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'Imagine that you can send me a sound' - Expanding Music Literacies in the Post Scores Project

By Thea Martin


How do we articulate the way we feel and hear sounds?


What methods are we drawn to?


What do they uniquely communicate?


These are the questions that guided the writing of a text score called 'Post-Scores (with regards to James Tenney)' I originally presented at an outdoor listening and experimental scoring workshop with young adults in 2021 - a mixture of creatives of various disciplines. The score is a response to American experimental composer James Tenney's series of 'Postal Pieces' - written on postcards in a variety of formats and notations.



The realisation of this score in a group meditation session allowed us to collectively reflect on the ways we listen to, remember, recall and recreate sounds, their roles in our lives, and the ways we can be assisted by shape, line, texture and language to communicate these sounds to others.


I have previously written an article on why we use scores in music, and the pedagogical benefits of using texts scores in educational settings, that you can read here.

In this article, I move to consider what music literacy looks like in our current educational institutions, how we teach music literacy, and what literacies 'count'. Taking 'Post-Scores' into a school setting, I remained guided by these aforementioned questions around how we articulate and communicate sound, to lead an exploration of musical expression and meaning making.


Music conservatoriums are dominated by a requirement of competence in the Western harmonic system and traditional music notation, negating or delegitimising other music literacies, such as oral/aural traditions, music production/technology and experimental scoring such as graphic or text. I am by no means interested in discarding Western music notation, instead I am interested in how the 'Post Scores Project' can work to reframe the way we teach and interact with Western music notation, by embracing a multitude of literacies in dialogue with one another, uncovered through students' intuitive creative expression and exploration of ways of writing music. Scoring is therefore understood as a tool for articulating sonic ideas, rather than a system to be learnt without its sonic context.

I believe that the Post Scores Project was able to offer the Year 4/5 class and 2x Year 5/6 classes I was working with at a public primary school in the southern suburbs of South Australia, a personally relevant entrypoint into writing music, beyond preliminary beat groupings and diatonic pitches that may be first introduced in a traditional approach to teaching music notation.


Context is everything! This project was developed for these particular students with their specific situation, interests and goals in mind. The project can definitely (and I hope will) be adapted to additional settings, but the locality of an educational setting must be deeply considered in order to best support students. I work at this school as an Artist in Residence, filling the gap of a classroom music teacher. The goal of this school with the residency program is to shift student attitudes about music that resulted from a previous negative educational experience, by prioritising student engagement, enjoyment, creativity and opportunities for sharing music within the school community (as hopefully should be the case with all arts education programs!). The collective goal of the classroom teachers and myself as an educator, is for students to see music as something that is FOR them. Students had minimal experiences with music at school, and prior to the commencement of the Post-Scores Project, had participated in 4, 40 minute weekly workshops with me, in which we explored techniques for playing glockenspiels and djembes, had begun to explore concepts of high and low pitch, engaged in improvised call and response warmups, and composed short pieces that used the rhythm of students names as musical motifs.


POST-SCORES PROJECT - AN OVERVIEW


Initial Class Discussion:


  1. Why might someone decide to write down music?

  2. Have you ever seen music written down? What did it look like?

  3. Introduce the term 'score' as a word to describe a way of recording how to play a piece of music, which means we can share that with other people.

  4. Introduce the term 'composer' as someone who writes music. Introduce the composer James Tenney as a man who hated writing letters, so decided to write music on postcards to send to all his friends instead.


Creating the Score:


  1. Students are invited to find their own individual space in the classroom, making themselves comfortable (sitting, lying down, on a chair etc.). Each are given a postcard-sized piece of paper and a pen.

  2. The facilitator reads the text from Post-Scores, adapting or clarifying the language as they go.

  3. Students are given 10 minutes to respond to the invitations from the text. The facilitator moves among the students, stopping to answer questions, work through ideas, or to clarify the instructions.


During this time, a student who had been engaging with the workshops with increased involvement each week, was focused intensely on playing with a hula hoop, lying down on the floor. In the first week of our workshops, he'd remained outside the room, looking into the class from the window. In the second week, he came into the classroom and hid under a desk, but joined in with a drum from afar by the end of the lesson. In the third week, he'd joined in some of our class discussions, and had contributed a sound to his class's composition, which we collectively decided would end their piece. By the 4th week, he was actively involved in performing his class's composition, taking an interest in the recording process and directing the placement of the microphone we were using. I was keen in our 5th lesson together, to continue to discover how he wanted to engage in music and how he could best express himself. As I approached him, I noticed he was very engaged in manoeuvring the hula hoop, and less engaged with using the pen and paper he'd been provided with. I sat with him and listened, noticing he was making a scraping sound with the hula hoop against his shoe. I asked him, "Is this the sound you've picked?". He nodded. I then asked, "Is there a way to use the paper and pen to show that sound?". He answered by vocalising a sound that I believed was meant to represent the scraping sound he'd just been making. I then asked "Can I write that sound down for you?". I wrote down the sound he'd vocalised using the letters 'shhhm', showing him what I'd written. He then fully took over the interaction, altering the text himself to get it just right, considering the size of letters, their placement on the paper and adding additional shapes to show his sound - taking ownership of his sound and the way he wanted to articulate it. The following week, he added pitches that correlated with the height of the shapes he'd drawn to perform on glockenspiel. I believe that this activity allowed me to centre this student's experience of sound and what and how he wanted to articulate himself. I believe it is our job as music educators to works towards understanding how we can we best support that for each student.


