Education for Improvising
with Music & Conversation,
for Seniors and K-12 Students
In early-August 2022, this page — written by Craig Rusbult (PhD in Education) during life on a road less traveled — had two proposals, to help people improve their improvising of music and conversation.  But now it's been replaced by another page that is one proposal, for only improvising music.  I made this change due to recognizing that conversation activities would be very important personally (for seniors or K-12 students) and difficult to do consistently well, and I have low expertise in this area.  As explained in my current one-proposal page,
Why [did I change my proposal from music-and-conversation to only music]?  The change was due to my recognition that talking-activities should be done well (or not done at all), and doing them well would be difficult, plus my own justifiable humility in this area.   /    All conversation activities should be done well because conversation is relationally important, so it's personally important;  it can be “high stakes” emotionally, for people of all ages.    Due to the complexities of people and our conversations, doing conversation activities with consistently high quality – for most persons (who as a group have a wide variety of backgrounds, personalities, abilities) in a wide range of situations – would be difficult.    And conversation education is an area where I have much less expertise, compared with music education where I feel more confident.   /   For these reasons – because conversation activities would be personally important & difficult, and I have low expertise – I should approach conversation education cautiously, by humbly sharing ideas with others (who have more teaching expertise & experience) and mainly asking “what do YOU think?”, by contrast with my confident sharing-of-ideas in music education.



Below are some ideas – about possible conversation activities that were in my original page, along with comments (added later) in green text.


Two Kinds of Improvising, for Two Stages of Life

What?  People are natural improvisers.  Everyone improvises with conversation, and some people do it with music.  By working cooperatively with other educators, I want to help people – especially seniors but also K-12 students, the old and young – improve their improvising skills with music and conversation.     { I still want both of these, but now am thinking that I may have a more “direct” role with improvising music, but only an “indirect” role with improvising conversation.

Why?  Because music & conversation are fun.  And according to scientific research,* people get major benefits (mental, emotional, physical) when they listen to music & make music.  And when they have good conversations, usually the benefits are even greater.    {what we've learned about effects: summaries & links}  { the beneficial effects for young people & older people are similar, although not identical }

What?  Now I'm proposing education to only help people improvise music.  Why?  For most people, conversation is much more important than music, and that is a reason for me to be excited about helping people become more skillful in their conversational improvisation.  But it's also one of three reasons for caution, due to conversation's personal importance & its complexity, and my appropriate humility.  The complexity & importance are described in these pages (iou - later I'll select specific pages, but now will only link to a list of pages).

What?  In both stages of life, for people who are older & younger, many institutions (for example, senior living facilities & K-12 schools) already are doing some improvising activities for conversation and music.  I think a senior living facility typically should want to “do more” with both kinds of improvising.  But for a K-12 situation (in a classroom, school, district) educators must make tough decisions about how to invest their valuable resources (of time, people, money) by deciding whether they want to place more emphasis on helping students improve their skills with conversation, or music, or both, or neither.   /   a wide variety of contexts:  I'm saying "for example" because elderly people might be doing activities in a living facility or community center, at home, or elsewhere.  Similarly, young people can do activities in a variety of contexts, and so can people of other ages.  For simplicity, and because these are the main places where I want to promote improvising, in this page I'll focus on two contexts:  older people in a senior living facility, and younger people in a K-12 classroom.  More specificlly, I'll begin by describing conversation activities for seniors in a facility, although these kinds of activities can be adapted for seniors in other situations, and for people who are younger, in a K-12 classroom or elsewhere.

How?  Below are some strategies for helping people become better improvisers.  These general ideas will be customized by a teacher (e.g. in a living facility or classroom) to fit their specific situation and goals.    {an option - you can skip ahead to Improvising Music - during the time when my proposal included both conversation & music, when the page-focus was conversation by describing it first, and only later turning to musical improvising.}


Improvising Conversation

What?  education for improvising:   I define education broadly, as learning from life-experiences.  We can promote better education by helping people get more experiences, and learn more from their experiences with a growth mindset and in other ways.


Let's begin with one way to help seniors get more experience with conversations that – because we improvise during our conversing – will be improvised.    {and later we can do actions – to teach principles & facilitate activities – that will help them increase the improvisational nature of their conversations}

How?  by promoting experiences:   Imagine a bicycle wheel, with a center-hub, spokes, and rim.  This wheel is useful for analogy, to describe interpersonal interactions that are center-to-rim, and around-the-rim.  In senior living facilities, during most discussion activities a “sage on the stage” speaks, and residents listen.*  During these teaching activities the interactions are like wheel-spokes, with the staff's teacher (the center hub) mainly speaking to provide information, occasionally asking questions so residents (on the wheel-rim) can respond, but their actions are one-at-a-time, and typically only a few residents ever speak, only those who already feel comfortable with speaking.  {this tends to occur even if a teacher actively encourages participation by others}   /   When these activities – featuring the leader (at the hub) – are done well, they are valuable opportunities for learning;  they can be (and usually are) informative & enjoyable.  But a facility ALSO should have “guide on the side” conversation activities that stimulate conversations between residents (all around the wheel-rim);  if conversing occurs in multiple pairs all-at-once talking or listening if all are conversing in multiple pairs.  Or in a whole-group discussion around the rim, it's all-at-once listening with one-at-a-time talking that eventually can be done by all.  can-talk-at-different-times, and all-can-listen-at-once.    {another analogy uses ball-throwing to represent interactions during a group discussion;  in two minutes of this video from 13:39-15:29, the first two examples show a conversation that is hub-and-rim with only one spoke;  then you see a discussion that is “by the group” because around-the-rim conversation occurs, with the leader observing and helping the interactions only if it's needed.}    {* it's "most discussion activities" in my experience, as described later.}

