Aural Skills and Improvisation Games for Teaching Online

Aural Skills and Improvisation Games for Teaching Online

Online lessons can be difficult, so why not take this time to experiment with some new and creative approaches to fostering musicianship in your students? During my treatise research into aspects of jazz pedagogy that can be adapted for classical lessons, I was introduced to methods that address aural skills, improvisation, and more. I’ve compiled some exercises here that may be fun to try with your students and that work for varying ability levels. They are organized into categories of patterns, improvisation, and aural skills. Sources from which the exercises were taken are included where appropriate. Read to the end for an interview with Jeffrey Agrell, professional horn player and author of nine books on turning improvisation into a game-based approach for classical musicians. Contact me directly if you have success with these exercises and would like a copy of my research!
-Lilly Haley, D.M.

patterns and matching pitch

Choose one octave of a scale. Alternate playing and singing each note of the scale: sing “do,” play “re,” sing “mi” etc.
Nicole Brockmann, From Sight to Sound: Improvisational Games for Classical Musicians, 27.

Students practice patterns with more areas of their brain engaged. Singing helps them to internalize the pitches and understand voicing, and muscle memory is built as the fingers must follow along during the sung notes. For students who have a particularly difficult time memorizing scale patterns, this exercise provides a different and, for some people, more efficient approach than unfocused repetition.

Play technical patterns or exercises for students and vary the articulation pattern, rhythmic grouping, or other musical element. Have the student repeat the pattern with the varied element. (Klug suggests focusing on only one element per lesson).
Howard Klug, Professor of Clarinet at Indiana University.

Students become familiar with how to listen for and respond to elements other than melody. They also become more comfortable with awkward or uncommon iterations of these elements, such as a tongue-two-slur-two articulation pattern.

Practice matching pitches. Begin by playing one note at a time for the student and gradually lengthen the pattern as they correctly match the pitches. Have the student focus on listening for the tone and timbre of your note and try to blend within your sound.
Jerry Coker, Improvising Jazz, 37.

Matching the pitch of another person who is playing the same instrument helps students develop a sense of relative pitch and the ability to associate individual timbres with notes on their instrument. Enhancing this relationship between kinesthetic awareness and aural skills that is essential to jazz improvisers benefits classical students because of the connection it fosters between multiple senses. The ability to blend with another player is crucial to success in any ensemble setting from a duet to learning to play second parts in orchestra to being a member of a large section within a band. This is also a great exercise for practical application of interval identification.


Create improvisations based on environmental inspiration. Examples include aural stimuli such as mechanical humming or buzzing, sounds produced by nature, people, or wildlife; visual stimuli such as color, shapes, movement, light and shadow; and emotional stimuli based on the mood or ambiance of the environment.

The student learns to be an active observer and instills the habit of maintaining awareness of all parts when playing with others, regardless of the size of the ensemble. The student will also learn to react rather than passively observe (or overlook) what is going on around them.

"Improvisation 28 (second version)" by Wassily Kandinsky, from

Record a vocal improvisation, periodically leaving long spaces in the music. Play along with the recording and fill in the rests with instrumental improvisations to complement the vocal ones. (This can also be accomplished by having the teacher and student trade phrases in a live setting).
Eugene Friesen, Improvisation for Classical Musicians, 5.

Classical students spend a great deal of time practicing and learning music alone. This exercise is an opportunity for them to create meaningful musical dialogue and practice reacting to an external stimulus when there are no other people around to provide those factors. The exercise also trains students to listen carefully to other parts when they are playing with piano or in an ensemble and to consider their own line as a relationship with those voices rather than as solo and accompaniment.

From Scribie Blog by Rajiv Poddar May 11, 2011

Choose a melody from a piece or etude on which the student is currently working. Play the melody in unison until both players have memorized it. One person continues to play the melody while the second player improvises a countermelody around it. Eventually, begin to add ornamentation and rhythmic freedom to the main melody.
Jeffrey Agrell, Improvisation Duets for Classical Musicians, 15.

Ornamenting a familiar melody is less intimidating for many students than improvising their own, and this can be an effective exercise to ease them into creating their own music. The freedom to manipulate the main melody also invites more dialogue with the countermelody improviser.

aural skills - auditory before visual

Transcribe solo pieces by ear and learn them directly on the instrument rather than notating them on paper or looking at sheet music first. Begin with slow, simple passages and progress to more difficult solos.
Jerry Coker, Improvising Jazz, 37.

While classical players’ standard repertoire is already written out and their study involves preservation and authenticity of multiple styles, transcribing recordings of pieces is just as advantageous to classical musicians as to disciples of jazz. The goal at first is not to make innovations to the music, but rather reinforce the kinesthetic-aural relationship described in previous exercises. In addition, learning a piece by ear provides the student a strong mental model (as opposed to only the visual representation of sheet music) with which to compare their own progress. They can efficiently learn to manipulate tone color, be flexible with time, use emphasis, dynamic range, articulation and air to craft a meaningful phrase using the aural models provided by recordings.

Print out several blank copies of a passage from a standard piece. These copies should be devoid of dynamic, articulation, phrasing, and other markings. Listen to different recordings and transcribe these elements into the parts.

Students actively compare the interpretations of different players. Usually performers are reacting to a visual stimulus (printed music) by producing an aural stimulus (making a crescendo, accent, etc.). This exercise encourages the opposite: assigning a visual representation to an auditory stimulus.

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