Ready… set… listen!

Ever sat and listened silently for an extended period of time with a class of 8 year olds? In the cafeteria where they normally get to talk with their friends as much as they want? I wasn’t sure about how this was going to work with elementary school kids, but I was convinced: in order to have an effect on noise levels in any space, you start by listening. So if the project Sound Bites aims to reduce the noise levels in the Coronation Elementary School cafeteria, we need to make listening fun and engaging for the students…

Ready… set… listen!

It is a fairly ambitious task to ask 20 or so children under the age of 12 to sit and listen in silence for any length of time, so music teacher Connie Wilson and I took great care into setting up the following activities for success.

“Anybody want to do a treasure hunt?”

The kids were all in.

Sound Treasure Hunt

  1. Before playing the sound treasure hunt, ask students to name any sound they hear (e.g. a sneeze, a car horn honking, shuffling feet).
  2. Ask students to identify a sound they hear frequently in this room, and not say it out loud. Pick one student to ‘play’ the sound while everyone else covers their eyes (e.g. eraser on whiteboard, chair scraping, percussion mallets clacking against each other). Ask for volunteers to guess what the sound was.
  3. Ready… set… listen: Over a two-minute period, sit quietly and listen. Then, ask students to write or draw the sounds they heard. If they have trouble remembering what they heard previously (I do!), they can write or draw any sounds they are currently hearing. Ask volunteers to read their list or describe what they heard. Notice the similarities and differences in what students hear.


Use a visual aid to show where you are in the two minutes period to avoid the inevitable question ‘how much longer?’

Adapt the length of time to your group. I prefer several listening periods of shorter time frames so the treasure hunt is different every time. Given how much how quickly sound changes in an elementary school, one two-minute treasure hunt could feature the janitor walking down the hallway with a trolley, greeting a few kids, while the next might be about the sounds of the heating system starting (reluctantly), and the next basketball practice in the gym down the hallway.

Brainstorm a number of distinct acoustic environments to listen to that are within easy walking distance. Repeat the treasure hunt in each location, writing and drawing the sounds of each. Discuss, comparing locations.

For Sound Bites, we chose to listen to a stairwell, the library, and two different locations in the cafeteria. The kids floored me with their enthusiasm and acute ears. As you can see in the images in this post, their responses are amazing, complex and varied, and say as much about each individual as it does about their school.

Spotlight: Coronation Sound Bites

Sound Bites collage by Louise Campbell

Picture a large room: concrete floor, low tile ceiling, bare plaster walls, tables lined with stools, a wall of industrial fridges and an attached commercial kitchen. Imagine the accompanying sounds: hums, buzzes and the metallic clanks of a busy kitchen. Now imagine the same room filled with 100 or so kids eating lunch, anticipating going outside to play. The enthusiasm and efficiency of this room are laudable; the sound levels impressive. I’m excited to be Artist in Residence for Sound Bites, a School Hosts an Artist project aimed at reducing the noise level in this room, Coronation Elementary School’s cafeteria.

A school cafeteria is similar to a restaurant or a bar – there are a lot of people in an enclosed space, usually with a fair amount of background music and/or noise. People talk loudly so they can be heard by their friends, which means other people talk louder in turn. In brainstorming with science teacher and visual artist Shelly Sharp, we came up with the following focus questions:

“How does sound affect our well-being? What can we do as artists, students and adults to understand and positively impact sound quality and volume in the Coronation Elementary lunchroom?”

These questions fall perfectly into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math), as sound touches on issues of awareness, self-expression, behaviour, group dynamics, acoustics, and more. Students had previously studied molecules and transfer of energy, so sound waves and acoustics built on their prior knowledge.

The following experiment uses a marble as a model for a sound wave to learn about reflection, absorption and dispersion of sound.


    • marbles
    • 3 different materials of similar dimensions (e.g. wood, squishy foam, corrugated cardboard)
    • Tape measure


Place the materials against a wall. Mark a spot on the floor to shoot marbles from, keeping the distance between marble-shooter and materials consistent. Shoot the marble three times against each of the materials, letting the marble roll to a stop after it bounces off the material. Measure the distance of each shot and record. Depending on the age of your students, crunch the data as you see fit.


Ask students for observations:

      • How did the marble bounce off the materials?
      • What were the similarities and differences between the different materials? Why might this be the case?
      • How does this relate to:
        • the room you are currently in and how it sounds?
        • a quiet environment like a library?
        • a loud environment like a cafeteria?

