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

 

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.

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!

Making lemonade

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?

Bonne rentrée à tout le monde!

Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada, the inspiration for Songbird.

Playing the Music Game… Pep rally style!

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.

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!

Instrumentation: Voice
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.

Fruit Salad. Repeat each chant as many times as desired. Squares indicate words to drop and add (see The Game).

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.

Traf Spirit! ArtsFest chant Trafalgar School for Girls

The Game

Three conductors, one per chant. Loud, louder, and chilling out. Trafalgar School for Girls

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!