MTeach class, week 1

I am teaching a new class at the University this semester – a group of MTeach students who all have backgrounds (to varying degrees) in music. The focus (as much as has been given to me so far.. it seems to change every time I speak to one of the coordinators) is on contemporary art music, improvisation and composition.

I’ll keep things as hands-on as possible – everything we learn, we will learn by doing, and exploring with instruments and our voices. We’ll cover a number of different approaches to group-devised composing, and work towards a large-scale piece that involves all of us, by the end of the 12 weeks.

These ‘MTeach’ posts have two functions – the first is a planning space for me, to log what we are doing each week, and how the classes (which are 60 minutes long – only – every Tuesday morning) link up and develop; the second is for the students to have a place to recall what we did in class, and use as a resource should they want to revisit the activities with their own classes.

I tend to structure most of my lessons with an initial warm-up game ( I think it is useful for all teachers to have a number of these up their sleeve, so see a lot of value in introducing them to the group), followed by content that is more focused on invention, composing, and structure.

Week 1

Focus on the voice, on encouraging imaginative, musical use of the voice as a way into music exploration, improvisation and composing.

Warm up – Zip-Bop.

This is a variation on the old ‘Pass a sound around the circle’ category of games. It gets people

  • using the voice more freely, being more playful
  • relaxing, losing inhibitions, as each person’s part is important, but passes very quickly, with a strong time imperative making it difficult to pay attention to any demons in your head urging you to stay cautious.
  • working as a team
  • using eye contact and other clear body language
  • Coordinating left and right arm actions
  • Using the playful spirit of the game to create comic moments and surprises, thus bringing forth ther creative, imaginative selves.

The game consists of two main sound-and-gesture combinations:

Zip – say the word ‘zip!’ with an upwards, or dynamic intonation, while moving the hand outwards from teh stomach towards the person next to you. Use the right hand if sending the sound to the right, the left hand if sending it to the left. Make eye contact with the person you are passing the sound to.

Bop – say the word ‘Bop!’ loudly and firmly, while holding to hands up in the air in a ‘STOP!’ gesture. Make eye contact with the person you are passing the Bop to.

The zip travels around. At anytime, instead of zipping, a player can ‘BOP’ a zip, which is essentially a rejection of it. The recipient of the Bop can either Bop back, or send the zip back in the opposite direction.

Once this concept is understood and the sounds are flowing around the circle with a reasonable amount of pace and confidence, you can start to add other sounds. (I add them one by one, and the game gets trickier with each added element):

Zap – a strong point (strong straight arm, index finger pointing, other fingers curled up) to someone on the other side of the circle. Eye contact is REALLY important here. You can’t Zap the people on either side of you.

I also like to add the following sounds which are call-and-response in structure, in that there is a unison ‘answer’ that the whole group gives each time the call is sounded.

Bing/Bong – Hold up 1 finger in the air and say ‘Bing’ in a high pitched voice. In response the whole group must bow down, from the waist, hands by sides, behind the back or clasped piously in front of the chest (take your pick, according to religious sensitivities in the group), and intone, ‘Bong’, in low voices, aiming for a long, low, resonant sound. Pitch isn’t important (though you could add set pitches as a further challenge to the group if you wanted). After the whole group has given the response, the ‘bing’er starts the game again.

Hiya!/Huh! – Assume a kung fu stance, with arms and legs in strong, grounded poses. Call out ‘Hiya! in a bloodcurdling way. The response from the group is to say, ‘Huh!’ and stamp the foot out into a wide feet-apart stance, at the same time. This can get a very satisfying sensation of power and strength in the group, and gives everyone a chance to feel like they are part of a Hong Kong action movie, just for a moment.

1-2-3 (“I’m going to say 1, you’ll say 2, I’ll say 3… then you’ll say 1, I’ll say 2, and you’ll say 3..”)

The aim of this composing task is to free up the voice, engage the musical memory, and start to build up performance values. Everyone in the group pairs off. (Try not to have groups of three – it doesn’t work as well).

Person A says – 1

Person B says – 2

Person A says – 3

Person B says – 1

Person A says – 2

Person B says – 3

And so on. So far, pretty straightforward. The above s the basic pattern needed for the game. Make sure each pair can repeat it at least 4 times in a row.

Now, ask them to substitute no.3 with a sound a gesture. As they cycle the numbers around, instead of saying 3, they replace the number with the nominated sound/gesture.

Next, replace the 2 with a sound and gesture. So now, each pair will have 2 sounds and gestures to keep track of as they move through the 3 numbers between them.

Lastly, replace number 1. Now each pair will have an interesting little vocal composition, with accompanying gestures to perform.

This is a big left brain-right brain teaser. Much harder than it sounds. It can generate some fabulous results. Keep the time imperative in mind – let the sounds and gestures come spontaneously. Don’t tell the group too much information in advance. Take it one step at a time.

Names into compositions

  1. One by one around the circle, we each say our name. Each person’s name gets repeated by the whole group.
  2. Next, each person says their name with an accompanying gesture. Everyone copies the name and the gesture of each person.
  3. Remember the gestures. Now, one by one, each person performs their gesture, but this time with a vocal sound that they feel goes well with their gestures. The names are now dropped. Again, each person’s contribution is repeated once by the whole group.
  4. Divide into groups of 5-6. Combine the different gestures and sounds in your group to make a short vocal composition with gestures/choreography. Be pedantic about performance values – take the vocal sounds on offer seriously and perform them as well as you can. Aim for unison (so that each person’s sound has to be learned by the group, and owned by the group), though once you have established some unison material, you can add other layers for a richer musical texture. Limit your work to ONLY the sounds and gestures present in your group.

This task can be done quickly though more time would mean the small groups could really explore their content and put together something more musically complex. However, even the quick responses are usually pretty interesting!

Next step – look at ostinati, or ‘riffs’, and how we can invent these with students, and put interesting compositions together on classroom percussion. Work with modes.

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2 comments so far

  1. […] The use of ‘bing-bong’ and ‘hiyah’ were detailed in MTeach class, week 1. […]

  2. […] with one of my favourite games – Zip-Bop, which I have described in a post a few weeks (read it here). This game is a good warm up, covering things […]


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