Taking It Outside: Making Music & Art Inspired By Nature

(pour des raisons techniques, le français suit)

Over the last few years, I’ve turned to nature for rejuvenation, enjoyment and solace. I’m not alone in this: the number of people accessing national, provincial and municipal parks has increased enormously. Connecting with nature is something everyone can do, whether in a park, looking out a window or walking down the street. Making music and art inspired by nature is just a step away.

To kick off the new school year, I’d like to share a nature-based art activity that anyone can lead: the sense walk. The sense walk can then go in various directions depending on student and teacher interest and curriculum needs, including creation of soundscapes, loops, radio dramas, podcasts and more. 

Sense walks 

Sense walks are a variation of sound walks, or walks in which participants bring their attention to the sounds around you. For the purposes of this project, participants are asked to tap into three senses: sound, sight and touch (See downloadable pdf for a print-able worksheet).


  • Pen
  • Handout (see downloadable pdf)
  • Weather-appropriate clothes and shoes

Start with where you are: 

  1. Ask participants pay attention to their surroundings and to write down: 
    • one sound that they hear (e.g. a sneeze, a car honking, a bird chirping etc.)
    • one item they see (e.g. a pen, a friend, a car, a tree)
    • a sensation they feel (e.g. a breeze on their skin, warm, cold etc.) (n.b. participants often take this as an emotion, which is fine)
  2. Ask volunteers to share one of their observations.
  3. Note the similarities and differences between volunteers’ observations. Reinforce observing sound and sensations — otherwise, most observations will be sight-based. Encourage observation with greater detail (e.g. I heard the car honking too — how far away do you think it was? I missed the bird — can you describe its call to me? What colour was the car you saw? Can you describe the sound it made?)
  4. Explain the concept of a sense walk — a walk done without speaking in which each person makes observations of what they hear, see and feel. Ask participants to name places that look, sound and feel different than where they are right now.
  5. Brainstorm possible routes and destinations for a sense walk. For example: 
    • School: through school hallways, past gym, and out front doors; destination: school yard;
    • Neighbourhood: out front door, down street to alley, destination: halfway down alley as far from city traffic as possible
    • Park: on or off paths, close and far from water, trees and traffic
  6. When the route and destination has been decided: 
    • Give a handout and pen or pencil to each participant
    • For outdoor sense walks, prepare weather-appropriate clothing and footwear

Sense walk: 

Remind participants that the goal is to make observations without speaking. Sharing will happen at the end of the sense walk.

  1. Participants write their observations throughout the walk, stopping as necessary. Stop for a few minutes along the route in 2–3 particularly interesting places. These can be predetermined or spontaneous, following any unexpected events that happen en route. At the destination, stop and continue observing for 4–5 minutes.
  2. Ask volunteers to share one of two observations of what they heard, saw and felt over the course of the sense walk.
  3. Go on multiple sense walks! Experiment with: 
    • different routes and destinations,
    • indoor and outdoor spaces,
    • times of day, and
    • season.


  • Assign a leader and a sweep. The leader leads relatively slowly so participants have a change to write, and so the group stays fairly close together. The sweep keeps an eye on the route and the rest of the group so that the participants who have the most to write don’t get left behind. Both the leader and the sweep should know the route and destination.
  • Make sure all participants know where you are going and about how long the activity will take in advance. This helps participants understand how long they are being asked to observe for and not chat with each other.
  • Consider how far the walk is. With the aid of the handout and a varied walk, I find participants be attentive for up to 20 minutes without speaking, depending on age. If chatting starts (which usually happens around curiosity about each other’s observations), give a few minutes to participants to share with a friend, or with exchange as a group. Adapt the length of time to your group. I prefer starting with several observation periods of shorter time frames, and giving the opportunity for participants to share their observations, so they understand quickly how varied observations can be from person to person. As the activity continues, I usually lengthen observation time frames for the places participants have named as particularly interesting.
  • When at a stop along the sense walk, name how long you are going to observe your surroundings for (e.g. 3 minutes). Use a visual aid to show where you are in the time period to avoid the inevitable question ‘how much longer?’