Why?  to produce benefits:   These two-person interactions (or multi-person interactions in a discussion by the whole group) usually are very beneficial for residents, mentally & emotionally.  And the benefits will increase when staff encourages them to finish their interactions with an expectation that their during-activity conversations are “to be continued” with after-activity conversations.  These interaction-continuations are more likely to occur when a person discovers that their conversation partner is an interesting person, and talking with them is fun.  And the benefits will be multiplied when staff encourages them to actively seek interaction-beginnings in conversations with other residents. (and with staff)

How?  with multiple partners:   During a conversation session, each person can talk-and-listen with several partners.  One way to coordinate this is to give each person a number, and use a pre-planned way to assign partners, whether the number of people is 8, 17, 18, or 29.  If there is an odd number, you can have a group-of-three (either with one only listening, or all listening-and-talking), or – if there is more than one staff person – have one become a partner, while the other(s) observes what is happening in the pairs, and provides assistance (by answering questions, providing suggestions or feedback,...) if they think this will be useful.  Each conversation can be timed, followed by an exchanging of partners (according to the pre-plan) so each person gets to converse with several partners in each session.

How?  with knowledge about others:   A resident can discover the ways in which other residents "are interesting people" so "talking with them will be fun" during their conversation activities.  And during mini-activities in which each person does a personal introduction to explain “what they've done in life, what they have enjoyed doing and now enjoy, and so on.”  There can be a few intros in each session, so the whole intro-process is spread over many sessions.  Because most people, both old & young, are not comfortable with public speaking, the teacher(s) should help them, so it becomes a co-introduction.  A teacher can talk with each person before their self-introduction, thinking with empathy by asking themself “what will this person want others to know?” and “what knowledge will be most interesting for listeners?” and “what will help them become more interested in this person, and more likely to begin conversing with them?”  During this pre-intro interview, the teacher & resident can discuss their balance-of-talking, to decide how much person-talking and teacher-talking will be best.  And of course the balance can change during the actual self-introduction, with improvised adjusting.  Because remembering details is difficult for all people, both young & old, the teacher(s) can encourage listeners to take notes, and provide pads & pens during each session.   /   These self-introductions would be voluntary, with each person being able to “opt out” discreetly, by just never doing it.

How?  by providing conversation-topics:   Lists of topics are available on the web.  The teacher(s) can think about the pros & cons of various topics, and make their own short list.  Then they decide the topics to use for each session, probably using the same topic for all exchange-partners during a session, or perhaps changing topics.  Near the end of a session, they can describe the topic for the next session (and post it publicly) so people can think about the topic, so during the next session they can speak more intelligently and be more interesting as conversation partners.


iou - Below here, many paragraphs contain [[comments within double brackets]] to indicate incomplete rough-draft ideas (that function mainly as reminders for myself) that soon will be developed.   {and these iou's will remain for awhile - longer than originally expected - because I'm now less focused on developing ideas for conversational improvisation}    For example,

[[ seniors can benefit from talking with younger adults (including their own children) but... these young adults typically feel there is "too much to do and not enough time," so they often are not willing to spend much of their valuable time in conversations with seniors;   by contrast, seniors in a living facility typically have plenty of time, and boredom (with "not enough to do" instead of "too much to do") is a challenge, so promoting conversations of senior-with-senior can be mutually beneficial for them. ]]

[[ above is one way to stimulate more conversations among seniors in a private living facility;  but the situation will be different with seniors in a city's public community center ]]

[[ and the situation is very different in a k-12 school, where students freely interact with each other in hallways, during recess, lunch hour, and after school;  I won't say much about this here, now, mainly because teachers are the experts for deciding "what to do, when, how" for their students, when they "must make tough decisions about how to invest their valuable resources of [classroom] time" by deciding if they want to "help students improve their skills with conversation, or music, or both." ]]


[[ PRINCIPLES -- shared by a teacher for the purpose of helping seniors (or juniors) learn more from their experiences. ]]

[[ are there common principles for all improvising? ]]  There are some similarities between musical improvisation & conversational improvisation, and even more between comedy improv on-stage — that uses a key principle of “yes, and...” so a response continues the flow (with an affirming “yes”) while also (with a creative “and...”) moving it in a productive direction — and conversational improv in everyday life.


[[ the paragraph below will be condensed-and-revised, probably will be used in my main-page because a growth mindset is useful in all areas of life, including musical improvisation:

One of the best ways to learn more effectively is by developing-and-using a better growth mindset so — when you ask yourself “how well am I doing in this area of life?” and honestly answer “not well enough” — you are thinking “not yet” (instead of “not ever”) because you are confident that in this area of life (as in most areas, including those that are most important) you can “grow” by improving your skills, when you invest intelligent effort.  An effective growth mindset combines honest accuracy (in self-perception) with reasonable optimism (about being able to grow & improve).  ----  [[ when a person is beginning to improvise more, especially when it's in a new area, a little unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, maybe they will lack confidence, need a growth mindset to continue seeking new experiences, with an attitude of "learning from whatever happens" for perseverance. ]]


[[ working cooperatively -- I have appropriate humility in the context of improvising conversation & music, similar to what's described in working cooperatively with other educators to pursue shared goals in the broader context of education for problem solving. ]]

[[ I'm fairly expert in writing about musical improv* (but with very little experience in teaching it in-person), am learning more about conversational improv, claiming no expertise in this area.  {* How did I learn?  it happened through a life-long process, during my personal history with music. }  /  * but i'm expert only with writing about music improv, not in-person teaching. ]]