Improvisation and ESL

I’ve 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 and responsively, rather than waiting to be told or shown exactly what to do. The challenge is that for new arrivals with only a beginning grasp of English, and only minimal confidence in their understanding of all that goes on in Australian classrooms, being shown what to do is the principal way that they set about learning, and making sense of their new environment. New arrivals are often careful and cautious about doing things that they haven’t seen someone else already doing. No-one likes to get things wrong, and it is difficult to explain in words that the whole point of improvising is to develop new ideas each time, and to try new things out every time you play.

Last week at the Language School we were developing melodic ideas for a riff we had invented. Every child had a glockenspiel to play. I wanted them to stick to a particular rhythm (which they had developed from words relating to their Integrated Studies topic for the term – food) but to play quite freely with the notes.

I set up a guitar accompaniment of C – Am – F – F – G (our starting riff is in 5/4), and initially asked them to play the rhythm on the note C, but to finish the riff on G. In other words, all the beats would be on C, apart from the last note, which would be G.

We started by playing all together. Several students gave a kind of start of surprise when they heard our good their C-G riffs sounded with the guitar accompaniment. They were inspired, and those that understood the task played with confidence, so that those with less English who needed a guide had someone to copy.

Next, I told them that they now could play whatever notes they chose, so long as they kept to the same rhythm, and that their first not was always C and their last note was always G. In this way, I knew that their ideas would continue to work well with the guitar accompaniment. And, I reminded them, anyone who would prefer to keep playing the C-G riff we have just been playing, can choose to do that any time they want.

Again we played all together. Now the students had choices to make. They could invent their own, or they could stick to the simple riff we had all learned. I find that in the ESL music context, too much choice can be overwhelming for some students, so I always ensure they know they can continue to play the music they already know, so that they feel safe and able to participate. Other students however, will thrive on the new possibilities that the choice offers them.

Our last stage in this improvisation task was to hear what each person was doing, one by one. We established a pattern where we would begin by playing all together, four times through the chord progression. Then, four people would play their improvisation or riff, one by one. Then we would play four repetitions together again, then hear the next four soloists, and continue on in this way until all in the group have played a solo. As expected, some chose to play the taught riff on C and G for their solo. Others improvised. All kept to the rule of starting on C and finishing on G, which meant that they all understood that instruction, or worked it out aurally by hearing what other people were doing.

Next week, we’ll do this task again. I plan to suggest they can now vary their start note between C, E or G, and we may then vary the pitches options for the final note too. Ultimately, I hope that we will generate 1-4 different melodies through this process. However, ‘one step at a time is a good rule for ESL students’ – they appreciate having time to consolidate and demonstrate what they know, rather than constantly having a new challenge to surmount.



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