Music Maze Small Group

Creating a Music Maze workshop for Cat’s-eye by David Sawer

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BCMG Director of Learning & Participation, Nancy Evans, gives an insight into how she plans the Group’s Music Maze workshops for 8-11 year olds by using our workshop on Sunday 3 May 2015 as an example.

I open the score to Cat’s-eye by composer David Sawer, find a recording online on the publishers website and read the programme note. This is all I have to go on. We have two hours to plan a four-hour workshop for 20-30 children aged 8-11 taking place in a few days time. The programme note informs me that a cat’s-eye (l-oeil de chat) is a kind of lens that you would find in a late 18th Century fantascope, a projector designed by E. G. Robertson that ‘brought the optical tricks of magic lanterns to evenings of fantasmagoria, shocking audiences with fantastic images of spirits and demons’.

But what is it about the fantascope that intrigued and fascinated David Sawer? I then discover, from the programme note, that the cat’s-eye lens could open and shut causing the images to appear and disappear – a function that could happen both quickly and slowly. The contraption was mounted on wheels and as it moved forward the image grew larger and vice versa when wheeled backwards. David applies these as metaphorical ideas to his musical motifs. A helpful diagram at the front of the score shows me that the ensemble consists of four pairs of instruments arranged in a semi-circle sitting opposite each other. Then I listen to the recording. I’m reminded of the soundtracks to early horror films – Nosferatu immediately springs to mind. How has David created this sound world? At this point it becomes important to interrogate the score: different characters of musical motif jump out at me – some spiky and disjointed, other’s more melodic. There’s lots of augmented 4ths, chromaticism, clear pitch sets that expand and contract, extremes of dynamics and extended techniques. Importantly, the pairs of instruments share the musical motifs – the trumpet and trombone, a pair of clarinets, the harp and piano, the viola and cello.

Once this musical research has happened my mind starts to think about the group of children we will be working with and how they work best. Pairs – an effective way to encourage both children to contribute and to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. How could this relate to the four pairs of instruments that David Sawer has in his ensemble? Ah, pairs of instruments working together each contributing musical motifs to a bigger piece.

Questions form… how can we set a brief(s) for the children to create musical motifs that introduce them to composer’s ideas but also give them ownership and autonomy? How can we distill the composer’s ideas to make them possible for the children to explore without losing their essential essence? And importantly, what do we want the children to learn? We decide on the following:

  • To be able to create a melodic and a rhythmic motif
  • To understand how particular pitch sets/intervals can create a certain musical mood
  • To understand how dynamics can be used to change a motif
  • To know how to structure a piece of music by layering and structuring different music motifs

For the melodic motif they can either use a short chromatic scale from A to C sharp or three notes that must include an augmented 4th. One of the rhythmic motif briefs involves using the 4/8 5/8 alternating beat patterns found in Cat’s-eye – the children will have grids and buttons to help them plan this. Later the children will think musically about how their motifs could be varied using the metaphor of the fantascope: the image appearing close, far away, getting closer and moving away.

But how will all of this come together into a piece? Back to the score – what does David do? Musical motifs appear to expand and contract but rarely return; sometimes similar motifs are layered and sometimes contrasting; pairs join with each other and then separate; sometimes one pair plays alone and sometimes all pairs play at once. We create some simple rules to support putting the piece together:

  • Each melodic motif can only appear once.
  • The group chord can appear at any time and in form.
  • Think about including silences in your piece.
  • Each rhythmic motif can be repeated and appear as many times as you like.
  • In your group, any number of pairs can play at the same time BUT it might make your piece more interesting to vary this…

Beyond this it is up to the imagination of the children and the skill of the adult facilitators to guide the children to listen and reflect upon their choices, compare different possibilities, help focus their ideas, ask them what their intentions are and whether they have been met. In essence to help them think and do like composers.

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