Improvising, composing and jamming

It’s end of term, so time for a bit of a wrap-up of where this term’s projects got to at the Language School.

I started the term with an interest in developing some improvisation skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students, and developing music on Identity, that would respond in part to music the students would teach to the class from their own countries and cultures.

Lower Primary on the other hand were so crazy and unsettled that the focus was to get them to be able to play together, to follow some simple conducting signals so that they might experience the pleasure of playing in an ensemble. I’ll write about them in a separate post.


This proved tricky to introduce in some ways, and some of this was to do with language, some of it was cultural, and some of it was to do with the way that student learning develops in Language School (ie. the systems that support the students to learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we were doing began to settle, musically.

In the end, what improvisation do we have? In the Upper Primary piece, we have a drum part (played by seven drummers, so pretty loud! They are sh0wing considerable restraint, I have to say) which came from the young Sudanese girl at the start of November. I am guessing that this was a rhythm she knew from somewhere else. She has left the school now, by the way.

We have 3 xylophone parts, and here the origins of the parts are more varied. One part came from me – I taught it, and the student plays it exactly the way I showed her, and she seems to love it. Her friend, playing next to her, is envious, and has tried through various sneaky means to swap parts (to no avail). The friend, May, has an improvised part to play. I originally asked her to invent her own melodies, always ending on either C or G. The first week, she did this well. She was reluctant, but with a lot of encouragement, she gave it a go, and executed the task well. The following week however, she mutineed. She wouldn’t say a word (not in English, not in Chinese), and I wondered if perhaps she needed to withdraw from the piece altogether, so pained she seemed. This week, I spontaneously came up with a new strategy.

“May,” I said, “I think that today we should choose music for you to play, that you can remember. We will all help you make this. I think that will be easier for you than always making something up.”

May looked a little unconvinced at first (something of her usual facial expression in music, it has to be said), but a couple of other students surprised me by saying, “Yes, it is easier, I think. It is better.” So May agreed.

I asked her to play me (improvise – though I didn’t use that word) one of her melodies. “Start on G,” I suggested. She played a string of notes, I asked if she liked them, I sang them back to her, she thought they sounded okay, and I wrote them down on the blackboard. We did the same with a second melody. Of course, she referred back to ideas she had already worked with in the previous weeks when she was improvising. And her third melody was her most ambitious, with jumps and triads and a definite ‘hook’.It seemed like she was gaining confidence in the process, and her own contributions.

While we did this, the whole class listened, and offered opinions. Other students with tuned percussion also tried playing these new melodic lines. So, in this way improvisation was a tool that we used, towards locking in a ‘composed’ or fixed series of melodic lines.

However, whenever May made a mistake (which she did several times) she of course used her improvisation skills to make sure she still finished on the ‘right’ note at the ‘right’ time. I kept this information to myself of course, as my own gleeful secret.

I decided to change my tactic with her because I could see that May really didn’t like the uncertainty of improvisation. She wasn’t comfortable with it. She wanted a tune to play, that she could master, and get ‘right’. She wanted to know what she was doing. I think she felt uncomfortable, even silly, making up something different each time, and because of this discomfort she put in less and less effort. She wouldn’t even keep track of where her entry points were, in relation to the other parts. However, once she had definite lines to play, these entry points ceased to be a problem.

My third xylophone player has two parts to play. In the first part of the piece he plays a riff that I taught them all at the start of the term, which is an accompaniment for the song Yi-Lull (Joe Geia) that we sing as part of our performance.

His second part is one he made up himself. This student has a lot of trouble keeping still for any length of time. He particularly struggles when players of other instruments need to be in the spotlight for some time. On one occasion he couldn’t help but join in with them, and the notes that he played, worked. They worked so well that we all said so, immediately, and told him to keep going. Now that riff that he made up is part of our piece.

Again, this was improvisation that later settled into a set riff.

Lastly, there is an element of improvisation throughout this whole piece. The structure is quite loose. I think I have it in my head (the students and I only put it together today – the concert is tomorrow), but more importantly, I know that they know this music! And they will go with me. We can change it on the spot if we want to. All that grounding work we have been doing in how we listen to each other, how we look, take cues, lead and follow is now paying dividends. Given that there are still significant language barriers between me and the students, that is a lot of communication to have developed together.


Middle Primary have been singing with great gusto a song called The Earth is our Mother. It has a bit of an environmental theme:

The earth is our mother, we must take care of her (2x)

Hey yanna, hoy yanna, hey yan yan. Hey yanna, hoy yanna, hey yan yan.

Her precious land we walk upon, with every step we take (2x)

Hey yanna, hoy yanna, hey yan yan. Hey yanna, hoy yanna, hey yan yan.

