Archive for the ‘graphic scores’ Tag

Constructing sounds in the Music Construction Site 2013

The last workshop for 2013 was Music Construction Site at ArtPlay. The Music Construction Site starts with lots of free (and noisy) exploration of instruments…

I love this ten minute block. The instruments are arranged around the room, and children and parents can roam freely, trying out all the things they want. I encourage them to try everything that they are curious about, and I bring in some of my favourite things – like crotales, and a spiral cymbal, thumb pianos, dipping gongs, and wah-wah tubes – for them to try.

I watched one little girl sit down at the djembe, her mother observing her but leaving her to make her own discoveries. Her little face lit up with excitement as she tapped it the first couple of times. The djembe is quite heavy, so I helped her fasten the waist strap around her back, to make the drum more stable. She began to hit it more boldly. She and her mother exchanged many glances of delight, but mostly, this was her own magical, thrilling experience. It was like she had discovered a new side to herself, as well as a new possibility in the world. It was gorgeous to witness, and an important reminder of just how significant some of these workshop experiences can be for participants.

After everyone’s curiousity and exploratory spirit has been sated, we gather to discuss the qualities and characteristics of the sounds that the different instruments make and then everyone sets to work drawing their preferred sound. Not a picture of the instrument, mind, but an image of what you think that sound looks like. Interesting! You learn a lot about how people hear, and what they hear, when they start to draw their sounds.

Drawing sounds, Music Construction Site, Nov 13 (Gillian Howell)

These pictures become part of a giant graphic score – a series of images that depict what we are to play. I stick them up on the wall using blu-tack (in a fairly random, arbitrary order) along a big stretch of wall. Then we play through this first version of the score.

Constructing the score, Music Constructions Site, Nov 2013 (Gillian Howell)

Finally, we experiment with structure. We move the individual images around, making decisions about how to begin, how to end, and where to put a few surprises or unexpected moments. The children know about these kinds of musical conventions. They might not know how to name them, but they recognise what we are trying to do and offer all sorts of thoughtful and creative suggestions. The more I move the images around, and follow their instructions and suggestions, the greater ownership they feel over the piece.

At the end of the Construction process, we perform the piece from beginning to end, no stopping. This is a workshop for 5-8 year olds, which is not an age group often associated with sitting quietly, instrument in hand, waiting for the right time to play, for extended periods of time. But in this workshop, with the strong visual cues coming from the giant graphic score, they do. The piece usually lasts around 10-12 minutes – no small achievement for these very young players and their parents!

After we’d performed our piece and said our good-byes, children came up to me to say thank you, to share a particular experience of the workshop with me, and to collect their pictures from the wall. I love these moments of more personal interaction. I asked one child, “Would you like to take your picture home with you?” She considered this, then asked, “Can I take the blu-tack too?” “Of course you can!” I said, and chuckled a little at the excited expression on her face. We forget, as adults, don’t we? Blu-tack can be just as important as all the other discoveries in a workshop like this.



Three strategies for songwriting

Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song –  – that I have used in some recent projects. Continue reading

Wet and dry sounds

With the preps and grade 1s in my current ‘Composer in the Classroom’ project (for Musica Viva at St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill), we created a composition of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ sounds. I suggested that for me, a ‘wet’ sound was one that rang on for a long time after being struck (similar to the way a pebble dropped in a pond creates ripples that last a long time). A dry sound was shorter and more… well, dry.

The children selected percussion instruments, listened to each one by one and decided whether the sound was wet or dry.

“Wet!” chorused in response to the magical tones of a wind chime.

“Dry!” they all agreed after hearing the rasp of a guiro.

I explained that the label was a subjective one – they could have their own opinion about what was ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. Some instruments provoked interesting debate – the resonant tones of the djembe for example. They could hear that it had resonance, but not for as long as some of the metal instruments. And as a metal instrument, the cabasa was proof that ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ categories didn’t necessarily align with what the instrument was made of.

Next we played the instruments one by one around the circle, but this time, they needed to wait until the ring of the previous instrument had completely ended. This demanded careful listening and concentration – always a risky endeavour with this age group, but they were thoroughly engaged and intrigued by the range of sounds in their midst and were pedantic about waiting until the previous sound had entirely finished (and if they weren’t, one of their classmates would be sure to point it out).

We then moved onto graphic scores. I asked each child to draw a symbol to represent their sound. Some found this a challenging task, but others were impressively painstaking in their approach and their teacher and I marveled at all that they could hear in their instrument’s sound. One girl’s symbol for her glockenspiel note appeared like a huge blue jagged scribble; however, her teacher told me it was actually a very layered image. She’d started with a simple wave form, then added additional layers to it, representing all the complexity of her sound. A girl playing a pair of claves carefully placed a small green dot in the centre of her page (see the second image, bottom right).

We stuck the symbols on the wall in a line. The children sat on the floor facing the wall, their instruments in hand, and on my cue, performed their piece. They read their way across their score, each person playing when their symbol appeared, and engaged and focused from beginning to end.

