Visitors to the third floor of the Learning Innovation Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays during fall term were greeted with some interesting sounds. Tracking these to their source would lead to the Honors College classrooms and Tom Strini’s unique “Soundscaping” colloquium, the latest in the college’s long history of innovative and creative classroom experiences
“Soundscaping” encourages a deeper and more analytical way of perceiving music and a thoughtful way to compose it, even for those unfamiliar with music study. “Soundscaping is music composition for people who don’t know much about music,” Strini, an instructor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, says. “It’s thinking in structures and developing a sonic imagination. Music has architecture, it has bones, it has repetition. Students come out of this class hearing music in a more sophisticated way and in much more detail.”
Strini developed the class when he taught for the honors college at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Encompassing a much larger scale, the UW class included music history, dance history, criticism, and musical analysis. Soundscaping was a fun project for the end of the semester, when students were in the midst of papers and finals for other classes. “I would go to Walgreens or Walmart and buy all these little trinket instruments and just about anything that would make some kind of noise. I would compose a piece of music with a graphic notation, and they would play it. Then it would be their turn to do the same.”
The Honors College colloquium took this soundscaping element and extended it across the first five weeks of fall term. The class began with a graphical analysis of musical works, training students to think about music in terms of a sequence of visual symbols. “It taught them to map how the structure [of the music] unfolds and to think more about what they’re listening to,” says Strini.
“It’s a really steep learning curve,” he says. “Students come in completely shy and don’t know how they could even pull this off, and some of them even seem freaked out. But after a while, they see how it’s going to happen. Their sonic imaginations improve, and by the second time they try, they’re usually saying ‘Oh, I’ve got this!’”
After getting the hang of the analysis, it was the students’ turn to compose their own pieces of music using the same techniques. They spent five weeks creating graphical scores of their compositions, and they then had to come up with a creative way of conducting, employing a combination of graphic images and body language. “There was only one rule,” Strini says: “They had to write their pieces so that everyone in the class had a part to play.”
On Tuesday, October 27th, the last day of the class, the students gave their final performances for the term, and all Honors College staff was invited. Videos of two performances can be found here.
Strini feels the class extends beyond creativity and music. “It goes beyond music,” he says. “The human engineering is huge with this. You have to walk into a room with an idea, and you have to get eleven other people to buy into it and execute it with energy and enthusiasm. The communication skills are huge. You’re instructing them on how and when to perform tasks, and you have to use body language and gesturing to do it. For me, it’s the most important skill they learn in this class.”
“I would love to teach this every quarter,” he adds, “if there’s enough demand for it.” The class filled to capacity very early in phase one of registration back in May and was an immediate hit; “The class went extremely well,” says Strini, “and you can tell by the attendance. Out of all the class sessions in the quarter, I only had two absences, and both were for very good reasons. It’s just fun. We made a lot of noise, and had a lot of laughs too.”
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