How to Create a Safe Place for Improvising and Composing

Here are some simple actions you can take or phrases you can say or think to foster a safe place to explore and experiment with music in your general music classroom, band, orchestra, or choir classes:

Things to Do

  • If a learner has a song to play that they created and are enthusiastic about showing the class, find time during the class for them to showcase this—no matter how it sounds.
  • Assign them homework for their new scale that they also have to make up a song in that key, however short.
  • Encourage them to jam together at recess or break.
  • Set aside time in every class to let them create, even if it’s only five minutes.
  • Change your mindset to “there are no wrong notes when improvising.” This is important because if a learner wants to play a solo and doesn’t play every note in key, and are punished somehow for that, they will likely never try it again or be less willing to. You wouldn’t punish a toddler who is learning to speak for saying a wrong word or pronouncing something wrong—they would never speak again.
If a learner has a song to play that they created and are enthusiastic about showing the class, find time during the class for them to showcase this—no matter how it sounds.
Assign them homework for their new scale that they also have to make up a song in that key, however short.
Encourage them to jam together at recess.
Set aside time in every class to let them create, even if it’s only five minutes.
Change your mindset to “there are no wrong notes when improvising.” This is important because if a learner wants to play a solo and doesn’t play every note in key, and are punished somehow for that, they will likely never try it again or be less willing to. You wouldn’t punish a toddler who is learning to speak for saying a wrong word or pronouncing something wrong—they would never speak again.
How to Create a Safe Place for Improvising and Composing

Things to Say

  • A “mistake” is just a new opportunity, or from the mouth of TV artist, Bob Ross, mistakes are “happy accidents,” because if you have ever watched his show, he just turns his mistakes into something new.
  • If a learner says, “so-and-so stole my idea,” just reply, “It must have been a good idea!” Think about this: It may not be possible to have an original idea. Consider that when you are remodelling a kitchen or any room in the house. There are trends that people follow every time. Yes, there are definitely individual styles and tastes that influence a particular design but what was in fashion 50 years ago is not now, and you wouldn’t be caught dead choosing large floral-print wallpaper in 2020 but 50 years previous it would have been odd if you didn’t. Just like today, they are all variations on the same theme. When my wife and I remodelled our kitchen, we thought that we were the only ones who were original enough to choose dark countertops with cloud white cabinets and light blue walls. It turns out our contractor did a home with the exact same colour scheme the week after he did ours. What I mean to say is that every idea a person has comes from somewhere, whether it is an idea that was heard somewhere or subconsciously remembered, it is still a variation on a theme.

Things to Think

  • Compositions do not have to be written down to be a composition, and if they are, they certainly do not have to be written down in European staff notation. See this blog post for types of standard notational systems just within North America.
  • A composition does not have to be a symphony or even a full pop song to be considered a composition. It could be an idea that is then put into a larger piece of music.
  • Improvising is not necessarily jazz. I mean, it can be jazz, but improvisation once encompassed all genres and styles but was lost along with the development of the conservatory model of education, at least with classical.
  • You are always one semitone away from the “right” note.[i]
  • Notes are overrated.[ii]

[i] Wooten, Victor L. The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. Toronto: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2006.

[ii] Ibid

Adapted from Creative Musicking: Practical, Real-Life Ideas to Get Your Learners Creating Their Own Music (2020)

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