How to Guide Children’s Improvisation and Composition

How old do you have to be to compose music? 18? 12? 5? Younger?

Mozart was only five years old when he wrote these first compositions.

My son isn’t yet five and he writes compositions, too… but he’s no musical prodigy. He is not as proficient in music playing or writing as Mozart was. He can’t yet articulate his musical thoughts on paper, but he can improvise musically with words, rhythm, and melody.

Everyone who has been around music and is allowed to experiment with music has the ability to do this. With proper encouragement, every child can improvise. So, how did we get to this point?

  • SING. All the time. Play instruments or just play rhythms by clapping or patting or beat-boxing. What you will find is that your child will start repeating the things you do at different times.
  • Let them experiment, even if it is annoying. Sometimes they will sing loudly or sing the same word over and over. Try to put up with it. You can try to redirect their efforts or ask them to try it more softly, but don’t tell them to stop!
  • Start by giving them ideas to riff on- start a silly song about what you are doing and give them a turn to improvise. They will probably start by changing the words to a tune they already know, which is ok.
  • Provide an accompaniment for them or have them provide an accompaniment for you. Beat-boxing is a fun way to do this. This shows them you can improvise something without words and is an easy way to practice ensemble singing/playing.
  • Make any time a good time to improvise! Do it in the car, in the bathtub, at dinner…
  • Let them play at conductor and tell you what the song or piece should sound like. Have them try to describe it to you as best as they can and try to make their composition come to life.
  • As they get older, start introducing technology to record themselves. They will spend so much time playing back their songs, and with programs like the iOS’s Garageband, they can add drums or other instruments to their recordings and have fun making it sound new and different.
  • As children progress in their musical learning, they can make composition maps- that can be anything from crayon drawings of what it sounds like, to prompts like “high, major, duple, du de du de, soft, fast.”
  • When your children learn music reading and writing, you can have them compose on free printable staff paper, like that found on this webpage: http://www.blanksheetmusic.net/

The most important thing is to find time to make music together and have music-making be fun and feel judgement-free. Perfecting a composition or figuring out how to express verbally or visually what you hear in your head can be frustrating. Make them feel safe and not on-the-spot when composing and improvising. Allow them to see you make mistakes and laugh it off. Music-making at home doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyable.

How do you improvise or compose with your family?

Musical Dialogue

Girls Hand Clapping. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Girls Hand Clapping. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Yesterday I posted about how making music together was great for social learning. Music is inherently social, but there are ways to make the music itself social! So, here’s the challenge: have an exclusively musical dialogue with your little music-makers!

Just a warning: some children will rebel against this idea, so it may take many attempts to get them used to the idea of conversing with you musically. Find the way they are most comfortable expressing themselves musically. For one child that may be through movement and dance, another with instruments, another with chanting, and yet another with singing. Keep at it until you find what works. This is a great exercise in working around individual differences, a skill that is useful for all those early childhood battles, like potty training.

You can use this rhyme from the James T. Callow Folklore Archive, which has been modified for this purpose.

My mother, your mother
Lives across the way
Every night they have a chat
And this is what they say*

After the introduction rhythm, you can make up a chant, a rhyme, or melody and then the child can respond. Often, children will mimic exactly what you do, which is ok. Encourage them to make up something different. You’ll find as they grow older they have more musical ideas to choose from.

In my experience, sometimes children will refuse to respond “musically” -probably out of discomfort or embarrassment- but I have yet to see a child (or adult!) give a musical response that was inappropriate. For instance, in the audio examples above, I’ll chant the rhyme in its original duple (think “in two,” like a march) meter, then in triple (think “in three,” like a waltz). Once the meter is established, a child with enough musical experience in duple or triple will tend to stick with the meter provided. Their response may be longer or shorter than yours, and that’s ok, too.

You can be creative and change the words to suit musical movement instead of dialogue, with “every night they hang their clothes and this is what they do.” Instrumental improvisation, with “have a jam,” or even silly improvisation with “my doggy, your doggy…” You could go so far as to try to sing it in different tonalities, also. The possibilities are endless.

Let me know how your musical dialogue goes and how you found how your little ones were most comfortable improvising!

*I first came across this rhyme used to start improvisation at a workshop given by Wendy Valerio, so credit goes to her for the original idea! It’s just too good not to share!

Music Making as Social Learning

Kids playing guitar. Licensed through creative commons.

Kids playing guitar. Licensed through creative commons.

