Theremin as Pedagogical Tool

The following project was carried out with a class of third grade students at an elementary school in Hatboro, Pennsylvania in 2000/2001.

The Theramin electronic instrument has been incorporated in a study plan for grade school students (3rd grade, 8-9 years of age), as an aid in explaining abstract conecpts of sound, color, movement and the creative compositional process.  We explain the study plan and give examples of the children's resulting "compositions" and performances.

Abstract

We present an account of recent activities involving the use of the Theremin as an instructional tool for elementary school children. A class of 21 students (8 to 9 years of age) is exposed to various aspects of color, movement, sound, and materials while engaged in an activity of creation and performance.  The goal of the activities is to give the children a sense of the creative process, and a means by which to freely associate commonalities among color, movement, sound, and materials within the context of an ensemble setting.  Following a series of structured assignments over a period of 8 months, based on the following study plan, we attempt to minimize potential obstacles associated with the representation of such qualities, encouraging the children to invent their own sound with limited technical expertise.  The activities permit the integration of other areas of study that are a part of their existing curriculum: the physical sciences, electricity, sound, history, music, and the liberal arts.  We delay the use of the computer in order to encourage the children to concentrate on various ways of expressing their ideas via non-computational methods.  Once a foundation has been established, we propose additional activities which do include the computer.  In this way, the computer is used to expand the children’s initial representations.  The children are taught the basic rudiments for operating the Theremin (hand gestures and placement to alter pitch and intensity), however nuances of the instrument’s operation are intentionally left out in order to allow the children to explore them on their own.  The children are asked to imagine a sound, represent that sound with an image, then represent that sound on the Theremin.  A sample of images, recorded sounds, and children’s comments are presented in order to convey the students’ level of involvement.  In addition, we provide a proposal for an electronic instrument that can extend the current study plan by enabling the students to extend the possibilities of the Theremin, as well as explore additional representations of their imaginations.


“…[the Theremin] copies the sound that your hand made like a cage.”   Joe P., student Theremin performer.

Introduction

The activities described here evolved over a period of 8 months during the 1999-2000 school year for a group of 3rd grade elementary children who ranged in age from 8 to 9 years.  The author was asked by a friend and teacher to visit Round Meadow Elementary school, located in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, USA, and present to the children a discussion of experiences during a stay in Paris: a sort of “show and tell”, to hopefully convey to the children an appreciation of cultures and societies from abroad.  I suggested that it might be fun and educational if we were to attempt an activity with the children, an activity that would not only impart a sense of what I had been living and studying during my previous three years in Paris, but one that would also expose the children to possibly new and rewarding creative experiences.  I had been familiar with the Theremin instrument, and felt that an activity based on such a musical instrument, an instrument that more than likely was not familiar at all to 8 year old children, might provide an ideal entry point for the investigation and exploration of various aspects of the creative process, from the point of view of a child.  Initially, the activity was to take place during the course of a single day, but, as was subtly anticipated (the children’s curiosity and interest level increased exponentially at the end of the first session, not to mention mine and the teacher’s), we soon realized that a series of visits and a study plan was required in order to adequately impart and justify what would be in the end such a rewarding experience.  It was decided that a series of monthly visits throughout the course of the school year would permit the time needed for the activities to ferment in the children, as well as provide the opportunity for reflection on and the refinement of a study plan that might ultimately prove to be a permanent part of the children’s course of study.

    The Theremin was selected as the central focal point for several reasons.  An expressive instrument that requires the performer to not touch it, in addition to the characteristic sound that it produces, would provide, it was thought, a spring-board for the exploration of abstract notions of sound, movement, and images.  Children are hopelessly curious by nature (fortunately!), and when told “please don’t touch”, are apt to perform the contrary.  However, if the Theremin is touched, there is no sound.  The child is immediately brought into a dialogue with the instrument.  It was found that they were all too anxious to “dual” with the instrument, to “show it who was boss”, yet at the same time, creatively explore the possibilities of such a device.  Shy students were surprisingly “brought out of their shell”, and became willing performers in front of an audience.  Anxious or restless students became relaxed, or were able to redirect their energies into an activity that provided a tangible result.  Coupled with the surrounding activities that were planned, we soon learned that the environment that was created by the presence of the Theremin enabled the children to become immersed in other activities as well: inventing and representing imagined sounds, re-presenting such imagined sounds with the Theremin as well as with other instruments, renewing or discovering interest in science and technology, and engaging in other creative and exploratory endeavors.  Ultimately, the mysterious “box with the antennas” proved to be simultaneously the container of ideas, as well as facilitator for realizing those ideas.

Examples of "sound images" cerated by the students.

