Tag Archives: 31 days of homemade music

Wrapping Things Up (Day Thirty-One of Homemade Music)

Welcome to the very LAST day of 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.

Well, folks, here we are. The last day of this series. Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve been able to. I’ve really enjoyed the feedback from you all, as well as the awesome community I’ve gained from getting to know some other 31 Days writers. It’s been a major challenge writing about one main idea for every single day of a whole month, but also a great personal discipline for me.

This month, I’ve babbled on and on about why you should make music and how to get going. We’ve discussed why music is good for the mind and the soul, and how to listen to potentially unfamiliar music. We have visited starting points for playing with singing, percussion, music-reading, and piano. I’ve given you listening activities to do with your family and briefly introduced you to folk music and sacred music.

We all hear music every day- in the car, the store, on TV, or in the office. Most of us have heard at least some recordings of great music, and some of us have been lucky to attend live concerts. But my agenda this month was to help convince you that it is well worth it to participate in music making, and to give you some tools to that end.

I hope that you were able to try at least some of the ideas from this 31 Days series. If you haven’t yet, maybe at some point in the future it will provide you with an avenue for musical exploration. If not, that’s okay too- I just hope that at some point you decide to give music a try- without fear, reservation, or self-consciousness!

Can music really make a big difference in your life? Think about it. Can it broaden your mind and sphere of experience? Can it heighten the senses? Can it develop your personal tastes? Can it be a comfort or a joy? Can it move powerful men to a change of heart? Can it sweep huge crowds of people with dancing and singing? Can it change the hearts of a nation?

I would dare to say yes. Yes, it can.

Do you think so too? You’ll never know until you try. Happy music-making to you!

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Listening Activities: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Day Twenty-Two of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.

Today, we will be having a listen to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written in 1946. The title of the piece suggests that it is music meant for children, but in reality anyone who is unfamiliar with the orchestra can benefit from it.

This piece has an impressive subtitle: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. What this means is that Britten took a short section of melody (the theme) from a work by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (remember him from our Listening Through History post?), changed it up in several ways (that’s a variation) and composed a fugue on that melody. But Britten himself didn’t concern himself too much with the “Variation and Fugue” title- he referred to the composition simply as “Young Person’s Guide,” so I believe we should follow suit.

Here’s the piece itself. Have a listen- you’ll hear that main theme right away:

Did you hear the theme, and did you hear it being repeated? Britten uses that theme as a tool to introduce his listeners to the four main families of the orchestra, then to individual instruments. If you don’t know already, the four instrumental families are as follows:

  1. Woodwinds (clarinet, flute, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, etc.)- an instrument played using a reed.
  2. Brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn, etc.)- an instrument played by buzzing one’s lips onto a mouthpiece.
  3. Strings (violin, viola, cello, bass, etc.)- anything that sounds by drawing a bow across or plucking strings.
  4. Percussion (drums, xylophone, piano, etc.)- anything that must be struck to produce a sound.

Now, listen to the Young Person’s Guide again, and listen for the introduction of families and individual instruments as described below:

“In the introduction, the theme is initially played by the entire orchestra, then by each major family of instruments of the orchestra: first the woodwinds, then the brass, then the strings, and finally by the percussion. Each variation then features a particular instrument in depth, in the same family order, and generally moving through each family from high to low. So, for example, the first variation features the piccolo and flutes; each member of the woodwind family then gets a variation, ending with the bassoon; and so on, through the strings, brass, and finally the percussion.

After the whole orchestra has been effectively taken to pieces in this way, it is reassembled using an original fugue which starts with the piccolo, followed by all the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion in turn. Once everyone has entered, the brass are re-introduced (with a strike on the gong) with Purcell’s original melody.” (Thanks Wikipedia, for saving me the trouble!)

If you like to have a visual of the orchestra lay-out, Miriam-Webster has provided this helpful map:orchestra

Here’s some suggested listening activities for you:

  • Pick out the main theme by ear on your instrument of choice. This may take some time, but have patience- it’ll be fun once you finish!
  • Sing along with the main theme whenever you hear it.
  • Identify when the theme changes. Discuss how it changed- did it go higher? Lower? Get more complicated? Simplified?
  • Play a game of “name that instrument.” See which of you in your family can pick out individual instruments. Make a guess if you don’t know, or use the video and above picture map as a cheat sheet.
  • Try sketching or painting as you listen to this. What does the theme sound like to you? What type of imagery comes to mind as you listen? If the music had colors, which colors would it have? What type of movement does the piece have? Try to convey these ideas and characteristics in your artwork. (This can be a great exercise for any piece of music.)

If you want to have your own copy, you can download an mp3 file of it here for $ 0.89. Woot!

