Improvisation and ESL

I am developing some new ideas with two of my classes at the moment, trying to devise some new ways to encourage students to improvise and create their own music.

There are a number of things that make this challenging in an ESL context, with the lack of a common spoken language underpinning everything:

  • The children do all their initial learning by copying what other children do, and what the teacher does. How do you reassure them that your demonstration is not for them to copy?
  • Many come from school cultures where there is a right and wrong answer for everything. They have the most confidence in their own ideas when there has been lots of contextual information given, to help them reach their conclusions. They are reluctant, most of them, to just jump in and have a go, and figure out what to do a little at a time. This kind of learning makes them feel very uncomfortable.
  • They also really like to do things that they think sound good, sound familiar, sound right! They like to play tunes they know. How do you move them away from this?
  • Their playing technique on the instruments can be very varied. We are working on tuned percussion at the moment. Some of them have trouble using the mallet so that the notes ring and resonate freely. They dampen the sound by pushing down with the stick rather than bouncing it away. Therefore, what they play sounds timid and unsure. As they listen to it, they lose confidence, because it doesn’t sound ‘right’. Adjusting technique is best done by demonstration, I find (ie. I play, they play, and I try to show them the different sounds that can be made, and say “yes!” very enthusiastically everytime they play a note that has more resonance – hoping that they will hear the difference and start to subtly adjust their technique), but this can be a bit hit-and-miss as the attention can stress them out, because they don’t understand what you are asking for.

My initial forays have been interesting. We have started by learning the word ‘IMPROVISATION’ (“a big long word…”) and that it means, “make up your own music”. (However, I suspect at least half the class are not quite sure what ‘make up’ means). I also emphasise the unique qualitities of each improvisation by naming it as their-music (ie. Harry-music, Jane-music, Moira-music, etc).

We have set up an accompaniment in D minor, and established the following guidelines:

  • Start your music on D.
  • The teacher will count ten beats out loud, while you play, accompanied all the time by the accompaniment.
  • After the number ten, you finish your improvisation. You finish on the note D.

I’d like to introduce them to ideas like sequences, or imitation, or rhythmic figures. There is of course discipline to improvisation, and there are drills you can practice, to build up fluency. Maybe next week, I’ll ask them to keep their solos limited to a repeated ‘ta, ti-ti’ figure. They can play any notes they like, but have to stick to this rhythm throughout.

Of course, as with any music class, there are the additional constant challenges that you have in keep the whole class engaged while trying to introduce something new:

  • People need to be able to hear themselves play, in order to develop their ideas and build confidence. What is everyone else doing while individuals play?
  • People are more likely to play carelessly when they play all together. This leads to more and more chaotic sounds, which then encourage further carelessness, and the whole effort disintegrates!
  • (I’m not sure why this is. I think the motivation to play with care all the time comes from an understanding of how each individual player is an important part of the whole. I think this is a tricky concept for ESL children to grasp, because they do not always expect to do new things well. Much of what they tackle at school seems impossible at first!)
  • I know, of course that there are some effective ways to teach or explain these ideas, to build better awareness among the students. But I have to balance this up with the knowledge that people tune out when the talking starts. It is best to talk as little as possible. Talk is very, very draining for ESL students. Therefore, explanations need to be chosen wisely. You can’t explain everything. You have to choose just the most essential thing.

Do they know they are composing? Do they feel pleased with themselves when they improvise? Do they have any idea what i am asking them to do, and what ‘success’ in this task should look or sound like? They can’t copy their neighbour. Do they understand why not, when they would usually copy in music?

It is quite a minefield of unknown things, laden with potential misunderstandings. I’ll keep posting my musings, but I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences in teaching/developing improvisation with primary students on classroom percussion (or other instruments) – ESL or otherwise. Please send comments!

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1 comment so far

  1. […] learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the […]


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