Improvisation is a skill that can be scaffolded and taught. (Here’s a great explanation of what scaffolding means in education, for anyone not familiar with the term.) Call and Answer exercises are an excellent way to build this skill. They also build beat vocabulary, form and strike fundamentals, and a student’s musical ear.
Start off call and answer by playing simple 4-beat phrases and having students echo you. Start with simple phrases, without much ma or syncopation, and gradually work up to more challenging phrases. If you have a small group and/or are working with adults, do this with the drums in a circle, but keep the drums in rows for groups larger than 12 or for kids under 15. Keep this up for a few minutes; it will be engaging to students longer than it’s engaging to you.
Next, pair students up, and have them choose someone to be A (the other person is B). Count everybody in; all As play a 4-beat phrase at the same time, and all Bs answer at the same time. Give them a “So-re” to reset and then all Bs play a phrase at the same time and all As answer at the same time. Do several rounds of this. If they get good at it, take out the “So-re” and just have them trade call and answer patterns continuously.
This gets tricky, because students really have to focus to hear the pattern their partner is playing. The advantage is that everyone is playing at the same time, so students feel quite safe in playing an improvised 4 beat pattern.
Finally, go back to large group call and answer, but this time, have students call instead of you. One student calls, everyone answers; the next student calls, everyone answers; and so on. If you have a small group and/or adults, do this in a circle. If you’re working with a group that doesn’t do well in a circle, keep them in rows and pass the call up and down the rows.
You can do these exercises in a row, or one each class, or repeat them all regularly. If you use them, let me know. Happy teaching!