7 Improvisation Experiences for Young Children

7 Improvisation Experiences for Young Children

By Dr. Darla S. Hanley
Dean of the Professional Education Division, Berklee College School of Music; JEN Past Board Member

One of the new components of JEN is our focus on jazz for K-8 musicians. Our intent is to offer information throughout the year and at our conference designed to show how to engage young children with jazz music. Here are a few activities to try with young children that teach them the fundamentals of improvisation.

1. Replace the Phrase
Ask children to create scat syllables to replace a phrase in a familiar song. Example: Have them sing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho in a swing style and ask individual children to replace the “and the walls came tumbling down” phrase with scat. Ask children to sing Joshua on neutral syllables such as “doo” “bah” and “doot” instead of using lyrics and invite them to add their scat phrases.

2. Call-and-Response Conversations
Ask children to create cell phones using cardboard, Styrofoam, tin cans, or other arts and crafts materials. Have them form partners and “talk” to each other using scat syllables. Ask the child who is responding to listen to the sounds his/her partner is making and incorporate some of the same sounds (or similar) sounds in the response. Repeat asking children to converse over a blues progression.

3. Diamond Follow the Leader
Ask children to create 4-beat rhythm patterns with body percussion, instruments, found sounds, movement, etc. for others to imitate along with a track such as Rockit (Herbie Hancock) or My Baby Just Cares for Me (Nina Simone). Have them form groups of 4 and ask them to stand in a “diamond” formation. Identify the first leader and have him/her create patterns until you call “switch” where everyone turns to the right and a new leader begins.

4. Make a Chain
Provide a 4-beat rhythm pattern as the prompt for this improvisation. Distribute a variety of rhythm instruments and ask children to form a circle. Invite them to perform this 4-beat rhythm pattern on their instrument. Establish a steady pulse on a hand drum. Ask individual children (one at a time around the circle) to create their own 4-beat pattern to add to the chain starting from the top each time so all patterns repeat in preparation for the next/new one.

5. Improvisation Needs Vocabulary
List music vocabulary words (dynamics, tempi, rhythm instrument names, etc. ) on small cards and place in an empty saxophone case (or fishbowl). Ask children to draw a card each week to add to their class vocabulary. Have them write the words and definition in a journal or on a worksheet. Design an activity for children to improvise incorporating their new word and/or it’s meaning each week.

6. Riff off Children’s Books, Poems, and Chants
Identify children’s books, poems, and/or chants that feature jazz sounds, jazz artists, etc. Ask children to use their voices to explore different ways to read and/ or sing the text. Have them create their own phrase or use words in the text to accompany the book (Example: Read A Tisket, A Tasket [2003, Ella Fitzgerald, Ora Eitan, illustrator] and guide children to speak “tisket a-tisket, a-tisket, a-tisket” while you perform a swing pattern with brushes on a hi-hat. Read Before John Was a Jazz Giant [2008, Carole Boston Weatherford, Sean Qualls, illustrator] and ask children to speak the repeated text improvising with their voices by exploring vocal ranges, tone colors, and dynamics. Have them improvise bongo accompaniments as you read (or sing) This Jazz Man [2006, Karen Ehrhardt, R.G. Roth, illustrator).Ask children to read Jazz Baby [2006, Carole Boston Weatherford, Laura Freeman, illustrator] and then write their own verses using music vocabulary.)

7. Pentatonic Expressions
Remove bars from Orff instruments (xylophones) or use step bells to isolate only the notes in a pentatonic scale. Ask children to engage in call-and-response, fill-in-the-blank, or free improvisation within a specified pulse using this scale. Guide children to write a class pentatonic composition with “holes” to provide space for improvisation. Invite individual children to take solos in the “holes.

charlotte lang

Swiss/Dutch saxophonist Charlotte Lang was born in 1996 in Basel and studied the bachelor and master program at the JAZZCAMPUS Basel under the guidance of Domenic Landolf and Daniel Blanc. She is currently studying the Master of Music in Global Jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston under the artistic direction of Danilo Pérez. In addition she is part of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.


From 2015 to 2018, Charlotte she was a member of the Swiss National Youth Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Christian Muthspiel. Since 2020, she became a member of the German National Youth Jazz Orchestra (Bundesjazzorchester Deutschland), under the direction of Niels Klein and Ansgar Striepens. She also plays is the Austrian FJO (Frauen Jazz Orchester→Women Jazz Orchestra of Austria).


In 2021, Charlotte founded her own Quintet the „Charlotte Lang Group“, for what she is composing, arranging and booking. In the fall 2023, her first album will be recorded and hopefully released by a renowned label.


Charlotte plays in the “Swiss Jazz Orchestra” and the “Zurich Jazz Orchestra”, the two professional Big Bands of Switzerland.

Charlotte recently got the unique opportunity to write a monthly blog for the Swiss Jazz & Blues Magazine called JAZZTIME, to tell readers about her time at abroad and specifically her time at Berklee. Her graduate program lasts only until the summer of 2023. She hopes to stay in the United States to enlarge her network and build her musical career.