Music and Meaning

photo 2 (11)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

One of the weakest skills in my high school students today is creative application, including problem solving.  In this age of immediate access to almost anything, and the concurrent race to abundant “right” answers, students feel that a simple Google search is a decent replacement for creativity.  I love making opportunities for my kids to “think outside the box,” innovating and experimenting.  It’s within these creative forays that I feel that intuitive learning, commitment to ideas, and risk taking happens, and all three are important life skills, particularly for future developers, inventers, and self-sufficient people.  This, by the way, is one motivating force behind the Common Core Movement, so I am not alone in my thinking.

Music is something people have done for eons, and the context is an easy way to introduce kids to creative problem solving and design.  I spread my music lesson across two days, modeling for the 4-to-8 year olds some simple instrument design and application of music.  Music tells stories, evokes emotions, and embraces plenty of physics and mathematics, and is so easily accessible these days.  I started the two-day stint showing just how pervasive music is in our worlds, by giving the kids a scavenger hunt for music-related things.  I included plenty of applications (“This music wakes me up,” “…tells me someone is at the door,” “…announces that food is ready”), aesthetics and popularity (“…is a popular group of musicians,” “…announces a San Francisco concert,” “…is a national anthem,”), widely recognized instruments (“guitar,” “drum,” “piano”), and lesser recognized instruments using nature (“…the wind makes my song,” “…I make you want to pee,”).  The kids had fun running around the house looking for appliances, concert posters and records, conventional instruments, and taking the time in silence to listen for our wind chimes and fountain. 

After reviewing that music could really come from anywhere and stir the senses and emotions, I gave each a big sheet or paper on a clipboard, and we began drawing to music.  This was one of my very favorite things to do as a kid.  We didn’t get many channels of television, but faithfully would watch the Boston Pops Orchestra on PBS each weekend, with our big pieces of construction paper and sets of pens, pencils, or crayons.  Staccato notes got brief, pointed shapes and dots.  Flowing medleys of instruments matched my long, sweeping lines and swirls of color, intertwined as were the different tones of a cello with a violin.  For some kids, this was their first time trying this, and for others, they were seasoned pros.  We listened to a range of different music pieces, thanks to their ease of accessibility on YouTube.  First it was a ragtime song, then a symphony (“Flight of the Bumblebee”), then a jazz rendition of a Radiohead song.  In preparation, Holly and I sat and listened to a couple other songs, and she was immediately turned off to “Night on Bald Mountain,” because it was too “dark and scary.”  I was really impressed that my 4-year-old grasped that – the clear intention of the composer over a hundred years ago.  It’s a stormy, torrentuous piece, and I decided not to play it for my young crew, based on her reaction.

After some free play and a smoothie break, we headed up through traffic to San Mateo’s kinetic sculpture garden, which includes some interesting installments that work with sound.  The sculptures at Ryder Park/Seal Point were in disrepair when we visited, but we made the way up to the top of the point, above the dog park and windsurfing launch.  The kids had fun trying to see through the mounted binoculars there, then enjoyed playing with a tennis ball between two concave discs.  I’ve visited this park many times with many different Stroller Hikers, but with the older boys, it took them a little more time to slow down and realize how this sculpture changed sound.  The concave discs face each other, concentrating sound waves at a central point in the sculpture.  You can stand in the middle of it, then slowly move to its edges to experience sound change, so for the younger kids who can slow down and take in the world like a sponge, the discovery of how the sculpture worked was almost instantaneous.  About 30 feet away, a group of pipes looking not so different from those on a pipe organ, can be activated to help kids realize that changes in tube length change the tone of sound perceived.  This sculpture used to have shoes hanging from it – a sturdy flip-flop makes an excellent mallet to generate waves of sound to vibrate up the length of each tube.  Far less impressive with my stiff Tevas, the kids understood the lesson, nonetheless.

photo 4 (9)Back at home, after more free play and a little lunch, we set out to play with sound closer to home.  Together, we made kazoos (waxed paper wrapped around combs), plastic egg rattles, tambourines (paper plates with paper-clip-mounted bells along the edge), a wrench xylophone (propping different-sized metal wrenches on an egg carton), and a simple rubber band guitar (rubber bands across a clipboard).  We played a song together, then I challenged the kids to design their own instruments in their journals, using any or all of the things they had worked with that day.  Some kids drew pictures, and others listed out features.  Some kids used the concept of focusing sound by including a partially closed box, some used rubber bands to generate vibrations, others used metal or loose small things, like the bells or beans (from our rattles).  All ideas were creative and did not mirror entirely something conventional.  Hoorah- creativity!

photo 5 (7)When the kids resumed camp the next day, the first item of the day was to build their creations.  I offered prizes for several categories, to keep everyone motivated, of course.  Ryan’s invention reminded me of old Bob Dylan photos: as soon as he had one sound-generating piece working, he added another sound-generating piece.  A wrench was hit by a butter knife, and not only did we hear ringing, but the beans below a chamber shook, and when he strummed a rubber band, bells shook while the body of his instrument warmly hummed.  Max’s approach was to generate a wide range of notes, in order, so he created a strumming box with notes ranging low to high.  Shira and Samuel copied each other, something cool to see siblings do.  As soon as Samuel settled on needing a big plastic bin, so did Shira (but a different-shaped bin of course).  As soon as Shira had hung bells from vibrating bands, Samuel opted to do the same.  They were parallel collaborators, for sure.  Shira practiced her playing of “Row Your Boat” while Samuel went to add more bells.  Holly made a drum out of a huge oatmeal container, and played with putting holes in the head of her drum, to change the tone of it, as well as putting a layer of lentils atop the vibrating head.  I made a wind chime-meets-tambourine instrument, with hanging rattles of different tones and types.  After we all won our respective awards, we relished in our little prizes (bouncy balls and bubbles), and I embarked on the long cleanup spilled lentil beans affords.

photo 5 (8)We had done one of my favorite music things the day before – drawing to music – so after free play, we were on to another favorite from my childhood.  I still have the record from the late 60s that we listened to, complete with the same skip in it.  I put on Leonard Bernstein’s rendition of “Peter and the Wolf,” and all of the kids found a pillow to relax on, to cover almost every nook and cranny of our tiny living room.  If you have never heard or seen it, it is a fantastic introduction to the personification a tone can provide.  In the story, the bird is a flute, young and spritely Peter a clarinet.  I’ll let you use your creativity to guess at what the wolf would be.  It’s a fun story with morals that hold true to this day.

– Debbie (Founder, Stroller Hikes)

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