Composing in the kiddie pool

How does one go about writing music?

The more I consider the question, the more clueless I realize I am. There are so many factors that come into play, from the macrocosmic (What am I writing about? How will the end result be performed? By whom?) to the microscopic (What note should this be? What was the note before it? Do I need to re-write all the other notes in order for this one note work?) — to make matters worse, there is almost no consistent order in which these decisions are made. Every piece of music requires a different order of operations, a different flow of creation all its own.

So how does one even begin to introduce a complex, multifaceted process like composing to a group of 2nd and 3rd graders? My teaching partner Eva and I were discussing this the other day as I was preparing to compose an insane amount of recitatives with our youngest group, the Humperdincks. Each recitative involved a good page of text. No meter, no overt rhyme scheme – just lots and lots of dialogue. We asked ourselves: Is it really reasonable to throw these poor kids off the high dive and compose all these pieces from the ground up?

A year or two ago, I would have answered “yes! Why shouldn’t kids experience how messy and non-linear the composition process can be?” – but now, I’m not so sure. Why can’t composing be broken down and simplified? Why shouldn’t composing be less of a chore and more like a game?

It occurred to us that this activity could be split into pieces that are in themselves simpler worlds of discovery. Perhaps it’s a little like the kiddie pool. Sure, swimming in shallow water is not the most rigorous workout – but it introduces your muscles to the motions and gestures of moving in the water, and prepares you as you move into incrementally deeper waters. With writing music, we can tackle a piece by addressing one layer of it – one “muscle,” if you will – at a time. Working with the Humperdincks that day, we approached our recitatives it this way:

humperdinck recits

    1. We read the text out loud. Every time we paused to take a breath, we’d mark a line in the text (/). Each slash/breath would indicate a new piano chord.
    2. For each line, we marked whether the piano chords we would sing over would be major or minor (color-coded) based on what the text seemed to convey.
    3. We sang the text over the piano chords, improvising on notes that felt right with that particular chord.

(we repeated #3 over and over until we arrived at something we liked.)

The results were not only beautiful, but the process was a blast for everyone involved – certainly less confusing than unstructured composing time can often be. Even if our next piece requires us to start in a different way, it is my hope that those young composers will at least have a set of tools that they can use to begin working on it.

I’ve always rolled my eyes at the thought of an artistic “kiddie pool,” but I’m starting to feel that maybe it’s a place worth spending a little bit of time. Within even the simplest tasks / challenges / games / experiments, there are these little universes of beauty and wisdom, and it seems that artists of all ages could benefit from taking a dip there now and again.

– Danny Clay, Little Opera Teaching Artist

Leaving the “I dunno” reflex behind

When put on the creative spot, many kids respond with a shrug, a shuffle and an “I dunno!” What do you think we could put on this poster? What kind of card would you like to make? What would you like to write about, draw or create? “I DUNNO!”— the response of someone reluctant or unfamiliar with the creative process.

before LO

From our very first Little Opera class every year, we ask for many creative opinions. The kids make everything up, and we start right away asking about settings and characters. There are always the shufflers or the shy ones, and kids who lack confidence or experience in the creative process. Children don’t start life afraid to make things — that creative spark atrophies with lack of use. The adult who says, “I am not creative at all” was conditioned to be that way.

If I ran the schools instead of just taught in them, I would guarantee every child from day one got daily access to toilet paper tubes, assorted junk, instruments, recorders, spaces to dance, and many opportunities to make up “stuff,” whatever that stuff might be.  I believe the core of what we do as teaching artists is give our students the experience of making stuff up. Lots of stuff. 

Little Opera is the ultimate creative experience because it starts in a plain old room with a tool box of raw materials, a computer loaded with examples of creative pieces, a few adults and a room of kids — some of whom are more eager than others,. There are always a few very creative students who will be the temporary leaders, and a few who have no idea where to begin. We bring in master teachers, we share the dilemmas and challenges, and we get excited when a melody or a phrase or a costume idea or a movement is created from scratch. And then more stuff is created and discussed and tinkered with until a rough idea becomes something more. At that point, the line between the creative kid leaders and the “I dunno” kids blurs. Yippee! The formerly shy shufflers are declaring their preferences for specific creative processes and going off into corners to tackle some particular piece of the project, sometimes without any adult supervision.

After LO

A notable 3rd grader from last year, whose mantra at first was the classic “I dunno,” has returned as a 4th grader, and she is a changed little human. She was changed by the creative process into someone who never says “I dunno,” anymore, although she might say “This is hard,” “Oh, lets come back to this,” or “I am not as interested in composition, so I want to work on the movement section instead.” She  has proudly declared several times this year, “I am really into making movement and writing libretto,” or “What if we sing that part like this?”

Voila! One less “I dunno” person in the world. That’s why I love Little Opera.

– Suzanne Vradelis, Little Opera Teaching Artist

Apprentice Perspective: Ice Spider Sculptures

Coming in to this second part of the apprenticeship I was excited to work with the Humperdincks. It was interesting to see how their opera was coming along and how they had come together in the last month.

One of the goals I had for myself was to try to help keep order in the group. It appeared to be easier than it turned out and I realized that kids need to have an outlet for their attention. I learned that if you focus less on who is doing what and more on how the group is functioning as a whole than you can avoid the tiresome task of calling out one student repeatedly. I also found myself bonding with most of the class instead of only the few who had stood out to me the first week. That was awesome because it gave me more motivation to come to class every day.

Liam ice spider

Walking kids from the library up to the classroom has been an interesting addition to my apprenticeship duties because it has challenged me in different ways than the classroom does. I have to think faster on my feet in order to keep them safe and together. Certain tactics haven’t worked, but I know better what to try next time. It’s a good feeling to see them see me and get excited to go to the program.

Creating a lesson plan was different this time around. I wasn’t able to find an activity I wanted to do with them that didn’t feel like something we had done with the students already. Reading the Teaching Artist Handbook helped because it made me think of my process as a writer and artist. which led to an activity that was a different way of exploring character development through sculpture. I think I did a good job executing the plan because most of them had fun, which was my main focus. Teaching-wise I think I failed because I didn’t teach them the skills they needed to create with the material I gave them.

Jordan Ice Spider Sculpture


However, the results they came up with where interesting — each student took the material and made with it what they thought would work. Even though they didn’t make what I thought they would I am glad that they were able to express themselves.

This last month has been different because I play a more active role in the class. It’s something I definitely have to keep working on as I learn more about the kids and the best way to approach them when I see that they are having trouble with a lesson or just not having a good day. As an artist I also have to learn how I can go about helping them develop ideas without always having to use art.

– By Felipe Hernandez
2014-2015 Teaching Artist Apprentice