Monthly Archives: January 2012

Teaching Tone With Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra, Level 1: Sound Tone

Kirk D. Moss, Ph.D.

Kirk D. Moss, Ph.D.

Without sound, there would be no music; and without the right hand, a string player makes no sound. A string player’s right hand shares similarities with the voice of a singer. Many string teachers compare the bow to the singer’s breath. Just as a singer vocalizes, a string player needs to “tonalize” or produce sound by a planned design. Designing a signature sound requires more than simply playing a warm-up scale, and that’s why I’m excited to tell you about Level 1: Sound Tone within the new Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra.

 Level 1 offers a systematic approach to developing right-hand technique through teaching sequences that refine the most important variables of sound: bowing lanes, bow weight, and bow speed. Teach your students to change bowing lanes for added dynamic contrast, release bow weight to feel the natural spring of the bow stick, save and spend bow length by varying bow speed, and use different sections of the bow by dividing the bow into thirds. Imagine how refined your students will sound when they vary these variables to produce a more characteristic beautiful tone in their repertoire. Remember: Students can do anything; we just have to teach them how.

The Word: Teaching Composition Using Little or No Theory

Vince Gassi
By Vince Gassi

Creating music is fun. Creating music that others enjoy is even more fun. The Word is a very simple project that students at any level can have fun with today. It doesn’t require any theory and you don’t have to be a composer to introduce them to the wonderful world of creating music.

Assign a descriptive word, such as evolution, time, or plasma, to each student. Be creative. Choose words that are evocative. The clearer the concept, the easier it will be for students to generate ideas. The mission, should your young composers decide to accept it, is to create a one to two minute piece based on their word. The only rule is to have fun being creative. Encourage them to push beyond the limits of their imagination. By thinking beyond the obvious, to imagine options they had not previously considered, they will be taking the first steps to developing a critical skill that will serve them in everything they do.

They can use MIDI software or real instruments. Either way, they will be creating a soundscape. Anyone can quickly learn how to load an instrumental sound in applications such as Cubase or Logic. With a few simple instructions, and a little experimentation, your students will be editing and combining sounds in a jiffy.

It is critical that you thoroughly convince your students that there are no wrong answers. I cannot over-emphasize this enough. Students are often inhibited by the desire to give their teacher the “right” answer. They are afraid of being wrong and may be thinking “I’m not a composer” or “I don’t know what to do”. This fear shuts off pathways in the brain that lead to the generation of creative ideas. Be patient. They’ll need lots of encouragement to not give up. Their first efforts may not seem like much, but you must see them as potential gems, so be effusive in your praise. Assure them that high marks are guaranteed before they start.

Outline the following steps in the creative process: conceptualization (what’s the story or main idea; a written description may help as the concept will evolve as students continue through this process), brainstorming (generation of ideas often through improvisation), experimentation (playing with or modifying your ideas), refining and polishing (repeated listening, clipping and pruning). (By the way, Brainstorm is a great word to use!!)

No computers? No problem! At my middle school, I arranged the percussion instruments in a circle. We didn’t have much, just a bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, and bells. After teaching the proper grip for sticks and mallets, I demonstrated how a group of students could construct a soundscape. Soft hits on the bass drum (two seconds apart) establish an ostinato. A cymbal roll (soft mallets) begins quietly and gradually gets louder. Bells strike Bb and F at regular intervals like a clock chiming. Other instruments, such as rattles, shakers, and tambourines are added gradually. The possibilities are limitless. Stress that composition is essentially organizing sound to create a dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid to add winds, brass, strings, and voices. All groups should include one of each. Sustained clusters,random pitches, spoken words, repeated syllables, whispers, finger snaps, and tongue clicks can all be effective. Remember, this process can last one period or one week. It’s up to you.

Demonstrate how to create a graphic score. Draw a timeline from left to right across the top of the page (landscape) and list the instruments down the left hand side. Sustained notes can be indicated with a horizontal line, shorter notes with X’s at the desired timecode. Let the notation be whatever is needed to clearly indicate the composer’s intent. Each group could even have a conductor.

