How to Empower Fearless Improvisers in the Classroom

Most adults fear public speaking more than death, so we shouldn’t be surprised when our students are afraid to improvise in front of their peers. If you feel stuck moving past this anxiety, a simple solution can transform your program.

JazzClubsNW Middle School Improv Lab playing Panorama
JazzClubsNW Middle School Improv Lab

Why do public performances feel like life or death even though our physical safety isn’t at risk? Because the prehistoric part of our brain is programmed this way. For early humans, rejection from a social group meant the risk of starving to death or being eaten by predators. Although it’s irrational, our brains are still wired this way. If we present improvisation a community-building activity, the prehistoric brain won’t put up a fight.

Make It a Game

When I teach workshops, I use musical games and activities to instantly connect with new groups of students. Over time, these games have developed into collaborative student compositions, independent jazz combos, and much more. Here are a few of my favorites to introduce early on:

Cartoon Trades

This game adapted from John Zorn’s experimental game piece Cobra. It’s a fun way to break the ice.

  • Arrange players in a semicircle (rows for a large ensemble).
  • Ask a musician to play/sing a short sound, the sillier the better
  • The the silly sounds get passed down the line
  • Set stopwatch to time how long it takes to pass the sounds through the entire ensemble
  • Try to beat your previous time.


  • Play staccato notes (any pitches)
  • Leave lots of space
  • Listen to the sound texture


  • Select a group of three or four players
  • On a conducted downbeat, each player sustains a long tone
  • On each conducted downbeat, players may switch pitches

Emotion Groups

  • Divide into groups of 5-6 players
  • Each group chooses an emotion to express through music
  • Give the groups a few minutes to strategize without playing their instruments
  • When each group performs for the class, ask the audience to guess the emotion


This comes from Butch Morris’s system of conducted improvisations called Conduction.  Learn more about leading Conduction here (page 174). It’s a brilliant way to engage concert ensembles.

  • Students play when the baton points toward them
  • Students rest when the baton is not pointed toward them

Channel Surfing

First, you’ll need to explain what life was like before YouTube!

  • Ask for a brave volunteer
  • Hand the volunteer an imaginary remote control
  • The volunteer points the remote toward an individual student and makes a sound effect to designate a channel change
  • The selected student is the star of her own channel. She may play a familiar song, improvise, make silly sounds, or play a scale. Anything but dead air.
  • When the student with the remote is ready to change the channel, he points the remote toward another student

Create your own games and ask the students to invent their own. Once students buy into the process, you have made a huge step toward empowering creative and independent artists in your program. If you direct a jazz ensemble, check out “Stack Your Jazz Ensemble with Soloists.

– ST

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