Susan Riley | June 2013

The Improvisation Frame: A Music Arts Integration Strategy

The Improvisation Frame, A Music Arts Integration Strategy, Education ClosetOne of the most critical benefits to the arts is the ability to experiment – to improvise – and yet this is usually one of the first things that teachers who use Arts Integration avoid because of it’s messy nature.  It may not be “right”.  To assist with this critical process, I created a simple strategy to help classroom and music teachers alike use improvisation as a strategy for connecting the arts to other areas.  It’s called the Improvisation Frame and I have used it successfully in both my music classes and with math and language arts classes. It provides just enough structure to keep the process together while allowing for the creativity we yearn to nurture.

The Improvisation Frame

The key to improvisation is in knowing the elements of music well enough that you are able to combine them without rehearsal within a loose structure.  The structure, or frame, is what keeps everything together.  Without this, the improvised piece has no direction or clear pathway.  In this strategy, students improvise (create on the fly) a musical composition in a specific length of time using a combination of 4 different musical elements or skills.  It encourages originality and risk-taking while simultaneously providing some parameters from which to work.

Step-by-Step Directions:

  1. Create a “frame” of students.  Rather than asking students to form a circle, ask them to form a rectangle or square.  This becomes your human frame.
  2. Assign each side a specific musical rhythmic value, element (forte or piano), or process (crescendo, diminuendo).
  3. Ask one student to move to the center of the frame.
  4. The student in the center needs to improvise a 4-8 beat phrase using only the pieces that make up the frame.  For instance, if your frame represents musical rhythmic values and one side is a quarter note, one side is an eighth note, one side is a quarter rest and one side is a sixteenth note, those are the only note values the student in the center can choose for their improvisation.
  5. The frame performs their assigned element, skill or process while the student in the center performs their 4-8 beat improvisation.  Once the student is finished, they may choose another student to take their place.

The Improvisation Frame, A Music Arts Integration Strategy, Education Closet



You can vary this strategy by having groups of students perform an improvisation at the same time, using instruments, or combining elements and processes in the frame – the possibilities are endless!  You can use this to teach problem-solving in math by improvising word-problems with specific numerations. Or, operations inside the frame.  You could use this to teach various forms of poetry using assigned syntax or symbolism.  Or, you could use this as a way to develop the creative writing process through main idea and details.

Let’s get rid of the fear of being wrong and embrace the multiple opportunities for right in our classroom.  Provide a simple structure and then let go – it’s time to let our students’ creativity shine through the frame!

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan