Friday, April 12, 2013

The Hayhurst Composition Project

A few years ago, I began volunteering to teach music at Hayhurst, my daughter's school, hoping to fill the gap left by the unfortunate fact that they had to let their "real" music teacher go (thanks to the budgetary constraints that seem to be everywhere in education nowadays).

Honestly, though I don't know if I could ever commit to a career as a full time elementary school teacher, getting involved with music education for this age level has been one of the most enjoyable gigs I've had since moving to Portland.

Last year I visited the school on most Friday afternoons, working with three classes of K-1-2 kids. We did a wide range of things -- I taught them to read rudimentary notation, we built simple instruments, we had "listening parties," we learned introductory improvisation concepts -- but what I enjoyed the most was the composition project I am about to describe. I had created it a few years earlier, while teaching at another school -- but it wasn't until I got to Hayhurst that I had worked out most of the kinks. It took a few weeks to implement, but the experience was great fun (for me, at least).

I'm writing it up here both because I thought it would be a nice way to get this blog going again (at long last), and because I want to have a record of what I did, before the specifics fade from long-term memory.

* * * * *

I started by familiarizing students with a palette of possible sounds. Using the incredibly versatile Yamaha MOTIF XS8, we listened to decent approximations of saxophones, trumpets, drums, pianos, guitars, basses, violins, and other instruments (with the caveat that none of these decent approximations were exactly the same as the sound of the corresponding "real thing").

Next I asked the students to think about music in the terms described by Frank Zappa, in the "Let's All Be Composers" section of his autobiography:

1. Declare your intention to create a 'composition.' 
2. Start a piece at some time
3. Cause something to happen over a period of time (it doesn't matter what happens in your 'time hole'--we have critics to tell us whether it's any good or not, so we won't worry about that part.) 
4. End the piece at some time (or keep it going, telling the audience it is a 'work in progress'). 
5. Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

After discussing the implications of this formula -- softening that delightful Zappa cynicism a bit -- I divided each class into "bands" consisting of no more than six students. Each band was given a poster-sized empty "score," with time represented horizontally, in 10-second increments (for a total of 60 seconds), and instrumentation represented vertically, with space for a total of six instruments. Like so:

Each student in each band was asked to choose an instrument -- it could be any instrument they wanted, provided its sound was stored somewhere in the impressive memory banks of the MOTIF --and was given a strip of paper that was also divided into 10-second increments, corresponding to the increments represented on the poster-sized empty score. Students were instructed to label their strip with the name of their instrument, and then to use a crayon to fill in the increments with a color of their own choosing; the color would then represent that instrument's "sound." And so, for instance, if a student chose "saxophone," and filled in the first 10-second chunk on their strip with blue crayon, that meant the first ten seconds of the song would include saxophone. Conversely, if they chose to leave the second 10-second increment blank, that would mean the saxophone would be resting for ten seconds.

We talked about other possibilities -- students who were really ambitious could fill in a portion of an increment, with the understanding that the instrument would sound for whatever sub-set of 10 seconds the color was taken to represent (i.e., a half-colored block would probably mean 5 seconds of sound). I also encouraged students to talk with their "band mates" so they could plan for each other's parts. No one was permitted to have their instrument make sound all the way through the piece, and no one was permitted to be silent the whole time. Students were encouraged to look for gaps that needed to be filled, or to "lay out" for a 10-second chunk if they noticed other instruments making a lot of sound at that point.

Students completed their own strips, and then pasted them in no particular order onto the poster-sized empty score for their "band," so the instruments were all stacked vertically and the time increments lined up from left to right. This allowed us to analyze the pieces before we even heard them, point out moments where different instruments would combine in smaller subsets (duos, trios, etc.), anticipate sections where things might get loud, talk about how other musical choices (whether the notes chosen were high or low, in clusters or spread out, executed quickly or not) might impact the final piece.

And then, of course, we played them. The MOTIF has a built in sequencer, and so each student performed their part separately, and we layered them one at a time, so students heard the piece as it was being built. I had a stopwatch and started everyone at the same point. Reading along with the score, I let them know as each ten second increment went by, and cued them according to whether they had written themselves into the composition for that section. In this way, we made a whole bunch of great little one-minute songs, each created by a different "band," each collectively composed by the kids themselves (and yet simultaneously improvised, in that we were dealing with the openness of graphic notation). I gave everyone a CD at the end of the process, and allowed them to design their own CD packaging, naming the pieces and the "bands" according to their whims.

What follows are four of the scores the kids made, followed by the relevant recordings.

* * * * *

Composition 1:

Composition 2:

Composition 3:

Composition 4:

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Three things

1. An update (on Decomposition, on my bands, on my life in general) can be found here.

2. I would apologize for my long hiatus, but I don't want to be sucked up into this. Besides, this guy did the meta-blogger thing much better. So: what he said.

3. Apropos of nothing, this comment by Lewis Mumford: "Space and time, like language itself, are works of art, and like language they help condition and direct practical action."