Samatha.jpg
CaitlinC.jpg
JerryH.jpg
Alisha.jpg

The Study Plan

The underlying goal of the project was “to demonstrate and communicate the concept that physical and creative energy may be converted and transferred into various forms and manifestations.  The children will use their own imaginations and the various tools and materials at their disposal to express and communicate a sound, image or movement, or in the most general terms, to express an energy”.  Having decided that this was to be the guiding theme, a series of demonstrations, exercises, and activities were planned that would hopefully impart to the student that such an endeavor was within their grasps.  Indeed, the impulsive nature of children of this age group was to be exploited: their curiosity as well as inhibitions to this type of activity would permit us to explore approaches that would otherwise be difficult to attempt with a group of perhaps a few years older in age.  The following is a list that summarizes these activities, the details of which will be described later in this paper:

1.    The students are asked to imagine a sound.
2.    The students are asked to represent that sound as a color image/picture.
3.    The students are asked to perform that image (their sound) with the Theremin.
4.    Steps 1 through 3 are repeated for each monthly session (this forms the foundation of the other activities).
5.    The students are introduced to the concept of a “time line”, and are asked to create a time line that correlates their performance to the picture.
6.    Using the time-line temporal guide, the students are asked to associate the colors of their images (sound scores) to numbers, creating a grid of numbers that now represents their sound image.
7.    The numbers are now used to reinterpret and correlate their pictures to an electronic circuit that produces and/or modifies a synthesized sound.  The students perform the circuit (their pictures) by adjusting control elements of the circuit.*
8.    In addition, the students are asked to perform their sound images utilizing anything at their disposal for the creation of a sound, including found objects, other instruments, themselves (i.e., the students were not limited to the Theremin), as an ensemble group, or as a solo performance.

* Note: This portion of the project was not completed due to time constraints.  Later in this paper, we present a description of the proposed circuit instrument.

Other activities and concepts related to the physical sciences were either introduced and/or explained to the children.  For example, basic concepts of thermodynamics (air pressure), electricity and electro-magnetics (resistance and radio waves), and sound (fundamental aspects such as intensity, pitch and tone), were initially demonstrated to the students using various common items that were already familiar to them.  Once we felt that the children had reasonably grasped these basic concepts, they were then asked to apply what was just discovered to their own activities.  These other activities included the following:  

The students were “directed”, by myself, as they played the Theremin.  This permitted them to experience a real-time reactive situation whereby my movements and gestures were interpreted by them for translation into sound with the Theremin.  It also introduced them to the idea of directing others in a performance.

The students acted as “conductor” or “director” as they led me during a performance. This permitted them to take on the role of a leader, as they were required to make decisions at the spur of the moment, decisions that would directly influence the type of sound that was created.

Several demonstrations of various physical phenomena were presented, using household and found objects, for example a blender, balloons, food colors, fruit, etc.  Such demonstrations were intended to show how kinetic energy and forces combine in different ways, with different results.  For example, using a blender, bananas were mixed with food coloring, showing how kinetic energy can be used to combine colors of varying degrees and textures; a balloon was used to demonstrate how sound is created by intense air pressure, and how the sound changes depending on the amount of pressure applied to the air in the balloon.  Such activities served as reference points for some of the children as they invented and imagined their own sound-images.

A class outing to a Jazz concert/presentation at a local theater took place, where members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed, and then later explained, what is meant by improvising during a performance.  The students were introduced to a live situation of professionals in action, demonstrating their craft.

Creativity and the Environment

    The raw materials for music, or any creative endeavor, consists of elements that are part of our culture, history, and environment, in addition to our own imagination.  Indeed, the environment constantly influences and supplements the imagination - we are immersed in and by the environment in which we live and act.  In a very real sense, the environment itself is an integral part of the creative work, or at the very least,  part of the situation during the act of creation.  Exposure to the possibilities of the environment expands and enhances the choices that are presented to the student, permitting a more involved and proactive experience, one in which interactivity plays a larger role.  An improvisational tone is introduced, where boundaries become less defined, and elements of risk and chance play a part, in the moment and in real time

Reactions and Impressions

A few comments and impressions by the students after having been engaged in the various activities:

    “…I didn’t know I could just scribble with a pencil and it would make a sound.” Andy C.

    “…Why were we learning about sounds?”  Caitlin C.

    “…[the Theremin] copies the sound that your hand made like a cage.”   Joe P.

    “…The Theremin was funny.”  Brittany G.

    “…I didn’t know that there was anything that could make sound like that.”  Caitlynn E.

 

The following summarizes the major parts of the project and the activities with which the students are involved:

Engagement with Abstractions

This part of the project primarily consists of engaging the students in an activity that requires them to utilize their imagination by developing associations between sound, image, movement and representations of each.  An electronic musical instrument, the Theremin, is the focal point of the students' activities.  This electronic instrument, unlike other electronic or acoustic instruments, permits the user to invoke a sound without having to touch the instrument.  [[ This unique quality provides the entry point for a concentrated effort placed on any abstract notions that accompany movement, sound, and images. ]]  By asking the students to provide representative drawings of the sounds they will create with the instrument, as well as the movements they will use to produce these sounds, they are hopefully given the opportunity to connect these different - yet very much related - areas of expression.  By recognizing that sound is the raw material for music, movement is the raw material for dance, and colors and shapes are the raw materials for pictures, the intent of this portion of the project is to show the student that such materials are all within their reach for their own creative application.  The following contains a brief description of an activity the student is asked to perform:

The students are asked to invent a sound that they imagine.  They are then asked to draw a picture that describes this sound.  Various concepts and terms typically encountered in a musical context are introduced to inspire and aid the students in their descriptions and sound representations.  The students are then asked to "perform" their sound on the Theremin instrument.