Music/Sound Play Ideas for Screen-Free Week, Apr. 30-May 6

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I’d like to give a little shout-out for Screen Free week, April 30-May 6, sponsored by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Maybe a little screen time can be substituted with music play time this week.

May is a busy month for most kids: weekends and weeknights are filled with piano and dance recitals, band concerts, sporting events, and commencement ceremonies. Why not spend this week allowing the kids (and adults!) to chill with some low-key music free-play instead of t.v. or video games? Even if you or your child can’t read music, or barely play an instrument, you can still do these activities.

What might low-key music/sound free-play look like? Well, I have some ideas:

* Free-improvisation at the piano: Play intervals up and down the keyboard: start with a 2nds song, then move to 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, then 7ths. Play the intervals together (“harmonic”) or separate (“melodic”). Try a new-agey feel with pedal or make it snappy and upbeat. After intervals, try building jazzy chords on the white keys, using a harmonic 3rd (a “skip”) in the left hand and a harmonic third in the right hand; for example, C-E-G-B or A-C-E-G or F-A-C-E. Move up and down the keyboard and use different rhythms. Then, try black-key improvisation: hit any black key in any way (together, separate, with knuckles, holding a tennis ball, repeated notes, random notes,…..). Try a drone/ostinato (repeated) pattern in the left hand using two or more notes and make up a melody with the right hand. Try story improvisation: make up a story and “illustrate” it with sounds. Try random note generator using dice or playing cards: assign different notes (using notes of the chromatic scale, or a major or minor scale or any made-up scale) to numbers on a die or playing cards; roll dice/shuffle cards to see what notes come up. Make up a song using those notes in whatever order you rolled/shuffled them. Try making up a magic scale (from W.A. Mathieu’s The Listening Book): keep the tonic and dominant of a major or minor scale (in C Major tonic is “C” and dominant is “G”) but alter the other notes of the scale. For one example of a magic scale (out of many possibilities), using a C-major scale: C, D-flat, E, F-Sharp, G, A-sharp, B, C. Make up a song using only those tones. Try making a theme and variations on folk songs. How many variations of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can you come up with? Can you make it sound minor or sad? What about fast-paced and frantic? Or, meditative and dreamy? Try playing your favorite tune by ear.

*Sound exploration: Do you have an old tape recorder lying around? Or a new digital one? Go around the house, your backyard, or a park and see what sounds you can capture. Squeaky swings at a playground? The bark of a dog 3 houses down? A garbage truck? You and/or your child singing/improvising at an instrument? The slosh of a raw egg down a garbage disposal? (this one sounds really cool–trust me). The clink of a spoon against a teacup? Can you make up a rhythmic tune on this teacup? What about capturing “lost” sounds, like the click of a manual SLR film camera or the tapping of typewriter keys or the whirr of a rotary dial phone? Sometimes there is a dial on the recorder where you can speed up or slow down sounds. I once spent an afternoon in college with some friends laughing at how our voices sounded sped up or slowed down (yeah, I’m a nerd. But it really was hilarious).

*Music as meditation: Sit down at the piano or with a guitar, or stand up with your flute (or other instrument) and improvise something slow and repetitive. Focus on your breathing. Choose 2-3 notes at first, then build up to a major or minor pentatonic scale (black keys or C-D-E-G-A or A-C-D-E-G or make up your own 5-note scale). Don’t judge your playing; just focus on breathing and getting inside the sound. It doesn’t have to sound pretty or interesting. Try humming or singing a few long tones along with your playing. On guitar, make up your own chords by placing two fingers on any two strings on the fret board/neck–move up and down, change them around, see what interesting chords you can come up with. Try some alternate tunings.

*Compose music for an object or several objects: how many different sounds can you coax out of a tin can using a chopstick or a fork? What about using your thumb on a comb? Can you compose a “kitchen” piece using only objects or food found in a kitchen? Use non-traditional notation (i.e. drawings, graphs, word descriptions, etc.).

*Collect all the kid instruments in your house (toy pianos, plastic guitars, xylophones, and any other toy that makes noise) and improvise, with your child/children, a wild toy symphony. Draw a “score” ahead of time: draw varying shapes and lines, and using your eyes, or your (the parent’s) finger as a pointer, follow the progression of lines and shapes. Interpret the lines and shapes any way you want. Capture the magic on a camera.

*Can you make up your own music/sound games?

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy relaxing to screens as much as the next person. But for this week, try something different. You may find a new hobby, or turn your kids on to music and sound exploration.

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