Quick starters

In any workshop it is imperative, I think, that the participants have some kind of penny-dropping, “a-ha!” experience, in order to have something tangible to take away. In a short time-frame with an unfamiliar group, this can be particularly challenging to ensure, but I like the energy of jumping in with a new group, and creating something on the spot together. My current project at St John’s Primary Clifton Hill (as their visiting ‘Composer in the Classroom’ for Musica Viva) has asked me to develop a number of short, intensive and engaging composition workshops for early years students, pushing them in some way, but ensuring the experience is complete within the hour.

One of my ‘quick start’ workshops is to develop melodic and rhythmic material using a Cycle of 8 beats. The steps are pretty straight-forward:

  • Get everyone to count a cycle of 8 steady beats out loud, repeating them over and over in a loop
  • Get everyone to clap on 1.
  • Ask someone to nominate another number and another sound – at St John’s this week, a student nominated beat 5, and a finger-click.
  • Add a few more beats and sounds to the cycle. In a fast-paced workshop it could start to get pretty confusing for the children, but stay with it – this is the preparatory ground for melodic work.
  • Around this point I tend to write the 8 numbers up on the whiteboard and put squares around the numbers that we are sounding.
  • Decide what tonality you want (or not – you may like to leave it to chance), and ask someone to play the tonic note (or any note) on one of the numbers. At St John’s, I specified the note C on number 1 as I wanted as to have a strong anchoring point, and tonal centre.
  • I then invite students (one at a time) to propose pitches for the other numbers in the cycle that we have chosen to sound. By now, we’ll have a melody.
  • You can play it on tuned percussion or other instruments as a hocket, or gradually teach the group all the notes in order. I like to leave it up to them to add the other pitches to their starting note when they are ready. Eg. their starting note might be E on beat 4, so they should get that locked in first, but once they feel confident, they might also decide to play the C on beat 1.

At St John’s, a very perky riff in C major emerged. The music teacher and I accompanied it on guitars with a chord progression that moved from C to G, Am, F, and G. We finished the hour-long workshop with a structure – giving each section of instruments (glockenspiels, xylophones, boomwhackers, etc) four repeats of the riff (the number was dictated by the length of the chord progression), before a final section of everyone playing together.

It was hard work for all the students. Some didn’t manage to sort out the whole of the riff in the time we had available. However, they all had an understanding of how we had come to this point in the course of the hour and felt incredibly pleased with themselves and their work. I don’t think they’d played any phrases this long on the tuned percussion before. Also, the guitar accompaniment gave their riff a stronger context and sense of tension and release in the music.

The plan now is that the riff will form melodic material for a ‘school song’ that we will write with one of the older classes next week. The workshop was complete within itself, but the material that it generated will go on to have a longer life elsewhere in the school.


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