This experiment gave us a great hands-on beginning to discussing sound. Next up, we’ll visit the cafeteria in Music class and take a listen…

Let me tell you a story…

Peter and the Wolf is a simple fairy tale – or is it so simple? Fairy tales come out of traditions and cultures from around the world. They tell stories about everyday life for purposes of entertainment and jokes to teaching life lessons, values, culture and history. Like all stories, who tells the story, who it is being told to, and where and why it is being told is just as important as the story itself. Big questions when presenting Peter and the Wolf to today’s kids! CLICK HERE for the pedagogical guide I authored for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal on Peter and the Wolf, featuring ideas for games, cultural mediation, cross-curricular competencies and more…

Droning on…

Circle games come out sounding very different depending on group dynamic. Some groups tend towards close imitation, leading to gradual evolution over time, playing with one or two of musical elements at a time. For example, if a group fixes pitch and focuses on changes in duration and dynamic, the group sound can become very drone-based, with gradually shifting timbres based on instrumentation. This is when droning on is definitely a good thing.

Campbell: Circle Game variations. Players play a fixed pitch (e.g. concert G) with a crescendo-decrescendo note shape. Overlap notes and breathe as necessary.

A different dynamic shape will create a very different sound. You can lead a different dynamic shape either by playing it or by suggesting it in words or images.

Campbell, Circle Game variations. Players play a fixed pitch (e.g. concert G) with the dynamic shape of a crescendo. Overlap notes and breathe as necessary.

We can flip the paradigm and fix a different element. Let’s fix the dynamic shape as a crescendo-decrescendo and leave pitch open. It’s a simple change, and sounds totally different. What happens when pitch and dynamic shape is fixed, and rhythm is open? Your drone might gradually start to groove. Open up pitch or dynamic shape, and we start to have more variety. Keep this up and your group will start to develop opinions about what is more musically effective, and you will be well on your way to creating a group composition. Here is one group’s score resulting from this process:

Co-composition based on Circles Games by Lindsay Place High School Etude students, facilitated by Louise Campbell in Culture in Schools workshop

This group tended towards close imitation when playing circle games. Other groups tend towards radical changes in sound, jumping from one musical element to another, creating surprise and contrast even as the pitch is stable. Both are interesting strategies and useful in their own right. It’s up to you to read the dynamic of the group and build on the strengths of the people and group you are working with. Every group will come up with something totally unique to that group! That’s the beauty of circle games.

Campbell, Circle Game variations


One Note Wonder

‘Hello… helloo… hellooo…ellooo…llooooo….’ Circle games are beautiful, concrete examples of how individuals contribute to form a group. Change one person in a circle and the group sound changes. Send a ‘hello’ around the circle in one group sounds like a chorus of wolves, while another group erupts into a polyphony of greetings in various languages. It all depends on where you and your group take it.

The last post described a circle game based in repetition and variation. The task is to make a sound similar to the previous, rather than exact imitation. Sometimes this is easier said than done. To take an extreme example, imagine imitating a long tone on a trombone using a found instrument such as a tree branch full of dried leaves. It’s obviously not going to sound the same. How can a long tone be imitated by a tree branch? It all depends on the musical element you chooses to imitate.

Ask your participants to brainstorm the elements that make up music:

  • Time (rhythm, duration)
  • Pitch (melody, harmony, gesture)
  • Dynamics
  • Tone/texture
  • Form

Form is established by the circle game. Fix another element, leaving the rest open to play with. Here is a circle game where pitch is fixed:

One Note Wonder

Pre-establish a pitch to send around the circle. One person plays that pitch for the length of one breath. When you hear the person to your left play, add your sound to theirs, imitating or varying their sound using time, dynamics and tone/texture.

This is one of my favourite games, since there is security in knowing what to do (i.e. the fixed element) and room to play (everything else!). Let your participants play and discover what they like and do not like. A group sound will start to emerge and lead you and your group to the next step.

Circle games

The last post posed the question: what strategies can be used in creative music to focus on exploring potential rather than mistakes? To use current ed and tech buzzwords, ‘fostering a growth mindset’ is my primary task, whether as an Artist in Schools or Community Music facilitator with participants of all ages. For new groups, I jump in with a musical way of saying hello. A circle game, it’s really saying ‘hello… helloo… hellooo…ellooo…llooooo….’

Circle games are based on the simple musical principles of repetition and variation. First, form a circle. Then, play repeat-after-me: I make a sound and everyone repeats it as a group. The task is not exact repetition of the leader. Rather, the task is to make a sound similar to the leader. Start with simple sounds. Throw in a few silly ones for good measure. Laughter keeps things light, stretches peoples’ ears and ideas of ‘what goes’, and shifts focus from ‘right-wrong’ to simply playing with sound.

