Monday, January 30, 2012

Songwriting Superstars!

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools

This week was a very exciting one at both Clinton and Hampton schools!

The kids had their first taste of performance just before break, when we presented a “winter preview” at both schools. Because many of our students do not have music class, much less any previous experience presenting a fully staged and costumed performance, we have found it very helpful to give them a “dress rehearsal” w/audience at the end of their first semester. In the preview, which is for an audience of their parents, other opera students, and sometimes, other students from the school, they recite, with limited choreography and staging, the lyrics they have written thus far for their songs, all of which will eventually make up the opera.

This past week was our second week back, and with the memory of that preview experience fresh in their minds, the kids were focused and ready to work with Adam Busch, who helps the children to set their original lyrics to music (and who also assisted them in the lyric writing process, this year). We had several “a-ha!” moments throughout the day, both with students and with teachers.

At Hampton, one child in Mrs. Ochoa’s class remarked that what we were writing was “like opera.” Mrs. Ochoa pointed out that, a couple weeks before, the kids had enjoyed a concert and weeklong residency presented by Classical Kids that focused on the life of Mozart, particularly his childhood precocity. She thought that her student was comparing their composing process to the young Mozart’s!

Next, Mrs. Ochoa got out a silly poetry book that she been using with her students as part of their poetry week. She asked Adam and I to play and sing a silly song (her book provided hilarious new lyrics set to familiar tunes). She felt that the kids would make the connection between song lyrics and poetry, and how we were writing a song, especially since they had been working on it in class. They were fascinated and requested an encore, but unfortunately, we had to go to the next class! We love it when teachers use our curriculum to complement ours in that way, and vice versa.

Mr. McFarland’s class, who had Opera for All last year, had their lyrics set to music in no time, in part because a talented young student raised his hand and asked if he could sing the melody he had already composed for the verse portion of the song! Wow! The other students were so excited and impressed by his creativity, boldness, and lovely singing voice, and soon they too were raising their hands to offer suggestions for the doo-wop style song we came up with together for their “planet discovery” song.

It is so rewarding when students who have had our program before begin to express their gifts, both because they have a context for their talents, and also because they understand how to use them in application to the task at hand—composing! Where and when else would that student have the opportunity to discover and utilize those abilities, especially as a sixth grader!

At Clinton, the students were similarly engaged by the process, quickly learning and singing the songs they created with enthusiasm. Mrs. Lee’s class participated in the program last year, and I am enjoying asking them more challenging questions about the nature of music, composing, acting, etc. this year in my quest to give them a deeper understanding of the process.

We discussed the fact that, rather than just choosing random pitches for their songs, they needed to chose notes with intent as to the character they wished their song (Alone on a Submarine Floating Out to Sea) to have given the text. Many of them said they wanted the song to sound “like a rap”. We discussed what made rap sound like rap; limited pitch range, speech-like rhythms, medium tempo. Adam gave them some pianistic examples to choose from, and they chose a blues-influenced, slightly jazzy tonal palette given the fact that their song was humorous, and, while not happy, not really sad, either. Then the process took off.

I asked; what can we do to suggest the shark in the song? Both the kids and Adam came up with the JAWS motif at the same time, but Adam modified it with repetition and modulation. I asked—why does that sound scary and exciting? The kids were able to articulate that this rising half step pattern, magnified by modulation, emulated a circling shark and fright! Adam came up with some frenetic music for the “tossing and turning” hysterical lyrics in the song. I asked—why is this appropriate, if at all, to this portion of the song? “because everyone is going crazy right now” was the general student consensus. Then, a student asked if Adam could play a sustained note for the moment when the mother wakes the child up from their nightmare. They GET IT!!!!!

At this point, I was overwhelmed with more suggestions than we could handle, the kids completely immersed in the process, and then was asked by a kid if she could get “eaten” by the “shark”, which is about ten kids pantomiming jaws, fins, and a tail. We worked that out by having her step into the biting “jaws” created by two students, and having the body of the shark jump up and down to “digest” her after she was “swallowed”. It was hilarious! Several of my usually shy girls asked if they could audition to be the hapless heroine.

It was a fantastic day!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Incredibly Enlightening

Amanda Compton, COT Teaching Artist at Reilly Elementary

Today was my first experience with an OFA composition class.
It was incredibly enlightening. I think sometimes as a teacher, with all of my training and technical background, it's easy to forget that music does not require a written page to be music.
While these kids don't know exactly what chord progression they are doing or what notes they are singing, they do know what they like and they can create melodies without reading music. Ben had a very creative approach to the session, by having the kids audiate the music they created Tuesday before physically hearing it again. I think this is a really important skill, and I'm glad Ben introduced it to them. Perhaps we can solidify this skill in the future by having them practice with pop music that they already know as a homework assignment. If they can learn to sing the music silently in their head, then they will truly own it and be able to perform it. From there we sang through the part of the chorus to "Lost in New York," and finished composing it.