Use the opportunity to discuss instrument choices and the use of musical elements such as tempo, rhythm, volume, etc. A culminating activity could include performances for other classes. Call it “Two-Dollar Tuesdays” and raise funds for your growing MIDI lab (which will become popular as The Word literally gets out about the cool things happening in your course). My senior students invited the English class from across the hall. The English students welcomed the diversion and completed an evaluation rubric which included comments on the how well the music depicted the word. All comments must be positive. Peers must find something that worked to share with their composer colleagues. Positive feedback definitely builds confidence. One more thing; it never hurts to invite your principal.

As your students feel up to the challenge of engaging in more ambitious projects, you can introduce more theory. Learning theory as needed is much easier than trying to digest books full of it with no concrete end in mind. As you develop other great projects, your students, by repeatedly going through the creative process, will mature and begin to think of themselves as composers.

Song Selection for Beginning Singers in Five Simple Steps

By Andy Beck
Managing Editor, School Choral and Classroom Publications

Andy Beck

One of the most important tasks we take on as vocal teachers is the selection of repertoire for our students. Each of us has an unofficial (or official) list of standard favorites, but finding the perfect fit for our youngest singers’ vocal skills, musicianship, personal tastes, and personalities is critical to their growth.  Here is a simple checklist for approaching repertoire selection.

1. Vocal Range (“I can’t hit that note!”)

There are two things to consider: singing in a comfortable tessitura allows students to develop optimal vocal tone and freedom; and, carefully exploring a few pitches outside of the most comfortable zone can expand a developing vocal range. For beginning singers it is best to err on the side of caution, working primarily in the healthiest part of the voice to develop good singing habits.

2. Appropriate Musical Challenges (“Can I hear that again, please?”)

Again, there are two areas of concern. The first is melody. Are the intervals achievable? Does the melody provide a desirable contour for cultivating this singer’s most beautiful, natural tone quality? The second is rhythm. Can the student comprehend and master the rhythms required? Avoid teaching by rote at all costs. But rather, teach music reading as an essential skill for all singers, slowly progressing to more advanced concepts.

3. Supportive Piano Accompaniments (“Don’t you play my part?”)

Developing vocal independence can be quite challenging. A supportive piano part can make a big difference. For “first-timers,” melodies may need to be doubled note-for-note throughout an arrangement. Then, as next step, look for chordal accompaniments that avoid clashing with the vocal line and provide clear rhythmic direction.

4. Text and Subject Matter (“Sorry, but I don’t get it.”)

In order to create a compelling performance, vocalists of any age should sing with expression and emotion. Even when it’s as simple as joy, sadness, surprise, or anger, the meaning of a text must be fully understood and internalized before a singer can convincingly deliver the song. Choose subjects that are appropriate for the age of the performer, ones with which they can easily associate.

5. Overall Appeal (“I love that song!”)

A big part of teaching a young singer is motivating them with songs that they find enjoyable. It is through an aesthetic connection to repertoire that students will most easily develop artistry. The very best teachers know when to challenge a singer with a foreign language, a sophisticated poem, or an advanced musical concept, but they also know how to balance challenges with songs that are just plain fun!

Finding repertoire that meets all of the criteria above may seem like a tall order, but happily Alfred offers an entire series that fits the bill. Our “READY TO SING . . .” Series features songs arranged for piano and voice in a simple style appropriate for beginning and young soloists, unison classroom singing, and elementary choral groups. Uncomplicated piano accompaniments double or strongly support the singer, keys are carefully selected to accommodate moderate vocal ranges, and the wide variety of texts and subjects are age-appropriate. Plus, these books are cost-effective, offering reproducible melody-line song sheets for each song. Learn more about the four books in this series by clicking through the links in this blog!

Ready to Sing . . .  Folk Songs Arranged by Jay Althouse

Ready to Sing . . .  Spirituals Arranged by Jay Althouse

Ready to Sing . . .  Christmas Arranged by Jay Althouse

Ready to Sing . . .  Broadway Arranged by Andy Beck