Playing by ear
Each term I devise a different collaborative music project for each class at Pelican Primary School, which we develop over a series of weeks. The grade 4/5 class has been working on the song Somebody I used to know by Gotye (a Melbourne artist, they were excited to learn). The song starts with a xylophone melody that follows the contour of Baa Baa Black Sheep and the class were familiar with the song when I first played it to them.
This project of learning to play the Gotye melody has developed into an exploration of pitch, and specifically, using an understanding of pitch to learn to play familiar melodies by ear. My ideas of how best to facilitate this developed over the term – we were working things out together.
Initially, after getting the students to listen to the melodic introduction to the song and mark the contour in the air with their hands, I gave each child a tuned percussion instrument (xylophones and glockenspiels), and told them the first two notes of the melody. I asked them to see if they could work out any of the other pitches. We played the song’s introduction over and over and they tried to play along. This was much too difficult for them and many of them got frustrated and disheartened. I realised that they didn’t know how to approach the task, so did a rethink.
I introduced the idea of pitches or notes being the different letters on the instrument and we established that these can go up (higher, to the shorter bars) and down (lower, to the longer bars). I taught them about pitches “moving by step” (moving to the next adjacent note rather than to a note further away), and that we weren’t going to be thinking about them “by skipping” (as they call it) at this stage. Again, everyone had an instrument, and I asked them to locate D. I played a short phrase, always starting on D, and only moving by step (up or down one step). They listened carefully, and we played a series of phrases (unrelated to the Gotye song) in call-and-response – me by myself, and all of them playing it back to me.
The group was highly engaged during this activity. They understood it, and were challenged by it, but it was achievable for most. Two or three didn’t seem to be responding so positively, and appeared to be hitting any notes randomly (albeit in rhythm with the phrase they were to copy) and laughing across to each other. I asked them to repeat my phrase one by one. Immediately they were more engaged, and repeated the pitches and rhythm accurately. I think they found the task frustrating because they couldn’t hear their own efforts when playing at the same time as everyone else. I find that this cohort (who I’ve written about many times in this blog), generally has a low tolerance of situations where they can’t get immediate feedback (which in music is the opportunity to clearly hear their own instrument in the mix) in music class. This creates disillusionment and frustration, they stop trying, and start distracting others. They wouldn’t be able to develop the skills if they were feeling annoyed by the task (or be able to develop the confidence to approach it) so I tackled this issue of being able to hear oneself the following week.
We started a musical version of Chinese Whispers. I set up a line of 8 instruments. Player 1 invented a short phrase, starting on D and only moving by step between D, C and B. Players 2-8 had to try and play it back, taking it in turns so that they were all playing alone. Each child got at least one turn on an instrument. While they weren’t playing they were sitting as audience, listening and (hopefully) mentally figuring out the pitches for themselves.
Everyone – those who were sitting at an instrument and those who were in the audience – could hear when an echoing phrase was different to the original, or the same. A lot of excellent self-correcting started to happen.
We discussed phrases in music. I explained that the phrase end was where there was a natural pause in the music – maybe not a long one, but a point where the musical line came to some kind of rest. We sang through Dynamite as an example (a favourite song of the class), and they raised their hands every time we came to the end of a phrase. Everyone did this with confidence. “You see?” I said, “You already know this about music. All I’m doing is putting a name to something that you already know and understand.”
Next, I gave out a chart of the Gotye introduction, written only in rhythmic notation. Each of the four phrases was colour-coded – red for phrase 1 and 3 (because these phrases are exactly the same rhythmically and in pitch), black for phrase 2 and blue for phrase 4. (Colour-coded information is a very helpful visual cue for a lot of my students, it helps them orient themselves around new information and not feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar symbols).
For this session, I asked them to focus only on phrases 2 and 4. Phrase 1, I explained, would be tackled later. Phrases 2 and 4 are slower (crotchets rather than quavers) and move only by step.
There was quite a buzz in the air in this class. The preliminary work we’d done on pitches moving by step had given the students tools for tackling the Phrase 2 & 4 challenge, and most of the class was able to play along with the recording by the end of the lesson. Some were already starting to figure out how to play phrase 1 – something that had been frustratingly difficult in the first week.
We will finish figuring out the notes for Phrase 1, and write the pitch names (according to what they have figured out) under the rhythmic notation on the chart. After that, we’ll creating a class arrangement, adding a bass line and other accompanying riffs, and create a drum/untuned percussion accompaniment by ear. I’m hoping they will be able to perform the piece for a school assembly in the next few weeks.