Rich tasks

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking a group of Master of Teaching students through some music games and tasks that I’ve collected from different parts of the world. The idea was to start with games and activities, but to then extend and develop the games into composition outcomes.

I think of the games that I use in workshops as ‘rich tasks’. That is, they have content that can be superficially fun and enjoyable, but when you look below the surface there is a whole lot of skill development and learning going on. They are also ‘rich’ because despite seeming easy and playful, they require you to keep on your toes and maintain your presence and focus. Break your focus, and you will start to falter.

Take my favourite warm up, for example. We start by passing a clap sound around the circle, one by one. Swiftly! I remind the group, and encourage them to make eye contact with the person they are passing the sound to. Then I ask them to change directions whenever they want, sending the sound either to the left or to the right. Then we change sounds – I love to use a ssshh sound, because this adds a further playful element, as people start to get into character, and offer very communicative, expressive sshhh-s. Around this time, as the sounds and directions change unpredictably, the group is beginning to improvise. They are responding to the sounds that have come before their own, and start to respond to the tension, release and arcs that are being formed.

Later you can add a sound that is sent across the circle, which requires steely eye contact, and invites a new, energised sound to be made (zap, zip, whoosh and ping are frequent suggestions). If someone makes a ‘wrong’ sound, sending it either across the circle to their left or right, this too is embraced, and becomes part of the ‘sound vocabulary’ of the game. Following this rule, you can have different sounds coming from every person in turn – the variety adds to the delight that the group feels then, when one of those new ‘sound offers’ is repeated by someone else.

Groups  that are working well together, where everyone is participating fully in the game, can continue with just these rules for quite extended periods of time, often developing some very interesting musical outcomes. However, I also like to add what I think of as powerful ‘whole ensemble unison’ moments into the texture. These work as question-and-answer moments. The person whose turn it is makes and agreed call and gesture (one I am fond of is a martial arts-inspired Hi-YAH!), to which the rest of the group responds with a stern and resonant Huh!, stamping one foot to the floor like a member of the All Blacks.

The sound-passing game is my first ‘rich task’, and I know lots of people know it already. It surprises me sometimes, when colleagues say things like, “Yeah, but I only do it with primary students”, as if it is inappropriate for older students, or “We were doing that back in the seventies!”, as if it is old hat. I find this game so effective precisely because it is such a stayer, and because there are so many ways to you can add to it and extend it.

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