Improvise a Short Story

Estimated Time:  Four 45-minute class periods


Wynton Marsalis captures the essence of jazz in Episode One of the PBS Ken Burns JAZZ documentary when he says: “The power of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create improvised art. They can negotiate their agendas with each other, whereby the negotiation is the art. Or in other words, the musicians create a musical conversation in the language of music.” Jazz—a truly American art form rooted in the blues—is at its core an improvisational art. It swings, and is forever evolving.

In this lesson, students learn that improvisation is a highly structured art from that requires a great deal of practice, awareness in the moment and an awareness of those that you interact with musically. By viewing selected portions of the PBS Ken Burns JAZZ documentary, students gain an understanding of the stylistic variety, historical context, and pure genius of the great jazz musicians. The lesson will culminate in an improvised group short story, group discussion, and a student-led musical improvisation.


  • To listen to, analyze, and describe music.
  • To evaluate music and music performance.
  • To practice improvisational skills while writing a short story.
  • To understand relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
  • To collaborate and create an improvised group short story.
  • To improvise a musical piece on found objects.

Materials Needed

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Electronic keyboard with sequenced percussion rhythms
  • Recording device (could be any of the following: tape deck, writable CD player, digital disk recorder)
  • “Found” objects to create a percussion ensemble. Some suggestions for sounds are:
    a) Rubber/plastic trash barrels
    b) Pots, pans, and wooden spoons
    c) Whisks and cheese graters
    d) A box of matches
    e) Plastic pop bottles


  • This lesson correlates to the national McREL standards located online at


    • Demonstrates competence in improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
    • Demonstrates competence in listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
    • Demonstrates competence in evaluating music and music performances.
    • Demonstrates competence in understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
    • Demonstrates competence in understanding music in relation to history and culture.

    Language Arts

    • Demonstrates competence in speaking and listening as tools for learning

Procedures and Activities

  1. In music, improvisation is a speech (solo) or dialogue (ensemble performance) created on the spot; in public speaking or drama, this is like ad-libbing a scene, or delivering an extemporaneous speech. For additional information about musical improvisation, students may refer to the article on improvisation on the PBS JAZZ Web site. To bring this point home, have students sit in a circle and create a collective impromptu short story. 
  2. As a musician would pick a key signature to play or sing in, the teacher or students should pick a topic for the students’ short story. Examples include:
    • The school dance on Friday the 13th
    • Your pet ferret
    • The chemistry lab that created a new _________?
    • The choir trip to Indonesia


  3. One student in the circle should start the story. Students will then follow in order around the circle continuing the story as their turn arrives. The story should have a beginning, middle, and end, and flow as if it were coming from the same voice. Therefore, the students should develop their sentences with the structure of the short story in mind. If just two people are completing this activity, follow the same guidelines, but view this as a challenge to create as one voice. 
  4. As the students become more comfortable with this activity, try a new topic and add pulse to the delivery. This could be achieved by using an electronic keyboard that has sequenced drum or rhythm sounds. Have the students deliver their sentence in a rhythmic pattern that fits with the percussion sounds that are sequenced. This could become a rap. 
  5. Record this process to play back to the students during the second class period. 
  6. Use this recording as a discussion starter:
    • How did it feel to speak a line of the story without time to prepare? 
    • Did the percussion sequence add or remove pressure in the performance? 
    • How did the responsibility of outline, common voice, and integrity of the theme affect your thoughts while you were performing? 
    • How might these feelings compare to those of a jazz artist who improvises? 
    • Just like the story telling in this class activity had “rules” and guidelines, how would that manifest itself in the jazz experience? 
    • Would the style of jazz change the rules of the improvisation? 

      Does improvisation take intellect and practice, is it a natural gift that seems to flow more readily from some people, or is it random free music?


  7. How do musicians communicate? Whether it is a big band or a jazz trio, there is a band or ensemble leader who will often make major musical changes in the piece during the performance. For example, a well-seasoned married couple is often able to speak volumes to each other with a variety of non-verbal gestures and knowing looks. So it is with jazz musicians! The more time spent on the gig together, the greater their vocabulary of non-verbal communication, and sensitivity and awareness of each other. Have students list what issues they would need to be communicated or directed on the stand at a gig in a non-verbal way. This list should include:
    • identifying who is playing the solos;
    • indicating when a solo is done;
    • cueing when the song is about to finish;
    • cutting off the end of the piece (as Louis Armstrong does at the end of Episode Two of JAZZ); and,
    • cueing dynamic, tempo, harmonic, or style changes.

    Have the students then demonstrate how they might signal each of these non-verbal cues.


  8. Students will then create their own musical improvisation. Create a “found” sounds percussion ensemble by going to the PBS Continental Harmony Web site at a musical style, tempo, and form for this composition. An example might be: Hip Hop at a tempo of 80 for the quarter note. Use an ABA form. The A section would include the entire ensemble playing the grove together. The B section would have a few fundamental instruments sustaining the groove, as each student takes their turn at an 8 bar solo.


  9. This improvisation should have two differing structures: the first with a set, predetermined form and the second more flexible, with a student director giving non-verbal cues that determine who is soloing and in what order, change in dynamics, and definition of the end of the piece. 
  10. Ask students to list other activities they participate in that use non-verbal communication in collaboration with others. The list could include:
    • Baseball, synchronized swimming, or other sporting teams
    • Dramatic productions
    • Dance studio, dance line, ballroom dancing, etc.

Assessment Suggestions

  • Students should have completed all assignments, and actively participated in all discussions.


  • Students should contribute their sentence(s) to the collaborative content.


  • Students should further the development of the story, acknowledging the formal structure in their contribution.

Extensions / Adaptations

  • Students could record with audio a number of improvised short stories and transcribe the text. This text could be evaluated for flow of content, adherence to a structural outline or derivation from the original topic.


  • Students could create collaborative, improvised digital artwork (stand-alone, or as accompaniment to the stories created above).


  • Students could engage in some “virtual” collaboration by creating improvised stories with students in other states or countries. E-Pals is one service that connects classes in different areas to encourage collaboration.


  • View the movie Tap, and have students compare the improvisatory tap scene on the second floor of the dance studio with all of the old great “hoofers” to any scene from the JAZZ series that includes improvisation. Students could then discuss musical, cultural, and formal similarities and differences.

About the Author

Brett Smith’s sixteen years of teaching classroom, vocal, and instrumental music, have been broad and varied including each grade level of K-12 students as well as College instruction. Teaching assignments have included suburban and rural settings, with his present duties focusing on elementary classroom music in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Brett received his B.A. from Gustavus Adolphus College and his M.A. in Music Education from the University of Minnesota. In October of ’99, Brett was named the Minnesota Teacher of the Year, and went on to become one of the four finalists for the 2000 National Teacher of the Year. He is the President-elect of the Minnesota Music Educators Association.

All content in this curriculum provided by PBS. Chiaroscuro is not responsible for the content provided therein. Any questions, contact

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