One of the elusive topics in music learning and teaching is expression and meaning. How can we work in one medium (sound) and have to explain it in another (words?)? Often the intention of the teacher and the experience of the student can be so far apart, and we may never know it. This week I got creative and a bit silly and set my class loose with the project of picturing the sound. Really – I gave them all sorts of dried pulses, pasta, rice, seeds, nuts, bits of cotton wool, cake decorations, big sheets of paper and asked them to create the picture they heard as people performed to them. This sort of invitation is usually met with two different reactions, often in close succession, excitement followed by a tentativeness and doubt.
Learning sinks in when we do it. That sounds basic, but so many people think it is something that is done to them – the teacher will teach me, that’s how I learn. Well, not really. The teacher presents, facilitates, encourages, fosters, but the learner learns. Only you can do it. Simple and very powerful when you own that. What does that have to do with scales? That is this week’s topic for #MUS654: Scales and the relationships of notes. If it is up to the student to be the active learner, ok, but how can the teacher do her part to guide and present opportunities for comprehension, understanding, context, and application?
How did you learn scales?
Every time I ask a class how they learned scales, someone says the teacher gave them a book and that was it. They just had to read the music in the book and get on with it. Oh, and they learned scales for an exam, no particular other reason.
Sometimes that can lead to leaving a musician with a stunted level of understanding on so many levels – basic theory, more complex harmony, contexts outside their own instrument. So what about that beginning learning? Scales are built on patterns, and they all are made out of the same musical alphabet. I like the idea of experiencing things in different ways – see it, speak about it, read about it, do it, build it, have it be tactile.. and all of those are possible with scales.
Today I decided to take a leaf out of Duane Padilla’s book and follow the example he set for us in the video he made for #MUS654 Session 2 about the difference between a riff and a melody. Duane is an excellent violinist and teacher and he explained it simply, and said that a melody is the notes of a scale mixed up. In his video he made cards for the different notes of the scale… I have cards – playing cards! I used these to represent the eight notes of any scale instead of writing down specific notes. Taking out one of each of the numbers Ace through to 8 gave one card for each note of the scale, and then I decided to deal myself a tune. Read more
Speech, the melodic qualities therein, and a favourite nursery rhyme. Sounds like a #MUS654 task to me! This is my effort at listening to a nursery rhyme – one of my favourite versions of Twinkle twinkle, having an go at notating the speech, and playing it on the cello. I thought about reading one myself, but I knew that I would read it in an affected way just because I knew what the task was about. The idea is to listen for the melodic qualities in speech and to see if you can come close to replicating them on your instrument. It is all part of this week’s #MUS654 topic of What makes a melody?
Most English speakers have a surprisingly limited melodic range in their speaking voices compared to speakers of other languages. For this exercise I choose one of my favourite parts of the animated Alice in Wonderland, where the doormouse recites ‘Twinkle twinkle’ with a twist at the un-birthday party. Listen from 10 seconds to hear just the right bit:
and then I sat down at the piano, and copied the voice… and it was a bit messy:
You can see it was tricky to decide what notes it used. I had someone else listen and they agreed it started on B, but then said – it sounds like it’s in C.
and then I played it:
When played on the cello, it is completely removed from the original. Beside the ambiguity between the lovely cartoon mouse and my ‘interpretation’ of the notes, there is the great difference in the tonal quality. I have not spent a long time getting the articulation right – but I wonder what is possible? There are composers who do use voice as a basis for their compositions and they transform the vocal spoken lines into purely instrumental playing. Take Steve Reich’s Different Trains for example. There are great examples of using speech – listen to 3 min 20 where the recorded voice says ‘the great train from New York’ and the cello mimics this, and then later there is the line ‘going to Chicago’ that is played by the viola. There are more… see what you can hear:
Have you had a go at any of the tasks in this week’s session? Do! 🙂
Today as part of #MUS654 I had a go at one of the tasks from Session 2 about ‘What makes a melody?’ that asks us to copy and/or fake some birdsong, and MAN, it’s hard!! I enjoyed this, and I admit to limiting myself to about 10 minutes to listen and figure out something. It was a busy day here! The process of listening to the birds and going from something so abstract to working out some semblance of what they were saying was interesting as a process and revelatory in musical terms.
The process was quite hilarious, because if you look at me, I might be trying to play some broken glass instead of music. I started by listening to a conglomeration of birds and trying to pick out something from this mix of birds in the garden.
Then I tried to record just one of the birds and sat down to listen to it over and over:
When I realised that this was not going to happen without a lot of listening and experimenting, I decided to have a go faking it a bit.
It was a lot trickier than I expected, and the easiest bird to do was the one that just went ‘chirp chirp’ because I could just play one note, and that was followed by a pigeon – coo coo! I didn’t include those, because I thought it was more interesting to hear that I had a go and it wasn’t necessarily perfect (or even close!). To be honest, my first dozen attempts sounded like a lot of untidy trills, and the birds don’t really do trills. I was imposing aspects of classical music. It is habit to go from what you know, and I needed to listen. Birds hold notes and flit between intervals. They don’t really have vibrato. They don’t often trill. They don’t hold individual notes for long. It is very interesting when you attempt to copy it. I was notably frustrated at how difficult I found it, and I do not think this is because it is impossible to either hear or do, but it is not something that I am used to. This taught me what it was like to do something new, and that itself was a useful lesson. There were odd leaps to in-between the notes, and if it was scored, I really think I might have minded, not chosen to listen, or at the very least not enjoyed it. Still, somehow when I hear the birds sing those songs, I love them and am entranced by the way they leap octaves, project, and have ceaseless energy for their calling. (Image CC BY SA by Ferruccio Zanone)
There are, of course, other examples of sounds that aren’t necessarily birds, but are still reminiscent of other things… and this clip below is something near and dear to me. Something from my childhood – cartoons! Here is the Tom and Jerry music played live by the John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms in 2013. You can listen from the beginning or if you just want a glimpse of the effects, jump to 3 min 50 sec for a good 15 sec passage… Hope you enjoy it!
