Getting grade 5/6 kids to compose using dissonance and consonance

Over the space of a term (ten weeks) Andrew Williamson and I work on a number of composition ideas with our grade 5 and 6 kid.

The ideas are both conceptual and practical

The first idea we look at is the notions of dissonance and consonance in a musical perspective.

As a listening exercise I play the kids two obvious examples such as Penderecki’s Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima to emphasis dissonance and Erik Saties Gymonpedie Number 1 to to look at consonance. These pieces can both be found on youtube  Penderecki . The Penderecki piece always starts great conversation with the kids on the role of music, why the sounds have to be so harsh, what is dissonance (clashing) when and where it is necessary, when it is to much, how does music effect our emotions, why do some sounds make us feel certain ways and others make us feel differently.

Following this I move the lesson into a class composition piece. It’s important to model this to the kids, how you want them to compose as the idea is for them to break into small groups and replicate the processes in the coming weeks.

On the electronic whiteboard I would bring up a picture of a haunted house that has the obvious connotations and leads well to a combination of dissonant and consonant sounds.

This picture has been taken from the Music Express Series

A discussion would take place about the intention of the picture. It is to scare the viewer or leave a dark feeling. How has this been achieved? Through the use of dark colors, through the various elements in the picture, where they are placed, at the front or at the back. These are all concepts that can be transported to a musical setting. Do the elements clash or flow freely.

Placing a number of instruments in front of the kids they would choose instruments that they think might match the various elements they would see in the picture. They would then be given a  short time to come up with a quick pattern that they could teach to a small group who would all be assigned to that instrument. Once five or six different parts had been composed and groups of 4 had been formed around those parts I would place those into some sort of visual arrangement on the whiteboard.

This is where the piece gets fun because the kids can now try and change the various arrangements to see if they were effectively achieving their original stated aims, to musically replicate the picture, to have some definite dissonant sounds involved. To get a sense of darkness in the music etc. When inventing the melody you will notice in the video the kids had a simple melody and each new part comes in mimicking the same melodic shape but moving it away by a semitone creating a fairly obvious and easy to hear dissonance.You will also notice there is a mixture of melody, rhythm as well as some textural elements to the piece. We also spoke of how tempo changes a piece, originally the bass  was quite fast but we found it was much more effective to slow the whole thing down. This class should take no longer than 2 lessons. Following this the children would have a class to compose their own piece in groups of no more than 5. Because we have worked on these ideas for an number of years with the kids they feel completely comfortable in their role as composers.

Finally we filmed the whoe class performance and here is an example.
http://fnps.fliggo.com/embed/gVxr6kO9

The Escalators


The Escalators is my latest ensemble and something I’m very proud of. I started my masters in composition in 2007 and am very close to completing it. My main achievement through this process was the creation of The Escalators and the subsequent music written for it. The band has recorded our debut CD which is now available from our myspace site. This Sunday we are performing all the music at a concert at my warehouse (see the myspace page for details)
I was required to write a series of compositions an then write an exsegesis of the process which I am going to upload parts of to this blog over the next couple of weeks.

The band The Escalators together with the music uniquely composed for it, emerged from a key area of research, sample-based music and its relationship to human memory. The strategy of triggering memory with the use of existing musical recordings has been the dominant determining factor of the music. Additionally a number of other interests, have been influential. These include:
1. the film and TV work of David Lynch and the atmosphere it generates
2. structured improvisation
3. aspects of minimalism
4. a desire to compose in a style radically different from anything I had produced previously
5. the possibility of creating an ensemble and a recording that I could sell to a wider audience

These concepts defined the bands composition and makeup.

The Escalators’ distinctive identity is a consequence of crossing once-sacred style boundaries. In using samples, a composer can create hybrids that were previously unthinkable. This has the capacity to produce new, unique and personalised musical identities.

Concept development, writing the music and choosing the musicians for the Escalators commenced in 2007. There are two reasons for the name. Firstly, for me the name elicits the feeling of a constant returning to the same place, likewise, in my opinion, sample-based music also seems to have this effect. It creates memory confusion and a sense of return. The second and less obvious reason was Escalators starts with the letter E. All my jazz/improvisation groups have had names starting with the letter E (En Rusk, Escargone, The Electricians, so now the Escalators). Doing this creates a sense of uncertainty in those who have followed my career, as well as a slight confusion when talking about one band compared to another. The state of minimal uncertainty or subtle confusion is something that has always interested me.

The ensemble consists of Pat Thiel playing trumpet, Mark Hannaford playing piano, Joe Talia playing drums, Mick Meagher playing electric bass, Lawrence Folvig on electric guitar, DJ Element playing turntables/sampler, and me on trombone.

At the early stages of development the shared improvising/compositional language that the players possess has allowed me to rapidly explore concepts. It has helped me decide what to keep and what to discard. It frees me up from having to constantly produce physical written work that might or might not be kept, thus saving me time in decision making and allowing for a more flexible, responsive approach to the final pieces. The distinguished clarinetist Anthony Pay states “I am the sort of player who is more disposed to start off from the accuracy point of view rather than starting off from the musical point of view. You can with some modern music start off and say : ‘I’m not going to pay any attention to the notational aspects of it, but initially I am going to decide what the music is about, the gestures – and language – the sort of thing, if you are improvising, you have to deal with.’ Now, I tend when I’m approaching a modern score, to start off by trying to get, as accurately as I can, what he’s actually put down on paper.” (Bailey 1992, 67-68) That premise is precisely what I want to avoid.

Teaching Composition using the Electronic Whiteboard

This is a lesson devised by myself and fellow music teacher Andrew Williamson

I’m a big believer in getting children to compose from a very early age, in that way the mystique is taken away from the role of composer and it becomes a natural and enjoyable activity for kids to participate in.

This is the overriding principle Andrew Williamson and I apply to most of our Music planning

A great way to start with young kids is to have them compose sounds capes using their voices. It’s the instrument that is always available. This video shows how the electronic whiteboard can be utilized with these compositions. In this example we drew a number of pictures all around the theme space which we then correlated with related sounds that we would perform. The sounds are all placed in an order and performed. At the discussion stage The Electronic whiteboard really becomes useful as pictures can be picked up and rearranged depending on the childrens ideas of how to improve the composition. Like wise pictures can be placed ontop of each other and you can start teaching the role of different parts being played at the same time.

http://fnps.fliggo.com/embed/v2vkjWGW