Improvisation in the Dalcroze Classroom

Along with eurhythmics and solfège, improvisation is one part of Jaques-Dalcroze’s tripartite description of his system of music education. Often associated with on-the-spot instrumental creations, Michael Joviala illuminates how this subject reaches beyond the instrument, the exercise, and the notes. In this article, you will find diverse manifestations of improvisation within a teaching environment, as well as how to recognize and utilize them.

When I first began giving Dalcroze classes, I was often confused about what I was teaching.

I wanted to share all the wonderful things I had experienced myself as a student: canons, quick reactions, dissociations…Each class (for both younger and older people) would fall apart multiple times until I learned to separate how I was teaching from what I was teaching. The musical or movement subjects (e.g., syncopation, rests, dynamics) are one thing. The way we teach them (e.g., systematizations, associations, plastique animée) are another. I needed to tell myself over and over things like, “I am letting them experience the difference between a steady beat and something twice as fast. To accomplish this, I am using a quick reaction game.” Slowly I learned to keep the focus on music, and in so doing became more and more adept at using all these wonderful Dalcroze teaching techniques.

Of all of those teaching strategies, improvisation is perhaps for me the most essential. Improvisation can be how we teach, what we teach, and most importantly, the medium through which we teach. Émile Jaques-Dalcroze made it one of the pillars of his method, along with eurhythmics, solfège, pedagogy, and plastique animée. His writings are filled with page after page of ideas for using it to teach every aspect of music. Certainly, a Dalcroze class is not complete without it!

In improvisation, the creation and performance must happen simultaneously.

Compared with teaching strategies like dissociations (see this article by Mary Dobrea-Grindahl) or systematizations, improvisation is accessible to the general public. It has an accepted general usage in music that is more or less how we use it in Dalcroze practice. This is not true for, say, the “reaction” or “follow” strategies we use, which have a very specific and limited definition in a Dalcroze pedagogical context. Usage for the word “improvisation” in music is, however, often in sharp contrast with its usage in everyday language, where to improvise often means something like faking it or making the best of a bad situation. (Don’t get me started about the general usage meaning of “let’s play it by ear.”) In music, there is nothing inherently haphazard about improvising. You can improvise with the precision of a notated composition if you can and want. The only difference—and requirement—for improvisation is that the creation and performance must happen simultaneously.

How I Use Improvisation

In my Dalcroze teaching, I use improvisation in three distinct ways. 

1. Improvisation is How I Teach

I try to teach primarily through music invented in the moment, rather than through what I say. To be an effective teacher, I need to respond musically to what I see, hear, and feel. That’s the very definition of improvisation, and it’s what attracted me so strongly to pursue this work.

Teaching through improvised music allows me to be flexible. There is the way I imagine the students will respond, and the way they are actually responding. Often, they are shockingly different! I must work in the place between what I want to see and what I actually do see, and improvisation allows me to negotiate this difference and to shape what I want to see in my students. Through improvisation, I can fine-tune the challenge point, making the activity more or less difficult as needed. Are the students bored? Tired? Too excited? Too much in their heads? Accurate but lifeless? Depending on what I see, I can manage the energy levels, focus, and even the performance of the students.

Improvisation allows me to take advantage of the ways the students actually move, what we might call their natural movement. In my first- and second-grade classes, we play a game I call “Soloist/Orchestra.” I ask a child to move however they like and follow them with a single-line accompaniment. After a couple of phrases, I bring in the “orchestra,” playing the same movement but with a full accompaniment. At first, I’ll need to call “solo” or “orchestra,” but after a while, the music does the work, and I won’t need to say anything. Improvisation lets me create a musical context in which their natural movements feel organic, and this is one of the joys of creating music for a Dalcroze class!

Improvisation facilitates assessment. What has been internalized and what hasn’t? What will we need to work on next week? Improvisation allows me to perform on-the-spot assessment of the learning as it happens. In a reaction game, for example, I can pull back musical support for an activity to see if they can manage it on their own, or to measure their awareness level. This is only possible with the use of improvised music, as opposed to recorded music.

2. Improvisation is Sometimes What I Teach

For most schools in the US that employ Dalcroze teachers, including the ones I teach at, the goal is musicianship and musical literacy toward the learning of instruments in a classical music setting.

Improvisation at a basic level is for me an essential part of musicianship, even for musicians who will primarily play pre-composed works from notation. That is why it is one of the only Dalcroze teaching techniques that I do in fact teach to all students, whether they are in training to become Dalcroze teachers, or whether they are in my early childhood classes.


