Some quick impressions 3 weeks into the project:
This week I announced a surprise playing test for beginning orchestra. Pretty simple--play a D major scale, play Twinkle Little Star and play a piece of my choosing. As students arrived they saw the pop quiz announcement and unpacked quickly to prepare. I could hear a difference in the group's sound even during warm-ups.
The students played for me one at a time. The rest of the class continued their individual practice. A happy cacophony. Another difference--they are making more sounds during down time. Some new tunes; some noise. Right now I think any sounds are good sounds. As for the playing test, I was astonished to hear every single student play with a well developed tone. I observed some technical issues such as droopy violins and make-do bow hands. But they all seemed comfortable playing their instruments. That is such a plus!
What have we tried so far? We experimented with volume of sound. How loud can you play? How soft can you play? We've also tried moods--playing with characters or playing with emotions. Without discussing the technical aspects we've tried to make our instruments sound happy, sad, tired, scared, proud. And we learned that adding mood impacts tone production. We are conveying feeling and that covers an enormous range of sound.
It could be that after 20+ weeks my students would feel more at home with their instruments in spite of the improv project. Certainly there will be improvements after a semester of lessons. How about this?--Improv is a great way to Improve! My guess is giving students permission to wail away on their instruments in class has carried over to home practice. I'll bet they are playing louder, stronger, and more courageously at home. My hope is by taking them out of the book and off the page we can find the spark that made them choose an instrument in the first place. They're making more sound--and that's what makes them sound like musicians.