Cross-disciplinary art: exploring words and music with Rebecca Rochelle
Kindred spirits are hard to come by, but I recently found one in my new mentor Rebecca Rochelle.
In 2021, Arts Council England gave me the chance to delve into some long over-due professional development via their Developing Your Creative Practice grant.
Rebecca is a writer/actor who introduced me to the various techniques she uses in workshops with young children. I was delighted to discover that we had a common belief in offering children a rich artistic diet and in teaching through exploratory play.
Musicians use a lot of descriptive words – not just the standard descriptions like high, low, fast, slow, loud, quiet but also words like swooping, sticky, oozy, crunchy, dark, bright, sparkly, grumpy. Those who have a good vocabulary tend to have more confidence in sharing their musical ideas.
So my initial discussions with Rebecca centred on ways to help young children build a rich vocabulary: using visual aids for pre-readers, onomatopoeic words, acrostic poems, creating ‘word banks’, different techniques of writing poetry.
Visualising musical elements
Music can be such an abstract thing, lacking in concrete visual elements. Once it has been presented, it is gone unless you capture it in some form of notation or sound recording.
One of the best ways to teach the musical element of rhythm is to use the long/short sounds present in spoken word. Children acquire a spoken vocabulary before they can read or write and are quick to catch on to the rhythms of different words.
For slightly older children, one of my favourite activities to explore words and music is by using haiku – the evocative but minimalist way of writing poetry which had its roots in Japan. In using haiku as a creative stimulus, I chose not to follow the strict rules of each line having 5, 7 and 5 syllables but adopted instead the spirit of the poetic form which used words sparingly to conjure different moods.
This haiku was composed by F, my 8 year old student. It was about her recent summer holiday activities:
train to castle
F clapped the rhythm of her haiku. I asked her how she could use familiar musical notes (semibreves, crotchets, minims, quavers) to represent the duration of each syllable in her words. She experimented for a while and wrote down her ideas. Suddenly she exclaimed “Look each line adds up to a different number of counts!” Cue excited scribbling of time signatures…
Next, F chose different instruments to play her rhythms: the triangle to represent the sound of raindrops, fast drum beats to show the excitement of the speeding train, and slow piano notes to describe her memory of savouring an ice cream.
After exploring the concept of articulation (smooth and ‘spiky’ sounds) one of our young students S surprised us with this graphic score which she created entirely on her own.
She explained that “They each make different noises. The red one makes smooth sounds, the orange one makes the loudest sound. Yellow makes spiky”. S drew triangles in different colours to represent her ideas.
The idea that there are different types of sounds can be a very abstract one. Most young children find it helpful to visualise their understanding of how a particular sound can be different to another.
The symbols we use for articulation then simply become another way of ‘writing down’ sounds – this time using lines: a curved line for smooth and joined sounds (legato), dots for short separated sounds (staccato), and a wedge for accents.