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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

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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!

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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.

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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?

 

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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?

 

 

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Playing plugged in

It’s no secret – I have a bias towards making music unplugged, especially when making music with amateurs. I prefer the tools people have easy access to, like voice, found objects and instruments. So imagine my shock when I realized I was playing more plugged in than unplugged, and that the tech-y tools had made their way into my work with untrained musicians…

How did this happen? Dancin’. I’ve played for dance for a long time, and have a fabulous time doing so as an acoustic musician. But there’s a particular issue for me as a solo clarinetist: clarinet is a melody instrument, and at a certain point in a one-hour show I need more a single melody. I’ve addressed this by extending the instrument, using found objects, asking dancers to be the ‘chorus’ of the show – but really, at a certain point I need a wider palette of sound than one melody instrument can make. I need to double myself.

Enter guitar gear. Loop pedals are magic – record one tune and the looper repeats it happily until you tell it to stop. Overdub another tune… and a melody instrument can play harmony and counterpoint. You don’t just double yourself – you turn yourself into an entire orchestra. It’s magic. And addictive, as my growing collection of pedals demonstrates.

I definitely can’t introduce myself as an unplugged musician anymore. I use loopers and effects processers, giving me access to harmony, counterpoint and processing in real time and live and pre-recorded sound samples. I juggle these elements on the fly to respond to the changing durations inherent to forms frequently used in dance. I still use my unplugged acoustic possibilities – now with a wider array of options, choosing the most appropriate solution for the situation.

The history of music is full of resourceful people looking for creative solutions to a challenge. My challenge was to create long-form scores for dance as a solo clarinetist. What’s your challenge? Where are your solutions going to lead you? Mine have led me from being a mostly acoustic musician to being surprisingly (to me) plugged in. The next blog posts will look at simple, accessible technologies to make music with amateurs.

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Memory and Making the Most of Ear Worms

Ever got a tune stuck in your head? And couldn’t get it out?

As Oliver Sacks discussed (Musicophilia, 2008), ear worms are songs that repeat over and over in your head. The jury is out on how and why this happens: but we’ve all had the experience of that tune going round, right round, baby, right round-round, baby, round like a record, baby….

You get the idea! Let’s use this funny brain hiccup to help you and your students create a memory game embedded with the information you want your students to know inside out and backwards.

The game: Fruit Salad is a rhythm game that features word-based chants. The chants are repeated and layered an indeterminate number of times. The following score uses rhythmic chants of different lengths: 3, 4 and 5 beats long. When layered, the chants phase due to their different lengths.

Fruit Salad, Louise Campbell

How to toss the fruit salad:

  1. As a class, learn each chant by heart. Loop as many times as necessary until comfortable.
  2. Drop a word(s) from the chant and replace it with a rest(s). See boxes in the score above for suggestions of what to drop.
  3. Add a word(s) back into the chant.
  4. Find a way to add/drop words on the fly.
  5. Divide your class into 2-3 groups, and assign one chant per group. Ask each group to practice the chant until they can loop it easily and add/drop words on the fly.
  6. Bring the class back together and loop the chants at the same time, adding and dropping words at will.

On the level of memory, participants learn the chants by rote, and then challenge and integrate memory through the game of keeping their place in the chant as words are added and dropped. The result is a groovy group rhythm in which different words from the chants pop out at different times. The game itself is fun to play, and has all kinds of interesting musical possibilities.

Now imagine how you can make this game work for you and your students in terms of memory – say you use this game when teaching your students about nutrition. Chances are if you ask your students on a test to name a number of fruits, they will come out with the fruit in the chant they learned. What if you and your students made up a chant with examples of each of the major food groups? The information will be even more committed to memory if students come up with the chants themselves.

A chanting game can be made out of any material you want your students to memorize. Pick a topic and ask your students to brainstorm words associated to that topic. Then ask students to play with the words as rhythm, dropping and adding, arranging and re-arranging the words to be as groovy as possible. For best results for memory, the chants can be made to represent a ‘chunk’ of information, as in one chant dedicated to a specific food group.

The key is to boil it down to the essentials – words and rhythm – to make the chant rhythmic and catchy. In the process of playing with the words, your students will be committing the chant to memory, building their own earworms out of information needed to master a subject. Who knows how far you and your students will take it – want your students to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements? It has some fabulously rhythmic words that would make a great rap!

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Ack! Here comes the concert

You’ve been doing all this improv, everyone is having a great time, and now the concert is looming. What to do? I say improvise in concert, as is. Or you can get a wee bit more composition-y about it. Let’s take the previous blog post ‘Long tones made fun’ one step further…

The basic rule of the game stays the same: you can play a long tone, or a silence. Now for pitch choices. Play through several versions of this game using different pitch set options (see previous blog post or invent your own). Does your group like certain pitch sets better than the others? Take the group’s favourite pitch sets and find a way to display them so that everyone can read off the same chart – a white board, Smartboard or other kind of projection works well for this. Then have one person ‘conduct’ by pointing to which set they want the group to play and for how long.

This is what your white board might look like. The conductor points to a pitch set and the players go to town using those pitches!

Choose different conductors – each conductor will lead the group through the pitch sets in different ways with different timing. This alone is fascinating. For the concert, ask the audience to guess the rules of the game and then have your three most enthusiastic conductors lead the group through the same game – audiences love it, because they hear how active music-making is and they get to be a part of it, too!

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