Over the past few days, we have visited three major pieces frequently used in children’s music education, all written within 65 years of each other. Often found together in musical collections, they offer much to the young child or to the inexperienced listener in the way of introduction to high art and music making.ย  What’s your favorite of the three?


Playing with Percussion (Day Sixteen of Homemade Music)

I often look to singing as the first general introduction to music because, well, it’s an instrument that everybody already has! What’s the next most available instrument? Some sort of percussion.


(Photo Credit)

But wait, you say, I don’t own drums! No matter. People everywhere and in all times have had some sort of percussion available. You have tons of percussion instruments already lying around your house. You have hands, legs, feet, and a floor. The band I play with has used cardboard boxes, suitcases, chains, and I can’t remember what else to provide rhythm for the group. Any surface will do to produce a beat. If you have a minute and a half, this will provide some inspiration for you:

If this is your very first time playing with percussion, don’t be intimidated. For all my years in music, I’m still very clumsy when it comes to actually playing a drum (as my musical friends can well attest), but it’s fun to try regardless. Try practicing thumping an even, steady beat on a table top with your hand.ย  Work to keep it even, and avoid getting faster and faster (rushing) or slower and slower (dragging) for now.

A great way to jump in on percussion is to make a drum circle with friends or your kids. It’s low pressure, encourages your group playing skills, and helps everyone let their guard down a bit.

What is a drum circle? Everyone grabs a drum or some other sort of percussion (drum, shaker, wood block, triangle, hand clapping, etc.). One person picks a starting rhythm and plays it over and over, keeping it steady and even. If you’re all new, you can all try playing the same rhythm together. As you get more comfortable, gradually add different rhythms that complement the first. You’ll most likely be able to tell quickly whether it feels right or not. Keep it going for a little while, then start over with someone else giving the first rhythm.

Don’t know how to pick a rhythm? No worries- just try saying a sentence. How about introducing yourself? “Hi, my name is Abi.” Repeat it over and over til it falls into a steady pattern. Now, try striking your drum (or table top, or knee, or whatever) with each syllable. You may be surprised how easy it is to fall into a groove.

Check out some of these great examples of beginners joining in a drum circle:

Anyone can try a drum circle, no matter his age or ability. Even toddlers will enjoy joining in, even if they are less than accurate! ๐Ÿ˜‰ No drum circle? That’s okay, you can still get in a lot of practice yourself until you can find some willing victims eager participants to join you. Happy grooving to you!



Tips for Actively Listening to Unfamiliar Music (Day Ten of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from music making. To see more posts in this series, click here.

Sometimes when someone gets a resolve to study music, he will become overzealous and work to understand every detail of a symphony and know the composer’s full background before attempting to play a little excerpt from it. While it can be good to memorize these types of details for your own edification, it is certainly not necessary for enjoying the music and can help lead a person to musical burn-out before he even really begins.

Today, I want to give you some tips to help you begin actively listening to music in a painless and enjoyable way.

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For Beginners

Think about how a child learns to read and write. Do mothers sit with their infants and guide their hands to trace letters? Do they sound out phonics to them at 2 months old? Not usually. A mother speaks to her child, and the child relishes in the sheer love and affection of her words, even before he fully understands his mother’s meaning. Have you even seen a baby burst into laughter at the sheer delight of hearing its mother repeat the same silly phrase over and over?

Music is the same way. You do not need to understand the composer’s intention behind the work in order to take pleasure in it. Even without any background at all, you can understand strains of emotion in the music. Is it sad, dramatic, light and airy, exuberant, reverent, energetic, or pensive? Just as a child can understand the tone of its mother’s voice before he knows the words, so you too can understand much of the music before you know the instruments playing, the melodic motives, etc.

So, when you are first listening to music, just listen. Turn up the speakers and take in the sounds. Let it speak for itself. You don’t need to read anything into it.

After having a listen, you can allow yourself to make some basic observations: What is the overall tone of the piece? Does it change at all during the course of the piece? How does it make you feel? What instruments do you think you hear? (It’s okay if you’re wrong!) About when do you think this music was composed? (You can use Part 1 or Part 2ย  of Listening through History to try to make an educated guess!) Try writing or drawing while you listen to the music. You’ll find that the piece you are listening to will influence what you want to write about or the style of your drawing. Feel free to explore the music subjectively. Just absorb it into your system and enjoy it.

For Parents

Just like the overzealous pupil that was described at the top of this post, it can be tempting for parents to want to over-manage their children’s musical education. For some reason we have to infuse every listening session with factoids about each piece- Little Johnny, do you hear how the that violin just held out a note that didn’t sound right over the rest of the orchestra? That wasn’t a mistake, that was what we callย dissonance. Or worse, for those of us who have studied music, we stand over our three year old at the piano and point out each time they are holding their fingers wrong or how they should change their posture…. before they have even had a lesson! (Nope, I haven’t done that, not me.)

