What did the researchers want to know?
To what extent and how is improvisation being taught in elementary general music, and how do teachers perceive the quality of students’ improvisations?
What did the researchers do?
Gruenhagen and Whitcomb surveyed 145 elementary general music teachers in the U.S. (who were members of the National Association for Music Education). Participants completed an online questionnaire in which they answered items related to their training in improvisation, the amount of instructional time devoted to improvisation, and the kinds of improvisation activities they include in their classroom.
When asked to approximate the percentage of instructional time spent on improvisation, most respondents (58%) indicated that improvisation accounted for 0% to 10% of their instructional time, while only 16% indicated that improvisation accounted for more than. 20% of their instructional time.
When prompted to indicate which types of improvisational activities they include, call-and-response/question-and-answer singing was the most common (97%), followed by improvising on unhitched percussion instruments (96%), and improvising on pitched percussion instruments (94%). The table below provides more examples of improvisation activities, along with the number/percentage of teachers who stated using each.
When asked to describe specific types of improvisation activities, teachers described a plethora of ideas. Gruenhagen and Whitcomb’s summary of the most common improvisational activities reported by grade level can be found here, and additional ideas can be found in the full article.
Finally, participants were asked to reflect on their students’ achievement with improvisation, and Gruenhagen and Whitcomb’s analysis identified three broad themes:
- Process, Practice, and Experience: Many participants felt that the improvisational process was more important than the product and believed that judgments of student improvisation should vary depending on the student’s developmental skill level. In addition, the student improvisations were affected positively by “allowing numerous opportunities for students to explore and internalize fundamental skills, such as phrase length and steady beat,” prior to improvisation (p. 389).
- Sequencing, Scaffolding, and Modeling: Many teachers believed appropriate sequencing was important in preparing students to improvise and that providing structure, parameters, and a step-by-step process gives students the support necessary to be successful with improvising.
- Collaboration, Reflection, and Creation: Improvisation activities were described by many as a collaborative and reflective process, and the more opportunities students are given to create and improvise, the more complex and creative their improvisations become.
What does this mean for my classroom?
There are many ways in which elementary students can engage in improvisation, and the more opportunities students are given to improvise, the better improvisers they will become! Clear and thoughtful planning in regards to sequencing, structure, parameters, and process for improvisational activities can help students experience more success with improvising.
A previous study by Guilbault (2009) found that experiencing bassline/chord root accompaniments can help students become better vocal improvisers. To read a summary of this study and see examples, view this post.
A previous study by Azzara (1993) found that experiencing improvisation also helps students become better at reading music notation. To read a summary of this study, view this post.
For more tips on teaching vocal improvisation and composition in elementary general music, see the following book chapter: Shouldice, H. N. (2018). Audiation-based improvisation and composition in elementary general music. In S. Burton & A. Reynolds (Eds.), Engaging musical practices: A sourcebook for elementary general music (pp. 113-134). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.