Wheelbarrows and Music

What do blue jeans, scarves, found objects and wheelbarrows have in common?  At Hillbrook, they are all "tools" used in discovering the connection between soul, mind and body through the creation of music.

Yes, this is intended to be a blog about educational technology, and that is exactly why I am writing this post.  One definition of technology, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is "a capability given by the practical application of knowledge." (mwd 2016)  Through a process of scientific discovery, students at Hillbrook are creating new ideas and processes using "analog" tools, leading to a much larger scope of ideas, connections and creations.  Students are creating new concepts and experiences for themselves, preparing for a life of learning and innovation.


When I was in 1st and 2nd grade, I went to school at a magical place called, "Go Like the Wind Montessori," located in Ann Arbor, MI.  Part of the Montessori philosophy is that "students need activities that help them to understand themselves and to find their place in the world." (amshq 2016) If you are not familiar with the Montessori philosophy, the American Montessori Society describes it as "an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child—physical, social, emotional, cognitive."  (amshq 2016)

Montessori rocked.  Individual attention, independent hands-on exploration, creativity, real growth...my perfect place.  Looking back, I'm so glad I had a taste of it for two years, since the rest of my education would have much less freedom of choice and individualized learning.

Our primary teacher, Ms. Shields, would often play her guitar and sing with us in a circle in the classroom (In Montessori, it is common practice for music teachers to came into the classroom, where pretty much everything takes place, aside from physical education and some special events).
Twice a year, there was a large choir production, and in first grade, we did a mini operetta, called "The Mice of Mozart."  I auditioned for a solo, which was pretty ballsy for a first-grader.  I got a cool part, and had to wear a vintage dress and spray paint my hair a sweet sweet silver.  The 30-second solo was mesmerizing in the moment.  My parents had the best video-taping intentions, but alas, the camcorder battery died right before my solo (face palm).  Great experience, though!

After second grade, my family moved to a neighboring city with a kick-ass public education system (rare).  I loved my teachers and felt supported throughout elementary school, minus the troubling third grade year of math (shudder).  Let's talk music education again.  At Houghton Elementary, we followed an Orff approach with a few twists.  We used kneel and strike technique (floor marimbas) and also sang many songs in one or two parts.  We learned basic song structure, rounds, rhythm sticks, recorder.  We learned square dancing and took a field trip to Green Field Village near Detroit, MI, where we placed ourselves in the shoes of Pioneers.  We could also sing an impressive rendition of "From a Distance" by the entire fifth grade that brought our parents to tears.  We got dance parties on the occasional Friday, where we drew songs from a bucket and got to dance to "Thriller" and Twisted Sister.  

Let's jump ahead a few years: in college at University of Michigan, I majored in Percussion Performance and felt very rhythmically secure.  I felt proficient in piano as well (5 years of Suzuki piano lessons sure helped).  I had so many amazing and humbling opportunities: performing in Carnegie Hall, playing the original score of Star Wars, playing in many world premier performances, learning how to compose and teach percussion methods.  I'm fairly certain my motivation to pursue creativity through music would never have happened if it were not for an education rooted in discovery and hands-on learning.  

Here is a video from my Senior Recital at UofM.
Jump ahead again: I currently work at an independent school in CA called Hillbrook, focusing on educational technology and tech support.  I had received a Masters in Digital Media and Learning from the University of San Francisco, which led me to this awesome school.  Hillbrook's 3rd grade music curriculum includes a new and pretty ground-breaking annual project: the "Hillbrook Sound Project."  Through this project, co-teachers Kristin Engineer and Jenny Jones (lower school music teacher and lower school science teacher respectively) choose a primary object to use as the theme.  Last year it was bicycles, and this year, wheelbarrows.  

Sound Projects from 2014, based on wooden chairs.
This year's Sound Project in the process of creation, using wheelbarrows and found objects.
The main goal for students is this: using a wheelbarrow as a base, design a musical instrument as a small group, with found implements, that can be used in a performance incorporating the sentiments of emotion, art and music (in so many words).  

Leading up to this project, Ms. Jones guides students through the discovery of natural sound and how sound is essentially created, exploring sound waves and how a pitch is created using wine glasses.  Simultaneously, students are learning to use blue jeans as an instrument, adding a performance element of self-expression and creating their own musical forms.  Through working with these concepts of sound source, interaction with materials, and the emotions involved in music-making, students are, in a sense, creating their own technologies.

Exploring the creation of pitch using wine glasses.

Check out these videos:
  • Wine Glasses and Pitch: "Wine glass pitch explorations in D major and D minor scales (this was in science but they had to create a composition with the pitches) It was magical and meditative!" --K. Engineer, LS Music Teacher
  • Blue Jean Jive: (Blue Jeans compositions, based on Andrew Huang and his "Music with 1000 Pairs of Jeans" video)
  • Music, Emotion and Art: "Vasilly Kandinsky art project (collaboration with the art teachers), creating abstract art to jazz of the 1920's in order to express their emotion...through color." --K. Engineer
Wow!  Even through a Montessori-hybrid-public-elementary-school education, my teachers would have never introduced this.  Self expression through found objects bolted together and painted, fusing art, science and music?  Mind blown!     
There is so much to be said for freedom of expression, let alone the ability to fuse together several implements and sounds, fostering the growth of the power of listening, tuning the ear inwards toward emotional response, playing as a group, feeling the feels that can only come from playing and striking something that is a non-traditional classroom instrument.  Something that could break and it would be ok.  Let educational freedom RING!
I'm writing this to show that there is nothing wrong with what has been done in the past, since educational methods have varied widely and transformed in many ways over time.  Isn't there a similar history with technology?  Knowledge and tools are built upon by others, creating stronger innovation, but that BASE never goes away.  Those that think independent schools are only for the wealthy, this is a PRIME example of a RICH music education whose cost is that of what is provided in the home, nothing more, nothing less.  
At an elementary age, let's allow students to embrace these found objects of rhythm, space and emotional equity, leaving behind the notions of delegated instruments and parts.  Although structure leads to healthy discipline, a good wheelbarrow can lead to a MOUND of possibilities.