I’ve been thinking about sounds and I came across this website that provides listeners with a graphic listening guide for music… and it is completely unpretentious, and approachable, and quite useful in some ways. I am sure that some people might look at the image below and think, well, there is so much more, but also it is a way in… a way in to that so much more. Opening a door is a good thing, then you have the option of walking through. The link below takes you to a full write-up of the Toronto Symphony and how they use and design these aides to scores.
What was it? What’s the answer??? A couple of days ago I posted a listening challenge as part of #MUS654. The task was to create a soundscape and see if you, the listeners, could guess where I was and what was happening. I did have a few people have a go and share their thoughts…
One person asked:
Is that the sound of sand being poured out from a large bucket?
It sounds as though you are next to a road with a damp surface as if it had been raining. I heard several cars go by and I think there also a bike.
This comment came from someone who is an accomplished musician, and very used to listening to a variety of angles within the sounds around us. It is a real skill, and not everyone is regularly so objective and analytical with their listening, but that does not mean it cannot be achieved.
The first guess was good. Sand. There are qualities that are similar – the sound is low down to the ground and it has some semblance to white noise. It is something that we, as humans, do – to relate to what we know. It turns out that first guess came from someone who lives in a place where sand is prevalent, so they were used to that sound and associated the unknown with what they knew. I did a research study with several hundred school children at the beginning of my PhD, and they were all learning new instruments. One boy said he was learning the ‘elbow’. It was the oboe, but he had never heard of an oboe, and renamed it to be something he had heard of. I do that too – if I read a complicated foreign name in a book I sometimes make up a new version that is easier for me to read rather than breaking up the flow while I work out the phonetics.
Listening is a skill that can be developed, and it takes practice.
My cello teacher in Chicago used to occasionally suggest I practice in the dark: to listen and not rely on my eyes. At first that was so hard. It was similar to asking someone to meditate and clear their mind for the first time. I am very visual and aged about 19 when I first attempted to actually have a clear mind I did things like imagine window cleaners walking into my brain and polishing the interior walls. Busy, busy, busy. Take a moment in your day, whether you are a musician or not, and shut your eyes for 10 or 20 seconds and listen. Do it every day for a week. It is amazing what you might hear over the days.
I was thinking about #MUS654 Session 1 Task 1, these musings are about the difference between listening to something and reading that same material. Why is it so different? Is it really different? Let’s consider the different situations. (Featured image CC BY by Cristina L.F.)
Sound is all around us. It is something that we are immersed in and it cannot easily be shut out. Thinking about listening to a given speech or programme only requires us to be in the presence of the sound, and then to select and prioritise those sounds. As I type about this, I am suddenly aware of the competing sounds around me: footsteps, the neighbour’s TV through the wall, the creak of a shutting window, the tappity-tap of my typing, Read more
Today I turn to one of the tasks from #MUS654 Task 1.2 about the sounds around me. For this, I went somewhere or did something (can’t really say or it spoils the game) and recorded the audio. It wasn’t hard to do and did not take a long time. I simply held out my phone and started the voice memo recording. My recording is 30 seconds long and there are some subtle clues in it. My curiosity is how much you can gather about what I was doing, where I was, and anything else descriptive about the setting.
Any guesses are welcome – comment below… or tweet and tag it #MUS654 (I’ll post a photo taken at the soundscape in tomorrow’s post.)
We can think about the sounds around us in different ways. In an abstract way, the sounds around us are like metadata, leaving details and clues about us and our lives as we move through the world. For me, after doing this exercise my ears were more open to really listening for details, and it reminded me of swimming and being aware of the way water surrounds us from all angles. (Image CC BY-SA by Jade Alexandra Allen)That awareness is vastly different to our attention to everyday movement where we are surrounded by air. Unless there’s a breeze, perhaps we don’t even notice it or give it a thought. Actively becoming aware of what is around us can open up new worlds within sound, experience, and appreciation of what is around us.
This morning I woke to a conversation on twitter that caught my eye, perplexed me, and concerned me all at once. It was about how someone was treated rudely on the phone. One person didn’t understand the other, and attributed it to an accent, but this wasn’t very tactful or helpful, and came across as downright rude. Now the thing is, I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear the conversation, but I heard the aftershock. What happened left a mark and caused upset (* see note below). This post is not about the actual conversation, but about the nature of learning and listening. It made me think of the curiosity of communication and teaching. Image CC BY by Double-M
If we only know by shadows, then what truth is there?
The conversation reminded me of the importance of perception, empathy, and a willingness to learn to understand.
In my classes I often talk about communication, as I work with people aiming to perform and teach music in various settings, including 1-to-1. It is a bit heavy going, but I start one class with this quote: Read more