Telling Stories Composing at Home (Young Instrumentalists) >

In this activity you will explore solo improvisation and musical storytelling, taking inspiration from Syrinx for solo flute by Claude Debussy. Resource created by Ben Markland.

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In 2018, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) commissioned a series of new pieces inspired by the French composer Claude Debussy at part of a festival of his music in Birmingham. Each composer was asked to respond to Debussy's music in their own way. Here is the Korean composer Jungeun Park talking briefly about her new composition, Tombeau de Claude Debussy:

In this activity you will use Syrinx by Debussy as the inspiration for improvising and composing your own music. Debussy composed Syrinx for solo flute in 1913. The piece tells the story, from ancient Greek mythology, of the god Pan and Syrinx, a water nymph who transforms into a reed pipe which Pan plays.

pan and syrinx

Listen to this performance of Syrinx by Juliette Hurel. NB when you click it, it will just play an extract not the beginning. Click on play it in Spotify to hear from the beginning. 

Look at the extract from the score below and notice the repetition of rhythms and melodic ideas as marked on the score. 


Syrinx begins with a two-bar phrase (see and hear below). It uses a range of note lengths and a repeated rhythmic cell. You will be using this later to improvise with.syrinx 1 1


For a PRINTABLE version of this resource CLICK HERE

Your Turn!

For many composers, composing starts with improvising at the instrument. Not only is improvisation a great way to get started composing, practising improvising is really rewarding as it develops your ability to multitask, builds your musical memory and vocabulary, allowing you to enjoy and be more in control of the creative process. In this activity you are going try some improvising exercises before composing music for your own story.

Warm-up exercise - noodling!

Without thinking too much, start to play your instrument, improvising and exploring the range of sounds you can make. Musicians often describe this as noodling. It’s like doodling, where you let your mind wander and allow yourself to explore musical shapes and patterns, experimenting with how you can connect ideas and sounds. It might help to draw doodles to inspire you:

syrinx image 1   syrinx image 2.jpg   syrinx image 3

Listen again to Syrinx. Did you notice the range of expression in the performance? Using dynamics, changes in articulation and techniques like vibrato can really bring a performance to life. Try another musical doodle using as much expression as possible in your improvisation.

Questions and Answers:

Making a structure for your solo improvisation can be challenging. Try this improvisation game to create a musical conversation.

  1. Play a short musical idea on your instrument – this is the question.
  2. Repeat the question. It could be an exact repeat or varied in dynamic, tempo, articulation, or even transposed.
  3. Now, answer the question. This could be a single note, a new idea or something related to the initial idea e.g. retrograde (backwards) or inversion (upside).
  4. Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3. Try to develop new questions and answers each time. If you get stuck, repeat questions and answers.

Record yourself using your mobile phone or another device. Listen to your performance. 

  • How did you do? 
  • Were the repeats effective? 
  • Could you remember what you played?
  • How could you develop this way of working? 
  • Try it again

Rhythmic patterns:

Previously we saw and heard the first two bars of Syrinx: Starting with one note on your instrument, choose 2 or 3 of ideas from A, B and C. Improvise a rhythm. It might start something like this:

syrinx 2 1

Choose the tempo/speed carefully. You could:

  • Reverse rhythm A
  • Contract and expand rhythm B
  • Try different versions but only use the same given material
  • Experiment with the articulation, tempo and duration
  • Introduce other pitches to your rhythm

As Debussy did, choose your own characters, story and compose a piece using some of the techniques explored above: noodling, repetition, questions and answers, expression, rhythmic structures. Can you notate your ideas?

Please send any music you create to