Preservation Hall Lessons Improvisation Lesson

What is Improvisation?

GRADE: 3-5, 6-8, 9-12
GENRE: Traditional Jazz
TOPIC: Improvisation
DISCIPLINE: Music General


In this lesson, students of all ages analyze elements of improvisation and explore ways they already improvise in daily life. There will be exercises in both musical and non-musical improvisation.



  • Discuss examples of improvisation in everyday life.
  • Perform one 30-second improvisation presentation.
  • Music-specific classes will be able to sing or play simple, improvised melodies, with optional parameters (such as 2-3 specific notes to play).



National Core Arts Standards

Anchor Standard 1 Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
Anchor Standard 2 Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
Anchor Standard 10 Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.

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 plan to participate in improvisational exercises alongside students, to model comfort in making mistakes, being spontaneous, and enjoying the process. This lesson can be integrated into a music or general classroom.





  1. Give students a blank sheet of paper and divide it into four equal parts. They will label the boxes: Drawing 1, Drawing 2, Drawing 3, Drawing 4. 


  1. Show students the presentation What is Improvisation? to examine four improvised illustrations by visual artist Emilie Rhys. Ask students: What can you infer about the illustrations? What do all of these activities have in common? Students will record their thoughts in the corresponding boxes. 


  1. Then introduce the concept of improvisation by telling students that improvisation is anything we do that isn’t fully planned in advance. Play the video What is Improvisation? for students. Ask students: What are some examples of ways you improvised this week?


  1. Tell the groups that Emilie Rhys watched a live Jazz performance at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and while listening to the music she improvised illustrations of the music performers. Distribute the resource, Artist Statement by Emilie Rhys (Note: Teachers can chunk or reduce text to meet the needs of student reading levels). Have the groups read “Part 1” of the artist statement and discuss it in their groups. Ask: How does your thinking change or differ from what you wrote in the boxes? How does Observing, Listening, and Waiting help a visual artist improvise?


  1. Now assign each group an illustration and artist statement. Have students read “Part 2” and discuss the artist’s statement that corresponds with the improvised drawing.


  1. Display the illustrations again. Ask students: How can music influence the art of improvised drawing?



  1. Tell students they are going to explore musical improvisation. Play recordings of “You Are My Sunshine” performed by three different artists. For example, Melodic Improvisation: Interpreting “You Are My Sunshine”, “You are My Sunshine” Treme Brass Band, and “You Are My Sunshine” Jasmine Thompson. Fun fact: This is the state song of Louisiana. 


  1. Tell students to pay attention to the small differences in each take on the melody; these are improvised by the performer. This is something performers do to make the melody feel more personal to them. Ask: How does Observing, Listening, and Go, when it’s time! help a musician improvise?


  1. Model for students singing with a small, improvised change on “You Are My Sunshine”.


  1. Invite students to try singing the same song with their own personal take.


  1. Revisit the question that Mark Braud posed in the video, What is Improvisation?. Ask: What are ways that you have improvised? Consider having students brainstorm ways they’ve improvised through music, art, dancing, theater, or everyday activities. 



  1. For a music-based class, try to incorporate as much musical improvisation as possible. Ideal evaluations for a music class, depending on age and whether students play instruments:
    • Ask students to improvise on their instruments, but give them specific parameters (using only 3 specific pre-assigned notes, playing any notes but making sure they are all staccato, etc.). A list of recommended adaptive instruments can be found in our Teacher Guide: Adaptive Instruments
    • Ask students to perform a simple song they have learned for class, but ask them to embellish the song or change the last measure.
    • Ask students to sing a familiar song with their own embellishments.


  1. For a non music-based class, try any exercise that utilizes skills the students already possess in an improvisational manner. Depending on age and class size, try 30-60 second spontaneous performances by each student in a discipline of their comfort/choosing: 
    • 30-60 second speech on a surprise topic assigned by the teacher or drawn from a hat (favorite animal, best friend, breakfast, dolphins – any topic the student can maintain for a surprise speech)
    • 30-60 second singing/clapping/playing improvisation
    • 30-60 seconds of improvised drawing
    • 30-60 seconds of movement


  1. Evaluate student understanding of improvisation based on participation and active demonstration of trying something spontaneous.



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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