The best piece of advice I can give you as a parent is this: Let your child explore the music. Don’t tell him how to feel, and don’t limit the music to its mere make-up of black jots on staff paper. Let him turn it up (reasonably) and listen to it over and over. Let him dance, let him draw, let him talk about it. Let him beat on a pot with a spoon while he listens.

Let small children get familiar with instruments you have in the house, even if they’re playing them wrong for now. Teach them to respect the instruments, but allow them freedom to get acquainted how they feel most comfortable at first. Let them laugh at parts they think are funny. Let them react differently to the music than you would.

If you have older children and you don’t usually listen to classical music, you may fear they will find it to be “lame.” Don’t worry. Don’t force them into an overly educational experience at first. To begin, simply let classical music become part of your household. Turn it on in the car or in the mornings while you’re getting ready for your day. You could even purchase an inexpensive beginner’s instrument and start practicing yourself. Sure, they may think you’re wonky in the beginning, but over time, the music will begin to subconsciously become a regular part of their day- and they just may start to enjoy it.

For Everyone

When you’re just beginning to listen to music more purposefully, try to listen to the same piece of music several times over the course of a week. (We like to get one CD from the library each week and listen to it every day at nap time.) Like great literary works or masterpieces of visual art, great music doesn’t grow old. Rather, the more you listen to it, the more you appreciate it. It’s complexities grow on you and fascinate you more. You hear new things each time you listen to it, yet the increasing level of intimacy with a piece will charm you.

Over time, you will gradually get to understand the music more and more. Remember the infant who listened to and enjoyed its mother’s speech? Well, after so long, a babbling baby will begin to repeat its parent’s words. The child’s speech may be jumbled and hard to understand, but nobody minds. Everyone delights in the little one’s attempts. After much practice and gentle repetition, the child begins to gain a progressively larger vocabulary of clearer and clearer speech. It is only after the child already can speak very well that he is taught to read and write, and then after that when he is taught rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Again, music should be the same way. Don’t force your child (or yourself) into reading and writing music without giving him some experience of making music first. Listening to music should be a gateway into making it yourself, even in some small capacity. While you listen to music, try tapping along to the beat, or humming the melody, or picking out the notes on a keyboard.

Once you’re feeling a little more comfortable, try getting an instrument and begin to get accustomed with it. Pluck up and down the neck of a guitar for a while. Practice drawing a bow across the strings of a cello. See if you can buzz into the mouthpiece of a trombone. Sometimes we feel awkward picking up an instrument we don’t know how to play, but isn’t that the only way to start playing? Don’t feel like you have to wait for formal instruction to begin to love on your instrument.

As you listen to and begin to play music yourself more, you will gradually increase in knowledge of reading and writing music. You will become a music theorist of sorts as you discover various compositional elements and begin experimenting with creating and performing your own. But all of this comes later. Don’t feel any need to rush yourself into understanding every little detail about what you are listening to.

How do you listen to music? How do you enjoy it with your family? Do you play music too? Come back tomorrow to find some basic tools that you already have to start playing music together.





Listening Through History, Part 2 (Day Nine of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from music making. To see more posts in this series, click here.

Yesterday I gave you a representative list of historical pieces of music from Ancient times up through the Renaissance to listen to and enjoy. Today, we will listen from the Baroque Period through the Twentieth Century. I have been using my seventh edition copy of A History of Western Music to help me create this list. It is a brilliant and fascinating history for anyone studying music, or for anyone wanting to see how music related to world events and politics of the past.

renoirgirlsatthepianoRenoir, Girls at the Piano (Source)

Today, I will be giving you more playlists to listen to than I did yesterday. This is simply because more people have created “Best of” lists (a.k.a. Best of Beethoven, Best of Bach) out of “modern” music than from ancient music. I have yet to see a “Best of Perotin” playlist. Anyone up for the task? ๐Ÿ˜‰

Remember, the purpose of this list is not to create an exhaustive (or exhausting) listening assignment. Rather, it’s to give you a place to start listening to great music of the past and create a context for your own musical experience. You can also use these lists as resources for your own edification as you listen to and create your own music.

Here we go!

