I had a very successful lesson today improvising around the pentatonic scale. What I find works is when you put improvising at the end of a scheme of work. The Year 3 children had all learned how to sing and play the Chinese song Molihua (Jasmine Flower) on tuned percussion instruments. They had learned the melody by rote and by reading it through the notation. Some had played without annotation, others had written the letter names of the notes themselves (I don’t do this for them anymore!)
They all knew what a scale was, what a pentatonic scale was, and what notes to take off on their xylophones to play a pentatonic scale. They had also been assessed on their ability to play Molihua and their performances were videoed and shown to their parents at parents’ evening (parents were really happy with this as they could see exactly how well their children were doing). I had also given the Year 3’s a pretty tricky test, that they revised for using a knowledge organiser, most of whom got over 20/25.
So when it came to improvising the children had both knowledge and skills and didn’t need to think too hard about the content so they could focus on the skill of improvising. I told the children what improvising meant and how it wasn’t about just playing any old thing. I also explained that the best improvisers knew all their scales and used the scales to make music. We all agreed we knew the pentatonic scale well and I modeled the improvising task with another pupil with all the class watching. We both played Molihua and then I said her name and she improvised and then we both came back with the melody. I wondered if I should bring in the term “rondo” but thought that was a word I could save for another time. Improvising was enough for this lesson!
We then got the instruments out and I played the piano to accompany the children. Everyone played the Molihua melody and everyone got a chance to improvise. I didn’t spend much time on working on how to improvise really well – today was a lesson to just have a go and to be unafraid of creating music as you play.
I think the reason this lesson worked was because the improvisation part comes at the end of the scheme. I also think this is a good model for any composition work that we do in Primary School. Composition and improvisation needs to come after listening and performance. Music teachers often bring in these tasks way too soon and what ends up is a free for all devoid of thinking, planning and dare I say it, creativity. If you are doing a composition task in the first lesson of a scheme or at the start of a lesson it is probably not a great idea as you really need to have knowledge and skills to create music well.
This lesson could lead in nicely to a composition lesson on pentatonic scales but I have decided not to because we are going to return to pentatonic scales in Year 4 where we will revisit the learning in Year 3 and develop it into not just being about Chinese music but pentatonic music all around the world. I will use some more challenging melodies like “Arirang” from Korea and “Amazing Grace” and we will develop our improvising into composition with a focus on how to craft a melody.