Friday, May 17, 2013

Is it Music? An introduction to John Cage and Found Sounds

Here I am at the end of the year and I've finally found an activity toward which my 5th graders reacted positively!

At the beginning of class, I write "Music" on the SmartBoard and ask the students to tell me the first word that comes to mind to describe it. Students come up with music-class related words such as "rhythm," "melody," "instruments," and "harmony" as well as names  of bands or genres. I write it all up there.

Students are given a sheet of paper numbered 1-16. While listening to the different examples, their task is to answer this question: Is it music- yes or no? They must also back up their answer with a reason (and it cannot be "Because I didn't like it," or "Because it's weird.") You may shorten this activity and use less than 16 examples, and you may use any type of examples you like, but here is my list:

1) Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5- Allegro
2) Sound from the video of a Vuvuzela Symphony-  1:10-1:32 (I show them the video and the more involved piece after the listening activity)
3) Lady Gaga- Marry the Night
4) Dixie Chicks- Ready to Run
5) Drop something loud on the ground (I've used both rhythm sticks and a textbook for this example)
6) Convergencia- Hot House
7) Carmen, Act I- Parle-moi de...
8) Clap a rhythm
9) Justin Beiber- Baby
10) One of Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes
11) Sound from video of City Sounds-
12) Ben Folds- Adelaide
13) Good Charlotte- The Anthem
14) Flogging Molly- The Lightening Storm
15) Sound from this video- (I go up to about 1 minute)
16) I go to the piano, sit at it, open the cover, then sit silently for a minute (and try not to laugh when the kids are totally confused), then I close the cover

After the examples are played, students share their answers and we discuss why they did or did not think it was music- sometimes referring back to the introduction activity on the SmartBoard. I then show the vuvuzela video and ask if anyone's answer changed now that they could see it as well as hear it. I do the same with the Xavi Lozano video from Example 15- the kids love to watch and see what random household item he will use next!

This activity is an intro to a project. During the next class period, we read about John Cage and his piece, 4'33." They make the connection between this piece and my Example 16- sitting silently at the piano. We have a discussion about the way they reacted and how they think the audience might have reacted to John Cage in 1952. We also discuss the sounds that the audience might have heard or made during that long period of silence, along with Cage's belief that "everything is music." This conversation really pushes students to think outside of the box and is a great intro to our Found Sounds Project (I call it the Weird Instruments Project).

Students are instructed to bring in a household item for the next week's class that they think they can use to make music. It cannot be electronic, nor can it be an actual instrument. In the past, students have brought in Snapple caps, water bottles, plastic bags, spoons, and various other items. The next week, they are divided into groups of four and here are their instructions:

With your group members, you will be creating a 1-minute long composition using your household instruments. You may notate it below and on the back of the paper in any way that your group chooses, but it must be consistent and clear. Your group will perform the composition for the class and you will be graded on your notation and performance. Each composition must include:
  • Solos, as well as playing as a group
  • Soft and loud dynamics
  • Fast and slow tempos
  • At least one repeated section
  • A clear beginning and ending
This project is fun to complete because it gives students a lot of freedom to compose what they want. I am excited to see what my 5th graders come up with this year!

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