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?

 

 

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.

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!

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!

Long tones made fun

I admit I’m a geek – I like to play long tones even after 30 years of playing my instrument. It’s a form of meditation when I get to forget about everything and enjoy making sound. I can wax poetic about it, but I also recognize that not everybody feels this way! Yet, more than anything else, long tones dramatically improve my students’ playing. So how do I make long tones interesting and inspiring for the less-geeky-than-me? Oh, I have so many ways…

Sound and silence

Instrumentation: Wind, brass, strings, pitched percussion
Age & ability: All ages, intermediate to advanced
Number of participants: 6-35

My long-time long-tone favourite is a game piece in which players have two choices:

    1. play a long tone
    2. play a silence
Campbell, Sound and Silence

The long tones and silences can overlap in any way, creating shifting textures and timbres as different instruments come in and drop out at various times.

Campbell, Sound and Silence, a variation

Pitches can be open or predetermined. Here are some examples of predetermined pitch sets:

Choose from:

          1. An E in any octave
          2. Any note of a specific chord, such as C Major or E minor minor 7
          3. Any note of specific scale, such as pentatonic, or D Major
          4. Any note from a tetrachord such as (0, 1, 2, 6) or C, C#, D, F#
          5. Any note of the chromatic scale

Any of these options can go on for a fair while. Encourage your participants to listen and respond to each other. Each group takes it in a different direction – yours will too.

More next time on shaping this game into collaborative composition.

Sound poems

“You want me to what? Oh no, I have a terrible voice…”

What musician hasn’t heard that, or said it themselves? Most people speak daily. However, ask people to sing and insecurities abound. I have a lot of ways of putting people at ease using their voice in a musical setting. One way is to ask people to play with words as sound.

Ten-second Sound Poem

Instrumentation: Voice
Age & ability: All ages, no musical training necessary
Number of participants: 6-35

Choose a topic and brainstorm words related to that topic. I’ve had groups choose place names, seasonal and natural phenomenon, and shared experiences. Steer the conversation towards onomatopoeia, words that sound like what they mean.

For example, let’s take water:

Dribble, roar, bing, swoosh, plop, sploosh, plonk, burble, sploosh, whoosh, trickle, drip, plop, gurgle, splash, kerplonk…

The list goes on and on! Do call-and-response with your participants playing with different ways of saying the words. Sploosh can be full voice or whispered, long or short, with sibilant s’s or a long drawn out shhhh….

Next, write each word on a piece of paper and ask each participant to choose a word at random. Surprise! Which word are you going to draw?

Then, conduct a Ten-second sound poem: as conductor, signal the beginning of a series of 10- second time segment. Each participant speaks their word at any point during the ten seconds. I might say splooooooooooosh at the beginning of the ten seconds, or at the very end. Each ten-second segment is unique as the participants say their word at a different points, in different ways.

The Ten-second sound poem can go in many directions. The conductor can change the duration for shorter, longer, getting faster, getting slower. Change conductors, or have multiple conductors. Choose new words. Check out this in-class recording of a co-composition by my group Sing! using this process – we surprised ourselves with this one!

Water poem, co-composed and performed by participants of Sing!, spring 2017

What happens if…

Your students have a basic understanding of how instruments make sound. What happens if we deconstruct an instrument to it’s most basic element: the part that produces sound? What happens if we play only part of the instrument? What happens if we reconstruct the instrument using found objects? What happens if…

You get the picture. Today is about instrument design, modification and sound exploration.

Instrumentation: Wind & brass
Age & ability: All ages, all abilities
Number of participants: full class or groups of 2-3

Let’s deconstruct the clarinet, since it is the instrument I know best. The mouthpiece and reed create the basic sound of the instrument. The body of the clarinet acts as a resonator. To reconstruct a clarinet, we tinker with the body of the instrument.

Some useful materials for construction.

Found objects as resonators: What can be used as a resonator other than the body of the instrument? Think of household materials you already have, such as paper towel tubes of different lengths, rolled up aluminum paper, a popped balloon. Find a way to create an air-tight seal around the mouthpiece and the resonator. If there are small air leaks, use saran wrap around the join between the mouthpiece and the resonator to help the seal. How and why do different materials sound different?

Reconstruct the clarinet itself: How many different ways can you put a clarinet together? What does it sound like if you play the mouthpiece and barrel alone? Or the mouthpiece, barrel and top joint? What happens if you play with the mouthpiece in the bell? What happens if you put the clarinet together normally and hold materials across the bell and tone holes? Play a low E and cup the bell with a metallic bowl, aluminum paper, or tissue paper.

The Frankenstrument! Reconstruct the clarinet with other instruments: What happens if you play the clarinet mouthpiece with the resonating bodies of other instruments such as a trombone or flute?

My current Frankenstrument!

Warning: I supervise Frankenstrument construction to make sure the instruments don’t get damaged. Be gentle! Never force two instruments together. If two instrument parts don’t fit:

  1. Ask one participant to hold the mouthpiece and blow and another participant to hold the instrument body against the mouthpiece.
  2. Construct a tube to connect the two instrument parts.
  3. Use parts of instruments that are no longer playable or repairable.

Have fun! I’m fairly certain your students will surprise you with this one.

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.

Musings on making music with anyone

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.