ORNG Ink: Creative Musicianship (V)

Added on by Douglas Farrand.


Monday June 15th 2015 was the Creative Musicianship Class for Middle School Students Final Showcase at ORNG Ink. It was a really wonderful event, with several members of the ORNG Ink and University of Orange communities attending, as well as one of our student’s father and sister. The whole event can be listened to below.

After acknowledging the “graduating” students (track 1), the whole group - students, teachers, and audience members - did a short rendition of one of Oliveros’s “heart beat” exercises - moving from tapping to clapping our individual pulses, and then merging into one pulse (explanation - track 2, exercise - track 3).

The students, Doug, and I then performed the group’s final composition “Ocean Tides” for drum, two trumpets, soprano saxophone, and clarinet (track 4). The final work took a jazz-esque “solo and head” form, with the first three entrances of the harmonic material being played by the whole group - first with the wind players in unison, then in harmony, and lastly in retrograde. There then followed three “solo and accompaniment” sections featuring soprano saxophone, clarinet, and then trumpet. The last “solo” began with Doug’s scraping his pocket trumpet against the floor which built into a noisy full-group improvisation for an exciting conclusion.

Everyone who attended was excited and impressed by what was shared (track 5). While I can’t speak for the kids’ experience, I felt personally very blessed to have worked with them these past 8 weeks. Thank you all so much for your support in making this class happen. I look forward to more projects like this to come!

Mindy Fullilove, University of Orange Board President, research psychiatrist, professor, and author, wrote about the Creative Musicianship Showcase on her blog, "Countdown to Main Street"

ORNG Ink: Creative Musicianship (IV)

Added on by Douglas Farrand.


The past three weeks of class have been strange but enjoyable.

On labor day, we held a class on FORM which consisted of three parts.

In the first segment, Doug led the students through a listening activity in which they listened to a variety of short pieces of music and had to describe the form or construction/organization of each one. In this exercise they learned how any part of the musical material can be organized to create form - whether it be the harmony (as one student pointed out as we listened to Bach) or duration combined with timbre (as another student noted when we listened to a saxophone piece by Bhob Rainey) or something as simple as dynamic shape (for instance, the piece goes from soft to loud to soft). 

In the second segment Jessie let the students know that - even though all of these elements contribute to form - the day’s lesson was going to focus above all else on how form happens in time (the primary medium of music) and space (literal as well as imagined). To this end, we had set up around the Gallery little “musical mobiles” (see above). First everyone simply observed how it was different to look at this arrangement then to look at a painting on a wall. The students noticed that with a painting you can take everything in at once and there is mostly one perspective, whereas walking through the mobiles (as in music) you take in bits and pieces rather than the whole, you see only individual or a small group of movements at a time even though you know these are part of something larger, and the objects and your perspective are constantly changing. 

We then moved to improvisations using this set-up, thinking about timing of motion from one station to another, one object to another, the relationships between things - much as a composer might do with sounds, groups of sounds, and sound relationships in their head when planning the form of a piece. The result of the final duet improvisation can be listened to below.

In the final segment, the students were shown how, after working with form in real time in this way, the computer can be a useful tool to go back and “see” the form through waveform images and “edit” it through programs like garage band and Reaper.

The students left this class with their first and last homework assignment - to decide what they’d like to do for their final projects.

Last week, we had our first STUDIO CLASS on the final projects. We first warmed up our ears with two minutes of quiet listening and then warmed up our voices with a simple exercise of pitch convergence on breath-length tones.


The students then shared their ideas for the project. Everyone wanted to compose a piece for an instrument they played or for the group to play, and there was a lot of talk about wanting to go deeper with what they learned in the classes on harmony. We ultimately decided to work on putting together a set of materials - thinking about rhythm, harmony, and form - that we could then improvise on as individuals and/ or a group. 

n the picture above, you can see some of the results of this first material-making session. It was decided that there would be two main types of material - chords with a slow harmonic rhythm and interlocking patterns of intervals, especially thirds. The overarching plan was that during the interlocking pattern sections at the start and end there would be solos as well as some kind of “head” material as in a jazz form. In the center of the piece there would be the chords, and the last section of the piece would be a retrograde of sorts of the first section. 

This week we started in small groups working simultaneously on instrumental technique and developing the ideas that we had come up with in the last studio. After practicing some different variations on the plan, the large group came together, shared what they had made and organized it into a little piece. Next week we will be sharing this piece with the public at the final showcase - Monday June 15th - after the class, from 6 to 6:30pm at the Ironworks Gallery (406 Tompkins Street Orange, NJ).

