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.