Improvisation offers us the immediate possibility of artistic creation and self-expression. I am an improvising musician. That’s what I do. I was not born knowing this. In fact, it has taken me most of my life to understand what that means for me. I love reading someone else’s music. I love listening to great interpreters of great compositions. But put me in front of a piano, and the first I’ll want to do is simply create something. Will that be true someday for the four-year-old in my class? I want to leave the door open for this possibility for everyone I work with.

Comfort with improvisation can help with composition too. The ideas will flow more freely if they are familiar with the feeling of creating something in the moment. It’s a different kind of feeling than playing through something familiar, perhaps something someone else has created. Creators and improvisers are comfortable with the imperfections and messiness that is present when we are creating in the moment. These sounds are the prized parts of jazz solos. The cracked, tender, and raw parts of a Miles Davis phrase before it takes flight; the “wrong notes” in a Thelonious Monk solo that eventually become “right” and part of the language. The imperfections become themselves perfect.

Improvising with others, or even just one other, requires a distinct set of skills. Listening, responding, synchronizing, supporting, leading, following—all the things that skilled improvisers do with one another may not come naturally, or even willingly, for students, and can take a lifetime of dedication to master even as mature musicians. I want to open the door to this kind of music making for children. Throughout the year, I try to create opportunities for those skills to blossom in even the youngest of students.

Improvising with others, or even just one other, requires a distinct set of skills. Listening, responding, synchronizing, supporting, leading, following

When the improvisation is free, I must by definition accept whatever the student does. This can be challenging! It may not fit into meter or even have a steady beat. Yes, it may sound like noise, and when it does even to me, I try to focus on the aliveness of the child producing the sound. After all, there is plenty of acclaimed music in my collection that doesn’t have a meter, doesn’t have a steady beat, and that sounds to many like noise. I try to remember that to the child, it is music as raw expression. There will be plenty of time for precise synchronization, exact divisions, preconceived rhythm patterns. Here, I am more likely to play with the students. For example, I might simply hand them a drum and ask them to play with me. I then respond to what the student is doing as I would when playing with any other improvising musician: providing contrasting accompaniment, synchronizing, shaping and sculpting the sounds the child offers. I love to watch their faces as we play. They often seem to say, “Really? This, too, is playing music?”

Sometimes at the end of class, especially one that has been cognitively or physically demanding, I like to play duets with my kids. I like to let them choose an instrument (a triangle, sand blocks, a drum, etc.) and then I might start to play a pattern or groove that has something to do with the experiences we’ve had that day in the class. If I say anything, it might be, “You can play whatever you want.” There are so many responses to this, and I love to watch them all. Sometimes kids will play exactly what I’m playing. If they are old enough, I will let them continue to play it while I branch off into something complementary. Sometimes, kids will respond to coaching. “Do you feel the beat?” or “You don’t have to play the exact same thing as me. Can you find something else that fits?” If they are too young to hold on, we simply enjoy being synchronized, which is itself a powerful feeling.

3. Improvisation is a Teaching Strategy

Of course, the main way I use improvisation as a Dalcroze teacher is as another way to allow students to experience a musical subject such as beat and division, augmentation and diminution, tonic and dominant, etc. Like so many other Dalcroze teaching strategies, improvisation pairs well with others. You’ll find many examples of improvisation in each of the previous articles in our series on the basic Dalcroze teaching techniques.

Improvisation can help students internalize musical concepts. Much of the music in a Dalcroze class comes through me. After a while, it can be such a pleasure to hand the reins over to them and the students get to improvise with the material. “Ok, you decide when it will speed up or slow down; when we will change from big and heavy to quick and light; how large our steps will be. I’ll follow you.”

When I’m using improvisation as a teaching strategy, it tends to be structured. There are often clearly defined choices between two or three elements: tonic and dominant, say, or short-short-long vs. long-short-short rhythmic patterns, for example. There can be solo improvisations, duets, trios, or larger groups. For anything larger than a solo, one member of the group can be leading. I might give them a gesture that means simple triple time (e.g., 3/4) and one that means simple duple (2/4), perhaps arms folded in for duple, and stretched out horizontally for triple. The leader changes the meter as she likes while a hand drummer provides a “brush-tap” or “brush-tap-tap” accompaniment. Sometimes I will support this at the piano. I can raise the improvisation quotient by letting someone sing or play another instrument freely, combining structured with free forms of improvisation.

Their improvisation will not necessarily conform to my own musical aesthetic, and I must know in advance how much deviance I will allow. For example, some will naturally make choices that follow symmetrical phrase period structure; others will not. Unless 4-bar phrase structure is my musical subject, I will make room for those choices. In almost every case, I can find musical precedents for almost anything a student can improvise in a classroom.

