“Sound Like An Animal” Music and Art for your Wild Ones

February school vacation week has the potential to be the bogey man of a museum programming calendar.  Attendance is seriously weather dependent, weather is seriously unpredictable, and in one week you can have a day with over 2,000 people one day and under 200 the next.  Fortunately, despite some habitually inconvenient New England weather, we had a great week of vacation programming inspired by Beyond Human and from here to ear (the one with the live finches and the electric guitars!)

In addition to great performances and presentations by Curious Creatures, The Loon Lady, Jackson Gillman, and Steve Lechner from The Science Works, we had a lot of fun with our drop-in activities inspired by animal sounds.  We made ‘sonar shakers,’ bull roarers, and bird calls, and people showed a lot of creativity in their decoration of particularly the last two!

Set up for making bird calls: we dispensed rosin from the staff supply table to prevent it from going in small mouths

Set up for making bird calls: we dispensed rosin from the staff supply table to prevent it from going in small mouths

Final bird calls hanging up to dry, ready for a nature walk

Final bird calls hanging up to dry, ready for a nature walk

Painted bullroarers.  Helpful tip: the shorter the string, the easier it is to make that great low buzzing noise!

Painted bullroarers. Helpful tip: the shorter the string, the easier it is to make that great low buzzing noise!

If you’re interested in the directions and background information from these activities, feel free to download the pdf with everything you need! Sounds Like an Animal Activity Directions

Happy Trails: A Year of Stories and Art

Once a month, I lead Story Trails, a program for families on Sunday afternoons that’s targeted for kids ages 5-8 with their accompanying adults.  We look closely at an artwork in one of the exhibits, read an associated story, and then head for a studio space (or other safe art-making zone) and create something inspired by the artwork, the story’s theme, the illustration style, or the associated science/history/literature component.  (Remember how my middle name is ‘interdisciplinary?’) Along with whatever their creation is, participants (including adults, because grown ups get to play too) take home a set of other recommended books, interesting web links, and an activity to try at home.  Sometimes we also have special guest speakers, generally local authors and illustrators, with the occasional bee-keeper or lobster fisherman.

It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of work, and it’s one of my favorite programs, so I thought I would share the books and art activities that I loved most from this year.

January: The Spiral Connection
Book: Blockhead, the Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese
Exhibition Connection: Ripple Effect, the Art of H2O
Art Making: Wall hangings with Fibonacci prints – we used flowers (both silk and cut flowers will do, flatter ones like sunflowers and daisies are better), pinecones, and seashells with fabric paint on plain white bandanas (available at most craft stores), to make printed patterns that feature examples of the Fibonacci sequence in nature, and then added extra decorations with fabric markers, and hung the bandanas on dowels to create easy-to-hang fabric art for your wall.
January Story Trails handout-small

I love the 'turning page' look that our creative services team designed to differentiate Story Trails programming from other museum events.

I love the ‘turning page’ look that our creative services team designed to differentiate Story Trails programming from other museum events.

February: Read the Stars
Book: How the Stars Fell into the Sky by Jerrie Oughton (retelling of a Navajo Coyote story, which is traditionally only told in the winter months)
Exhibition Connection: Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art
Art Making: Constellation Light Boxes – We talked about creation stories and specifically constellation stories, and then used awls and sharpened dowels to punch holes in shoe boxes to create our own (or recreate known) constellation patterns.  We then added a hole in whatever side of the box was opposite the constellation pattern to either a) hold up to our eye and then up to the light to see the stars ‘shine’ or b) put a bright flashlight into and project the star pattern into a darkened room.
February Story Trails handout

March: Cloud Factory and Guest Appearance by Illustrator Katy Bratun
BookSector 7 by David Weisner
Exhibition Connection: the concept of storyboarding in art, as exemplified by a series of paintings of a battle in the Maritime Art collection
Art Making: Katy Bratun led a story-boarding workshop in which kids drew a series of 4-8 panels of a story on the theme of taking a journey, and bound them into a simple book using card stock and yarn.  This was a great literacy-skills support program and kids were very, very excited to share their stories with a real author/illustrator.
March Story Trails handout