This brief session additionally provided an opportunity for individual work (for the first time in our workshops thus far) and reflection, as well as time for me to get to know each student in a one on one setting. At the end of the session, I collected the scores, letting the students know that I'd be writing a list of all the different ways they'd written down music that we'd talk about together the following week, and that they'd receive their scores back to keep working on.


After analysing the ways in which students had chosen to articulate themselves, I came up with the following list of approaches:


  • Narratives

  • Sound Environments/Soundscape Descriptions

  • Text

  • Punctuation

  • Melody Shapes

  • Soundwaves

  • Western Staff Notation

  • Illustrations

  • Song Lyrics


In our following workshop we then discussed each of these approaches and played through/improvised musical responses to some examples, drawing on the students' scores. We also examined examples of James Tenney's scores as we discussed each approach. Seeing these compositions and analysing their properties through the lens of their own compositions assisted in demystifying the composition process, dismantling the notion of composers as being 'high up and far off', instead Tenney as someone connected to their own lives and experiences of creativity. To see a slideshow which contains the discussion questions and examples (including Tenney's scores) for each of these, click here. Following our discussion, students were then given free exploration time to:


  1. Make changes to/additions to/rewrite the 'post score' created last week

  2. Write a brand new post score using ideas from today

  3. Use an instrument to come up with ideas for how to perform a 'post score'

  4. Swap scores with a classmate and see if you can find a way to perform their score


This enabled students to further refine or expand upon their ideas, to try out methods they hadn't yet considered, to experiment with sounding their scores using instruments and to share their ideas with others - strengthening their knowledge through collaboration.


Over the following three workshops, we selected 5-6 scores from each class that represented the different approaches to scoring music, arranged them into an order and used glockenspiels, djembes, body percussion, vocalisations and samples to realise each score. Through the process of creatively interpreting scores we were able to explore a number of musical concepts. Below are some examples.


Rests


Students assigned sounds to each of the words. 'Ooo' was given a soft scratching sound on the djembe's to match the sound of the word. 'Aaaa' was given 4 hits on the djembe to represent the abrasive tone and volume we imagined 'Aaaa' to have. We talked about the '....' as being used in writing to indicate a pause, and how this could be a pause in music as well. As there were 4 dots, we decided to make this a 4 beat rest. Students rehearsed ordering and counting these sounds.



Soundscapes



In this narrative-like sonic description, we explored how we could create a 'sound environment' or 'soundscape' by layering different sounds together. We used some found sound recordings of birds and waves, supplemented by percussion sounds. A student led the performance of the soundscape by cueing sounds and changes to dynamics.


Melodic Contour



Many students were drawn to lines that showed the rise and fall of pitches. We explored how we could add notes we had learnt on the glockenspiel to the lines to correlate with the high and low points. We explored examples of composers who had used similar graphic notation methods.


Rhythm


Students approached rhythm in many ways. Below are two examples. In the first, we can see a student using the length of lines to represent note values, accompanied by the words 'long' and 'short' to reinforce their meaning. In the following image, students use the length of words/letters to show time, indicating that the notes 'A' 'B' 'C' and 'D' should be held for significant lengths, whilst also clearly indicating the pitch that is to be played.




To conclude this project, students recorded their collective class compositions, compiling the audio recordings with the scores to create a video. The video was then shared with the wider school community. Students watched the video of all the compositions in the following workshop, where they were invited to comment on the similarities and differences they noticed between the scores and the ways they had been interpreted in performance.


I believe that students came away from this project with an understanding that there is a multiplicity of ways to articulate and communicate sounds, and that each of these methods are tools to assist us in our creative expression, with unique values and meaning. We approached notation from a lens that engaged with students' desires to explore storytelling, humour and illustrations.


There is tremendous value in positioning students as composers/creators from the very beginning of their musical journeys, as it is through this creator positionality that they can discover, understand, refine and analyse their music making, with increased ownership and agency of their learning and knowledge construction.


Imagine that you can send a sound in the post for a stranger or friend to receive.


What sound would you send?





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