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.
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!
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.
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.
How to toss the fruit salad:
As a class, learn each chant by heart. Loop as many times as necessary until comfortable.
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.
Add a word(s) back into the chant.
Find a way to add/drop words on the fly.
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.
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!
Many of us are saying hello to our instruments and students for the first time after a well-deserved holiday. This blog post is dedicated to Day One, when our students say hello to their instruments for the first time ever. It’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship…
Day One, regardless of the instrument, is about discovery. Let’s imagine we have a music room full of instruments including wind, brass, percussion and strings. The question of the day is: how do these objects make sound?
Instrumentation: Wind, brass, percussion and string instruments
Age & ability: Beginners of all ages
Number of participants: 1-30
Set up a science fair type space in which various stations feature a different instruments. ‘Mentors’ such as older students or specialist are helpful for giving tips on basic technique and hygiene. I favour a fairly hands-off approach: the goal is to let the newbies try instruments on their own terms – they will learn simply by playing and teach each other in the process.
Once the students are happily making sound (usually of the squeeeeakk! blaaaattt!!! scrrraaaape… variety), throw a few questions into the mix. How many different sounds can you make with the same instrument? What does it sound like? Sirens, birds, car horns, squeaky doors? Can you imitate that sound with another instrument? How are instruments are similar to each other? How are they different? Encourage students to articulate and understand the instruments according to sound production, leading to the topic of the next blog post: What happens if…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!