ORNG Ink: Creative Musicianship (III)

Added on by Douglas Farrand.

Our middle school Creative Musicianship class has so far been an exercise in becoming more graceful teachers. This is evident first and foremost in the new structure of the 8 weeks. We decided to compress the original 8 week plan into the first 4 weeks, teaching 4 sessions on clear, streamlined topics through high-impact, fast-paced activities. The second 4 weeks we set aside for the students to work on their own projects, creating a kind of “studio class” environment that we hope will result in students taking away something concrete from the experience. We have also streamlined the language we use in the class to explain the concepts we are engaging with in order to minimize “jibber jabber” and emphasize experience. Luckily we have recruited a group of 5, multi-talented young people to come on this journey with us.

The subject of the first class was SOUND and LISTENING. We went on an incredibly enjoyable sound walk around the Valley District of Orange which included such highlights as second-story wind chimes, a plethora of car noises, a rapidly flapping flag, and the final surprise of one of our student’s brothers appearing for a chat. After the walk we answered a series of offbeat questions about our topic, which were inspired by one of Pauline Oliveros’ text pieces. This led into performing her “Environmental Dialogue” which was a rowdier experience than what it had been with the high school students, but none the less memorable. One of the last sounds that echoed in the space was a tone passed from rubbing coconuts along the floor to various voices. We knew the day was a success when our very active 6th Grade “choir boy” was so excited by the experience that he brought 2 friends along the next session, telling them even as the next lesson began about how cool it was to walk and sit in silence.

The second class focused on RHYTHM. We had been very excited to teach this class for months, and the experience of actually doing it didn’t let us down. The foundation of the lesson was the understanding that rhythm comes from and must be learned through our bodies. We focused primarily on different ways to use “pulse” - as it is an essential element both of getting our body to move when we listen to music and a natural phenomena in our body’s daily workings. We then went on an intense journey from complexity to simplicity and back again. First we made a beautiful polyrhythmic soundfield based on our different heart rates. Then we practiced keeping different tempi passing claps around a circle. Next they grouped these pulses by 2 and 3 and in alternations of these groups - the greatest challenge of the day. Subdivision came much more naturally and switching between quarters, eighths, triplets, sixteenths, and quintuplets became a raucous celebration. Lastly, we took Oliveros’s “Zina’s Circle” for a whirl, remembering that there our rhythms in our bodies - like that of our fastest reaction times - that we can’t perceive but that still affect us musically.

The third class, with the topic of HARMONY, proved to be a difficult one to teach, and so we split it into two sessions. The first session began with a quick vocal warm-up and a launch into Oliveros’s “Slow Song,” where each participant picks a song and sings it one note/ one breath at a time. The resultant harmonies and timbres reverberating through the space was amazing. After hearing how harmony can arise from “mixtures” (as one student put it) of tones, we then practiced unisons, discovering how even from one note, harmony can arise. Through discovering the different “harmonies” of unisons sung loud, soft, smooth, rough, and on different vowels, we uncovered for ourselves the phenomenon of spectra. We then turned to the guitar and piano to introduce the students to how overtones work and practiced singing them.

soprano saxophone, recorder, pocket trumpet, trumpet quartet. 

soprano saxophone, recorder, pocket trumpet, trumpet quartet. 

In the second session on HARMONY, we focused on learning to both sing and play different intervals. In our warm-up we used full breaths to sustain unisons and octaves first on the instruments and then with our voices. Afterward, we sang through all the intervals both melodically and harmonically. This proved to be quite a challenge, as we had an even split of folks comfortable and uncomfortable using their voice, but over the course of each sustain and over the course of the class, we could hear the “uncomfortable” ones starting to adjust. After learning the different intervals, the students each came up with their own chord by stacking 2 intervals or building them off a single note. You can listen to our final play-through of this below.

Our next session will explore FORM - how we put together all the different parts of music into one piece, and then we will launch into the exciting experiment of studio class for kids!

ORNG Ink: Creative Musicianship (II)

Added on by Douglas Farrand.

Here is our first update on the ORNG Ink Creative Musicianship Class.

