By Mim Adams
As a jazz singer, my first conception of improvising was that it’s impossibly fast. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald, one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, sing passages with expansive melodies and varied scat syllables filled me with joy and wonder – and terror. THAT’S what audiences expect me to do?
When vocalists learn about improvising it feels like we suddenly need to be masters of all the things: music theory, song structure, melody, rhythm, and expression. That’s a lot to handle, and it’s discouraging when we don’t get immediate results.
True, it’s going to take time and practice. But it’s worth it because improvising isn’t just a jazz thing. It’s everywhere in contemporary music styles, from lead singers riffing out on tunes to backup singers creating cool harmonies.
We can start by providing a space to explore where singing isn’t correct or incorrect; it simply is. Help your students build the confidence to sing without hesitation using these mini-improv strategies. BONUS: Try everything a cappella!
Begin lessons with “making sound” for 60 seconds. Suggest a sound (like humming or a vowel) but not a starting pitch. Students can sing one pitch or varying pitches, anything at all. This exercise can involve some gentle movements for relaxing the body and can be framed as getting the body ready for singing – which it does!
“Making sound” naturally transitions to a Full Voice favourite: Vocal Exploration Activities. Drawing fun lines on paper or a whiteboard and then singing them is a great way to get creative! Singers are given permission to explore the different sounds they can make with their voices, and can never be “incorrect.”
💡 Check out our free vocal exploration resource “Singing Spaceships” https://www.fullvoicemusic.com/product/singing-spaceships-2/
For familiar exercises or sight singing, ask your student to choose the starting pitch and sing it without assistance. Let them hold that pitch for 5 to 10 seconds so they can secure it and remember it, then sing the exercise (with or without your help as needed).
When repeating the exercise ask your student to choose each new starting pitch instead of guiding them by semitones with the piano. To access different vocal registers, you may need to prompt younger singers with suggestions such as “How about we try a very low starting note?”. Prompts for more experienced singers might be “Can you find a starting note that will take the exercise into your high voice?”.
Sing a familiar exercise and take note of the pattern. Perhaps it’s a scale in quarter notes or a triad in half notes. Describe (don’t sing) a variation to your student and let them sing it. When they’re ready, encourage them to create their own variations.
Rhythms: A new pattern could be as simple as adding a fermata or singing at a different tempo. A more complicated pattern could be alternating between two note values or inserting some rests.
Melodies: Try choosing a few pitches to sing twice in a row. An experienced student could try adding the neighbouring tone for each pitch.
Sounds: Get creative with tones or words. What if we sang this like an owl? Or like an alarm clock?
When we apply these mini-improv strategies, we allow our students to have agency over their vocal instrument. They get to make choices and experience the sounds in their ears and bodies.
That’s not scary; that’s fun!