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Shane McKenna explores music notation with teachers and students

Shane McKenna_0For our first post of the revamped Notations 21 Project blog, I’m delighted to introduce you to music maker and music teacher Shane McKenna.  Based in Dublin, Shane explores the use of non-traditional notation to create musical collaboration.  Most recently, he collaborated with visual artist and teacher Killian Redmond to create DabbledooMusic, a program of music education for primary school children.  In this interview, Shane shares his thoughts on graphic notation, music education, and the future of DabbledooMusic.

What has drawn you to graphic notation in your work?

I began to use graphic notation while studying music education in Trinity College, Dublin. Up until then I was a largely self-taught musician and was struggling to get to grips on music notation in order to study the classical guitar. When I went into classrooms around Dublin on teaching practice, I found that both students and teachers had similar problems using music notation. Although they could follow scores and use the notation to analyse music they found composing or performing difficult, particularly as a group.  I started to use graphic notation as a way of getting students to think creatively and engage with music-making in a more direct, hands on way. Through these classroom compositions and performances I found that any musical idea could be explored in an engaging and creative way with a bit of imagination. In my own composition work I started to use graphic notation to create a more collaborative relationship between the performer, composer and listener. I saw conventional notation as an exclusive communication between the musically literate composer and performer, whereas graphic notation could be used to facilitate more inclusive music making.

As an educator and music maker, what was the development process that led to creating your work, particularly your animated scores?

My animated scores came from my time studying a Master in music and media technology in Trinity College Dublin. With my experience with graphic notation in education and my new found skills in simple animation I began to create animated graphic notation that could be interpreted live by a ensemble of any instruments with performers from any background. I wanted this notation to equally engaging for experienced musicians and people who didn’t consider themselves musical in any way. I also designed the notation to be intuitive so that a group of people could perform the score on first viewing. My first experiment in 2008 was in ‘The Bernard Shaw’ bar/venue in Dublin, with thirty audience members singing/screaming/whooping along, three electronic improv. artists, classical trombone, clarinet and cello. Listening back to the recordings, the performance was full of noise, texture, imitation of pitches and dynamics between performers, rhythms and gestures. The thing that most interested me about the performance wasn’t the resulting sound; it was the success of the score in bringing together a diverse group of people to make music together without rehearsal or even seeing the score before. Each member of the group relied on their own musical instincts to respond not only to the score but to each other and to the sounds around them. Since these early experiments, and particularly with my work in music education, I have been striving to create musical scores that are more inclusive and engaging to performers, through graphic notation and animation.

As an educator in the field of the arts, what are your thoughts on the development of creative thinking in the education system? 

I believe the arts have an important role to play in terms of creative thinking for individuals but more importantly for working creatively as part of a group. Often creativity is viewed as a personal journey and creative people as individuals, artists, musicians, and writers. Music offers a unique opportunity for students to work as a group towards the same creative goal.  A simple group performance will not only require motor skills, memory, listening and comprehension but the arrangement and organization of the piece will require creative thinking, math, spatial awareness, communication and language skills. The style of music and the instruments used can also lead into the areas of geography and social history, physics and construction studies. From my own experience, when children are given a creative challenge the relish the opportunity and will use every skill and piece of knowledge the have to make it succeed.

What led you to develop the DabbledooMusic project?  Please tell us more about it!

dabbledoonDabbledooMusic is the result of a collaboration with visual artist and fellow teacher Killian Redmond. Together we set out to combine my experience with graphic notation with his work in visual art to create a full program of music education for primary school children (roughly 6-12 years old). From my own experience in primary schools, and from listening to primary school teachers I found that music was viewed as a difficult subject to teach mainly due to the difficulty teachers faced with conventional notation. Teachers who were not musically literate feared they were not fully equipped to teach music, whereas they would be happy to teach an art class without mastering the art of watercolors. DabbledooMusic gives teachers and students an alternative way to explore music using musical notation specially designed for education. It is designed to encourage creativity and collaboration in music making through activities, composition worksheets and animated scores, all available on a free resource website and supported by a DabbledooMusic book which we published at the end of 2012. The project aims to make music accessible, engaging and fun for all regardless of previous musical experience.

What are your future goals as a composer and educator in the contemporary music world?

My main aim is to bring about a change in the way music is taught in primary schools in Ireland and around the world. Notational reform is an important part of this change because at the moment conventional musical notation is more of a hindrance than a help to many teachers and children. With DabbledooMusic I hope to update the online resources for teachers, students and parents to explore music in a fun and creative way, and one which is relevant in the modern world. This summer we have big plans to raise money through a crowd funding project in Ireland called fundit, to develop the website into a fully interactive resource allowing users to interact with the animated scores to create thier own animated compositions. We are working closely with teachers and students through workshops and events here in Ireland to make sure DabbledooMusic.com is as engaging and as accessible as possible and optimized for interactive whiteboards, home computers and moblie devices. There is a lot of ground to cover but the accessiblility of technology at home and in the classroom and the enthusiasm of children to learn using this technology means that the future is full of promise for this area of music making and education.

To learn more about Shane, visit his website at www.shanemckenna.com.  Visit the DabbledooMusic at www.dabbledoomusic.com to learn about the project through blogs, videos, and more, and to support the project through fundit!  Many thanks to Shane for sharing his thoughts.


About Theresa Sauer

Musicologist, Author, Composer of Anthology Notations 21. Drawing inspiration from John Cage’s, Notations, Notations 21 features illustrated musical scores from more than 100 international composers, all of whom are making amazing breakthroughs in the art of notation. These spectacularly beautiful and fascinatingly creative visual pieces not only make for exciting music, but inspiring visual art as well. The scores are accompanied by written contributions from the artists that explore every facet of their creative processes, from inspiration to execution. Contributors include the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi, as well as emerging composers whose compositions are also visually astounding and important. In the spirit of honoring the 40th anniversary of Cage’s seminal book, while furthering it in a 21st century context. I am still researching notational languages around the globe.


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