Getting pitchy

Funnily enough, I find one of the biggest challenges in facilitating participatory creative music is how to deal with pitch. It seems silly since pitch is one of the fundamental parameters of music.

Here’s the situation: I walk into a high school band room full of 20 to 30 teens playing wind instruments. Our task is to co-compose, rehearse and perform a piece in one hour. I’ve just met the players. I don’t know their musical taste or level of music theory, let alone their names. It’s go time!

The first thing I do is make sure people know that there are no wrong notes in a creative process, only interesting ones (see Knitting Lessons for more). After that, it’s crucial to find a way for everyone to talk about pitch easily. When I’m a guest in a high school band class, we usually warm-up with the lingua franca of high school band, a concert Bb Major scale. Happily this lends itself to speaking in scale degrees.

EDIT: A number of people have asked me to explain what scale degrees are. Scale degree associate a number to each note of the scale (i.e. the first note of the scale is 1, the second note of the scale is 2, etc.). Here are the scale degrees for CM:

           1     2     3     4      5     6      7     8(1)

CM:   C     D     E     F     G     A     B     C

And for FM:

          1     2     3     4      5     6      7     8(1)

FM:   F     G     A     B     C     D     E     F

When dealing with transposing instruments for whom the sounding pitch has a different letter name per instruments (e.g. concert Bb is a fingered Bb for flute, a fingered C for clarine), scale degrees lets you ask for ‘scale degree 1 in concert Bb Major’. Each musician then translates this into a pitch on their instrument. So rather than saying “flutes play x, trumpets and clarinets play y, altos play z, oh and you’ve got French horns…”, I can simply say, “play scale degree X”.

I wax poetic about scale degrees. Even if a group is not familiar with scale degrees, it takes maximum 10 min. for to become comfortable with them. Not only do they make pitch-based exercises easier to lead as a facilitator, scale degrees empower participants to speak directly with one other, rather than going through me, their teacher or a transposition chart. Easy communication means people are more inclined to make music on their own, which is ultimately what I hope for.

Once you have decide on how to talk about pitch, here’s a process to find pitch material:

  1. Ask four participants at a time to play any note on your cue.
  2. Cue multiple times, asking participants to change notes on each cue, resulting in a series of 4-note chords.
  3. Ask participants to pick one of the chords to play with.
  4. Write the notes on the board, using scale degrees or transposing as necessary.
  5. On your cue, ask the full band to play any one of the four notes on the board, resulting in a rich orchestration of this chord.

This sequence takes around 20 minutes, including warm-up. I learn a lot about groups’ musical preferences and experience during this time, which helps me direct the process moving forward. Groups choose wildly different pitch material to work with, from crunchy atonal clusters to four-note jazz chords to open fifth power chords. I go with whatever a group chooses – it’s their music, after all.

Samples of pitch material chosen by different school groups

Here are some examples of the pitch material various groups have chosen:

  • 3-7
  • 1-3-7
  • 2-4-6-8
  • 3-4-7
  • 1-4-#4-5

 

In the next blog post, we’ll take this process on to the next challenge: a group that clearly wants to make beat-based music.

 

A Boat Saves Christmas

Gale-force winds? Waves seven metres high? Lobster fishing? These things permeate students’ lives in Grosse-Île on the Magdalen Islands, and what better way for me, a landlubber based in Montreal, to learn more about the students’ experience than to ask them to tell stories. To kick off the storytelling, I gave the Gr. 3-4 class a cliff-hanger I wouldn’t have been able to resist as a child, with a nod to the wild weather on the Islands…

‘It was a dark and stormy night. The reindeer were scared and didn’t want to pull the sleigh. How was Santa going to get around?’

I furiously transcribed the story, trying to keep up with the students. We worked and played hard – it isn’t always easy to come to consensus, as anyone knows who has been part of a team – and made something together that was more and different than any one of us could have done on our own. Seeing the excitement on the students’ faces during the creation of the play and their pride on sharing their work was a testament to what the arts do to bring people together.

Les Îles de la Madeleine

To hear two students and myself speak about our project with guest host Julia Caron:

To hear the play, complete with narration and sound effects created and recorded by the students:

Many thanks to Grosse-Île School, CAMI and Artists Inspire for making this project possible.

Happy holidays to everyone! May you all find a boat this Christmas.