PART TWO: Imagining place from music 

While listening to a piece of pre-composed music such as Louise’s work Songbird for inspiration, ask participants to create an imaginary place, describing this place through observations of what they see, hear and feel.

Observations from the sense walks can be used as necessary. Some participants mix and match observations from multiple sense walks to create a new imaginary place; others alter or make variations of observations, still others launch into storytelling about an event or a place from their past, while others invent an entirely new world with fresh observations. All of these ways are good. Once participants are ready, ask volunteers to describe their imaginary place to each other.

This activity is part of the cultural mediation activities for Sources, my upcoming solo album and outdoor installation featuring music inspired by the St. Lawrence Seaway. Co-creation processes based on sense walks have led to improvised soundscapes, radio dramas and podcasts, as well as Sources.

“Close your eyes and imagine this scene. You walk along the bright orange and red sandy shores of the Magdalen Islands… pay attention to the sounds, to the wind, observe and then gather some of those sounds and craft those into a story. That’s part of what’s been happening at the Grosse Ile School with Teaching Artist Louise Campbell…” Alison Brunette, CBC Breakaway (2019)

For those of you located in Montreal and area, how about a workshop series culminating in a field trip? The outdoor installation of Sources, music inspired by the St. Lawrence River, will take place in May 2023 at Parc Frédéric-Back, an accessible urban park with a mandate of environmental education and sustainable development. For more information, or to host a workshop series and installation in your neighbourhood, contact me at: mlouisecampbell(at)gmail.com

FUNDING for myself and other artists is available through:

Wishing everyone an excellent beginning to the artistic season and school year, and plenty of outdoor time!

L’emmener dehors : La musique inspirée par la nature

Au cours des dernières années, je me suis tournée vers la nature pour me ressourcer, m’amuser et me réconforter. Je ne suis pas le seul dans ce cas : le nombre de personnes accédant aux parcs nationaux, provinciaux et municipaux a considérablement augmenté. Se connecter avec la nature est quelque chose que tout le monde peut faire, que ce soit dans un parc, en regardant par la fenêtre ou en marchant dans la rue. Faire de la musique et de l’art inspirés par la nature n’est qu’à un pas.

Pour lancer la nouvelle année scolaire, j’aimerais partager une activité artistique basée sur la nature que tout le monde peut mener : la promenade sensorielle. La promenade sensorielle peut ensuite aller dans différentes directions en fonction de l’intérêt des élèves et des enseignants, et du curriculum, y compris la création de paysages sonores, de boucles, de pièces radiophoniques, de podcasts, etc.

Première partie : Balades sensorielles

Les balades sensorielles sont une variante des balades sonores, ou des promenades dans lesquelles les participants portent leur attention sur les sons qui vous entourent. Pour les besoins de ce projet, les participants sont invités à puiser dans trois sens : l’ouïe, la vue et le toucher (voir le pdf téléchargeable pour une feuille d’observationl imprimable). 

Matériaux : 

  • Stylo
  • Impression de feuille d’observation (voir pdf téléchargeable) 
  • Vêtements et chaussures adaptés à la météo

Commencez par où vous êtes :

  1. Demandez aux participants de prêter attention à leur environnement et d’écrire : 
    • un son qu’ils entendent (par exemple, un éternuement, un klaxon de voiture, un gazouillis d’oiseau, etc.) 
    • un objet qu’ils voient (par exemple, un stylo, un ami, une voiture, un arbre) 
    • une sensation qu’ils ressentent (par exemple une brise sur leur peau, chaud, froid, etc.). n.b. Des fois, les participants prennent cela comme une émotion, ce qui est bien, aussi. 
  2. Demandez à des volontaires de partager une de leurs observations. 
  3. Notez les similitudes et les différences entre les observations des volontaires. Renforcez l’observation des sons et des sensations – sinon, la plupart des observations seront basées sur la vue. Encouragez l’observation avec plus de détails (par exemple : J’ai aussi entendu la voiture klaxonner – à quelle distance pensez-vous qu’elle se trouvait ? J’ai raté l’oiseau – pouvez-vous me décrire son appel ? De quelle couleur était la voiture que vous avez vue ? Pouvez-vous décrire le son ?) 
  4. Expliquez le concept d’une balade sensorielle – une promenade faite sans parler dans laquelle chaque personne fait des observations sur ce qu’elle entend, voit et ressent. Demandez aux participants de nommer des endroits qui semblent, sonnent et se sentent différents de l’endroit où ils se trouvent actuellement. Réfléchissez aux endroits où votre groupe aimerait faire une promenade sensorielle et à l’itinéraire à suivre. 
  5. Faites un remue-méninges sur les itinéraires et les destinations possibles. Par exemple : 
    • À l’école : dans les couloirs de l’école, devant le gymnase et devant les portes ; destination : cour d’école ; 
    • Dans le quartier : devant la porte d’entrée, de la rue à la ruelle, destination : à mi-chemin de la ruelle aussi loin que possible de la circulation urbaine 
    • Au parc : sur ou hors sentiers, à proximité et loin de l’eau, des arbres et de la circulation 
  6. Lorsque l’itinéraire et la destination ont été décidés : 
    • Donnez une feuille d’observation et un stylo ou un crayon à chaque participant. 
    • Pour les promenades sensorielles en plein air, préparez des vêtements et des chaussures adaptés à la météo. 