April: Weslandia
Book: Weslandia by Paul Fleischman
Exhibition Connection: Earth Day, and an incredibly cool bit of textile art on view in Perfect Imbalance: Exploring Chinese Aesthetics that featured pumpkins, ears of corn, and tomatoes as exotic fruits
Art Making: Butterfly Seed Mats — We used burlap, white glue, and butterfly seed mix to create biodegradable bits of art that you could plant in a corner of your garden and grow wildflowers to attract butterflies.  Simple but incredibly effective.  This book happened to be requested in the previous year’s visitor survey, and happily was already on my list for potential programming.
April Story Trails handout copy

May: Sing a Song for Mothers and Family!
Book: Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke
Exhibition Connection: Mother’s Day, and inspired by both the African Art collection and PEM’s ceramics collection
Art Making: Good Cheer Jars – We mod-podged tissue paper and other bits of recycled paper onto glass jars to create good cheer jars.  A good cheer jar can work any of several ways: a) a semi-voluntary fine paid when one is in a bad mood, the proceeds from which are then used to do something cheery for the family like a trip out for ice cream, b) a collection of slips of paper on which you write things that make you happy and pull one out to read when you need cheering up, c) a mandatory fine for using the household’s forbidden words like ‘I’m bored.’
May Story Trails handout copy

sand serpent

My Sea-Monster sand painting, which is still on display over my desk.

June: Beneath the Deep Blue Sea
Book: The Serpent Came to Gloucester by M.T. Anderson
Exhibition Connection: Local history and the Maritime Art collection
Art Making: Sea-Monster Sand Paintings — Using pre-cut mattes, construction paper, white liquid glue, sand, pebbles, and small sea shells and bits of sea glass, we created maritime-inspired natural collages.  Some of them got very, very intricate, particularly those who decided to make mosaics of sea glass.  This was one of my personal favorite art activities, and many of the adults who were at the program participated with gusto.
June Story Trails handout

Illustration from The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

Illustration from The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton

July: What a Bright Idea!
Book: The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton
Exhibition Connection: Contemporary art in the Japanese Art collection
Art Making: Day-Glo (and Glow-in-the-Dark) Paintings — Using black construction paper, day-glo poster paint, and some very cool glow-in-the-dark paint, we created scenes that looked awesome in general and even better under the light of our interactive black light box.  We also had samples of varying materials that kids could test to see whether or not they would react with the black light and start to glow, including beads, assorted fabrics, gelatinous substances (in safe containers), and assorted paper products.  This was one of the year’s most popular programs.
July Story Trails handout copy

August: What Does the Clay Say?
Book: Dave the Potter, Artist, Poet, Slave by Bryan Collier and Laban Carrick Hill
Exhibition Connection: Ceramics in the American Art collection
Art Making: Experimenting with Clay – Though the idea was to start with pinch pots and some coil-building, clay programs always take on a life of their own.  Some people made pots, others branched out into sculpture and beyond.  Everyone had a fabulous time, including some adults who had missed the story and had no kids, but wanted to come work with clay anyway.
August Story Trails handout copy

September: Hats Off To You!
Book: Miss Hunnicutt’s Hat by Jeff Brumbeau
Exhibition Connection: Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones
Art Making: Decorate a hatbox – We used 12″ cake boxes from ULine, which fold into very decent sized hatboxes and are easy to decorate with colored pencil, stickers, collaged recycled material, and crayon.
Sept Story Trails handout copy

October: Canine Crusader
Book: Dex – The Heart of a Hero by Caralyn Buehner (alternate title Superdog)
Exhibition Connection: Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones and the Caps, Capes, and Characters weekend festival (organized by me)
Art Making: Superhero capes with interchangeable emblems – We used SmartFab and craft foam with adhesive velcro dots to create capes (I cut each cape to length to suit children individually), and discussed designing emblems that suited their personalities for their superhero alter egos.  The velcro made it possible to rearrange or replace emblems later.
Oct Story Trails handout copy

Detail from the Pastrana tapestries

Detail from the Pastrana tapestries

November: Oh What a Knight!
Book: The Knight and the Dragon by Tomie dePaola and The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke
Exhibition Connection: The Invention of Glory: Alfonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries and the Weaving Tales of Glory weekend festival (also organized by me)
Art Making: Tournament pennants — More SmartFab and back to fabric paint — we created jousting pennants inspired by the fabulous examples in the Pastrana Tapestries and the illustrations in both books.
Nov Story Trails handout copy

