The following are examples of games we play during the one-day workshop or with music classes. Some work especially well with non-music students; the others are geared toward students that have some musical background. These games are adapted from a brilliant book by Bruce Adolphe called The Mind’s Ear: Exercises for Improving the Musical Imagination for Performers, Listeners and Composers. This book can be bought at

For non-music students with ClassNotes musicians:

Exercise: Choice and Subtext in two parts: Part one: a student volunteer says ‘hello, how are you?” in five different ways, as if:

  • Addressing a long lost friend,
  • Bumping into someone they were trying to avoid
  • Meeting someone they admired all their life and never expected to meet
  • Addressing someone they find attractive
  • Meeting someone who is about to interview them for an important job

Part two: a musician plays amazing grace 5 different ways, as if:

  • They had just won the lottery
  • They were worried about a sick friend
  • They were trying to impress a date
  • They were playing in the subway, trying to get people’s attention and make money
  • They’re a Yankees fan and the Red Sox just won the World Series

Double improvisation:

  • Two volunteers act out a scenario and the musicians must improvise the soundtrack beneath it.
  • Either the actors or the musicians can change the mood of the music, and the other has to respond accordingly.

Exercise: Conducting a speech.

  • The class is asked to recite this poem: Roses are Red, Violets are Blue. Sugar is Sweet and so are you.
  • A conductor is selected from the students. The conductor’s task is to shape a performance of the poem by using gestures to indicate tempo, range, color, dynamics, phrasing, pauses, etc.

For Music Students:

Hearing in Silence

  • The purpose of this game is to develop your mind’s ear… practicing your instrument is only useful if you are constantly measuring your own playing against an ideal that you hear inside your head. If you can’t clearly hear what you want in your head, you will never be able to attain it on your instrument.
  • Close your eyes. Hear (imagine) a scale. It goes up. It comes down.
  • Imagine now the scale is being played by a trumpet, by a violin, by a flute…
  • Imagine now, every note is being played by a different instrument.

Hearing Counterpoint

  • The purpose of this exercise is to show how difficult and important it is to perform and listen at the same time. As musicians we always need to be actively conscious and responsive of our colleagues around us.
  • Four volunteers are given a slip of paper with a sentence on it. They stand across from each other. On cue, they will repeat their sentence 4 times at a normal dynamic. The listeners must concentrate on the speaker opposite them and be able to repeat what was said.

Changing emotional context

  • The purpose of this exercise is to augment the emotional and creative possibilities in a performance.
  • A student volunteer plays an excerpt from a piece they are working on.
  • They are instructed to play the same phrase but imagine that the music contains a message in code that one member of the audience is waiting to hear. When he hears and understands the message, he will make a phone call that will save millions of lives. The player doesn’t know what the message is but does know that his/her playing is the vehicle by which the message is to be delivered.

Group Jam

  • Three volunteers. We show them the Dorian Mode. Player one plays an ostinato focused on the note D in a regular rhythm with a clear pulse. After that is established, player two plays long chords off the beat. Player 3 improvises a tune on top.
  • We join in.

Exercise: Moments of Truth

  • A melody with not too wide a range is written on a chalkboard. The first note is played for everyone to hear, and a metronome is set clicking at a comfortable tempo for sight singing. Everyone sings the first note, but then continues to HEAR the music in silence without singing. At unpredictable moments, we indicate that they are to sing out loud for a note or two. Then they return to silent singing until the indication to sing out loud is given again….