Once everyone is comfortable and knows what to do, you’re ready for a circle game. Here is a simple one:

Circle Games, by Louise Campbell

Sit or stand in a circle. One person makes a sound for the length of one breath. When you hear the person to your left make a sound, add your sound to theirs, imitating their sound in your own way.

This circle game is a great way to encourage listening. I’ve been in circles of 3 people to 60 people, featuring standard instrumentations to chaotic mixes of whatever people brought or could find. The magic happens when everyone is listening and playful and the circle takes on it’s own sound and rhythm. Now that you’ve said hello, the next post will feature suggestions for in-depth conversations in sound.




Notes from Knitting Lessons

‘If you make a mistake, do it twice. Then people think you did it on purpose. They won’t be any the wiser if you don’t tell them!’

Photo credit: Ben Hosking

This was my Nana’s advice when she was teaching me how to knit, one of the most awkward things I have ever learned. Combined with my penchant for following the gist of the instructions rather than actually following them, Nana and I had many mirth-filled knitting sessions turning mistakes into ‘design features’. Her words came back to me when I was recording a sketch of an open score for a friend and colleague. They apply beautifully to making creative music with amateurs.

Whether it’s knitting or making music, I prefer clear global direction to excruciating detail. Because of this, I write open scores that allow for a lot of wiggle room. This is a bonus when playing with loopers, because every loop comes out a little (or a lot) differently. When I sat down to record a sketch for my colleague, I had a plan – sections with pitch choices and processes for each.

And… recording!

Sketch for Knitting Lessons, for clarinet and loop station

Everything is going swimmingly until:

ME TO MYSELF: Bah. I made a mistake. (listens to 1:55 for a few loops and remembers Nana’s knitting advice)

Hmmm, actually that’s not bad, kind of foreshadows what I’m gonna do later.(continues process for section, building new loop)

Now to work in that mistake… (plays footsie with loopers 2:35-2:50)

… yeah, cool, that works…

Whoops! I didn’t mean that. (listens to new ‘mistake’ at 2:50)

Actually that’s pretty cool. I wonder if I can use that… (follows process to end)

If there is anything looping has taught me, it’s that unintended events are just as interesting, and sometimes more interesting, than intentional events. The two ‘mistakes’ in this recording were unintentional, but they became ‘design features’ to the point that they are now part of the final score. If I had stopped when I made the first mistake, I would never have found out where it would lead me.

That’s how Nana’s knitting advice applies to creative music making with amateurs. The greatest block to creativity and flow is right-wrong thinking. Sometimes mistakes are mistakes, in which case it is important to address the causes (just found where that pesky distortion sizzle came from…). More importantly, what strategies can be used to set up a creative music activity where right-wrong thinking doesn’t apply and mistakes are viewed as potential? More thoughts on that in the next blog posts. Welcome back to the new season and school year, everyone!

Going loopy

Featuring: École secondaire Pointe-aux-Trembles
Karine Lalonde, Music teacher
Nikola, Sec. III violinist

Working with teenagers can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Get them hooked on something and they’ll run further than you ever imagined. But if they’re not interested… ouch. I knew I hit on something earlier this year in an Artist in Schools workshop at École secondaire Pointe-aux-Trembles when I did a demonstration playing clarinet with guitar pedals. When I finished playing, I saw 25 teenagers with their mouths hanging open and heard: ‘on peut faire de la musique comme ça ?, ‘est-ce que je peux essayer ?, ‘mind-blowing’…

Hooking someone up to pedals is the easiest thing in the world. Just put the pedal on a delay setting, hold a mic by their instrument and ask them to play one note. The pedal plays it back. Over. And over. And over. This immediacy allows people to instantly hear what they played. Most amateurs are quite refined listeners; they know right away if they like what they hear or not!

This was certainly the case with Nikola, a violinist in his first year of playing and the first student to use my looper after the demonstration. We had the advantage of having completed two workshops on improvising in the Game genre, in addition to the excellent musical training he receives from his music teacher Karine Lalonde. Beyond that, I can take no credit for the following sound samples: I held the mic, explained how the loop pedal worked and Nikola took it from there. After a few trials, here is the first loop he made:

Rhythmic loop by Nikola, delay setting equivalent to mm=120

During the recording of this loop, Nikola wasn’t satisfied with a high, sustained sound and wanted something a little less piercing. Karine, a very fine violinist, showed him how to play a touch-fourth harmonic, which created exactly the kind of sound he was looking for.

