Building Blocks for Improvisation: Call and Answer


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!

Taiko Game: Hey hey, look at me (K-3)

Goofing around is integral to learning improvisation. A kid (or adult) who’s goofing around, making funny faces, talking in a silly voice, is learning to take risks and trust their creative instincts; with just a little bit of structure, goofing around becomes a precise educational tool.

“Hey Hey, Look at Me,” a game from my Orff training, is structured goofing around at its finest. Here’s how it works. 

1. Echo teach this song (see video for tune, or invent your own):

Hey hey, look at me

Make yourself look just like me.

2. Arrange students in 2 rows facing each other. Designate one row as #1 and the other as #2. Have row #2 turn their backs to row #1.

3. Have all students sing the song. When they finish, clap twice. At the first clap, students in row #1 strike a pose. At the second clap, students in row #2 turn around to face their partner and copy them. 

4. Repeat with row #2 striking the pose and row #1 copying. 

K-3 students LOVE this game. In the video, I’m keeping the pulse of the song with rhythm sticks, and giving the Pose/Copy cues in time with that pulse. This is slightly more advanced. Introduce the game as described above and work your way up to how I’m doing it in the video.

Bonus: once kids have learned it, this works great as an attention-getter. All you have to do is sing the first few notes and all eyes in the room will be glued to you. 

High school students and adults have fun with this game as well. The only age where it doesn’t work is pre-teen and early teen. It’s far too goofy for that age. In the future I’ll share activities that work better for those ages. Happy teaching!