10 Experimentation, Improvisation, and Composition in Beginning Instrument Methods

When arriving to beginning instrument instruction, most students are coming from general music experiences in elementary school, where value is often placed on creative activities and musical exploration over technical precision. Beginning instrumental study can lead to students who lose their innate creativity and curiosity and become fixated on playing accurately without a sense of exploration.

When experimentation, improvisation, and composition are integrated into beginning instrument instruction from the very beginning, several possibilities arise:

  • Students see themselves as capable of being creative and able to make their own music
  • Students can focus on music concepts that are not notated, such as tone, interpretation, and technique
  • Students develop the ability to think critically for themselves, paying greater attention to the sounds they create


When first encountering the instrument, it is important that students are given the opportunity to experiment with how sound is created. This provides for several advantages:

  • They develop an understanding of how their unique physiology interacts with the instrument, allowing for awareness of modifications of the typical approach to the instrument to respond to their own bodies.
  • They gain kinesthetic awareness of what correct and incorrect performance practice feels like, allowing them to better address problems that arise.
  • They understand the various ways in which tone and performance can be altered on the instrument in ways that often are not addressed until students are working on advanced techniques.

The teacher’s role in this exploration of the instrument is to provide the students with options to experiment with. Laura Hicken (Towson University) provides the following information for options to guide beginning students in this exploration.

Exploration options for beginning instrumentalists

Get students into the ballpark of the correct embouchure and posture, ensuring that pressure is limited, embouchure is roughly centered, the body is aligned (hips under shoulders) and relaxed, and air stream is from the lower abdomen.

When having students experiment with different set ups for playing, have them listen to the quality of tone and impact of the changes. The goal is to find the most relaxed, open, full tone possible with as little tension or pressure. Importantly, many of these variables are not visible to the teacher, so gaining kinesthetic awareness allows students to more readily explain what they experience and feel as they play.

Variable Manipulation Effect
Vertical mouthpiece placement Move mouthpiece up and down millimeters at a time Change clarity of tone
Horizontal mouthpiece placement Move mouthpiece left and right millimeters at a time Change clarity of tone
Mouthpiece angle Angle the shank of the mouthpiece (not head) up or down a few degrees at a time Change clarity of tone
Air direction Angle the air up or down with the lips (not head) Change pitch (angling down goes sharp, angling up goes flat) and clarity of tone
Air speed Speed the air stream up (cold air) or down (warm air) Change tone quality (fast=harsh, slow=weak), pitch (fast=sharp, slow=flat), and clarity
Corner firmness Tense or loosen the corners of the lips (leave the center to be relaxed) Change pitch (firmer=sharp, looser=flat) and clarity
Lip firmness Make the lips flatter (pull toward the teeth) or fuller (push corners forward) Change tone quality and clarity
Aperture size Adjust the hole between the lips Change pitch (smaller=sharp, bigger=flat) and clarity
Jaw/Teeth openness Open and close the teeth millimeters at a time Change pitch (closed=sharp, open=flat) and clarity
Tongue position Raise (say “eeee”) or lower (say “ahhh”) the back of the tongue Change pitch (high=sharp, low=flat) and clarity
Instrument angle Adjust the instrument toward and away from the torso Change clarity of tone
Arm angle Adjust angle of arms from the shoulders Change clarity of tone and comfort/endurance of playing

This section is derived from the work of Laura Hicken at Towson University.


For young players walking into beginning instrumental lessons, they often have had experiences in general music classes and life where musical play is common place. If you spend time with elementary school students, sing song chants, rhythmic activities, and spontaneous melody making are common. The structure of method book dominated beginning instrument instruction often discourages this sort of musical play as students are encouraged to play the right notes at the right time in the right way, as opposed to relying on their own creativity to guide their music making. This lack of encouragement of generative music making often discourages students from exploring their own abilities to improvise and create music as they become more experienced musicians. From my experiences in the classroom, many of my college students are reluctant to improvise or create music, because it has not been reinforced in their development as a critical skill, despite being one of the four artistic processes of the National Standards for the arts.

By incorporating musical play and improvisation throughout the beginning instrument process, students gain several skills.

  • They continue to see themselves as creatively capable musicians, retaining the characteristics frequently developed in childhood music activities.
  • They are able to utilize the skills that are available to them to create music, as opposed to being forced to develop skills for which they may not be ready. This is particularly important for young brass players who often push to play higher notes than their development allows in order to play notated music.
  • They are able to experience more advanced concepts for which their visual music literacy may not be prepared yet. Concepts such as dynamics, articulation, and complex rhythm can be used aurally before students are ready to experience them visually.
  • They are able to have music activities differentiated by their strengths and weaknesses, as they can choose what elements of music to bring or which they wish to leave for later.

Improvisation can start with students as soon as they are able to produce a sound on the instrument, and they should utilize whatever skills students currently possess. Early improvisations can emphasize imitation play and simple rhythmic patterns that require limited control of range and technical mastery. As students progress forward, these improvisation can exploit a wider range of skills and explore pitch, harmony, style, and form in relatively advanced ways that exceed what is typically presented in beginning instrument instruction.

