Collective Improvisation in New Orleans Music Lesson – Preservation Hall Lessons

Intro to New Orleans Polyphony

GRADE: 9-12
GENRE: Traditional Jazz
TOPIC: Improvisation
DISCIPLINE: Harmonizing Instruments


In this lesson, students will explore a traditional New Orleans front line. They will break down front line roles and describe how they contribute to collective improvisation. Students will create improvised melodies in small groups on their instruments. 



  • Identify the roles of a standard New Orleans front line.
  • Explain why these roles help to create more cohesive group improvisation. 
  • Create improvised melodies within their respective roles.



National Core Arts Standards

Harmonizing Instruments Standard 1 Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
Harmonizing Instruments Standard 2 Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
Harmonizing Instruments Standard 3 Refine and complete artistic work.

Common Core State Standards

ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.



Teachers should review all lesson materials and slides prior to launching the course. This course is best suited to students who already have some experience with improvising over basic chord progressions.





  1. Play a recording of the melody and “hot chorus” of a New Orleans song. Tell the students that the “front line” is a New Orleans term for the horns (usually trumpet, trombone, and clarinet/tenor). This front line is collectively improvising, and they are also listening to each other to make sure they’re creating excitement and not just chaos.
  1. Replay the recording and ask students to listen specifically to the horn players and how they interact.
  2. Tell students that each instrument has a traditional role. The trumpet has the melody, the clarinet or tenor plays harmonies or arpeggios, and the trombone liberally uses the slide and growls in the lower register.
  3. Display a video of New Orleans Polyphony: Front Line Breakdown showing a breakdown of the roles. This video will explain how these specific instrument roles help the front line players to improvise without getting in each other’s way. Ask: How do established instrument roles help to keep musicians from creating too much chaos?



  1. Distribute the Lead Sheets to “Walking Through the Streets of the City”:  Bass Clef Instruments, Bb Instruments, C Instruments, Eb Instruments. Ask students to play the melody and then improvise alone within the parameters of their instruments’ roles. If students are learning on a nontraditional instrument, ask them to assess which front line instrument most resembles their instrument (perhaps a violin or flute can play harmonies and arpeggios in an upper register like the clarinet; a bari sax would follow the trombone’s role, modifying for skipping the slides, etc).
  2. Now ask students to try improvising together in pairs (while backed by a rhythm section), selecting pairs of instruments that have contrasting roles. As the students become more comfortable with paired improvising, have them try playing in groups of three.
  3. Tell students that they can focus on listening to which instrument is taking the lead. Each instrument sometimes plays a little louder, like a constant ebb and flow of interjections and interruptions. Play New Orleans Polyphony: “Walking Through the Streets of the City” recording and ask students to listen for that ebb and flow.
  4. Once students have listened to the ebb and flow recording, ask them to improvise together in groups of 2-3 students. For this exercise, they will focus on creating that same sense of ebb and flow.



  1. Have each student explain the traditional role of their chosen instrument (or a modified role for nontraditional instruments).
  2. Have students improvise in groups of 3 with those roles in mind. Evaluation is based on the student’s ability to stay within their assigned role. 



Used with permission. Portions of this work are based on the National Core Arts Standards Copyright © 2015 National Coalition for Core Arts Standards/All Rights Reserved – Rights Administered by SEADAE.

© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.

Meghan Swartz, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
Mark Braud, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
JoDee Scissors, Content Producer



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