Balade sensorielle :

Rappelez aux participants que le but est de faire des observations sans parler. Le partage aura lieu à la fin de la marche des sens. 

  1. Les participants écrivent leurs observations tout au long de la balade, en s’arrêtant si nécessaire. Arrêtez-vous quelques minutes le long du parcours dans 2–3 endroits particulièrement intéressants. Celles-ci peuvent être prédéterminées ou spontanées, suite à tout événement inattendu qui se produit en cours de route. 
  2. À destination, arrêtez-vous et continuez à observer pendant 4 à 5 minutes. Demandez aux volontaires de partager l’une des deux observations de ce qu’ils ont entendu, vu et ressenti au cours de la balade sensorielle.
  3. Partez en multiples balades sensorielles ! Expérimenter avec : 
    • Des lieux différents, 
    • Des espaces intérieurs et extérieurs, 
    • Des moments de la journée varié, et 
    • Des saisons différentes.

Astuces : 

  • Attribuez un leader et une personne pour être à la fin du groupe. Le leader mène relativement lentement afin que les participants aient l’opportunité d” écrire leurs observations, et ainsi le groupe reste assez proche les uns des autres. La personne à la fin du groupe garde un œil sur le parcours afin que les participants qui ont le plus à écrire ne soient pas laissés en arrière. Le leader et la personne à la fin du groupe doivent connaître l’itinéraire et la destination. 
  • Assurez-vous que tous les participants savent à l’avance où vous allez et combien de temps durera l’activité. Tenez compte de la distance du parcours. À l’aide de la feuille de travail et d’une balade variée, je constate que les participants sont attentifs jusqu’à 20 minutes, selon l’âge. Si la jazzette commence (ce qui se produit généralement par curiosité pour les observations de l’autre), accordez quelques minutes aux participants pour partager avec un ami ou pour échanger en groupe. 
  • Adaptez la durée à votre groupe. Je préfère commencer par plusieurs périodes d’observation de durées plus courtes, et donner la possibilité aux participants de partager leurs observations, afin qu’ils comprennent rapidement à quel point les observations peuvent être variées d’une personne à l’autre. Au fur et à mesure que l’activité se poursuit, j’allonge généralement les périodes d’observation des lieux que les participants ont désignés comme particulièrement intéressants. 
  • Lorsque vous vous arrêtez le long de la balade sensorielle, indiquez pendant combien de temps vous allez faire des observations (par exemple, 3 minutes). Utilisez une aide visuelle pour montrer où vous en êtes dans la période afin d’éviter l’inévitable question « combien de temps encore ? » 

Deuxième partie : Imaginer un lieu à partir de la musique

Tout en écoutant une pièce de musique pré-composée telle que l’œuvre Songbird de Louise pour s’inspirer, demandez aux participants de créer un lieu imaginaire, décrivant ce lieu à travers des observations de ce qu’ils voient, entendent et ressentent. Les observations des promenades sensorielles peuvent être utilisées si nécessaire. Certains participants mélangent et associent les observations de multiples promenades sensorielles pour créer un nouveau lieu imaginaire ; d’autres modifient ou font des variations d’observations, d’autres encore se lancent dans la narration d’un événement ou d’un lieu de leur passé, tandis que d’autres inventent un monde entièrement nouveau avec de nouvelles observations. Tous ces moyens sont bons. Une fois que les participants sont prêts, demandez aux volontaires de décrire leur lieu imaginaire les uns aux autres. 

