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.


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.