Since Nikola’s first loop was rhythmic and droney, I suggested he do something contrasting using glissandi. Here is his second loop:

Glissandi loop by Nikola, delay setting equivalent to mm=120

After class, I wanted to show Nikola one example of what could be done with two contrasting loops. Here’s the result:

Loops by Nikola, arrangement by Louise Campbell

What I would really like to hear is what Nikola would have done with his two loops. My current homework: checking out free apps so students can record, create and mix their own loops with a minimum of gear. Look out, 2018-19, I’ve got some new Artist in Schools workshops in the making!

A note on tech requirements: tech does not have to be fancy or expensive. Here’s my rule of thumb: assess the gear you have and supplement to make it functional. Check out free looping apps, amps with built-in delay and reverb and loop pedals. Ask your students what they already know and do: chances are a few already make their own mixes. Use their favourite gear, and you’ll have an expert who’s excited to talk gear and share what they know with their newly plugged-in counterparts.

Music at your fingertips, part two

The previous blog post detailed a process for making creative music using cellphones for recording and playback. What happens when we experiment with pitch material and incorporate acoustic instruments into the mix?

The process: full class

  1. Ask students to make recordings of 3-5 long tones on concert Bb separated by silences. Playback using as many phones as possible, resulting in a concert Bb drone. So this:

    Becomes something like this:

    Example: Cellphone cue from Waxworks by Trina Davies, directed by Glenda Stirling, sound design by Louise Campbell (CUE production, 2017)

  2. Ask a few students to improvise using a concert Bb scale. Keep it simple – sometimes just walking up a few notes of the scale can be quite beautiful.
  3. Record 3-5 long tones on concerts A and Bb. Playback results in a shifting semi-tone drone.
  4. Ask few brave souls to improvise using concert Bb scale. How does it sound different against a semi-tone compared to unison?
  5. Ask students to choose 3-4 pitches to record, such as A-C-E-G or D-F#-Bb. Playback.
  6. Improvise using the same notes as the recordings, and then add one note to fill in the intervals until students come up with a scale that works with the recorded pitch choices.

Break out groups:

  1. Divide students into groups of 6-8 with the task of choosing their own pitches, recording, playback and improvising. How does a smaller group change the texture of playback and improvisation compared to larger group?


Music at your fingertips, part one

What happens when you make music with the tech-y tool many people carry around in their pockets? You guessed it – this blog post is about making creative music using cellphones.

I first used cellphones as a sound source to create the illusion of a forest filled with birds – many thanks to choreographer Louisa Rachedi and the dancers at the Banff Creative Gesture Lab 2017 for humouring that whim! I wanted birdcalls to come from many places and move as they would in nature, so I asked the dancers to play a pre-recorded track of birdcalls from their phones that they kept on them while they danced. I had some trouble-shooting to do (pressing play on a phone is not exactly a great dance move) but the effect was magical – the space came alive with sound with a dimensionality I usually only experience when camping.

To recreate this experiment, cue up the following track on 6-8 cellphones, launching each phone at different times over the course of 45 seconds:

Songbird@Banff, by Louise Campbell Banff Centre Creative Gesture Lab Open House 2017.

Now for using phones in a creative music process with high school students:

  1. Set all phones to airplane mode to eliminate unwanted interruptions during recording and playback.
  2. Using the phone’s built in microphone and recording app, ask students to record 3-5 long tones separated by long silences. Mic sensitivity varies greatly from one phone to another, so give students time to do several takes with the phone 1 foot, 2 feet and 3 feet away to determine what sounds best.

Example: Cellphone cue from sound design by Louise Campbell for Waxworks by Trina Davies, directed by Glenda Stirling (CUE production, 2017)

  1. Set the track to repeat and/or turn off the advance to next track function. If neither of these options is possible, record a ten second silence after the last long tone to give the student an opportunity to stop the sound file before it advances to the next song on their playlist.
  2. Ask the students to play the recordings starting at different times.

Example: Four cellphones playing the previous example track. I was going for an eerie, disembodied atmosphere to accompany a fairly disturbing scene from the play Waxworks.

  1. Repeat #4, asking students to spread out around the room in different configurations. How does it sound when students are bunched together compared to spread far apart? How does it sound when 6 phones are playing compared to 26? How does it sound when the recordings are started close to the same time, compared to started at different times over the course of 1-2 minutes? What other ways can you imagine playing this tracks?