« Fermez les yeux et imaginez cette scène. Vous marchez le long des rives de sable orange vif et rouge des Îles-de-la-Madeleine… faites attention aux sons, au vent, observez puis rassemblez certains de ces sons et créez-en une histoire. Cela fait partie de ce qui se passe à l’école de la Grosse-Île avec la médiatrice culturelle Louise Campbell… » Alison Brunette, CBC Breakaway (2019)

Pour ceux d’entre vous intéressés par la médiation culturelle, le FINANCEMENT pour moi-même et d’autres artistes est disponible via :

Pour ceux d’entre vous situés à Montréal et dans les environs, que diriez-vous d’une série d’ateliers se terminant par une sortie sur le terrain ? L’installation extérieure de Sources, une musique inspirée du fleuve Saint-Laurent, aura lieu en mai 2023 au parc Frédéric-Back, un parc urbain accessible avec un mandat d’éducation à l’environnement et de développement durable. Pour plus d’informations, contactez-moi à : mlouisecampbell@gmail.com.

Je vous souhaite un excellent début de saison artistique et d’année scolaire, et beaucoup de temps en plein air !

A Year of Many Surprises

Over the last year, I have had the pleasure of working with elementary and high school students in distance and hybrid learning contexts, teachers and students in a school dedicated to special ed students, neuroscientists and people living with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, a community centre for people with severe physical disabilities, and, on a very local level, my next-door neighbours. Zoom much? Yep. A lot. And I also use the good, old-fashioned phone s as a platform to make music with too.

Like many others, I have relied on old and new technologies to connect with people at a distance and continue to make music. The biggest lessons I have learned, and re-learned over the last year are:

  1. Connecting takes time. Take the time, and respect people’s time. It’s worth it.
  2. What works in person doesn’t necessarily work online, and vice versa. Whatever communication platform is being used, activities are most effective when they use the platform’s best features as an integral part of the process, rather than as a substitution for being in-person.

A few observations and strategies for ways to make music through platforms such as zoom.

  1. One of the interesting features of distance learning is because everyone is in their own space. Observing your surroundings through sound and sight and sharing these observations with each other can help create connection between participants while keeping sensory experience central to art-making:
  2. Video conferencing is all about visuals. Use the ‘video’ part of video conferencing to make music by:
    • Using movement to shape the music, such as Piece of Mind’s Musical Diary in which a person with Parkinsons describes and conducts her experience of time. For a detailed description of process, see HERE. For two diary entries:
    • Watching a silent film together and improvising a film score to it, such as Piece of Mind’s illustration of a day in the life of a person with Parkinson’s. For a detailed description of process, see HERE:
  3. For a million reasons, through-composed music is not well adapted for video conferencing. Create a music that provides instructions for how, rather than what, to play:
    • Fair Jenny Alone, a work for at-home or in-person choir featuring a ‘sing-along’ track
  4. Share stories based on a prompt, and use voice recordings to shape and tell these stories:
    • …sounds like static… People affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia were asked ‘Who are the people who keep you anchored in life?’
    • Stories of Care. Multiple prompts were used in this podcast series created with the CARE Centre, a centre for adults with severe physical disabilities, including ‘what is your favourite childhood memory?’, ‘what is your favourite activity at CARE?, and more.

In a year unlike any other, I have had the good fortune to learn many new skills, push my creativity in directions I never imagined. connect with many kind and generous people, to whom I extend many, many thanks. As I sit down to make plans for workshops in Art inspired by Nature, a Dinner in the Dark and Music through Action Painting, I am looking forward to what the next year brings. If you’re interested in brainstorming and planning ahead for the 2021-22 season and school year, please reach out! I’d love to hear your ideas.