December: A Patient Brush
Book: Twenty Heartbeats by Dennis Haseley
Exhibition Connection: Perfect Imbalance: Exploring Chinese Aesthetics
Art Making: Chinese brush painting – We used rice paper (available at ACMoore or less expensively from Dick Blick), Chinese calligraphy brushes, and red and black watercolor paint, with examples from ‘how to’ books on traditional brush painting style.
Dec Story Trails handout copy

A Dynamic Mess of Jingling Things

Despite my oft-stated claim that I find just about everything interesting, I can honestly say that I’ve never been a big fan of quantum physics, except as a useful bit of technobabble in some of my favorite science fiction.  However, what Geordi LaForge, Samantha Carter, and John Crichton hadn’t quite convinced me of, a handful of *real* scientists with the assistance of the Symphony of Science did.  I now really want to go find out what those ’12 particles of matter, 4 forces of energy’ are, and meanwhile, like Rachel Maddow, I can’t stop humming this song.  Enjoy!

More Physics Fun:

“Multiverse” theory suggested by microwave background — My favorite sci-fi plotline strikes again, but this time with the weight of real science behind it, courtesy of the BBC

Exploratorium Science Snacks by Subject — One of my go-to spots for cool experiments with everyday activities.  No quantum physics there, but lots to explore with the 4 forces of energy!

Star Wars Ice and Scientific Mermaid Song: Exploring Sound

My anonymous tipmaster sent me a very cool video earlier this week showcasing the universality of the pentatonic scale.  (Bear with me: it means that anywhere in the world, people watching Bobby McFerrin jump around a stage can actually sing on pitch and together with almost no instruction).  This incredibly cool exploration of sound, music, and the way we think  reminded me that I’d been collecting some very fun sound-related links to share with you here on Brain Popcorn.

A Not So ‘Silent World’

Diving in New England is a relatively quiet business.  Most of the time, it’s your air bubbles, your dive buddy’s air bubbles, and the occasional scrape of gear on rock that accompanies you in the deep.  But not always, and not elsewhere.  Diving in the USVI a few years ago I was thrilled and startled to be surrounded by what seemed like a chorus of marine Morse code, and was informed that there were ‘very talkative shrimp’ on that particular reef.  A recent report highlighted by the Smithsonian suggests “A Noisy Reef is a Healthy Reef,” which is a fascinating new look at ways to measure the health of communities in endangered waters.

For most of us, the ‘sound of ice’ is skates carving up the surface, or possibly that sharp pop you get when you drop an ice cube into a glass of lukewarm juice.  If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the land of glaciers and icebergs, maybe you also think of the great rumble and splash of a calving glacier.  But what about a lake in winter?  Thoreau certainly noticed interesting sounds at his spot by Walden Pond:

The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature. One pleasant morning after a
cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of my axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods
around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head. The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun’s rays slanted upon it from over the hills; it stretched
itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. It took a short siesta at noon, and boomed once more toward night, as the sun was
withdrawing his influence. In the right stage of the weather a pond fires its evening gun with great regularity.

Read more from Thoreau’s Walden here.

If you can’t make it out to a pond when the weather is perfect, then listen to some amazing ice sounds from the warmth of your own desk, with sound artist Andreas Bick’s recordings, or check out compositions played on instruments made of ice by Terje Isungset.

Sounds Like a Fairytale

The Voice of the Little Mermaid — How might the Little Mermaid have sounded under water?  If, like certain people who shall remain nameless, you’ve ever tried humming in the swimming pool to find out, here’s a way to explore a little further.  An opera singer has actually performed most of an opera, singing underwater, and discusses her technique and the changes in the sound at the link above.  Very cool–but hard on the costumes, I should think!

Ladle Rat Rotten Hut – Did you ever notice that when listening to the radio or the TV in the background, you could still get a sense of the meaning even without catching all the words?  Try reading this intro to “Little Red Riding Hood” aloud with a ‘storytelling voice’ and see how far you get.  Listen to the narrator on the Exploratorium’s page if you’re stumped, and find the rest of the story there too.

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.

Synapses in Rhythm: Music and Brains

There’s a lot of research out there about the effect music has on the brain, and there are a fair number of misconceptions, too.  I’m not tackling the whole Baby Mozart thing here, just interested in sharing a few music-related articles that I find fascinating, plus (as always) a few good ways to play.

