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 …
Welcome back! To kick off the season, here is a tale about my 3-year old friend Leila, who she is, how she makes music and some thoughts on facilitating creative music with people of all ages, whoever they may be.
I lost my mitts. Again. I always lose my mitts. This time it’s minus 33 outside and I’m outside the garderie looking at Leila playing in the snow, feeling the cold bite my hands. I can’t have come without my mitts. I would have noticed. They must be inside.
“Leila. I lost my mitts. Can you help me find them?”
Leila looks at me, puzzled, and keeps digging in the snow. I’m puzzled too. These mitts are huge – big black mitts that come almost up to my elbows, keep my hands warm in this frigid cold, and are really hard to lose.
“I lost my mitts, Leila. Where’d they go?”
She looks up, still puzzled, but I have her attention. What belongs to who is important to Leila. Ever since she could crawl, she’s brought me my things. My shoes when I’m sitting in the living room talking with her mom. My coat, bringing it to me in the middle of a crowded party. My backpack, dragging it with determination since it weighs almost as much as she does.
I ask for her help. I mean it. I don’t want to make the trek across the city in this cold without my mitts. I looked everywhere in the garderie. Even the garderie staff looked. Nobody could find my mitts.
“Leila, my mitts. Where’d they go?”
She looks up at me and makes the gesture every 3-year old I know makes that means ‘I dunno’. Then she starts looking: up, down, around. We walk to the garderie, the snow brittle and crunching under our feet. I open the door, and the warm air rushes out to greet us, fogging up my glasses so I can’t see anything.
“Where are my mitts, Leila? I looked everywhere,”
I say as I polish my glasses. I put them back on and see Leila holding my mitts up, delight shining out of her face.
“Leila, you found them! Where were they?”
“They were right there, Louise! Right there.”
And Leila holds my mitts while we walk back outside, holds them while I put her in her stroller, holds them while I struggle with that damn buckle, holds them while I get her snack. Holds them until we are ready to go. Leila looks up at me.
“Your turn, Louise. Mitts on. Yaay!!”
This from my 3-year old friend who just learned how to say my name in full, Lou-ise, two weeks ago. She’s looking after me. Looking after me in the best way she knows. Bringing me my mitts. Keeping my hands warm. Cheering me on.
This tale reminds me to pay attention to the person or people in front of me and recognize their strengths and interests. In the case of Leila, not only is she far better at some things than I am (keeping track of my mitts is not the only thing), she is one of the best improvisers I know. Ever since she was born, she has explored every object she can get her hands for it’s potential for sound, from scratching surfaces and fabrics with her fingernails to very purposeful real-time mixing using various sound-making toys. Put an electric guitar on the floor for her to play with, and she creates sounds I’ve never heard from a professional. It would be easy to assume that Leila doesn’t ‘know’ anything because she’s three, but then I would be completely missing out on what she already does very skillfully.
When I enter a room full of people ready to make music, I do my best to keep in mind that there is always more to another person than I can possibly know, and the last thing I want to do is underestimate someone. Who is this person? What do they know and like? What skill have they honed, and take pride in? How do they know and understand the subject at hand, and related subjects? How is this the same or different to how I know and understand these subjects? What can I learn from them? How can we make music together?
All the best in your creative music endeavors this season!
Imagine going to an island for the first time and wondering where the shoreline is. When I arrived on the Magdalen Islands for a residency at Grosse-Île School, there was ice and snow as far as the eye could see and winds so cold it gave me a cold headache. When I left a month later, the wind was still blowing, waves were crashing on the beach and the community was buzzing with excitement in anticipation of the approaching fishing season. With thanks to A School Hosts an Artist of Culture in Schools and ELAN’s ACE Initiative for their support, Grosse-Île students, community members and I explored music inspired by place – and what a place to be inspired by!
And what people to be inspired by, too. When CBC Breakaway host Alison Brunette asked Kayla Leblanc, a Grade 7 student at Grosse-Île school, ‘What have you learned from making this radio drama?, she replied,
‘That we could come together and make anything as long as we put our mind to it. Because at first we didn’t really have any ideas for the story and then we all started thinking and it slowly started to come along.’
To hear more, listen to November Storm, the radio play written and mixed by Gr. 7 students featuring sound samples created and recorded by students Gr. 2 to Gr. 11, including guest voice work by principal Hugh Wood.
Listen to Kayla describe her experience:
Listen to the process behind making music inspired by place, how this residency came about, and some of my reflections on the experience:
Read ELAN Artist Feature:
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?”
Sound Treasure Hunt
- Before playing the sound treasure hunt, ask students to name any sound they hear (e.g. a sneeze, a car horn honking, shuffling feet).
- 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.
- 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.
Picture a large room: concrete floor, low tile ceiling, bare plaster walls, tables lined with stools, a wall of industrial fridges and an attached commercial kitchen. Imagine the accompanying sounds: hums, buzzes and the metallic clanks of a busy kitchen. Now imagine the same room filled with 100 or so kids eating lunch, anticipating going outside to play. The enthusiasm and efficiency of this room are laudable; the sound levels impressive. I’m excited to be Artist in Residence for Sound Bites, a School Hosts an Artist project aimed at reducing the noise level in this room, Coronation Elementary School’s cafeteria.