The class is now at its half-way point and we are taking a break to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The first four weeks of the class have been an excellent experience for all of us - both the two teachers and our 14 registered students. We are looking forward to the last four weeks - during which we will explore some basics of 'organic' rhythms and pitch constructions and begin to work more explicitly on group composition. We are also excited to plan the final showcase - where students will both present what they have done in the class and have the chance to share the musical work they have been doing on their own time. We also now have plans for teaching a middle school class - the same curriculum modified for that age group, as well as an adult course that approaches sound through the idea of 'space,' linking our work more directly with the "urbanism" initiatives in the area.

Below you will find brief descriptions of each of our first four classes, as well as pictures and sound bites from those days. 

We hope you enjoy!
-Jessie and Doug-


After giving our students and ourselves the opportunity to introduce themselves and share their hopes for the course, we jumped right into orienting our ears with a Pauline Oliveros score called 'Environmental Dialogue'. The piece broke the ice with the challenge of sitting and listening quietly to our environments, then moving at the sound of a bell into an improvisation using remembered environmental sounds. The students were enchanted by Jessie's small 'dripping' vocalizations and Doug's pinecone playing, and we were likewise impressed by both the fluidity with which the students improvised using found objects, and the bravery of their vocalizations (most memorably, one student imitated a small dog).

Intrigued by this new paradigm of listening and sounding, we reflected on the difference between "listening" and "hearing" and contemplated a series of questions on the topic.

To end the evening, Doug introduced the students to contact and electro-magnetic microphones, showing how the inner workings of various objects - slinkies and light switches to name a few - could be listened to with these devices. After a sound search around the space, the students left excited about making their own mics and ended the evening with their own vocalizations in the gallery's resonant acoustic.


As this was a bad weather week, our session of building contact microphones was attended by three highly committed students. Doug led us all through the process of the microphone building, explaining both the physical tasks at hand and the science behind the little machines. At the end, those who came felt extremely accomplished, and all had something to take home and show for it.


This was another well-attended day, including the addition of several new students. We started the day by checking-in or introducing ourselves by sharing memories of an interesting sound recently heard. The sounds ranged from short melodic contours to the sound of wind whistling through blinds. We then 'arrived in the space' together through doing some basic "body work," a combination of yogic posturing and Deep Listening exercises.

We then gathered around an "amplified table," with contact microphones attached to it and routed through a mixer to speakers. There Doug led us through a series of improvising exercises (informed by Vic Rawlings' approach to teaching improvisation) - moving from exploring the different sounds of objects on the table to coordinating breath-length phrases with the group and in pairs, slowly building to playing short original pieces. The students had so many insightful things to say about this activity. These comments included their surprise at how the actions they least expected to produce interesting sounds were often the most complex, how starting and stopping the sound was a great challenge, and how the sounds - as unique as the scratching of a rusty saw - never-the-less reminded them of some of their favorite familiar sounds - like a smoky alto voice or an earthy viola tone. Below is a sound bite from one of the later improvisations.


Most recently, we has another day of terrible weather and a day for our core group to shine. Instead of going ahead with the planned lesson on rhythm - which was intended for a large group - we decided to use the time as a forum for the students to share the songs they are each working on outside of class. We started by openly talking about our projects, which led us to questions like 'Why do we make music?' We discovered that for each of us the focus was different, yet we could relate to the others' motivations as well. We also talked about how making music is sometimes a struggle, even in terms of simply motivating one's self to follow through with projects. The evening ended with one student sharing an original song he had written in the fall, but shortly thereafter felt uninspired by and never saw it to competition. We then talked about how sometimes inspiration comes not from waiting, but from approaching the task at hand in a detail-oriented way. Then, from that road map, inspiration - or a pretty good approximation of it - can arise.

ORNG Ink: Creative Musicianship (I)

Added on by Douglas Farrand.

Starting in December 2014, Jessie and I will be teaching a Creative Musicianship class out of ORNG Ink, a user-driven youth arts collective in Orange's Valley district. The class is a flexible sequence of workshops spread out over 8 weeks. 

Jessie and I have been fundraising to provide full scholarships to 15 teenagers in Orange, NJ to take our "Creative Musicianship" class. We've taken a lot of work at Oakwood Avenue Community School's after-school program, adapted it for older students and selected workshops and classes to fill 16 hours of class time spread out over 8 weeks. 

