PRESENCE – AN EXPERIENCE THROUGH SOUND AND MUSIC by Moira Lo Bianco
- Jul 22, 2022
Just like at the end of a life-changing trip, when we reflect on wonderful new memories and scroll through photos of newly discovered places, so will I look back at my PS 503K residency program and savor the beautiful experiences imprinted in my memory. I call this experience my ‘heart project,’ as I poured into my teaching all I had to offer. Thanks to Arts Horizons, the organization where I serve as a teaching artist, and the wonderful staff at PS 503K, I had the opportunity to bring music and SoundMind programs to third, fourth and fifth graders. PS 503K is the public school in South Brooklyn that has hosted me (and thirty keyboards!) for the past academic year, during which I taught twelve classes per week, with class sizes between 10 and 30 students.
For the past ten years, I have mostly worked in colleges. I am most familiar with older students, and so I wondered: “how can I reach elementary school students and make them love learning about music and the SoundMind program?” I knew I needed a plan, and it had to be a good one. My intention was not only to capture their attention, but also to spark their interest and curiosity each time they came to visit the music classroom. I wanted them to have an experience that was more than just attending a class. And so I invited them to think and behave like professional musicians. Each week I would greet them at the classroom door, and prepare them to “enter the stage,” imagining an audience waiting on the other side of the curtain. This required a certain presence – the bodily composure of an artist entering the stage. I had the students form two rows, standing straight and opening their shoulders, and, most importantly of all, coming to silence. I would then invite them to walk with grace and elegance, just as an artist would, and that, thankfully, prevented them from running around and knocking over keyboards (most of the time!). To my amazement, by the end of the program they would repeat those words themselves, prompting each other to get ready to “enter the stage.”
Regardless of their age, I believe that bringing mindfulness and giving agency to students is always a good choice, as we make them participate in the process of both learning and managing classroom behavior. And so, when I needed to work with students individually, I would say: “ musicians, please provide silence,” which sounds better than “students, please be quiet.” I wanted them to make the choice of when to be silent by explaining that, in music, silence is as important as sound. Moreover, any time I would hear thirty keyboard sounds scattering around all at once, I would count down from four to one, and then cue them to silence, just like a conductor would; and so, they learned it, and followed it, just like professional musicians would. I played them a short repertoire to choose from, and we learned several songs together. In addition to learning the keyboard, students were engaged in improvisation, composition, and arrangement exercises, together with rhythm-based activities that required their full attention and participation, and involved body percussion and creative movement.
Presence again, but this time for being in the present moment, and they were present, with both their bodies and their minds. Just like professional musicians, they were often invited to collaborate with each other, and work together in groups of two, three or four people, which we named as duo, trio, quartet, just as in musical performances. I enjoyed seeing them help each other as well as encouraging shy students to play and then cheering on their performances. Fostering a sense of unity was my intention for each class as I thought, regardless of what they’d learned that day, the real experience was coming together and being part of a musical ensemble. I introduced a sense of unity through music theory concepts like “unison” and “being in unison.” We also practiced “unity” through performance training, where I asked students to “switch on their listening ears” and invited them to perform together by paying attention to what the other musicians were playing. In addition, I invited teachers to join us in making and experiencing music together.
The students were so spontaneous and transparent that I, as a teacher, needed to be ready for anything, in every class and at any moment, which helped me develop a more open, flexible and adaptable mind, and learn to go with the flow. At the same time, my students allowed me to have fun together with them, and to be fun, myself – whether or not they were aware of this gift they gave to me!
In addition to music, I also had the opportunity to offer them my SoundMind program, which was well received by the students; they responded to sound quite impressively! I brought with me tuning forks and a wind gong, and we experienced sound from a different perspective. Sound therapy is a type of practice that uses sound as a therapeutic tool. In my program, I integrated sound with mindfulness and yoga practices. They enjoyed feeling the sound vibration and sound presence in the room, and were able to provide silence while I moved around playing the instruments. They also had the opportunity to play the instruments themselves, and learn basic concepts of physics of sound. Moreover, we practiced breathwork exercises involving sound, and then merged sound with creative movement. Students embodied the natural elements of their choice and became trees, ocean waves and falling stars, while working together as a duo, trio, or quartet. They were present, and in unison.
Each class would begin and end the same way, like a sort of a ritual. We entered the stage at the beginning, and marked the end of each class with the same closing activity: I would grab my egg shakers and invite them to move in rhythm. Then, I would sing: “one line in the middle, in rhythm,” in a rap-scatting style, which meant for them to create two distinct lines, as in the beginning, and follow me “offstage.” To my amazement, once again, by the end of the program the students (and some teachers) would actually sing along with me. We were all present and united in sound.