Composition and Improvisation: Oliver Twist

Composition and Improvisation Using Rhythmic Dictation Cards in First and Second Grade: Oliver Twist 

Dr. Paul Cribari 

One of the most common questions I get as a Level I teacher, is “How do you get young kids to start improvising?” A simple, concise, and easy answer is, of course, impossible. By starting early, however, and structuring activities that are engaging while remaining accessible, children can learn to improvise and compose in ways that are fun and manageable. 

One of my favorite activities to do with late first or early second-graders involves the traditional rhyme “Oliver Twist.” This poem is typically performed in compound duple meter: 

Oliver Twist

For the purposes of this lesson, however, I alter the meter to be in duple meter:

Oliver Twist

Initially, we learn this poem while walking the different note vales (eighth, quarter, half) and saying the poem. We also stop moving on “Touch your knees” and do the actions for the remainder of the poem. It is at this point that I also introduce the iconic notation for quarter, eighth, and half notes. In my first and second-grade classes, these notes are called “running,” “walk,” and “stretch” notes respectively. This terminology is advocated for by Warner (1991) because it mirrors the movement the children been doing for each of these notes in previous classes. Whatever system you use in your own classroom will also work!  

Keetman (1970) and Warner (1991) also describe the use of “building bricks” or ‘houses” as a system for defining meter in early rhythmic notation experiences. In my time at The Key School (where Warner built the music program in the 70s and 80s), these houses in the meter of two and three are printed on laminated cardstock, and cards containing eighth, quarter and half notes are cut to fit exactly within the “rooms” (beats) of the houses. Since leaving Key, I have continued to use these houses in my classroom, and have added the corresponding rests to the other side of each note card. This way children may also explore the various rests possible with these three rhythmic values.  

Each child receives two houses, two half note cards, four eighth note cards, and four-quarter note cards. The children are always excited to hold and play with the manipulative, so I like to give them time to look them over and explore. They are often intrigued by the corresponding rests that are written on the back of each card, the many possibilities that exist in terms of what combinations of notes will fit, how some of the notes can be put in upside down, etc.  

The first experience I like to do with the cards is a simple dictation. I will clap and say what I want them to put in the houses (e.g. “Walk, running, running, walk”). Once I see the majority of the class has settled on the correct answer, I show them the answer on the board. Quickly, however, I like to let the children assume control of the lesson. This might mean having a child come up and share their answer at the board, try to write their own, and have me guess it, or even do a dictation for the rest of the class. Along the way, I begin to challenge the students by making my voice softer and softer until only the clapping remains.  

In another class, we revisit “Oliver Twist” through continued exploration of quarter, eighth, half notes in our feet. This time, however, the poem gains a melody: 

Oliver Twist

Once again, I pass out the notation house cards. Instead of using them for dictation exercises, though, I ask the children to each create their own idea. We start singing the song, but when we come to the phrase “Clap your hands and away you go” I sing “Clap your houses, and away you go!” At first, the children may be confused about the expectation here, or unable to keep a stead beat over the din of the other children. With repeated attempts, however, I have found that children can do this with remarkable accuracy. 

In Orff-Schulwerk: Applications for the Classroom, Warner (1991) describes a number of activities that you can use to expand this idea. With my first-graders, I ask them to combine their two houses with those of a partner to create a new row of four. Initially we play a game with this where the children change their houses each time the melody is sung, and need to be ready to clap their new answer by “away we go.” This game serves an opportunity for improvisation as well as a reinforcement of phrase length. Ultimately, the students are asked to settle on a solution that they find enjoyable. This composition becomes the basis for later work. First, I ask them to copy their answer down onto a piece of paper. This is a good exercise in practicing manuscript, and allows the students to return to the exact same answer the next time they come to class.  

In second-grade classes, we have developed these rhythmic compositions into melodic compositions through improvisation activities at the barred instruments – It should be noted that while writing the rhythmic compositions works well in pairs, I have found this activity to be easier as a solo project. Once the students are comfortable with their rhythmic compositions, they sit with a barred instrument. In my classroom, I have found it helpful to scatter the students around the room with an instrument so that they can hear themselves better.  