For funding to bring me and other Teaching Artists into schools see here:

ELAN ArtistsInspire | Culture in Schools | Culture pour tous

To hear what these MacKay Centre teachers have to say about our ArtistsInspire workshop:

Fair Jenny Alone: Making Music Together at Home

There are just as many ways to make music online as there are in person. When leading group music-making with choir and bands, audio quality and latency in video conferencing can lead music directors and teachers to rely on the mute button. This can set up a solitary experience of music making, a sad turn of events for people who join choirs and bands for the musical and social experience of singing and playing with others.

Old Harry Beach of the Magdalen Islands inspired the fixed audio track for Fair Jenny Alone.

I find the key to making music online (and in-person, frankly) is to put the focus on listening. Then, rather than tell musicians exactly what to play or sing, as we tend to do in Western notation, I try to set up a situation in which participants have clear guidelines for how to interact, giving them the liberty to experiment and make moment-to-moment musical decisions.

To be concrete, Fair Jenny Alone is a work I composed based on a Robbie Burns tune for at-home ensemble (choir, band or orchestra). The work consists of a fixed audio track that acts as a guide for musicians to sing and play with, instructions for how to improvise with the track and an introductory guide to recording at home. The premise is the same as a play-along CD – I provide the musical framework via the audio track and the instructions, and musicians make music within that framework. In the case of Fair Jenny Alone, the instructions for choir are fairly simple: imitate the sounds you hear in the audio track using vowels and breath sounds.

The key to supporting a sense of community and connection between musicians is how we rehearse and share the piece. Rehearsals explore listening and sensing exercises to help put musicians at ease with the style of music-making, as well as discuss the title as drawn from the Robbie Burns’ lyrics, and its various meanings depending on our individual circumstances. Then, with everybody on mute (guilty as charged!), we sing the piece together. Those choristers who are able to, record themselves and submit the recording to me. I then compile the audio tracks into one audio file, and we have a Listen Party, giving us a chance to hear each other sing alone together from our homes.

Chorister Annie Randall of the Concordia Chamber Choir has this to say about her experience singing Fair Jenny Alone:

This term has obviously been a challenge to continue with choir. Most years, by now, we would have had a concert under our belts, and working towards our winter concert. There has always been an end game. This term, however, we don’t have that. But we are still learning music, and rehearsing, often only hearing ourselves sing without the harmonies of the rest of the choir. This project, this one single project, allowed concert choir to finally feel like a group again, for the first time since March, when we said goodbye. We listened to the Fair Jenny soundtrack that we were given, and found our own harmonies, and sounds to make, and Louise brought those sounds and harmonies together into a beautiful 15 minutes. When listening back, I can hear the voices of the members that I had been missing so much. This one single project brought back the spark that pushed me to be the best I can with concert choir. Usually, the music we learn and perform is a gift to our audiences, and this one is no different in that regard, but this one was also a gift to us.

Thank you for your poignant words, Annie, and to director Joy Berg and the Concordia Chamber Choir for sharing your voices and the opportunity to hear you sing together at home. At a time when ‘alone’ can mean many different things, Fair Jenny Alone is a reminder that we can connect with people both near and far.

Listen here to Concordia Chamber Choir: Fair Jenny Alone

For more info, contact me at mlouisecampbell(at)gmail.com

For funding to bring me and other artists into Quebec schools (psst, there is a High School version of this piece):

ArtistsInspire   Culture in Schools   Culturepour tous

Art, Accessibility and Cultivating Connection

A C.A.R.E. client and his communication system.

What will art education look and sound like in your school over the coming year? Whether in an elementary school, a high school, a university or another establishment, the answer to this question is likely to change multiple times in the weeks and months to come. I don’t have any answers for you – but I do know that the shift necessitated by the pandemic has pushed me and all the people I work with to ask questions, listen carefully to each other’s answers, and think creatively about how we make art.

Take the podcasting project from the C.A.R.E. Centre, a partner of the English Montreal School Board, featuring adults with severe physical disabilities, many of whom are non-verbal and use assisted forms of communication. Podcasting? With people who are non-verbal? Through video conferencing? Our initial plan was pretty different from how it’s turned out – and what is coming out is amazing.

