Using Improvisation for Adolescents with Learning Differences


by Tim Simmons
Music Teacher


 It snowed last night. By morning, everything was covered in a thin, white sheet of powder, but it wasn’t enough to close school. The students dragged themselves through the door of my first period Music class, carrying the weight of disappointment behind them. How could I compete with a lost snow day? I decided to let the music guide me.

It started simply. As the students entered, I played a G major chord on the piano, over and over again. Playing rhythmically, I created a simple groove, voicing the chord as an arpeggio – one note at a time. One by one, the students settled in around me, taking up instruments, turning on the microphone, setting up behind the drum kit, but not yet playing. Then Zoe, a senior, stepped silently to the microphone and began to sing, softly and soulfully, along with the chord. She didn’t use words, only sounds that harmonized with and complemented what she was hearing. Inspired by her voice, the other students joined in. Before long, we had a groove going. The tension and complexity in the music began to increase, so did the tempo. Soon, Reid, a talented senior with a penchant for taking risks, began to sing along to what he was playing on his guitar. Before we knew it, we were all singing, and the music reached its apex when we all dropped our instruments, gathered in the center of the room and sang together, bringing our spontaneous song to its climax. It ended just as elusively as it had begun, and we all knew we had experienced something unexpected and magical.

In many ways, a spirit of adventure and experimentation has always been the driving force behind everything we do in the Music program at DVFriends. From the very beginning, our mission has been to empower students to rediscover the joy in making music, and to find their own musical voices within themselves. Music class is a chance for young musicians to explore their own music. However, since we also deal with students who learn differently, it is designed to be a place where they can discover new ways to work together and work to improve fundamental academic skills.

The program is built on improvisation. In the beginning, students learn about the fundamentals of improvisation through playing a  variety of instruments. In this way, they are not only learning how to play several instruments, but learning to play them through the act of playing itself. They are learning by doing in the most multisensory, visceral way possible. Through daily drumming activities, they learn how to keep a groove. Through vocalization and piano exercises, they learn how to create simple melodies. Through exploring the guitar and bass guitar, they learn about listening to how notes work together to create meaningful music. Through group jamming and improvising, they learn how to apply their new musical skills to create spontaneous music together. This is an intuitive way to learn about music that gives them the opportunity to be creative together and also to exercise their own listening, focus, and memory skills. In addition, this approach is founded on exciting research suggesting that daily improvisation and drumming can boost phonological awareness and reading prosody (Patel, et al.), help students process language more effectively (Kraus and Sanderson), increase connectivity in the brain (Collins), and improve basic executive functions, such as discriminating between stimuli (Forgeard, et al.) and working memory (Bialystok, et al.). In addition, drumming may even improve reading skills in students with dyslexia (Bonacina, et al.). However, the most compelling research supporting our use of improvisation in the classroom tells us that when musicians improvise, they increase the interplay between the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain (Limb). In this way, improvising musicians are using their working memory in incredibly powerful ways, giving their brains a full workout, creating and retrieving memory tags while simultaneously reacting to stimuli around them in both emotional and analytical ways.

One common improvisational form we use in the classroom is a game called the “Fish Hook”. This game is based on an improvised form in which a group of improvisers take turns soloing over a repeated musical pattern, also known as an ostinato. In our middle school music class, which usually contains students with only a little experience, we use xylophones that are all tuned to the same key. In our Upper School class, which contains more advanced students, we use a variety of instruments. Over the years we have employed everything from saxophones and flutes to accordions and didgeridoos. After taking a moment to decide who will begin, we ring a gong and wait until its reverberations completely fade. This moment of silence helps us become more centered and mindful of our surroundings, and also engages the musicians, opening them up to the moment. The first player begins by playing freely on their instrument. They are searching for a melody, a pattern that sounds pleasing to them. Once they find this melody, they repeat it rhythmically. The other musicians wait and listen. After the first player finds their melody, they cue the second player in the group. This player has two choices: they may imitate the original melody, or add something new. After finding the appropriate accompaniment, the third person joins the improvisation. This continues until all four are playing together, signaling that the first musician now has the chance to solo over the groove. Soloing requires only that they say something new on their instrument. After a solo is complete, each player returns to his or her original melody. This return indicates to the next player that it is their turn to solo. Once everyone has taken a solo, the players must then communicate nonverbally with each other to find an ending.