Music is not an individual endeavor. As parents, so much of what we teach is didactic; “no, don’t do that,” “let me show you how to tie your shoe.” However, most musical learning, especially at an early age is informal and interactive. Even babies less than one year old can start to participate, meaning that you’re not making music to them, bur with them. Their clapping off the beat and making gurgling sounds is their attempt to make music with you. Humans are social creatures, and by our nature we want to socialize and feel included in a group. Making music is one way that we do that.

When you make music at home, try to make it as social as possible. That means letting everyone be able to give their input, as though you were having a conversation. Get down on the floor with your children, and let them pick an instrument for you, or pick the song that you are going to sing. Maybe they’ll make up new words to the song, or sing it the “wrong way.” Follow their lead, and give suggestions, too, but make it “our music.” Just like in social situations, you might need to mediate “musical fights,” which could be agreeing on a tempo, a volume, the songs, or instrument choice.

Make sure that your children get a chance to see how musicians play in groups. Informal concerts, like those at coffee shops or bandstands are a good chance for them to see musicians interacting with the audience. You may be able to take them to an open rehearsal, which will let them see how much work goes into playing, how the musicians have to get along, and you don’t have to worry about your child’s behavior as much as at a concert, or your ability to stay through the who show.

Music classes are a great way, even for the youngest children, to experience group music making. Making music in group is beneficial for musical learning, but also social learning. All students, even students with learning disabilities or autism, benefit from the social interaction in a musical environment. Music brings people together and gives us a way to navigate and come to accept individual differences, making us better classmates, siblings, or friends. As a teacher, I’ve seen shy children come out of their shells through music, I’ve seen children who struggled in every other subject find the joy of excelling in music. You can do this for your family, too.

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Families are made up of people with a wide variety of ages and abilities, but who can come together in music. Everyone in the family can do something musical. Maybe the infants only listen and smile while the toddlers dance and the preschoolers sing, while mom or dad plays an instrument and sings. Try to carve out a time where you can make music together as a family. If big sister is practicing a well-known piano piece, let her little brother sing along and make an impromptu duet.

Don’t let me delude you into thinking that all music-making will be happy and conflict free. There will be times when it will be difficult to get everyone together or for everyone to find their role. Working through these issues and focusing on the bigger picture of coming together to make music is what makes the experience so useful. Those problem-solving skills in a social environment help children become better friends and helpers.

So, find time to make music together and have a musical conversation. The next post will focus on how to dialog through music in a kid (and parent!) friendly way!

A million different things to do with shaky eggs…

Ok, maybe not a million, but there are a many, many different activities to do with shakers. Shakers are probably one of the best first instruments. I mean, we give infants rattles as soon as they can hold onto something, and then they are shaking away. Before we get into the activities, here are a couple of tips when it comes to infants/toddler/preschoolers with shakers.

  1. Hand-sized is a good rule of thumb (haha! get it?) for this group. If the shaker is at least hand-sized, they might be able to get it in their mouth, but they shouldn’t be able to choke on it. If they can wrap their hand around it, the more proficient they will be at shaking it on (or around) the beat. If it is top heavy, they will be more likely to drop it and it will impede their ability to play on the beat.
  2. Try shakers of different materials/ textures/ timbres. Shakers are more interesting when they can make all sorts of different sounds! There’s plastic, wood, gourds, wicker, long, short, big, small…
  3. Plastic or wood shakers for those that are putting instruments in mouths. Unfortunately, with kids, this is a fact of life. For some children, putting things in their mouth extends beyond infanthood into years 3, 4, and even 5. This is not necessarily a bad thing; some children are just more connected to learning through that route. Once they can understand you, try to discourage them putting instruments in their mouths, without being too harsh. Replace instruments with choke-able parts with safer ones.
  4. Show them, don’t do it for them. You should show them how to hold or play the instruments, but do not shake them for them to the beat. They will learn from watching you. While doing it for them gets them on beat faster, it does not help them develop beat competency in the long term.
  5. Don’t forget to move! Shaking shakers while moving keeps children interested and is great for developing rhythm!

There are many, many different ways that you can use shakers. They are great at keeping the beat, but it can get boring if you always do it the same way. Get creative!