The approach to writing the music as a group was for Ben to play progressions in the background while the kids improvised. We would do that a few times in a row with one chord progression and then try it again with a new chord progression. From there, the kids would vote on which chord progression they liked, and then improvise again as a group to the chosen progression. Most of the kids have a natural ear for where they want the phrase to go, and how the phrase should end. With a little guidance from Ben and I, I think we actually came up with some pretty creative and accessible music. I'm looking forward to hearing the kids' homework, which was to create a melody for the last two lines of the "Acceptance Song." For next year's class, I think a lesson on hearing if pitches are higher or lower, and perhaps some interval training (tricks like "Here Comes the Bride" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for 4ths and 5ths) will help the kids to express their musical ideas, as this was the biggest challenge during the class period. The class was really a great experience for both myself and the kids. I think we all learned very important aspects of the compositional process!

Composing at Reilly Elementary School

Ben Hjertmann, COT Teaching Artist - Composer

We began class Tuesday with our eyes closed (to focus our listening) and concentrated on establishing the mood the students wanted to display for their song "Lost in New York". They wrote their own class lyrics in December for their futuristic Opera about New York City. Once the class had picked the mood of the song, they began to improvise melodies over my piano playing. COT Manager and teaching artist, Linden Christ was listening close to the students responses and repeating back the melodies as the students would sing them. I felt a connection with the students, their instincts for melody were the same as mine. We all seem to have similar instincts, but the hard part is figuring out how to hone them together. A few times, two students would improvise really catchy melodies at the same time, so we'd use both of them.

On Thursday we began by reviewing the chorus for "Lost in New York" and continued on with the verse. Once we had the melody for the verse, we moved to "The Acceptance Song" which is about getting into college. We remembered a mood we had picked on Tuesday, the students called riff "Packing Up" and wrote a melody. COT teaching artist, Mandy Compton was transcribing the students' melodies while I helped them improvise. Some of the kids are really letting go when they improvise. The first week with Opera for All at Reilly turned out to be a blast and was equally inspiring for the students and myself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Acting Games & Song Lyrics

Amanda Compton, COT Teaching Artist at Reilly Elementary School

We started this week doing some slightly more in depth acting games, which the kids seemed to LOVE. Every day since we did them, the kids ask when they will get to do more acting games. We played, "here comes Jill," which has two kids sitting at a table, that share an improvised dialogue describing their waitress, "Jill." After a few lines, Jill has to enter and act out the traits that the two customers described. The hardest thing about the exercise was getting the kids to NOT copy each other in which traits they described. Some popular choices were "stupid," "ugly," and "clumsy." Once we made it clear to the students that it was important for the description to involve an action or an act-able trait, the scenes because much clearer. Some of the "Jills" had a real knack for taking what the customers said and bringing it to life as they came out to "serve" them.

We then built upon this exercise to extend it into our "New York" opera theme. We had the kids, in groups of four, improvise scenes at the twin towers and shopping in NY. It was a VERY good effort from all of them, as this was their first time just completely improving something with only a given character and setting to start with. From this exercise, we assigned them to write their own scenes at home to use for the show. More to come on these.

This week Linden and I also really tried to focus on finishing lyrics for our Lost in New York song. We did the same group format we did with Lisa, and had the kids brainstorm about some questions we asked them like, "How would you feel if you saw the Statue of Liberty in person?," and, "What would you do there?" etc. We were able to finish our entire lost in NY song, with our final verses about the Statue of Liberty and Broadway that offer a wide range of performance opportunities for the students. I'm very proud of the students' work, and I'm really excited to stage it!

Lost in New York
Don’t know what to do.
I really need some help.
Can you give me a clue?
So much to explore, so much to learn.
Something unbelievable at every turn.

There’s lots of sites to see like the Statue of Liberty.
It’s real bumpy on a boat
Look at Lady Liberty Float
We can take pictures and climb the stairs.
Look up there! Her torch still Flares!

As we walk and dance down Broadway Street
We hear lots of music and a funky new beat.
I love the New York accents and the bright shining lights
Let’s go see a musical, Right Now! Tonight!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Getting to the Young By Brian Dickie

Brian Dickie, General Director of Chicago Opera Theater

COT has an extensive program of activities with the Chicago Public Schools and the City's cultural department. I am a great believer in participation by the children - getting them to play, sing and dance, and to get involved in all aspects of production as far as it is practical. And there is no doubt that we have had some great success in this. And the spin off of higher grades in other studies, as well as improvement in discipline, is well documented not just hearsay. With the huge reduction of commitment to the arts in our educational establishments, the work that professional companies do in this area is indispensable.

I was down at the Hampton School on the South side of Chicago this morning - and first of all discovered that it is named for the great Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. And as you can see from the photo above its full name includes the words "Fine and Performing Arts School". In fact I am not sure that they able to concentrate extensively on the arts (resources just do allow that alas) - but their Principal Zaneta Abdul-Ahad is a most distinguished lady who gave an enthusiastic and extremely eloquent welcome to this morning's event. And it is clear that this week has been an important one in the life of these children.

Our work in this and a number of other schools this year is directed to preparing them for COT's production of The Magic Flute next September. We have a family of teaching fellows who work with the schools throughout the school year. Today's event was the culmination of a week of intensive exposure to Mozart.

And so the climax to the week was a visit to the school by the remarkable Classic Kids Live with their excellent show Mozart's Magnificent Voyage. This was one of their rare excursions into a school - and it was a huge hit in this gymnasium setting (below), a familiar place where the children could relax and enjoy the show without all the complications of an exhausting field trip. Their attentiveness and clear appreciation was testament to the work done by Mrs Abdul-Ahad and her team, as well as to the preparation by our Education Manager Linden Christ and the teaching fellows.