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!