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 🙂
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:
Ask four participants at a time to play any note on your cue.
Cue multiple times, asking participants to change notes on each cue, resulting in a series of 4-note chords.
Ask participants to pick one of the chords to play with.
Write the notes on the board, using scale degrees or transposing as necessary.
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.
Here are some examples of the pitch material various groups have chosen:
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.
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
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.