A school cafeteria is similar to a restaurant or a bar – there are a lot of people in an enclosed space, usually with a fair amount of background music and/or noise. People talk loudly so they can be heard by their friends, which means other people talk louder in turn. In brainstorming with science teacher and visual artist Shelly Sharp, we came up with the following focus questions:
“How does sound affect our well-being? What can we do as artists, students and adults to understand and positively impact sound quality and volume in the Coronation Elementary lunchroom?”
These questions fall perfectly into STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math), as sound touches on issues of awareness, self-expression, behaviour, group dynamics, acoustics, and more. Students had previously studied molecules and transfer of energy, so sound waves and acoustics built on their prior knowledge.
The following experiment uses a marble as a model for a sound wave to learn about reflection, absorption and dispersion of sound.
- 3 different materials of similar dimensions (e.g. wood, squishy foam, corrugated cardboard)
- Tape measure
Place the materials against a wall. Mark a spot on the floor to shoot marbles from, keeping the distance between marble-shooter and materials consistent. Shoot the marble three times against each of the materials, letting the marble roll to a stop after it bounces off the material. Measure the distance of each shot and record. Depending on the age of your students, crunch the data as you see fit.
Ask students for observations:
- How did the marble bounce off the materials?
- What were the similarities and differences between the different materials? Why might this be the case?
- How does this relate to:
- the room you are currently in and how it sounds?
- a quiet environment like a library?
- a loud environment like a cafeteria?
Peter and the Wolf is a simple fairy tale – or is it so simple? Fairy tales come out of traditions and cultures from around the world. They tell stories about everyday life for purposes of entertainment and jokes to teaching life lessons, values, culture and history. Like all stories, who tells the story, who it is being told to, and where and why it is being told is just as important as the story itself. Big questions when presenting Peter and the Wolf to today’s kids! CLICK HERE for the pedagogical guide I authored for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal on Peter and the Wolf, featuring ideas for games, cultural mediation, cross-curricular competencies and more…
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.
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.
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.
‘Hello… helloo… hellooo…ellooo…llooooo….’ Circle games are beautiful, concrete examples of how individuals contribute to form a group. Change one person in a circle and the group sound changes. Send a ‘hello’ around the circle in one group sounds like a chorus of wolves, while another group erupts into a polyphony of greetings in various languages. It all depends on where you and your group take it.
The last post described a circle game based in repetition and variation. The task is to make a sound similar to the previous, rather than exact imitation. Sometimes this is easier said than done. To take an extreme example, imagine imitating a long tone on a trombone using a found instrument such as a tree branch full of dried leaves. It’s obviously not going to sound the same. How can a long tone be imitated by a tree branch? It all depends on the musical element you chooses to imitate.
Ask your participants to brainstorm the elements that make up music:
- Time (rhythm, duration)
- Pitch (melody, harmony, gesture)
Form is established by the circle game. Fix another element, leaving the rest open to play with. Here is a circle game where pitch is fixed:
One Note Wonder
Pre-establish a pitch to send around the circle. One person plays that pitch for the length of one breath. When you hear the person to your left play, add your sound to theirs, imitating or varying their sound using time, dynamics and tone/texture.
This is one of my favourite games, since there is security in knowing what to do (i.e. the fixed element) and room to play (everything else!). Let your participants play and discover what they like and do not like. A group sound will start to emerge and lead you and your group to the next step.
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:
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.
‘If you make a mistake, do it twice. Then people think you did it on purpose. They won’t be any the wiser if you don’t tell them!’
This was my Nana’s advice when she was teaching me how to knit, one of the most awkward things I have ever learned. Combined with my penchant for following the gist of the instructions rather than actually following them, Nana and I had many mirth-filled knitting sessions turning mistakes into ‘design features’. Her words came back to me when I was recording a sketch of an open score for a friend and colleague. They apply beautifully to making creative music with amateurs.
Whether it’s knitting or making music, I prefer clear global direction to excruciating detail. Because of this, I write open scores that allow for a lot of wiggle room. This is a bonus when playing with loopers, because every loop comes out a little (or a lot) differently. When I sat down to record a sketch for my colleague, I had a plan – sections with pitch choices and processes for each.
Sketch for Knitting Lessons, for clarinet and loop station
Everything is going swimmingly until:
ME TO MYSELF: Bah. I made a mistake. (listens to 1:55 for a few loops and remembers Nana’s knitting advice)
Hmmm, actually that’s not bad, kind of foreshadows what I’m gonna do later.(continues process for section, building new loop)
Now to work in that mistake… (plays footsie with loopers 2:35-2:50)
… yeah, cool, that works…
Whoops! I didn’t mean that. (listens to new ‘mistake’ at 2:50)
Actually that’s pretty cool. I wonder if I can use that… (follows process to end)
If there is anything looping has taught me, it’s that unintended events are just as interesting, and sometimes more interesting, than intentional events. The two ‘mistakes’ in this recording were unintentional, but they became ‘design features’ to the point that they are now part of the final score. If I had stopped when I made the first mistake, I would never have found out where it would lead me.
That’s how Nana’s knitting advice applies to creative music making with amateurs. The greatest block to creativity and flow is right-wrong thinking. Sometimes mistakes are mistakes, in which case it is important to address the causes (just found where that pesky distortion sizzle came from…). More importantly, what strategies can be used to set up a creative music activity where right-wrong thinking doesn’t apply and mistakes are viewed as potential? More thoughts on that in the next blog posts. Welcome back to the new season and school year, everyone!