engage in individual and group musical and music-related tasks, and will describe the various roles and means of creating, performing, recording, and producing music. Objective: Students will learn to play and sing a song which includes information and materials to enable them to improvise melodies.


    • musical instruments (It’s best to use electronic keyboards for the improvisers, so tone production isn’t an issue and so they can find the notes they need to improvise.)
    • Musical Score
    • Musical Score in .pdf format; requires free Adobe Acrobat Reader.

      Click the icon to obtain the free Reader.


  • Improvise – In performing arts, to make something up as you go along.
  • Clave – A rhythm associated with Afro-Cuban musics.
  • Bass patter n – A repeated series of low notes played one at a time.
  • Chords – Combinations of three or more notes played at the same time.
  • Melody – A series of musical notes played one at a time.
  • Procedure:
    Discuss improvising with students. Define what it is in music, compare it to improvising, say, lemonade out of lemons, and play some examples of improvisation (Any style will do; I find it especially useful to use jazz recordings, since improvising is a big part of the presentation and my students may be familiar with the examples. Other accessible examples of improvising my students are familiar with are the Coro sections of Salsa compositions and the call and response sections of Gospel performances, when the lead singer improvises phrases, and the chorus responds with a repeated phrase.). Review clave. This melody and accompaniment is based on 3/2 son clave, so have the class clap 3/2 clave. (For more on clave, please see my lesson, Me Gusta Salsa. ) Tell students that in order to improvise, they have to know some simple rules. The ones I use are:

  • Play one note at a time and listen to what you play (When you see students ‘pretending’ to play, remind them to listen to what they’re playing. It’s easy to see and hear when they aren’t listening.).
  • Use the notes in the scale (in this case, the black notes) to improvise with.
  • Try to play simple ideas you’ll be able to play again.
  • Try to play patterns.
  • Ask the students to clap clave, and sing and play the song for them (please see attached musical score). Have them identify the bass pattern, the chords, and the melody. Tell them that the melody is based on a circle of four different black notes, and play the circle for them in clave (please see attached score). Ask students to sing the song with you as they clap clave. Play the circle as they sing, and point out that the melody is just the notes of the circle, with a few of them left out. Oh, and the last phrase is the bass pattern. (Do it, just do it.)

    Assign students to share keyboards. Everyone’s going to learn the accompaniment first, so you can have as many people on a keyboard as will fit. Have students locate the four notes they’ll need to play the circle. Then have everyone play the circle in whole notes (please see attached score). When they’re ready, play the circle in clave (please see attached score). Sing the song as they play the circle, then reiterate that the melody is just the circle with some subtractions, except for the last phrase. Ask them to sing the song with you as they play the circle.

    Show them how to play the melody. This shouldn’t be hard, since the melody and the circle are so closely related. Once they learn the last phrase, they know how to play the bass pattern, too.

    Show students how to play the chord accompaniment. Point out that there are only two chords, and only one note changes. Once students can find the notes, ask them to play the chords as whole notes, then as written (please see attached score).

    Assign students to play percussion, bass, and whatever else you want them to play. Crank up the band. Start with the bass, chords and percussion, then add the circle. When the circle’s solid, play and sing the melody. When the accompaniment feels good, ask for volunteers to improvise. Go over the rules again, and keep an eye out for students who are pretending and not listening. Show them that an improvisation can be simply playing the circle, and leaving some notes out, as the melody does. Play the song, and have students take turns improvising after the melody has been played. A nice touch is to use the circle as an interlude after each soloist. (When we play it in my classes, the soloist indicates he or she is finished by clapping clave over their head, and then we play the circle four times, to set up the next soloist. The interlude has to start in the right place harmonically though, so this might not be worth the trouble.)

    Rotate students through the instrumental roles so everyone gets a chance to play every part. Stop the band and rehearse the ending (everybody plays the Do it. Just do it together). Now play the song from beginning to end.

    Assessment: Teacher observation of students’ participation and involvement in singing and playing.

    Useful Internet Resources:
    * National Standards for Music Education – MENC

    * New York State Standards for the Arts