Before improvising at the instruments, I have students review their composition by first “clicking” their rhythm with their mallets. Next, they click their composition, but substitute a “C” for the last click. Next, I ask them to choose a C or G for their first note and click the remainder of the piece, while still ending on C. With these two anchors in place, I give the students multiple opportunities to improvise melodies to their individual rhythms. Once again, I use “Oliver Twist” as a unifying element; each time we get to the end (which we now sing as “play your houses” the students improvise a melody to their individual rhythm. After several attempts, I ask the students to identify ideas in their improvisations that they find themselves playing again and again. This is also a good opportunity to let them know that if they have not started settling on an melody, they should try to start organizing their ideas.  

This process continues until students have an eight-beat composition that is their own. As the students are working on their individual compositions, I alternate between having the class do a “group practice,” and having them perform for me while the rest of the class continues to work. This individual performance time gives me the opportunity to offer specific feedback and assistance, as well as a chance to assess what skills student’s have mastered and what skills need additional future practice. 

The possibilities for this project are truly endless. I don’t think I’ve ever done this composition the same twice! Other possibilities we have tried in my classroom include:  

  • Sharing compositions with the rest of the class as part of a larger rondo. 
  • Expanding the compositions to become eight, or sixteen measures. 
  • In the melodic compositions, this is an opportunity to work with “question/answer.” 
  • Exchanging compositions with other groups for practice in sight-reading. 
  • Making final drafts as gifts for parents/grandparents/special friends. 


 Keetman, G. (1970). Elementaria. London: Schott. 

 Warner, B. (1991). Orff-schulwerk: Applications for the classroom. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.  

Paul Cribari

Paul Cribari is an Orff Schulwerk teacher in the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado. There, he teaches kindergarten through fifth grade, conducts the school choir and leads the Advanced Percussion Ensemble. In addition to his work with children Dr. Cribari teaches levels I, II, and III of Orff Schulwerk at Southern Methodist University, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the San Francisco International Orff Schulwerk Course.

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  1. Krista Salzer on August 30, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    This is great! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Kim Hohensee on August 30, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    Paul – Do you have a picture you would be willing to share or email me that shows an example of the manipulatives you mentioned in this lesson? (Houses, note cards, etc.) Email: Thank you.

    Kim Hohensee
    Music Educator
    Boulder Valley School District
    Broomfield, CO

  3. Eileen Freedman on August 31, 2017 at 6:35 am

    HI Paul, this is exactly what I was looking for! I love the idea of houses and the possibilities that you have! If possible, would you be able to send me a picture of what the houses look like? I imagine I have a good idea already, but I’d love to see yours. Also, when creating the notes/rests cards, what is your method for getting the fronts and backs printed out correctly? I am not quite gifted in that department!
    Thanks for an awesome lesson 🙂 Eileen

  4. Elke D on September 4, 2017 at 2:39 pm

    Fun! Would you mind posting a picture of what your “houses” look like?

  5. Eileen Freedman on September 5, 2017 at 10:42 am

    Could I see what the houses look like? Do you have a template to share?

  6. Paul Cribari on September 18, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Thank you for your enthusiastic responses to this article! I have had many of you ask for a template of the house, and what the accompanying cards might look like.

    Recently, I have started having my students create their own houses and cards. In my experience, I have found that the students are much more engaged in the process and take a great deal of ownership in the learning. This system also offers the additional benefit of offering students the opportunity to practice making the notes and rests themselves.

    With that being said, I have uploaded a template for your reference on my website: You will find two links to downloadable PDFs on the front page. I hope this helps you as you look at how this amazing tool can be used in your classroom.

    As I mentioned in the article, please also refer to Brigitte Warner’s “Orff-Schulwerk: Applications for the Classroom, and Gunild Keetman’s “Elementaria” for further information on this tool!

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