Imagine yourself participating in this activity. As the second player in the loop, you listen carefully as the first player fiddles with her instrument, searching for a melody. You receive the cue to join the improvisation, and now you must make a choice – imitate or add something new. Imitation requires that you somehow repeat what the first musician is playing. Doing this requires a sound theoretical knowledge. What key is she in? What notes is she playing? At the same time, you must also imitate in a way that reflects the feel of the music that is developing. Your other choice is to add something new. This could mean adding harmony or creating a counter melody. All of these choices are happening in the moment as you begin to join the song. Improvising as part of this ensemble requires that you draw on your knowledge of your instrument and music theory, as well as your emotional ability to respond with feeling to what you are hearing. You are, after all, participating in a musical conversation, and your ideas must contribute to the overall meaning of the piece. Then, once each player begins to solo, you must play the supporting role, listening deeply to the solos that are unfolding around you, and also maintaining your melody as well as the groove so the other soloists can have the freedom to play as wildly as they can. This is a very selfless position and one that requires great concentration. Then, it comes time for your solo. Here, you have been encouraged to say something honest, something thoughtful, and something bold. You draw on all of the emotions you have experienced today – frustration over a test, excitement over a new friendship, and you channel those feelings into the notes you play, allowing yourself to drift away from the groove and into your own creative space. However, your solo must come to an end. Even though you may be improvising, you are also composing a song. When you feel you have reached the end of your solo, you cue the other members of the ensemble by returning to your original melody – compelling you to remember that melody and draw on the memory tags that you created while you were supporting the other players. Finally, you watch and listen closely as the group collectively ends the song.

Participating in the “Fish Hook” can be an intense experience that provides remarkable exercise for your brain. However, there is so much more to it because it also provides a concentrated way for the students to practice their musical techniques and apply their theoretical knowledge. In this way, our program can be scalable to any ability level and even provide meaningful music education for students who desire to pursue music after high school. All ability levels are honored and attended to in this approach, and everyone comes out of the experience feeling as if they have created something new, participated in an intense, bonding group activity, and tried something wildly creative.

 Over the years, I have seen improvisation change the lives of my students. When Jake came to DVFS, he was a quiet, reserved student with little faith in his own potential. One day, he mentioned that he used to play the drums, so I took that as an opportunity to invite him to the music room for one of our lunchtime jam sessions. Before long, Jake was hanging around the music room all the time. Eventually, in his junior year, he finally took the class. At the start, Jake was reluctant to take many chances, but experiencing the support of the group in our daily improvisations finally gave him the push he needed to begin stretching. By the end of that year, he was not only leading improvisations, but also helping other, younger students learn new techniques, both on the drum set and also in improvisation. By his senior year, Jake discovered that he also enjoyed creating and recording his own music. We have recording sessions every Friday in order to teach the students about audio engineering. Jake is now studying audio engineering in college and has recently taken an internship at a world-class recording studio in Washington D.C. He has come back to DVFriends several times to run recording workshops with our students.

When Jared was in 8th grade, he took Music as part of our Middle School Art rotation. He came to DVFriends in the middle of the semester, so he joined the class midway. On his first day in class, I asked him to sing an improvised melody with me. His response was immediate. “I’m not doing that.” Then, a few weeks later, while I was on bus duty at the end of the day, Jared took me aside and played me a recording he had made on his phone. He was singing an improvised melody! This was all the invitation I needed to encourage Jared to become more involved in our music program. Now, he helps lead the children’s choir at his church.

Google “Music and the Brain”, and you come up with thousands of results detailing the myriad studies by a multitude of researchers who are working in these areas. Add “education” into your search and you find even more – teachers who use assistive technology that uses music to help with students who have brain injuries, therapists working with rhythm to help target young students’ executive function skills, early childhood educators using music to enhance reading skills. This is exciting work and transformative research, but at DVFS we want more. I have sought to create a music program that not only draws on this research, but that also serves the musical needs of our students. After all, our students are exceedingly bright. They have learning differences, which means that they are as capable of learning all the same content as a “typical learner”, only they need innovative teaching that approaches that core content in a different manner. I am not seeking therapeutic approaches to working with learning differences, and I can’t use techniques that were designed for early childhood education. Therefore, improvisation is the key. It empowers both our dyslexic students and our students with attentional challenges to find the music within them and to bring that music to life every day. Ultimately, it is all about surprise. Surprise at what has been created at the end of an improvisation. Surprise at the depth of learning and technique. Surprise at the doors that are opened simply by the act of creating music together. Together, we enter into this magical space every day, and emerge transformed.



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Reviewed January 2016