The class will provide a space for students in grades 7 through 12 to initiate a collective practice of listening and creative engagement with sound. The class is a blend of ideas and approaches borrowed from  R. Murray Schafer, Pauline Oliveros, Vic Rawlings, the Walden School, various contemplative pedagogies, and the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, alongside a selection of our own ideas and activities developed over the past year. 

A preliminary copy of the curriculum is available from the 'fundraising' link above. 

Pieces for Young String Musicians

Added on by Douglas Farrand.

Summer 2014, Jessie Downs has been posting a series of composition and teaching reflections to her website. The text below is the last of these reflections and talks about our work together composing pedagogical pieces for our students in the El Sistema-inspired program, Sonic Explorations, at Oakwood Avenue Community School in Orange, NJ.

Pieces for Young String Players

written by Jessie Downs

As the school year starts up again – a final summer post about music for schooling.

For those who don’t already know, the primary after-school music program that my partner Douglas Farrand and I teach in is an “El-Sistema-inspired” strings program for Kindergarten through 3rd Graders. The students in the program attend two kinds of classes: violin class(es) and “Creative Musicianship” class(es). In the program’s pilot year, these two components were almost mutually exclusive, but at some point along the way, Doug and I began dreaming up ways to – quite literally - compose meeting points between these seemingly disparate concentrations.

We thought that a fun way to synthesize string pedagogy with our own evolving curriculum would be to write pieces that would showcase our unique “Creative Strings” students.  These pieces would put unconventional ideas into tangible (and audible) practice, bring the students into an intimate relationship with their instruments, and deepen their ownership of learned ideas.

It would also set up a productive feedback loop for us as “teaching musicians,” in which our music would influence our teaching, our teaching would influence our music, and our kids would be our collaborators – a central focus of inspiration and challenge.

The perfect class in which to experiment with these ideas was the hour-long Friday afternoon class I taught to a small group of beginner but slightly older and more self-motivated students. As the students of “Club” (as the class was called) were between the ages of 9 and 12 rather than 5 and 8, and because there were never more than 5 students who showed up on the same day, I could approach this teaching environment rather casually. It was the perfect venue for teaching chamber music skills, and to introduce contemporary compositions by the program’s teachers. The Club students loved playing my arrangements of simple dances, but the thrill of seeing “Mr. Doug’s” full name across a little booklet freshly made for them had a whole new intrigue. Later, when “Ms. Downs” brought in her own creation, we had a super-focused last day together of slowly revealing unusual but compelling harmonies – I on my clarinet as internal conductor, they on violins, viola, and cello.The pieces that Doug and I shared with the students were only drafts, but we were very happy with how they were received.

excerpt from Doug’s “Tone, Noise, Rest"

excerpt from Doug’s “Tone, Noise, Rest"

Doug’s text scores were the first to be drafted, and later provided me with inspiration for my own piece. Each set of text and simple graphics ask the students to practice organizing sounds in a basic but non-conventional way. The words used to describe these organizing devices (“tone, noise, rest,” “drone,” “pulse,” etc.) were taken directly from the vocabulary that we had been using with our students in the “Creative Musicianship” classes, and built upon the lessons we had taught on the various concepts.

In working with the Club, I focused on Doug’s piece “Tone, Noise, Rest.” These terms came out of some of the earliest “Creative Musicianship” classes that I taught, in which I posed to the students that there were three “types of sound” in music: tone (smooth sound) noise (rough sound) and rest (sound not intentionally made by people). They learned about each category by speaking each word in a representative voice – a sustained pitch for tone, a squeaky or gravely voice for noise, a mouthed articulation for rest. They also learned hand symbols for the sounds, and listened to and produced a variety of sounds of different types, identifying them with these labels.

Doug’s piece organizes the words TONE NOISE and REST on a simple grid, with 4 players each reading across a row that is coordinated with similar rows played by the other players.  Taking the basic idea of being able to produce sounds belonging to different categories, Doug challenges the older players to apply intention and practice to this seemingly simple concept, and thus reveals its richness. The students now must create consistency within each sound; coordinate their sounds with those of their peers; read and play; and keep simple musical time. By stringing together isolated sounds, structural principals like MELODY or LINE emerge, and by coordinating sounds, HARMONY suggests itself.

Where does “proto-music” end and “music” begin? With Doug’s pieces, we confront the fact that there may not be a dividing line.