The podcasting project Stories of Care was slated to begin in person at the C.A.R.E. Centre on March 23, 2020. As we all know, closures began on March 13. I had just gotten back from a number of flights, train trips, and public transport through Alberta and Ontario. As some of the clients at C.A.R.E. have complex health needs, it was clear that going into the C.A.R.E. Centre in person was a very bad idea. The last thing I wanted to do was to unwittingly be a carrier of coronavirus. Fast-forward a week or two to when I had a conversation with the partners in the project, Olivia Quesnel, the Executive Director of the C.A.R.E. Centre, Isak Goldschneider of Innovations en concert, and Tim Brady of Bradyworks, and we all agreed: podcasting is an ideal project to do at a distance.

Um. Okay. Now we’ve got to do this…

Daily programs at C.A.R.E.

Luckily for me, one of the most beloved programs at C.A.R.E. is C.A.R.E. Radio, which we quickly converted to Zoom. Caregiver Bruno moved seamlessly into being a fabulous host, just as he is normally in person at C.A.R.E. while I fumbled around learning to be a Zoom DJ, giving clients, caregivers, and family members a chance to talk and see each other while sharing music from a distance. The online video platform became the bridge to our clients and a way to move forward with the podcasting project.

What really made this podcast project fly was Olivia Quesnel’s amazing ability to think creatively about how to connect with people. As a regular part of her job (Executive Director of the C.A.R.E. Centre), Olivia cultivates connections with C.A.R.E. clients using multiple platforms. She looks for the best way to communicate with each client depending on their abilities and home situations.

The necessity for connecting at a distance pushes this creativity around communication methods even further. The platform used may be one that I use daily but their method of using it may be quite different. For example, while the C.A.R.E. Centre was closed, Olivia set up a daily phone call with one of the clients during which she asked yes-no questions, to which he responded by pressing the touchpad once for ‘no’ (beeeeep) and twice for ‘yes’ (beep-beeeeeep!!).

C.A.R.E. staff, guided by Louise Campbell, discuss communication.

A combination of archival recordings, short instructional videos of activities for C.A.R.E clients to do at home, and recorded phone and Zoom calls between myself, Olivia, caregivers, clients, and family members gave us what we needed for a podcasting series: audio material!

There have been many, many firsts for me in this project: online arts facilitation, video editing, Zoom DJ-ing, and learning about the in’s and out’s of various communication tools used by clients at C.A.R.E. (this is the topic of multiple podcast episodes from Stories of Care). The biggest thing I will remember and treasure from this project is the power of human connection – that is, our ability and drive to connect with the people we care about.

I am absolutely grateful for the support from the musical team in this project – I could not have done this without Isak Goldschneider, Tim Brady, Nick Hyatt and Amy Horvey – and I have an immense amount of respect for the warmth and humanity shown by the clients, caregivers and families at C.A.R.E. If we can make a project like this happen on ten days’ notice, we can all continue to make music and enable the arts to happen over the course of this year. We just need to keep talking, thinking creatively, and helping each other out. Without question, there will be challenges along the way but we can do this together.

In this spirit, I will continue to use this blog, Musings on Making Music, as a platform to share ideas and activities for music creativity tailored to our shifting landscape of music and music education. Feel free to peruse the musical games and activities already posted in the blog (scroll down the sidebar to the left), sign up to receive monthly-bimonthly blog posts, or reach out to me via email. If I have ideas or connections with people who can give you a hand, it will be my pleasure to share some of my methods or to put you in contact with others.

As Bruno would say at the end of a C.A.R.E. Radio episode:
Stay tuned next time for more Stories of Care. Peace!

And the chatter begins from the clients and family: That was so fun! I loved your jokes! Are you coming to the Zoom dance party tomorrow? Hey, can we do a Zoom call later? Bye, everybody! See you next time!

Listen here to the podcast series here: Stories of Care

Stories of Care is produced by the C.A.R.E. Centre, Innovations en concert, Bradyworks, with funding from Quebec’s Schools Host an Artist of Culture in Schools. 

For more information and funding to bring me and other artists (virtually and in-person when this is possible) into schools, community organizations and long-term care centres:


Culture in Schools

Passeurs de rêves, Culture pour tous

C.A.R.E. clients and caregivers enjoy an outing at the Botanical Gardens, pre-COVID.