Building the Education Revolution

I think most of the schools in Australia are undergoing building renovations at the moment, thanks to the Building the Education Revolution funding from the Australian Government. That’s all very well, but for me, it has meant the loss of a music room (invariably in the part of the school that is getting overhauled, eg. the multipurpose room, or the hall), and having to teach music in the classrooms.

This is happening at both my schools. Things at MELS aren’t so bad, but at Pelican Primary School the new schedule and classroom space is much more crowded, and I now have to work out lesson ideas and lesson plans that I can do in classrooms that are filled with desks and chairs, and without access to the range of percussion instruments I am used to.

Some of my ideas so far:

  • I’ve negotiated extra computer lab time for the 5/6 class, so we are going to focus on music technology while the building work is on. We are starting with an online audio editing tool I’ve discovered, called Myna. For teachers wanting a very user-friendly introduction to music software for their students, and who have a fast broadband connection, this tool is definitely worth a look. At our first lesson, the students were immediately and enthusiastically engaged. We set up a class account and they started saving their work. At our second session (today) the internet was down for some reason, which was a reminder that online tools aren’t always reliable for classroom work when you only have one short session a week. We plan to try out Audacity as well.
  • The 4/5 class said they were keen to do a musical of some kind. I thought at first we might write one ourselves, but now I’m thinking they’d probably really like to work with one that has already been written. Any suggestions of good classroom musicals, around 25 mins in length, with songs that can be accompanied by guitar or keyboard?
  • The 3/4 classes are going to learn recorder. I wanted to do ukuleles but the school doesn’t have any money to buy enough for a class set. We already had enough recorders in the school for two class sets.
  • The 1/2 classes are doing some jazz and scat singing (inspired by my Big Jam experiences). They loved writing their own scat lines today! Next week we’ll start on lyrics for a children’s blues. Maybe they’ll sing about waking up late, getting to school, homework, etc. And I plan to dig out some classic recordings of scat singing by Louise Armstrong and others to share with them.
  • The preps are working on the idea of graphic scores. I want to encourage them to play in response to symbols – which at this early stage are pictures of particular instruments. I stick the pictures up on the wall and point to them one by one (reading left to right) and they play at the right time. The next stage will be to get them to do this in small groups without me conducting/pointing. Then we might be able to work with symbols that they draw for themselves.

So we are getting there. Last week I felt incredibly fed up with the arrangements but this week everything felt a lot more positive and calm. I imagine the teachers have been feeling very unsettled with moves and classroom changes (they are all now crowded into one building instead of being spaciously spread across two), and I expect that this second week has given people a bit more time to work out how to make the new spaces work best for them.

Music and art workshop

I enjoyed teaching the workshop on music and visual art this week. In this project, you ‘read’ a piece of abstract art as a graphic score, and make decisions about instruments, colour, rhythm, structure, etc. This was with a group of about 20 pre-service teaching students at Melbourne Uni, as part of a subject called Integrated Arts.

We started by working all together on this painting by Mondrian:

Mondrian-Broadway-boogie-woogieI asked the students the following questions:

  • What do you see? (State all the obvious things)
  • How does it make you feel? What response does it inspire? Is chaotic/peaceful/unstable/static/other?
  • Context – what do you know about the painter? About this particular work?

‘Stating the obvious’ is very important, as it encourages participants to volunteer all their observations, rather than editing out the things that they think are less impressive, or too revealing, or some other inhibitor.

The next step is to look at the artwork as a musical score, and start to decipher/interpret it, and make decisions about its elements and what they depict. I used the following list of questions to get the students to focus their observations and decisions:

  • How could you equate the different colours in this painting with different instruments?
  • Do any colours vary into related shades? Textures? How might you represent these nuances with sounds?
  • What kind of atmosphere is suggested by the rhythm/energy/lines/colours of the painting?
  • How close together/far apart are the sounds? How does this vary around the painting? The proximity of lines or marks on the image can be suggested of rhythm.
  • Are there any patterns or recurring marks/lines? How could these be depicted musically?

Our interpretation

We created a very atmostpheric, minimalist piece, with the students divided into groups of four. One of the four took on the Yellow role, playing metalaphone, another the Blue role, playing xylophone, another the red role, playing glockenspiel, and the fourth person was White, playing triangle.

We read the painting as having the yellow lines running continuous, with the other small squares of colour being imposed upon the yellow (as opposed the the yellow colour being broken or interrupted by other colours – we saw it as continuing, underneath). The small squares of colour represented single sounds on the relevant instruments. Each group chose a line to ‘read’, a direction to read it in, and a single pitch to work with. Yellow people played continuous running quavers, very lightly, on that pitch. The others played short tones, in the order and time spacing suggested by the painting, according to the line they had chosen. If we’d had time to take the project further, each group could have chosen multiple lines, and moved from one to the next. The effect of these different lines, each played ona different pitch, all being played at once, and stopping according to each group’s reading of the line, was very hypnotic and peaceful.

However, some people in the group thought that the Mondrian had quite a chaotic feel, like a bird’s eye view of a busy grid of traffic. We could have chosen different instruments and depicted this chaos, using the same group structures.

It worked well. The groups went on to choose different paintings (all by Russian abstract artists – these are my favourites, and the images I felt would work well, when I conceived this project) and create new pieces of their own.