Ready… set… listen!

Ever sat and listened silently for an extended period of time with a class of 8 year olds? In the cafeteria where they normally get to talk with their friends as much as they want? I wasn’t sure about how this was going to work with elementary school kids, but I was convinced: in order to have an effect on noise levels in any space, you start by listening. So if the project Sound Bites aims to reduce the noise levels in the Coronation Elementary School cafeteria, we need to make listening fun and engaging for the students…

Ready… set… listen!

It is a fairly ambitious task to ask 20 or so children under the age of 12 to sit and listen in silence for any length of time, so music teacher Connie Wilson and I took great care into setting up the following activities for success.

“Anybody want to do a treasure hunt?”

The kids were all in.

Sound Treasure Hunt

  1. Before playing the sound treasure hunt, ask students to name any sound they hear (e.g. a sneeze, a car horn honking, shuffling feet).
  2. Ask students to identify a sound they hear frequently in this room, and not say it out loud. Pick one student to ‘play’ the sound while everyone else covers their eyes (e.g. eraser on whiteboard, chair scraping, percussion mallets clacking against each other). Ask for volunteers to guess what the sound was.
  3. Ready… set… listen: Over a two-minute period, sit quietly and listen. Then, ask students to write or draw the sounds they heard. If they have trouble remembering what they heard previously (I do!), they can write or draw any sounds they are currently hearing. Ask volunteers to read their list or describe what they heard. Notice the similarities and differences in what students hear.


Use a visual aid to show where you are in the two minutes period to avoid the inevitable question ‘how much longer?’

Adapt the length of time to your group. I prefer several listening periods of shorter time frames so the treasure hunt is different every time. Given how much how quickly sound changes in an elementary school, one two-minute treasure hunt could feature the janitor walking down the hallway with a trolley, greeting a few kids, while the next might be about the sounds of the heating system starting (reluctantly), and the next basketball practice in the gym down the hallway.

Brainstorm a number of distinct acoustic environments to listen to that are within easy walking distance. Repeat the treasure hunt in each location, writing and drawing the sounds of each. Discuss, comparing locations.

For Sound Bites, we chose to listen to a stairwell, the library, and two different locations in the cafeteria. The kids floored me with their enthusiasm and acute ears. As you can see in the images in this post, their responses are amazing, complex and varied, and say as much about each individual as it does about their school.

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


Circle games

The last post posed the question: what strategies can be used in creative music to focus on exploring potential rather than mistakes? To use current ed and tech buzzwords, ‘fostering a growth mindset’ is my primary task, whether as an Artist in Schools or Community Music facilitator with participants of all ages. For new groups, I jump in with a musical way of saying hello. A circle game, it’s really saying ‘hello… helloo… hellooo…ellooo…llooooo….’

Circle games are based on the simple musical principles of repetition and variation. First, form a circle. Then, play repeat-after-me: I make a sound and everyone repeats it as a group. The task is not exact repetition of the leader. Rather, the task is to make a sound similar to the leader. Start with simple sounds. Throw in a few silly ones for good measure. Laughter keeps things light, stretches peoples’ ears and ideas of ‘what goes’, and shifts focus from ‘right-wrong’ to simply playing with sound.

Once everyone is comfortable and knows what to do, you’re ready for a circle game. Here is a simple one:

Circle Games, by Louise Campbell

Sit or stand in a circle. One person makes a sound for the length of one breath. When you hear the person to your left make a sound, add your sound to theirs, imitating their sound in your own way.

This circle game is a great way to encourage listening. I’ve been in circles of 3 people to 60 people, featuring standard instrumentations to chaotic mixes of whatever people brought or could find. The magic happens when everyone is listening and playful and the circle takes on it’s own sound and rhythm. Now that you’ve said hello, the next post will feature suggestions for in-depth conversations in sound.




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.

Music at your fingertips, part two

The previous blog post detailed a process for making creative music using cellphones for recording and playback. What happens when we experiment with pitch material and incorporate acoustic instruments into the mix?

The process: full class

  1. Ask students to make recordings of 3-5 long tones on concert Bb separated by silences. Playback using as many phones as possible, resulting in a concert Bb drone. So this:

    Becomes something like this:

    Example: Cellphone cue from Waxworks by Trina Davies, directed by Glenda Stirling, sound design by Louise Campbell (CUE production, 2017)

  2. Ask a few students to improvise using a concert Bb scale. Keep it simple – sometimes just walking up a few notes of the scale can be quite beautiful.
  3. Record 3-5 long tones on concerts A and Bb. Playback results in a shifting semi-tone drone.
  4. Ask few brave souls to improvise using concert Bb scale. How does it sound different against a semi-tone compared to unison?
  5. Ask students to choose 3-4 pitches to record, such as A-C-E-G or D-F#-Bb. Playback.
  6. Improvise using the same notes as the recordings, and then add one note to fill in the intervals until students come up with a scale that works with the recorded pitch choices.

Break out groups:

  1. Divide students into groups of 6-8 with the task of choosing their own pitches, recording, playback and improvising. How does a smaller group change the texture of playback and improvisation compared to larger group?


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?



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!

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.

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!