Improvisation resources for the classroom

Improvisation resources developed for the Rhapsody in Ealing project in collaboration with Belvue School, Ealing Music, and Castlebar School

This blog post is part of a series of technology-based pieces from the Exchanging Notes project, in which we will share resources that have worked well in our accessible music sessions at Belvue School.

See this post for an overview of what we have been using so far.

One of our biggest challenges in using current music technology resources, such as iPads, is working around the expectations and affordances of on-screen instruments.

Apps such as ThumbJam and Garage Band are great for setting up a musical scale to play, with easy access for fingers, styluses, noses. However, for many young musicians using these apps for the first time, it can be quite difficult to break out of certain patterns of interaction – for example, swiping back and forth on the screen.

As a result, many teachers have commented that they find it difficult to facilitate meaningful musical experiences with the apps.

New ways of interacting with the screen

Cue cards in action with ThumbJam and a custom lilypad background at Belvue School.

One very successful approach at Belvue School has been the use of physical markers in the space, that are captured as images and used to transfer different interactions to the iPad. For example, jumping on cardboard lilypads, followed by mimicking the gesture with fingers, or creating graphic scores.

See these blog posts for more information about how that works and how to go about it:

A downloadable resource

In trying to address this issue on the default instrument screens (which usually consist of vertical bars to represent notes), I’ve created a few cue cards to use as a teaching resource. You can download them as a PDF by tapping the picture below.

These can be used in a number of ways;

  • at Belvue School, students have taken to sitting in pairs and passing them to their peers when they feel the need to shake up an iPad solo.
  • They can also be laminated and stuck to a surface with velcro (a bit like a communication aid), to choose from
  • They can be ordered to create a composition

They’re great fun to use as single cards, or two at a time when everyone is more familiar with them.

Tap on the image above to download the cue cards.

Ideas for how to use the cards

How you interpret the symbols on the cards is up to you, but here are some suggestions (using the “scale” mode on Garage Band, or default mode on Thumb Jam):

  • Down: move down from anywhere on the keyboard to rest your touch on one of the darker notes on the Garage Band, or the red note on Thumb Jam.  This is “home”.
  • Up: the same motion, but moving upwards from somewhere else on the keyboard.
  • Trill: choose two adjacent notes, and move back and forth. Try different speeds.
  • Fast: (yes, that’s a horse on wheels).  Use this in combination with other cards, or play anything you like…but you’ve got to be quick!
  • Slow: try moving slowly, perhaps taking time to think about what you’re playing.
  • Short: tap the screen quickly.  If you speak Italian, you might like to call this “staccato”.
  • Long: take your time holding the notes down.
  • Round trip: like up or down, start at “home”, go somewhere else on the screen, and come back.
  • Short and long: combine the cards of the same name above – maybe alternating to make a rhythm.
  • On the beat: get a pulse going with the iPad..maybe someone else with a drum can help make some rhythm
  • Pick three notes: getting a bit more advanced here..choose some notes and stick to playing only those for a little while.  They can be adjacent notes or not, but the further apart, the trickier it’ll be.

Techniques developed through the cards can transferred to other instruments, with the caveat that shouldn’t always be considered a progression – iPad apps are perfectly valid expressive musical instruments in 2018.

We’ve used them to help familiarity with pianos, and even xylophones and glockenspiels, but a bit more patience is required with those than with using the smooth screen of a tablet.  With a bit of creativity, you could even try marking out spaces on the floor and moving about a room with a Sound Beam!

These cards represent a crossover between two Youth Music funded projects based on a co-delivery format: Exchanging Notes and “Bright Future” in Essex.

They were developed in collaboration with music leaders from the local hubs as well as school teachers, and with a lot of feedback from young musicians. I never leave the house without them.

Your thoughts?

Please get in touch if you think they could be improved, or feel free to take this idea and make your own…

The version shown here was generated using the open source Instrument Maker Symbols set, which includes a variety of free images for download.  You can also find an HTML (non-printable version) here as an example of future applications.

I made the original set using OmniGraffle with emojis, but you may also wish to use an online AAC app such as Widgit to make a grid of your own pictures or built-in symbols.

Let us know on twitter at @weallmakemusic or @matthewscharles if you make anything similar!