The boundaries between TONE NOISE and REST themselves are highly permeable, which becomes all the more obvious in the context of attempting to perform a piece. Yes, to make a singular sound is a challenge, but instead of being a defeating challenge, within this pedagogy it is an empowering one. Instead of hearing a heavy-handed bow or lightly depressed finger as an error, the students recognize they have achieved noise, but not tone. When an unsure student misses an entrance on a tone, they realize they have rested. Plus, they can revel in the excitement of not only finding, but having to reproduce and linger upon previously “forbidden” sounds. Who knew making noise took so much concentration?

excerpt of cello part from the draft of Jessie Downs' Untitled piece

excerpt of cello part from the draft of Jessie Downs' Untitled piece

The last of Doug’s scores is titled “Chord.” This movement towards a more canonically-utilized term compelled me to try composing a traditionally notated piece for the students that would draw upon the same “Creative Musicianship” principles found in the text pieces. The result is a kind of passacaglia, built from three small catalogs of three different finger patterns that are possible in the first positions of the cello, viola, and violin. It is my first “catalog” piece, and an exciting adventure into (attempted) anonymity.

(It goes without saying, perhaps, that – as Doug’s pieces had been inspired by my teaching vocabulary – my piece was inspired by his compositional one.)

As in “Chord,” my piece is a series of sustained sonorities which necessitate listening to the way that a variety of tones rub up against one another and create richly varied sensations. Unlike in typical repertoire for young people - wherein students often play solo, in unison, or in simple triadic harmony - this piece explores the range of harmonic intervals. This demonstrates to students that many possible sound combinations can be considered “chords,” and thus considered music. Why not? Again, this borders on the “proto-musical,” introducing CHORD as a schema before the ‘rules’ of chords – as more conventional theory instruction might call them – are known

As with “Tone, Noise, Rest,” line is emergent in my piece, due to the stringing of chords together in simple musical time. Because there are no longer (intentional) noises in the piece, and because the rests are now systematically placed, the students’ attention is drawn to the dynamics of the tones, and questions arise about CONSONANCE and DISSONANCE, TENSION and RELEASE, or as they might put it KIND OF WRONG BUT NOT BAD and NICE.

To aid in bringing out this “proto-tonality,” I add small rhythmic peculiarities and simple dynamics to the basic structure. Students must now ask themselves:

Are one, two, or three students to enter here?

Should we get louder or softer through these notes?

You could argue that these features are too subtle for young players to engage with, and you might be right. However, it is important to keep thinking of this music as a space rather than a piece, of these compositions as composed classrooms. Things can and should be taken out of time, details temporarily removed. Ultimately, the new shaping devices of RHYTHM and DYNAMICS make the whole of the playing experience more rewarding, bringing to light how vital these elements are to the musical organism.

As I write, more music is in the making – these pieces are being refined, and new ones are but seeds: pieces focusing more on ensemble roles, a plethora of noises, dynamic shaping, particular rhythmic ideas, and “the space between notes.”

At a recent training that Doug and I were blessed enough to attend, we learned about the educational movement called Philosophy for Children, which aims to teach children how to philosophize through structured discussions. Though these discussions can be based on any stimuli, one of the fascinating features of the P4C curriculum are the texts written by the movement’s founders that illustrate kids of various ages realistically engaging in philosophical inquiry. I find this writing to be profoundly beautiful, especially the texts written for elementary aged students; they capture the unconventional logic and deep wonder so prevalent in children of that age. Doug – and now I - have been thinking about what it might mean to create music that serves a similar function.

Thinking also about the “Philosophy of Childhood” developed by P4C scholar David Kennedy, we are thinking about how children can be seen as an amazing but often marginalized class of people, full of their own kind of wisdom, kindness, and creativity. How, as teaching artists and kid-allies (if not really just continuations of kid-dom ourselves) might we cultivate a music and a music teaching that respects and understands this?

I am tempted to share with my students the following words of P4C character “Gus,”:

cover of P4C text “Kio and Gus”

cover of P4C text “Kio and Gus”

My thoughts are mine alone - no one else’s. And no one else can say what I think.

That gives me an idea! That’s how I can make a difference! I can write what I think! And when I do, people will say, “That’s Gus! It couldn’t be anyone else! How different she is!”

At least, that’s what the grownups will say. But maybe the kids who read what I write won’t say anything at all. Maybe they’ll just think I’m a lot like them in some ways and a little different in others.
— Kio & Gus, by Matthew Lipman

Perhaps, Gus (and all you Gus-es of the world), music can serve as another medium through which you can become known.