Baroque Period (1600-1750)

  • L’Orfeo (By Claudio Monteverdi, 1567-1643. Monteverdi’s music evolved from late Renaissance into a new style that later came to be part of the Baroque period. He wrote only vocal and dramatic works, including the some of the first operas.)
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643, helped to raise instrumental music up to the same level as vocal music.)
  • Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687, born Italian but lived in France. He created French opera, French overture, and helped to form the orchestra.)
  • Henry Purcell (1659-1695, a great English composer who wrote for the courts and the church.)
  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741, an Italian composer who wrote music for children in the orphanage where he was violin master. You will recognize the familiar melody in “The Four Seasons,” the first example in the selected medley.)
  • Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764, a French composer and music theorist.)
  • J.S. Bach (1685-1750, a German organist and composer who worked for the church and court.)
  • George Frederic Handel (1685-1759, invented the oratorio. Perhaps the most famous is The Messiah.)
  • Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757, a keyboard composer and contemporary of Handel.)

The Classic Period (c. 1750-1825)

  • Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787, managed to bring together the operatic styles of France, Italy, and Germany.)
  • Franz Joseph Haydn (1739-1809, best known for his string quartets and symphonies.)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, a child prodigy and famed composer of instrumental music, operas, piano music, and church music.)
  • Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827, a highly influential German composer who left a legacy to this day. He began to go deaf in his later years, but continued on composing through it.)

Romantic Period (c. 1825-1900)

Twentieth Century (1900-2000)

  • John Phillip Sousa (1854-1932, The famous American march composer.)
  • Richard Strauss (1864-1949, a German conductor and composer.)
  • Jean Sibelius (1865-1957, composer of “Finlandia”- now the text “Be Still my Soul” is set to this tune.)
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958, an English composer of various musical genres.)
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943 a Russian pianist whose pieces always seem to speak drama and passion.)
  • Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971, a Russian composer. The link is the infamous and energetic Rite of Spring, which was so poorly received at its premiere that it provoked a riot. This video talks about the piece and why it was so infuriating.)
  • Charles Ives (1874-1954, an American composer whose work was not recognized until much later in his career.)
  • Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951, known for his atonal and twelve-tone composer.)
  • Bela Bartok (1881-1945, a virtuoso pianist & ethnomusicologist from Hungary with a passion for folk music.)
  • George Gershwin (1898-1937, The American composer responsible for Rhapsody in Blue and a plethora of popular movie songs that we love to sing along with.)
  • Aaron Copeland (1900-1990, an American composer with a lot of “Appalachia” feel.)
  • Benjamin Britten (1913-1976, an English composer who enjoyed writing music for amateurs and children. We will revisit him later in our 31 Days Series.)
    English, 1913-1976
  • Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990, American, composer of the popular musical West Side Story.)

And that brings us pretty close to the present day. But even in this long list (or at least it felt long to me putting it together!), we have barely scratched the surface of all the great music we could listen to. I’ve skipped a lot of composers that I would love to add to this list. And keep in mind- this is only western art music. I haven’t even glanced at music from other parts of the world, folk traditions, pop music, etc.

It’s impossible to touch everything (especially not in two days), but it IS possible to start somewhere. And that’s just what we’re doing.

Happy listening folks. Come back tomorrow for some tips for listening to music as a family and get ready to start creating some music yourself! ๐Ÿ™‚

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31 Days of Homemade Music (Introduction)

Welcome to my 31 Days Series on Homemade Music. If this is your first time here, check out the About tabs and take a look around. To find more posts in this series, click here. Thanks for stopping by!

Music making. In our day and age, you only make music if you’re in school or if you’re a performer of some sort. The rest of us may sing along in the car or at church, or enjoy dancing at a wedding, but very few of us make music for ourselves as a personal discipline, much less as a family. Even professional musicians are guilty of abandoning the joy of commonplace music making, and spend time practicing only for their jobs rather than for the art’s sake itself.

I often have friends asking me how they can introduce classical music to their children, how they can help them develop good taste in singers, or if I can put together a preschool music class for them. The reality is that people shouldn’t need a music teacher by profession to make these simple introductions. Yes, as children age, they will eventually need a master to help teach them the advanced particulars of any given instrument or performance area. But the very basics are not quite so intimidating as most people think.

The problem is that the culture at large is so separated from actually producing music that we’ve lost sight of it as an art, a traditional skill, or even as a fun family activity. How many of you still sit round the piano in the evenings to sing songs together? How many of you practice the violin just for the sake of learning something new? How many of you sing while you work?

The time has come to introduce you to this area of our lives and to give you tools to make homemade music a regular and enjoyable part of your lives. And what better way to do it than by jumping on The Nester’s 31 Days Series? (If you’re not familiar with the 31 Days phenomenon sweeping the blogosphere, it’s basically a challenge to bloggers to write on one topic for an entire month, and to hopefully give your readers something of interest in the meantime.)

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My goals this month are to make a case for the value of making music yourself, the value of giving deeper musical experiences to children, and the value of music for culture as a whole. I also want to give you some practical ways to make homegrown music in your own home- whether you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned pro.

Come back tomorrow to read our story and hear how music has permeated our lives. Looking forward to singing and playing with you!