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The Orchestra Swings with Improvisation

Aim: How do musicians use solo improvisation to swing?
Summary: Students learn to improvise solos on “Duke’s Place.”
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, 11; NYC 1, 2, 3
Vocabulary: improvisation, solo

Discovering Improvisation

When musicians improvise, they make decisions and create musical ideas on the spur of the moment. Through improvisation, or “improv,” musicians demonstrate their musical skills and express their feelings and personalities. When musicians improvise, they make up music that is not written out on the page, playing around with the melody and rhythm and using other musical tools to create music that sounds new and surprising. Their improvised solos follow the form and harmonic changes of the piece, and are supported by the members of the rhythm section, as well as the other musicians in the band. Communication, cooperation, and listening are key components of successful improvisation.
  • Discuss the concept of improvisation with the students.
    • What does the word “improvisation” mean to you?
    • What are some examples of how you improvise in your daily life?
    • Does anybody know what the term “improvisation” means in music?
  • Experiment with a very simple improvisation rhythmically, vocally (with or without words), and/or with a classroom instrument. Have the group stomp and clap to maintain a rhythm while individual students improvise one measure at a time.

Improvising on “Duke’s Place”

  • Review the melody and lyrics of “Duke’s Place” in the interactive SoundSlice sheet music below.
  • Demonstrate improvised phrases for the students on the recorder, using just the notes G and C.
  • Have the students play the first four measures of the melody, then improvise yourself for the next four measures, trading back and forth. Switch roles, playing the melody yourself and having the students improvise as a group.
  • Invite individual students to take turns soloing, alternating between the melody and improvisation. Play the track “Duke’s Place” (play-along) as the students perform.
  • Expand the note range as appropriate for the students. Listen to the track “Duke’s Place” (improvisation examples) for some inspiration. This exercise can also be done vocally or on classroom instruments.

Go Deeper

Divide students into three groups. One group is the rhythm section, one group plays the melody, and one group improvises.

Listening and Identifying Melody and Improvisation

  • Play the track “Duke’s Place” (Armstrong complete). Have the students complete the activity Melody or Improvisation? (PDF) to listen for the melody and improvisations in the piece. Stop the track as needed between each chorus to discuss answers with your students.
    • How can you tell the difference between the melody and the improvisations?
    • What do you notice when the musicians are improvising? How does the melody change?

Go Deeper

Listen for improvisation in the other Link Up repertoire.


Improvisation with Words, Movement, and Storytelling

Improvise with Words

Come up with a sentence and say it in different ways by changing the tone, placing an accent on different words, or changing the volume to see how it feels. Optional: Try saying the sentence to a rhythm and maintaining the rhythm while the students experiment with the sentence.

Improvise with Movement

Create a simple movement that all of the students perform together. Then, have each student try it out individually, following the basic movement, but adding to it or changing it slightly. The rest of the students will echo the new version of the movement back each time.

Improvise with Storytelling

Provide the students with a group of elements around which to create a story. Divide them into groups and have each group improvise its own version of the story and perform it for the group.

Downloadable PDFs

Related Concert Repertoire

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