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The Power of Play

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I’ve had a few opportunities to work with kids in relation to sound and improvisation.  Some were through elementary schools where the art teacher had a small budget to bring in an artist-in-residence to help present something different to the kids, while others were through an art museum summer program for inner-city youth.  It might be interesting to note that these were through art-based programs, not music.  These kids may or may not have had any prior musical training.  It didn’t matter.  In fact, it was nice to have the possibility to start from a clean slate. In each situation, the kids got something different than crayons and construction paper, and hopefully helped them think differently about art, music, and all sorts of other things.  We listened, we talked, we created ways to make sound, we combined sound with their own voices, and we recorded the results so they had something physical to remember the experience by.  The teachers and group organizers were always very supportive, but I’m not sure if the system has integrated the ideas.  They should.  The following essay is my take on the experience, and the greater implications of involving these ideas into a curriculum.

Kids love to play.  They imagine situations and either make up characters or have friends play those characters, hoping for some kind of fantastic outcome, but are usually left with what those involved contribute.  The story changes, evolves, and grows, going from an idea about building a city in a sandbox, to analyzing the details of a drive out of that city into the desert wasteland on the other side of the box, and the adventures that exist there.  Decisions are made, conversations had, and surprises occur.  A story develops, and then ends abruptly when Mom calls for dinner.  It would have been great to keep playing, to see where things would have gone, but it’s ok, something else will happen after dinner.

That’s like improvisation.  No kids are going to want to talk about the idea of lining up sounds next to each other, but they will want to talk about playing, so that’s a great place to start.  What kinds of games do they like best, what do they hope to get out of those games – winning, imagining, discovering?  Who’s their best friend, and why do they like to play with them?  What are their favorite toys?  What do they like about them?  How do those toys, games, and friends help them fulfill things they make up in their imaginations? These kinds of questions will create a foundation for a new kind of play: improvising with sound.

Surprisingly, at least from what I’ve found, kids are less judgmental about sounds than adults.  I remember being very young and making a noise with something and my mom telling me to stop because it gave her a headache.  No kid ever gets a headache from something they hear.  They might not think it’s pleasant, but their first reaction is curiosity.  What is that?  Generally, adults don’t care.  They just want it to stop.

Listen to some recordings with kids.  Listen to stuff they’ve likely never heard before.  Not things they’d hear on the radio or their parent’s iPods or on commercials or wherever.  Old sounds, new sounds; sounds composed, improvised, and natural, presented in ways that kids (and many adults) may never have heard before.

What do whales in the arctic sound like?  What does brushed metal sound like?  What does a trumpet sent through six effect pedals sound like?  What does the human voice sound like when it’s not used in a typical way?  And more importantly, why would one do that?

Ask them to guess what they’re hearing.  Tell them to make something up.  Have them describe the sounds in the most fantastic ways they can imagine.  They’ll have fun because there’s no right answer, it’s just their own imagination reacting to what they’re hearing.  Their responses to these sounds can be varied, from completely wild associations to typical assumptions.  Either one is ok.  It goes back to playing; how they react in situations, how they imagine, how they decide their relationship with something is going to be like, what proximity they want to place themselves to it, and what they’ll do with those ideas on a creative level.

Often, as adults, we’re told to solve problems, to think differently (outside the box?), to make good decisions, etc., but what has prepared us for this?  School?  In some ways, but play certainly has too.  And both the concrete knowledge of textbooks and the spontaneity of play involve creative thinking and different levels of improvisation.  Finding a personal relationship with math and figuring out where to hide for an outdoor game of Ghost in the Graveyard both involve reacting to the situation at hand; taking what’s presented to you and reacting with your idea, your creativity. Integrating even minor concepts of improvisation early on can help prepare people for a wide range of situations later on.  They might even be able to look at problematic situations as play; challenges where their input will cause resolve, for better or worse.  It’s always easy to freak out, but listening to others and offering constructive interplay when appropriate is good in a variety of situations, music being one of them.

Usually, music is taught in terms of technical approach, but there’s more to it than that.  And for kids who don’t, and won’t, have an interest in pursuing the technical aspect of music, there’s no reason to completely kill the sense of adventure in them by beginning with the rules.  Let them play.  It’s ok to not know how to play an instrument by the rules.  I bet they still can play it, in their own way.  In fact, don’t use instruments at all.  Use things sitting around their classroom.  Nothing is off limits if they can make a sound with it.  The lesson of figuring out how to use random material to contribute to a situation and solve the challenge of a task is far beyond musical.

Once playing, how they interact can be based on the discussions they had about playing.  Just as they may have created their own characters, now they can create their own sounds, and they can introduce those sounds to others, and hear the other person’s sound, and see how they fit together.  They will laugh, be disappointed, get loud, smile, and experience a wide range of emotion, just like when they play. It’s not just about making music, it can be about creating a picture, telling a story, or playing a game where no one wins.  It’s a dialog between people about anything, or nothing.  Sounds are just a fascinating detail within the situation.

Maybe someday they’ll want to learn more about music and a specific instrument.  This early play might help them approach it differently, and not be so intimidated by the techniques, lessons, etc.  They’ll already have a personal understanding of what music is, and what it can be.  This will help them become better musicians.

For those that don’t pursue music, they’ll enter the world and communicate with people, work with them, make decisions, create, and imagine, just like they did when they played as kids.  Just as they did when they learned about improvisation.  This will help them become better participants within the work they choose.

And it’s not just about the kids.  These experiences are always interesting, no matter how often you have them.  I have learned from kids that I too can think differently about music and sound and working together and communicating and imagining and first being curious about things before declaring that they give me a headache.

Improvisation helps people think differently about situations.  Improvisation allows you to practice how to react in different situations.  Try something else this time.  It’s ok. Make it interesting.  Help others.  Create a better picture.  Tell a better story.  It’s important to engage kids in this realm.  They’ve already started the process through playing.  Over time, school and work offer many ways to halt that process, and without a strong background and an ongoing practice and understanding of improvisation, life becomes different; our interaction with others can take on different tones, and often we’re unprepared for how to deal with each other, make decisions, find ways to make things we imagine become real, and discover things far beyond our imagination by being engaged in the process.

For kids, building an understanding of improvisation teaches them about their place in the world around them.  For adults, it encourages them to keep playing.