Stay Home Music Activities

At a time when we’re all being asked to Stay Home, I’m sending good vibes in the form of music activities for you and the people you are staying home with. Most of these activities refer to groups of people, but the activities work equally as well with 2-5 people, roughly the number of people in one household. Adapt by reducing the number of parts, and putting one person to a part.

People of all ages like nothing more than being creative, so if an activity takes a different tack than you see here, go with it! Staying Home is going to make us all more creative, in so many ways 🙂

Chants and games using spoken voice:

Memory and Making the Most of Ear Worms (memory games, ages 5-9)

Science: Learning about acoustics using marbles (ages 5-12)

Music listening game: Ready…set…listen! (all ages)

Music: Freeze dance (ages 2-9)

Music using digital devices: Play it again, Sam (ages 13-adult)

Pedagogical Guides written for Orchestre symphonique de Montréal:

Peter and the Wolf (ages 5-12)

Phantom of the Opera (ages 13-adult)

Language arts: Sound poems (ages 4-8)




We got rhythm

In the last blog post Getting Pitchy, we looked at a process for finding pitch material in a group setting. Let’s say that in the course of that process, it became clear the group loves beat-based music. We’ve got 40 minutes left in class, and we need to get to a group composition by the end of the hour. What to do…

Let’s jump straight into a rhythm game based on different lengths of loops:

  1. By section, ask participants to count loops of different beat lengths out loud
    1. Brass count 1-2-3-1-2-3 etc.
    2. Woodwinds count 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4 etc.
    3. Piano, guitar and percussion count 1-2-3-4-5-1-2-3-4-5 etc.
  2. Layer the loops, practicing all combinations of two loops, as well as all three loops at once. This gets trippy – listen to the loops phase and do the math to understand when the downbeats line up.
  3. Layer loops, this time asking participants to clap on beat one and count in their heads.
  4. Using the pitch material decided on as a group (see Getting Pitchy), ask sections to compose and practice a loop on their instrument that is the same number of beats they just practiced counting.

    Loops from Culture in Schools workshop, L’École secondaire Val-Mauricie, Shawinigan Qc

Tip: initial loops frequently come out in quarter notes. While sections are rehearsing, I give tips for finding rhythmic variations as needed.

  1. Layer the loops on top of each other as in #2.

In this 20-30 minute sequence, the group came up with music that has coherent pitch material, beat, and rhythmic process. By asking the group to work in sections, we built in a bit of orchestration. In the remaining time we have in our 1-hour class, there are a number of directions this collective composition can take. More next time!

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.

Play it again, Sam

Playing with image, text and narrative are some of my favourite ways of making creative music, whether in my own practice or in facilitating creative music with amateurs. The last blog post featured some of the innovations in image and sound dating back to the silent film era. This blog post features a few ideas on exploring video and sound using the digital device many of us have in our pockets, the cell phone.

Play it again, Sam

Group activity, ages teen to adult

Technical needs: your participants cell phones and their willingness to play video/songs from their playlist

Depending on the context, you may want to preview participants’ video and playlists in advance.

One participant cues up a familiar music video with the sound off. All other participants to cue up their favourite song on their play list. Play the video paired with the various songs.

One participant cues up their favourite song. All other participants cue up their favourite music videos with the sound off. Play the song paired with the various music videos.

What works? What doesn’t? What’s funny? How does your perception of the video/music change with the different pairings?

Tips for going further:

Using the selected videos and songs from the previous exercise, play with the following elements of timing and affect (emotional content):

  1. in sync (image and sound match, or I see, hear the same thing at the same time),
  2. out of sync (image and sound are in contrast, or I see, hear different things at the same time),
  3. offset (I see, hear things at slightly different times, e.g. hearing an oldtime radio before the image appears).

These simple variations can make big differences in our perception, and are as close at hand as your participants’ play lists. What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? Your participants and their preferences will tell you quickly enough.

Not so silent films

How many digital devices are in the room you are currently in? How many of these have capacity for video and sound? Probably quite a few: in the age of the internet, video and sound hold a large place in how people access information. Especially true for youth, how can we play with and use this fascination with video and sound in the classroom? Click here to read the pedagogical guide I wrote for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal on the silent film era for a few ideas …

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