They love this song! They love it. They made up a dance to it within minutes of learning it. They think it is the coolest song they know (although this may have been recently usurped by Ging Gang Gooly Gooly… they told me today that they want to sing Ging Gang Gooly at tomorrow’s concert! It has been taught to them by Someone Else…) Originally I had planned to teach them The Earth song just as something fun to sing while we got on with the serious music work of learning songs from their different cultures – but how could I ignore this kind of enthusiasm? In the end, for different reasons, I shelved the Cultural Songs idea, and went with this song and some instrumental music composition.

We used my well-worn, but well-proven tactic of Invent word phrases, say these in rhythm, then invent melodies from those rhythms. It is just such a reliable way to get kids inventing their own melodic material! They will all come up with something. If you’ve never tried it in your classroom – try it. It will become one of your most reliable strategies for composing, I promise.

For this task, we brainstormed sentences about The Things Children Can Do to Help The Environment. Here is our list of four sentences:

  • Clean the sea, clean the land
  • Don’t throw rubbish – put it in the bin.
  • Plastic bags in the sea can kill the animals.
  • Walk or ride to school – don’t drive.

(Think about the kind of culture shock these children are experiencing, trying to make sense of this new world where everything is unpredictable and confusing. These sentences (and there were many others – these were our favourites) show that despite the madness and chaos of their current lives, they are still connected with the wider world around them, and their place in it.)

Our song about The Earth is in D minor, so I asked them to invent melodies in D minor. Not that I called it ‘D minor’. Instead, I gave each group a specific starting note, and a specific finishing note (and made sure that these were related to D minor!). Each group had one sentence to make a melody for.

Then, we combined the melodies. And it sounds lovely.

Last week, I wrote a list of the various things we had worked on in music that term, related to this project (the song, the dance, the instruments, the Stick-Passing game that we often accompany with singing…). I asked them to think about the way we wanted our music to ‘travel’ (as in, start soft, get bigger, start big, get soft, etc). There was strong agreement that we should start with the singing, and have it followed by the instrumental music, but they also wanted to show the Stick-Passing game to their parents at the concert. So today I proposed this structure:

Song while stick-passing; then

Instrumental music; then

Song with dance.

We drew a map on the board of the best way to organise the stage so that we wouldn’t stomp on our instruments while doing the dance, or trip over our sticks while getting to the instruments.

The students were part of all of these planning processes. That’s nice because it includes them, but it is also an important learning tactic for ESL students, as it gets them engaged with the information. They start to visualise themselves in the ‘performance’ space, and figure out where they will be in relation to others. This is not something that ESL students tend to do automatically – if they are not engaged with it, and given time to imagine it, they will just wait to be told. I have learned this the hard way!


In my November 12 post (linked above) I wrote about Upper Primary’s first jamming efforts, and the discussions we had about how to play together. We’ve kept working on a lot of those principles.

Nice moments of spontaneous, ensemble music-making have therefore happened in a lot of the lessons. Today for example, when I was trying to get the three xylophone players to play together a little more intuitively, the drummers little by little got restless. However, their restlessness translated into them all ever-so-quietly starting up a new drum riff, somewhat related to the pulse I was playing, but far more interesting. And they were together. And it helped the xylophone players. It felt like we had just discovered a whole new section for our class piece!

I think that to feel comfortable jamming, and improvising, some technique is very important to get you started. After that, if becomes more about how you listen, and integrate your part with those of the other players, that becomes important.

“Music isn’t a race,” I say to the Upper Primary students, when they start to speed up, or play louder than each other (and consequently speed up). “You don’t have to get there before the others. Instead, we are trying to arrive at the same time!” I think they play loud/speed up in order to hear themselves better. I’ve been trying to help them reach the next stage, where they hear the voice of their instrument as one of the ensemble, not the most important one.

3 comments so far

  1. argentina tours on

    It is very good idea to start this term to improve skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students. thanks for your time for sharing this information.

  2. […] (When I say she ‘often struggles’, it is in a way that is common to lots of the refugee students who arrive in Australia with almost no prior schooling, or severely interrupted prior schooling experiences. Some things just seem harder for them to process. Concepts of literacy, for example, need to be learned from scratch. Recognition of letters comes slowly, with a lot of concentration and focus. This girl is working hard, and she has reached a point where she is now aware that she struggles with some things that her peers learn far more easily, and this can make her very self-conscious according to her class teacher. Performing notes on a xylophone in a particular order is an example of an area where she compares herself unfavourably to others in the class. Tuned percussion instruments with removable bars help enormously in these circumstances as you can re-position the bars to make it easier for students to find the notes they need, so that they have the experience of playing the music along with the rest of the ensemble. For more thoughts on getting ESL students to develop their own melodic material, see this earlier post). […]

  3. […] written in the past about improvisation and newly-arrived ESL [English as a Second Language] students. I’m always looking for ways to encourage them to play freely, exploratively, spontaneously […]

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