Many of us are saying hello to our instruments and students for the first time after a well-deserved holiday. This blog post is dedicated to Day One, when our students say hello to their instruments for the first time ever. It’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship…
Day One, regardless of the instrument, is about discovery. Let’s imagine we have a music room full of instruments including wind, brass, percussion and strings. The question of the day is: how do these objects make sound?
Instrumentation: Wind, brass, percussion and string instruments
Age & ability: Beginners of all ages
Number of participants: 1-30
Set up a science fair type space in which various stations feature a different instruments. ‘Mentors’ such as older students or specialist are helpful for giving tips on basic technique and hygiene. I favour a fairly hands-off approach: the goal is to let the newbies try instruments on their own terms – they will learn simply by playing and teach each other in the process.
Once the students are happily making sound (usually of the squeeeeakk! blaaaattt!!! scrrraaaape… variety), throw a few questions into the mix. How many different sounds can you make with the same instrument? What does it sound like? Sirens, birds, car horns, squeaky doors? Can you imitate that sound with another instrument? How are instruments are similar to each other? How are they different? Encourage students to articulate and understand the instruments according to sound production, leading to the topic of the next blog post: What happens if…
Welcome back, everybody! Here is a story about creative music making to send us into the high season.
Once upon a time, I broke my arm. It was a clean break and bones heal, so it wasn’t a tragedy. Still, breaking an arm is a major event for a musician. After a lot of help from health professionals, my arm was more or less back to normal with the addition of a badass new scar. Yes!!! I could play again!
Ummm… oops. Patience is not my strong suit, so I overdid it a bit. I knew it was just a question of time, but I wanted to play. My arm just didn’t have the juice to play for very long. In fact, the juice ran out after 10 minutes a day. I’ve never been a big practicer, but even for me that’s nothing. So I decided I would play with both arms for the amount of time my newly healed arm could handle, and once that arm was done for the day, I would keep on playing with my ‘good’ arm alone.
Here was the challenge: I needed to not use my left arm to play the clarinet. The left hand operates the upper joint of the clarinet and is used in all fingerings for the clarinet. I had to eliminate the upper joint.
Could I play the clarinet with just the lower joint? Luckily for me, my mouthpiece fit right into the lower joint.
All of a sudden I had a right-handed clarinet, my left arm got a well-deserved break (…groan…) and I had access to a whole new sound world.
This is a blog about making music with everybody, so why am I telling this story? Because creativity comes out strongest when we need to find ways to work within constraints. I never guessed when I broke my arm that I would discover a whole new instrument in the half-clarinet. In fact, I’d never even imagined it. But when I needed to figure out a way to make music with what I had, I found a way. The discoveries I made as result have since become a major part of my creative activities. Click below to listen to Songbird, a work I composed and performed for half-clarinet and loop station.
I use this story to grab untrained musicians’ attention and encourage them to think creatively. If someone expresses a perceived limitation such as ‘I’ve never taken music lessons’, ‘I’m not a singer’ or ‘I don’t read music’, what is the flip side of that limitation? What practical openings do those limitations offer that you can use to make music that is different than you ever imagined?
Ever been asked to run a creative music workshop for 120+ teenage girls? I have, and had a great time with Trafalgar School for Girls. I was a wee bit nervous – that’s a lot of people, and when teens are enthusiastic about something, they outrun all your expectations, but if they’re not… well, that workshop could have been a real long hour. So, how was I going to get these girls excited and involved from the get-go?
My number one task in working with amateurs is putting people at ease, since people who are laughing and having fun are naturally creative. Games are great for this. I pulled out all the stops and ran the Traf workshop pep rally style by setting up a participatory music game in which the girls composed, sang and conducted their own music game based on the chanting game Fruit Salad.
The following scores are based on a chanting game in which three 4-beat rhythmic chants are repeated and layered an indeterminate number of times. I’ve used variations of this process in situations as diverse as summer camp music exploration for 30 kids, adult music composition classes for 6 people, and high school pep rallies, otherwise known as (insert your school name here) Spirit!
Age range: 7 to older adults
Number of participants: 6 to 100+
I borrow the principle of layered rhythmic chants and adapt it by creating rhythmic chants of different lengths: typically 3, 4 and 5 beats long. When repeated, the chants phase due to their different lengths. Depending on the context, I compose the chants, as in the following score appropriate for 6-10 year olds.
When possible, I ask participants to compose the chants, encouraging far greater creative input and ownership over the resulting score. The chants in the following score were composed by music students of Trafalgar School for Girls under the guidance of music teacher Kirsten Offer on the theme of ArtsFest, a bi-annual school-wide festival celebrating the arts. More chants were composed than are shown in this score; I selected and tweaked the chants that would work in the context of a 120+ person pep rally.
Now to turn these scores into a game: first, teach the chants by rote. Select a conductor(s) who indicates dynamics, entrances and exits. What happens if everyone starts together? What happens when the 3 and 4 beat chants start loud and decrescendo? What happens if the 5 beat chant starts alone, whispered?
Next choose a word or phrase from each of the chants to drop and replace with a rest. Then drop another. And another. Add one back in. And another. Add and drop differently from each of the chants. The gray squares around the words in the scores above are one way in which the words and phrases can be grouped to be dropped and added. Pay close attention to how you do this for your score – it has a huge effect on how groovy or square your piece sounds. Different words and rhythms pop out and line up in different and surprising ways, depending on how and when different words and phrases are dropped and added.
Now find a way to add and drop words on the fly: invent conducted hand signals for drop and add. Write the chants on a whiteboard and cover and uncover the words with pieces of paper. Be creative about how you lead this! Better yet, ask your participants to come up with ways to lead this game. Each group will come up with different solutions, resulting in different pieces from the same score. Have fun!
Making music with untrained musicians (aka ‘amateurs’) is a long-time passion of mine. It started over twenty years ago when I walked in to a dance studio with a terrible sound system, a piano that was beautifully twangy and out of tune, and twenty hyper 8-year-olds who had just eaten copious amounts of chocolate during their lunch break. Teaching them how to read quarter notes was clearly going to be excruciating, and not my cup of tea at the best of times. Helping them to become a multi-headed monster chatting away in an invented language – now that was fun! And still is fun, regardless of whether I’m working with 8-year-olds or 80-year-olds.
In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of leading Teacher Training workshops and Pedagogy 101 for Musicians on the topic of Creativity in the Classroom. The same question always crops up in these workshops: Where do you find your scores? The answer: I don’t find them anywhere. I make them up. With my students. Regardless of who they are, how old they are, and how much (or little) music training they’ve had. We draw on everyone’s experience in the room, using participatory music practices from around the world—that part has a lot to do with me and a long history of musicians whose work I draw on. This blog is a further response to that question: I am going to use this space to share my ideas and experiences in making music with untrained musicians of all ages. Each post will feature the equivalent of one ‘score’, whether it be in traditional notated form, narrative description, or (if I get fancy enough) as instructional video. My hope is that you take these ‘scores’ not as finished products but as starting points to come up with your own music in whatever context you are making it. Try the multi-headed monster thing. It’s seriously fun.