I can also encourage them to make a change at just the right time through my accompaniment. Sometimes I know they are not consciously counting 8-bar phrase structure, but I can feel them look at me at just the right time to make the phrasing symmetrical. I love when this happens! This is the power of sharing the musical space, and improvisation makes that possible.

Improvisation in the Lesson

I use improvisation differently at different points in the lesson. Here are some examples.

Beginning of the lesson

Introduction to two or more different musical or movement concepts.

“Move like an animal that moves in very direct pathways (e.g., eagle, spider on a web). Now move like an animal that moves in very indirect pathways (e.g., bat, butterfly).”

 This activity pairs well with associations (change between the two with the music) or reactions (teacher calls the changes). It can be fully improvised by letting a student lead the change (teacher follows at the piano).

Generate ideas

Introduce the children to a drum language using a small hand drum. Each sound is lightly played as the name suggests: swirl, touch (one finger), pat (whole hand), scratch (fingernails), brush, flick, etc. Play the sound with the matching word, then hold the drum in front of a student who makes a sound on the drum in response. Set up in this way, the children take pleasure in making a variety of sounds on the drum with great sensitivity. Many children will copy the teacher; some will create their own replies. Encourage an environment of playful, sensitive exploration and discovery.

Middle of the lesson

Students make the musical material their own.

In a lesson for first and second graders on compound duple meter (e.g. 6/8), after the students have internalized the association of different colored hoops (red=beat, blue[berry]=3 divisions, purple=trochee). Students stand in the hoops of the rhythms they want to hear. Students and/or teacher accompanies on percussion and/or piano, following the directions of the student in the hoops.

End of the lesson

Add a feeling of performance to ensemble work.

Class is divided into two groups, drums and sticks. Drums are playing the measure, sticks are playing the other beats. A conductor indicates duple, triple, or quadruple simple meter (e.g. 2/4, 3/4, 4/4). While the ensemble plays, a soloist improvises freely on the triangle or a different percussion instrument.

Improvisation at Different Ages

Each age responds differently to the prospect of creating their own music.

Young Children

Young children are natural improvisers. Some do not call this improvisation; they call it exploration. I make no distinction between the two. (For an exploration of this question, see Anne Farber’s article on this topic.) I try to create a musical context that encourages more thoughtful playing. For example, after a story about squirrels climbing up and down trees, stopping every so often to look around, they will be more inclined to start and stop phrases on the xylophone as we improvise at the end of the lesson.

Early Elementary

In early elementary, I find students to often be well balanced in terms of openness to improvisation and responsiveness to limits. Directions with images or stories that allow for improvised responses can be very effective.

  • “This bean bag bestows the power of free movement to whoever is holding it. Move as you like as long as you have it. It loses its power if you keep it too long. Give it to someone else!” As they move , I match the tempo, dynamics, and weight of their movement on the piano, encouraging the use of musical phrasing if possible.
  • “Make a sound that is smooth, rough, gooey, cold, hot, scratchy, silky, etc.”

Late Elementary

Late elementary students are often more inhibited. They likely have models of artistic excellence firmly lodged in their awareness, and they may have begun to be conscious about how far from those models they actually are. Structured improvisations can be very effective with these groups.

For example, a rhythm orchestra: a leader stands in front of 3 groups, each with different percussion instruments. The leader can direct each group to play ostinatos varying tempo, dynamics, etc. Gestures can be invented to ask soloists to improvise freely over top. The groups could also have more defined roles such as

  • Drums: meter
  • Triangles: beat
  • Sticks: division

Middle and High School

As students studying an instrument and its literature progress in middle and high school, the gap between their technical ability and what they are able to improvise, as well as their musical taste and understanding, becomes progressively wider. Those who come to improvisation late in their musical lives, especially as adults, can feel quite inhibited to invent their own music on the spot, finding it sorely lacking in comparison to the Beethoven sonata or the Chopin mazurka they know well. To overcome this, they often respond well to strict parameters such as, “In C major, 4/4 time, improvise a melody with quarter notes that ends in 4 four bars on scale degree 5…” Over time, the gap between technical and improvisational ability will begin to decrease.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 8 No. 2.

About Michael Joviala

Michael Joviala teaches at the Lucy Moses School of Music and Dance, the Diller Quaile School of Music and Columbia University in New York City. He is the music director of the improvisation collective Loco Motors, and holds the Diplôme Supérieur from the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, Switzerland.

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