Shapes and Patterns - Developing a Creative Process for Instrumental Lessons
By Thea Martin
Music is a creative art. As educators, I believe it is therefore our mission to ensure that a young person's formative musical experiences allow them to play with sound and build musical ideas. The following describes a simple, flexible process built from minimal sound materials that my Year 4 beginner violin/viola students adapted and explored during their instrumental lessons.
We started with something intrinsic to the concept of Western tonal music - the major scale. However, I want students to conceive of scales as flexible toolkits brimming with possibilities, not just a theoretical concept they should learn. To do this, I asked the students to build their own scales, specifically 5 note (pentatonic) scales by circling 5 notes of choice from the major scale. They would then play their new ascending scale to see if they liked their selections, and then make changes as they wished. Developing a scale in this way builds the students understanding of the major scale, as they are building pattern recognition through leaving gaps. Pentatonic scales are found in every musical culture throughout history, and so developing an initial compositional experience centred around this concept felt natural and foundational.
The next element of the process to add was an ostinato (repeating melodic pattern). This also stemmed from a previously explored concept, this time being the aural call and response activity that lessons would often commence with. Students and educator would take turns improvising a short pattern for the other to repeat back. In this circumstance, we started the call and response activity using the students' new scales as a basis. I asked the students to stop when they created a pattern that they liked, and to repeat it. This became our ostinato. Repetition legitimises! When heard as a loop, the patterns gain meaning and new levels of intentionality.
A final element to add was the construction of a melody using graphic notation. In previous lessons we had explored drawing shapes and following the melodic contour of the lines, or drawing the shapes of melodies from their repertoire. Graphic notation, pictures and colours are an integral component of my methodology, and so students were accustomed to representing music graphically. I asked students to draw a line that they thought would create an interesting melody (for example a straight line would remain quite static but a line with movement could create variation). They then added pitches along the line from their pentatonic scale, again developing their understanding of pitches and scalic properties.
At this point I would ask the students "have we made a piece of music yet?" Their answers were largely, "no". When asked what would make these isolated elements into music, they decided that we needed to put all the elements together! Trusting the students' innate creativity here is essential, and I would begin simply by asking them "how should the piece start?" and "what should happen next?" If students didn't have an initial idea, I would play them options to select from. An example of an interesting structure that emerged was in a piece titled "Monoma" - an anagram for the sections of the piece:
"Melody, Ostinato, New (section), Ostinato, Melody and Another (new section)"
These 'new sections' were created by the student to add interest to the music and to link the sections together. After writing down a loose structure, students were invited to play the piece, to evaluate and then adjust. Here my role was mostly as a facilitator, asking questions to prompt reflection. I believe it is of the utmost importance to avoid imposing the educator's aesthetic choices onto the student. If the student creates something dissonant, ask them what they think of the sound! If the phrase structure is irregular, go with it - it'll lead to more interesting musical discoveries. If they break from the scale pattern, ask them why? Phrasing these ideas as considered, (perhaps reflectively) creative choices ensures that students continue to feel that creating music is an open and welcoming process, not one where there are 'rights and wrongs'.
In a previous composition activity the students had engaged in, I had written the duet parts for them. In this project, students were invited to experiment with layering the ostinato under their melodies, or to come up with new textures to include as an accompaniment. I would then take these ideas, write a duet line and print the finalised parts, often introducing new technical elements such as lowered second finger or double stops into the duet line to add increased pedagogical value for the student. Students would then teach their pieces to another student and play the duets together, resulting in further opportunities for collaboration. Below are some examples of students' finished pieces with some comments on noteworthy aspects. Dynamics and articulations were added in by the students after they were given their printed copies.
We experimented with echoes in both the melody and duet lines.
This piece was later titled 'Midnight' due to the 'creeping' sound of the ostinato.
This piece was later titled 'Sleeping Lion'. Spot where the lion wakes up at the end!