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Playing with music

5 years ago

All musicians can benefit from learning how to improvise or ‘play with music’. Nigel Scaife shares some ways to explore this valuable skill in lessons. As children we make up tunes for pure enjoyment, without any adult encouragement, as it’s a natural musical behaviour. Think about the way pre-school children play with sound: it’s playful, joyous and creative! This is playing with music. But as children develop as instrumentalists or singers the focus can shift to technique and to understanding and reading notation, while playful exploration and creativity are sometimes pushed to one side.

Why improvise?

So why should improvisation be part of our teaching? The answer lies in the many benefits it brings for developing musicians. Playing with music gives learners an insight into how music works and broadens their musical imagination. It gives them a greater connection with their instrument, improves aural awareness, and increases their ability to be musically expressive.

Setting the scene

The right environment

If playing with music is new, where do we start? The first thing is to create the right learning environment. Students might find it difficult and frustrating to make relatively simple music, when this contrasts with the more sophisticated music they usually play. They will also have to take risks and try out new ideas using their technical, musical and creative skills. This opens them up to the possibility of criticism, of the music they make and, in their own minds, of themselves as well. You can help by making expectations clear and by making your students feel psychologically comfortable. Playing with music needs to be an enjoyable, achievable and fulfilling experience.

Building confidence

To improvise you need to be confident, and it is through developing your students’ confidence that you are most likely to help them improve. A big part of this is encouraging a relaxed attitude to risk-taking, where ‘mistakes’ are not viewed negatively, but as opportunities to find new musical ideas. As a teacher you can help by providing positive feedback. You can also ask students to reflect on the music they have made, with a focus on what they achieved and enjoyed about the experience.


Lots of structure, little freedom

Try starting with simple musical ideas, limited materials and a clear indication of what you expect. By beginning with a lot of structure and only a little freedom, students can experiment without feeling overwhelmed.

  • Start with a single pitch or the same note name at different octaves to make a short piece.
  • How can students go on to develop a musical structure?
  • How can they introduce variety?
  • You could explore different dynamics, accents and the use of silence.

When you limit the pitch in this way, students have to experiment with other musical elements. They will soon realise how much they can express with just a few notes.

Thinking in music

You can also use this one-note idea to introduce the habit of thinking music before playing it. When you improvise, the musical thought must come first, before the notes are played. And it is much easier to start practising this important skill with musical material which students can consciously control – just one or two pitches, at a steady tempo.

Next steps

Simple pieces

The next stage is to create simple pieces. Here are some suggestions for getting started.

  • Use a specific interval or two notes which you can play at any octave.
  • Perhaps choose a consonant interval such as a third or sixth, or experiment by contrasting that with a dissonant one, such as a second or seventh.
  • Explore how a single note can be framed by the notes either side of it.
  • Begin thinking about how to create different sections.
  • This can then become a little piece in a defined key, based on a simple pattern.

Other ideas

Playing with scales

Good melodies are generally easy to sing, using scale and arpeggio figures with a few leaps to add interest. Why not try exploring melodies based on scales to show your students that simple ideas are sometimes the best ones?

Repetition and variation

Playing with music is often most effective when we repeat a simple idea which is varied or extended in some way. Using a short motif, ask your students to explore the many ways it can be adapted or varied. Improvisation

Using harmony

Taking a short motif and playing it at different pitches, as a sequence, is another useful way to develop a musical idea. Transposition becomes important here and it is worth creating some games where students move a musical idea from the tonic to the dominant. Introducing a simple harmonic framework like this adds logic and unity to a piece of music. It’s also a practical way for students to develop their understanding of harmony.

Starting from notation

The pieces or songs that students are learning can provide a good starting point for playing with music.

  • How many different ways can they play or sing the tune?
  • What would happen if the pitches stayed the same, but there were different rhythms, or the other way round?
  • What if they changed the dynamics?
  • Can they play the opening of a piece and then carry on in a different way?
Using transitions

Sometimes we can become stuck with an idea and find it difficult to move on to something different. In these situations, a transition can provide the thinking time we need to find and introduce a new musical idea. One way of doing this is to create a short breathing space in the music. You could repeat a short rhythm on a single note or use a repeated motif to create a pause in the music’s flow.

Creative inspiration

There are limitless ways to help students develop their musical ideas.

  • Try using words or images to evoke a mood or emotion:
    • Animals – chickens pecking the ground or swans gliding across a lake.
    • Nature and the weather – a stormy night or a glowing sunset.
    • Sport – playing tennis or running round a race track.
    • Transport – flying in a glider or a helicopter taking off.
  • Ask students to choose an adjective from a list and combine it with a noun to create the title of a piece like The Naughty Cat or The Sad Clouds.
  • Take a short piece of film or a news story and ask students to make up some music to go with it.
  • Ask students to think of a well-known person, an actor or someone from history or a story, and make up a piece about them.

Feedback and reflection

When you give feedback, avoid criticism and show your appreciation instead. Listen carefully and then describe what happened in the music and the effect it produced. You can then encourage your students to review their own music by asking questions. Improvisation

  • What else could you have done?
  • What could you have done differently?
  • What mood did you create?

It’s also a good idea to talk, in a positive way, about any ‘unplanned’ moments in the music, as these can often provide valuable inspiration for further creativity.

Keeping a record

Finally, once your students become more confident in playing with music, you could record their pieces. It’s often hard to remember exactly what we’ve played when we improvise but with a recording, you and your students have another opportunity to reflect on, enjoy and celebrate the music they have created.

Top tips for playing with music

  • 1. Set realistic goals, provide plenty of encouragement and create a safe environment for taking risks.
  • 2. If students are worried about mistakes, reassure them that these unplanned moments are opportunities for discovery and development.
  • 3. Encourage students to think the music before they play it.
  • 4. Begin with limited musical material and encourage students to add interest through rhythm, dynamics, accents or silence.
  • 5. Introduce scalic motifs, repetition and variation, and simple harmonic structures.
  • 6. Use the pieces or songs students are learning as a starting point.
  • 7. Look for musical inspiration in words, images, real or imaginary people, films and stories.
  • 8. Give feedback which describes what a student played and which emphasises their achievements.
  • 9. Encourage students to reflect on their own music.
  • 10. When students feel more confident, make recordings of their improvisations which you can listen to together, talk about and celebrate!

This article was originally featured in the September 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Nigel Scaife is ABRSM’s Syllabus Director and an examiner. He trained as a pianist and has wide experience as a teacher

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