One Note Jam

One note jams can be used in the first week of classes, as soon as students have developed the ability to produce a consistent pitch. When doing these activities, exact pitch is not a primary focus, and it is acceptable for some students to be on a higher pitch or partial than other students. The goal is to produce consistent tone and pitch with proper technique using full air support and limited tension.

Call and Response

An easy way to start with one note jams is through call and response activities. The call can be provided by the instructor or be rotated through members of the class. Providing beat based parameters (typically no more than 4 or 6 beats to start) is appropriate so that students develop rhythmic recall.

  1. The leader plays a short rhythmic pattern
  2. The class repeats that short rhythmic pattern
  3. If the pattern is played correctly, the leader shifts to the next student
  4. If the pattern is played incorrectly, the leader repeats the rhythmic pattern and the class imitates it

This sort of activity lets students be creative with limited proficiency or ability and encourages the development of an identity as a creative musician. The instructor should emphasize that all rhythms are appropriate, allowing some students to create very simple patterns (a single sustained note) while others create more complex, metrically solid patterns and others fall in and out of time. The call is always considered to be correct, leading other students to imitate what they hear rather than what they expect.

Jams with a back beat

Using software that allows for the creation and repetition of loops (e.g., GarageBand, SoundTrap, Audacity, etc), play a rhythmic back beat without a harmonic center. In small groups, students can take turns playing a one note jam over the loop, while other students are encouraged to imitate elements of the back beat, either vocally or on their instruments.

One note jam plus

Once students become comfortable with one note jams, they can be encouraged to experiment with stylistic alterations including the use of articulation or dynamics. These work particularly well in a call and response setting, as it serves as a way to introduce new elements to music learning aurally without needing to explicitly explain. Students should be encouraged to use the same experimentation practices described above to learn how to manipulate tone, articulation, and dynamic on their instruments in imitation of the teacher and of peers. Even “incorrect” sounds such as growls and under supported tones can be imitated as students learn about how they can alter the tone quality of the instrument through positive and negative modeling.

Call and Response Improvisation

As students start to learn notes, they can be encouraged to make up short melodies to teach to one another aurally. The focus in these activities is two fold: allow students to demonstrate their mastery of new notes and create music that they are comfortable with playing. In these call and response improvisations, students are given specific parameters (e.g., 4 counts long, use of first five notes in the Bb scale) to create short motivic ideas.  The rest of the class then imitates the ideas that are played, helping to develop aural skills for all students. Similar to the One note jam, there are no wrong ideas, encouraging students to explore their own creativity. Students will tend to want to start on tonic notes, so they should be encouraged to explore starting on various scale degrees and experimenting with different elements such as dynamics and articulations. In all activities, good tone production and authentic imitation should be encouraged.

Conversational Improvisation

Once students become comfortable creating musical motives utilizing their current skills and imitating one another, they can be encouraged to explore ways to respond to one another’s ideas. Conversational improvisation can be used as a logical extension of Call and response, with one slight change. Rather than literally responding to the call, the responding students should respond with a related musical idea. By performing in pairs, students can be encouraged to start to think not only about their own performance but how it relates to others. The teacher can provide guidance by pointing to how they should respond, which can be by using related melodic or rhythmic content, similar or contrasting articulations, complimentary shape or phrasing, or other characteristics. At this point, students move from improvisation as demonstration of skills to improvisation as a form of creative and responsive music making.

Improvisatory Composition

Drone Improvisation
  1. Start by having all students play a consistent drone. Perfect intervals work well for this, as it allows the soloist to create dissonance and consonances, but students should be encouraged to identify drone sounds that are interesting to them. Students should be consistent in playing the drone, but be encouraged to add rhythmic or dynamic elements that respond to the soloist.
  2. Taking turns, students perform over the class drone. This requires that all students are listening and responding to the soloist. The timid soloist may require a softer drone while the aggressive soloist can have a stronger drone. Using non-verbal communication, the soloist indicates that they are done with their solo through gesture or eye contact, thereby passing the melody to another student.
  3. As students become more familiar with this activity, they can be encouraged to solo in duets or trios, creating more complex melodic and harmonic contexts. Similarly, students should be encouraged to use conversational techniques to have solos and accompaniments respond to the style and character of what is being played and what has previously been played.
Theme and Variations

Using a melody from a method book, students create their own variations on single phrases of the melody. These can adjust note duration, pitch, interval, melodic direction, motivic repetition, expressive elements, or other details. Multiple variations can be strung together to create a theme and variations piece in which everyone plays the theme and then soloists each take a variation using a rondo structure.

Melody Builder
  1. Individual students or groups of students each create a short motive around specific parameters such as duration, tempo, or scale. These motives are solidified so students can reliably reproduce them.
  2. Students (or groups of students) play their motives for one another.
  3. One student serves as the composer who combines these motives to create different textures and patterns, allowing students to make a composition with a relatively small set of motivic ideas.



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Brass Techniques and Pedagogy by Brian N. Weidner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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