Musical Freeze Improvisations

This lesson is intended to teach improvisation and invention, and to introduce the idea of creating story from movement, rather than the other way around. It also works well as a warmup.


I developed this exercise from a non-musical version whose source I don't know. I think the music makes the exercise work much better.



Before class, you need to make a recording containing short snippets of contrasting musical selections--at least fifteen or twenty of them. This takes a lot of time, but you only have to do it once, and you will find lots of uses for the recording afterwards.


Playing the Game

At first, there is only one real rule: Whenever the music is playing, students are moving; whenever it stops, they freeze. (I suppose you could play so that anyone who fails to freeze is "out" but I don't, for the obvious reason that then those students are left out. If I encounter a group who needs the sense of competition as a motivator, I construct a teacher-vs-class system. If everyone freezes, the class gets a point; if not, I do.)


The instructor plays several snippets of music. Each will be different in character, and the students are encouraged to move "the way the music sounds." (This is a very useful exercise in itself, and with my youngest groups this is as far as I go.) Stress the importance of freezing instantly in whatever position you find yourself in.


After the group has got the hang of it, the teacher starts adding instructions during the freeze.


After the music stops and everyone freezes, the teacher says, "Go!" and each student launches immediately into a spontaneous improvisation, suggested by the position in which he or she is frozen.  Very Important--if the game is to fully work, it is important that students understand that their improvisation should be inspired only by the body position in which they find themselves frozen and not by whatever storyline or emotion they may have been thinking of while moving into that position.  That sounds like a subtle distinction, but I have found that all but the youngest children are able to grasp it.


It is trivially easy to demonstrate this concept, but very difficult to explain it in words--but I'll try.  Imagine, for example, that the particular snippet of music being played feels (at least to the particular student) martial and warlike, and the student has been moving in a way that involves slashing with and imaginary sword and stomping her feet.  When the music stops, she finds herself frozen at the extreme backswing of her sword play, with her right hand up by her left shoulder and her body leaning forward.  When the teacher yells "Go!" she uses this body position as the jumping-off point for an improvisation involving hoisting a heavy backpack onto her shoulders in preparation for a long nature hike.  Her improvisation has nothing to do with the martial feeling of the music--it is suggested only by the specific body position in which she finds herself.  Again, it sounds complicated, but I've never had difficulty getting children to understand it when I'm able to physically demonstrate it a few times.


Only let the improvisation go for a few seconds, then yell, "stop!" Start the next piece of music, and once again the students move to the music.


Repeat this many times, side-coaching as necessary to make sure the students are really letting their body position suggest their improvisations.


After this has gone on for a while, the teacher may say, "Let your next improvisation carry you toward another member of the group-for a real reason."


I usually end the lesson with an improvisation that brings everyone together in the middle of the space.



If this is first time I am doing this exercise with a particular group, I always discuss it with them afterwards. We discuss the way that the music enhances the exercise--because it creates more varied movement. Without the music--and the differences in the music--all of the "freezes" would tend to be similar, and thus the improvisations would lack variety. Why does music have so much emotional content? (Of course one can only have this kind of discussion with a fairly sophisticated group, but my middle-schoolers really get into it.)


My students are always begging to do this again.