  • Count the beats- I like to beat them on the floor in front of me from left to right. You can count the beats, “1-2-3-4,” or just show them with the shakers. It doesn’t really matter if the children can count with you or not. 20150321_164906 20150321_164908 20150321_164910 20150321_164953
  • You can also draw a circle to show the beat. circle shaker
  • Shake to show volume. Start down low and quiet, and get louder as you raise the shakers!
  • Hide the shakers behind your back.
  • Play freeze! Have your children watch whoever is the conductor and stop when they stop!
  • Pick different body parts, maybe ones that go with your song, or just pick any one! 20150321_165027 20150321_165030 20150321_165051 20150321_165053
  • Play copy-cat. Play a rhythm and have everyone else repeat it. I suggest doing the listen-repeat several times to ensure that even young musicians can catch on.
  • Pass the rhythm or beat- pass a shaker on the beat by placing it in the hand of the person next to you or in front of them. You can also have the first person play a rhythm and the next repeat it. Then they make up a different rhythm for the person next to them.
  • Roll the shakers on the ground, like you’re cracking a hard-boiled egg or like you’re rolling dough (this get’s the core of the body in on the action, which is good for internalizing the beat!).
  • “Fry” the shaker like an egg in the palm of your hand.
  • Move the shakers to the beat while showing fluid movement, like a figure eight pattern in the air
  • For a challenge, move your shakers without letting them make a sound! Perfect for practicing audiation!
  • And many more! If I think of more, or if I get ideas from readers, I’ll add them! Send me your great shaker activities that you do at home!

Filling your family’s music basket

If you want your children to be able to create music, they need lots of practice! Having a basket of instruments, either that you bring out for music time or have available with the rest of their toys, gives them a chance to explore music on their own and experiment with different instruments. Knowing just want to get can be difficult. Many toy stores sell kits, but these often include plastic toys that make more noise than music. There are so many different companies that sell instruments and movement props, that I cannot even begin to name them all. Time and again, though, I find myself using West Music for the things that I need for class, and I have never been disappointed. They aren’t paying me, and I wouldn’t discourage you from trying to shop for the best price, but they are having a movement prop sale in March, so if you want to order, now is the time! Here is a list of things that make great additions to your music basket (you can also check out my West Music wishlist to see some of the instruments I recommend):20150312_090545

  • Small drums and tambourines. Because your kids are small, drums they can handle easily, like the ones pictured above, are best. They can be frame drums, which are hand-held, small floor drums, drums with mallets, like lollipop drums, or even small bongos. I’d stay away from drums with fiberskin heads because while they sound great, don’t hold up to being hit with mallets, which is what your children will want to do.
  • Shakers. Shaky eggs are a favorite because they can be easily held by babies. Small maracas are great, too. Plastic ones hold up better, but wooden ones do sound better. Some wooden shakers are shaped like animals, which are fun for children. Stay away from big, adult-sized maracas. They are too heavy and cumbersome.
  • Castanets, tone blocks, and small hand-held percussion. There are so many different kinds, and they can usually be found for a couple dollars a piece. Kokorikos are a lot of fun. Rain sticks and be a fun and beautiful addition to music time.
  • Movement props. Scarves and streamers fold up and can be used in many creative ways by children while they dance. I really like using rubber bands, like the ones on my West Music wishlist, so that we can stretch and move the music together as a group.
  • Props for singing. Toobaloos and kazoos can help children find their singing voices, as well as puppets, or even play microphones.
  • Books. In order for children to become accustomed to seeing musical notation and connect it with the music that they make, they need to see it and have it be around the house. The Wee Sing series is great at providing notation, pictures, and CDs to sing with. Sing the songs and look at the music in the book, just as if you were reading words to your child.

Do you have favorite instruments in your collection at home? If so, let me know which instruments you or your children just couldn’t live without!

Musical Play

Babies like to be bounced on laps; it’s a great way to elicit those infectious baby giggles. Did you know it’s also good for their musical development? Babies that are bounced on laps internalize the steady beat of the music. You can bounce to music you are listening to, or you can sing.

How about using this opportunity to make classical music fun? I sing themes from Rossini’s William Tell Overture while my daughter bounces on my lap and holds my hoodie strings like a horse.

It doesn’t matter if you sing it exactly right. The point is you are isolating the recognizable themes from the larger piece and portraying them in ways more relatable to a young child. They will begin to recognize those themes when they hear the Overture.

What musical games do you like to play? Do you listen to classical music with your family?

Ok, now what am I supposed to do?

Alright, you’ve committed to being more musical at home. You sing more, dance more… but what else could you possibly do? How about enjoying some musical prop time? It’s a great idea to have some instruments just for your kids that are kid friendly, like shaky eggs, drums, and small percussion instruments. You can put on the CD player or sing your favorite songs and play along. You can also encourage musical movement by dancing with scarves.

Dancing with scarves

If you are feeling adventurous, like some of my local mom friends, you can conduct your own preschooler ensemble! The kids were given simple directions like when to start, stop, get louder or softer. They had tons of fun and it is very simple to put together. If they don’t follow the directions, that’s fine, too. They can work on their beat competency while the song is going on. Check out our little ensemble below!

*Thanks to the mamas that helped with the video and donated their kids and their time to this blog post!