Babies are pre-programmed to dance and to enjoy it, research by the University of York has shown.

The study of 120 children aged between five months and two years found that babies spontaneously started moving to music and rhythmic beats.

Scientists also found that the better the children were at moving in time with the music, the more they smiled.

It is not known why humans have developed this predisposition, researchers said.

And here’s the rest of the article for your enjoyment and edification…Because you never know when ‘baby dance’ may pop up in casual conversation.

C'mon, doesn't that just make your day? Photo credit to benrybobenry on Flickr

For a denser look at what’s popping in the brainpan, I recommend How The Arts Develop The Young Brain.  And this month there was a neat article on a rock song writing/performance pilot program for middle schoolers in Littleton, MA which was a truly interdisciplinary project.

I also ran across a fascinating blog post this past winter over on Arts Journal about whether or not there’s a benefit to watching musicians while listening to music, or watching something tangentially related.  In this visually dominated culture I think it’s interesting to contemplate whether what you look at while you listen impacts the way you hear the same way it’s been demonstrated that what you hear influences your impression of what you’re seeing.

Music’s interesting to read about, better to listen to, and best yet to play, so if you haven’t picked up an instrument for a while (or ever) but have a hankering for raindrops, chimes, and rhythm, check out Andre Michelle’s  Pulsate, a compose-your-own virtual musical accident.  Or Tonematrix by the same artist, which allows you to build chords and adjust or remove notes in a more controlled way, for those of you who prefer deliberate composing to the pleasant effects of randomness.  The whole site is actually worth poking about in, if you  have the time: there are guitar and synthesizer activities, simple composition by pinwheel, and a number of other neat sound-related experiments and ideas.

Feeling inspired?  Directions for traditional kids’ craft level homemade instruments are here.  If you were intrigued by the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra I mentioned a few posts back, here are directions on how to make a Carrot Strummer and an Eggplant Clapper.

Want more plant-produced music?  Check out the Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra (kudos to my coworker for finding these guys!).

Music, Accidentally On Purpose

*waves* Hello All!  I have returned from my trip to Italy and essentially recovered from the Italian cold I brought back with me, and I’m back on track to keep bringing you fresh Brain Popcorn.  Today’s post celebrates unusual music.

ASIMO conducts the Detroit Symphony. Click for story.

Music is a great interdisciplinary doorway.  Though I ran as far as possible from the calculations necessary for the ‘physics of music’ class they offered in undergrad, the fact remains that music and physics *are* closely linked, and so are music and art, music and history, music and literature, music and myth, music and….you get the refrain.  Today we’re going to focus on a few science connections.

Gravity Makes Music!

Gravité from Renaud Hallée: check out some very cleverly edited percussion work with falling tennis balls, forks and knives, televisions, basketballs, and light sticks.  It reminds me a lot of the number “Trashing the Camp” by Phil Collins, from Disney’s Tarzan.  (Thanks to Rob over on Politics et Alia Sensae for the heads up!)

For a slightly more complicated set of interactions (with some entertaining moments and some real physics –there’s a Newton’s Cradle in there!) check out the Rube-Goldberg-inspired “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go.  Once you’ve watched it once and have stopped laughing, go again and keep your eyes out for levers, weights and counterweights, wedges, and a number of other simple machines.

Vegetables as instruments?

Well, it beats eating them… If you missed my earlier link to the ViennaVegetable Orchestra, here it is.  This is a great way to talk about materials engineering (what qualities are they looking for when they pick their vegetables?  How do they change those materials to get the sound they want?), and also just to discuss the ways people make noise (beating, blowing through a tube or over a tube, plucking, shaking…how do these veggie instruments resemble or differ from what a regular orchestra/band/jam session uses?).

Did you know? The palm cockatoo is known to beat hollow logs with sticks to make loud drumming sounds. ~courtesy of @AMNH, the American Museum of Natural History’s Twitter feed

Animal Music–apparently not confined to cetaceans and songbirds!  (Does anybody else have the lines from Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb running through their heads yet?  “Many more monkeys drumming on drums! Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum!”)

Earth Music

Luray Caverns Stalacpipe

The Stalacpipe Organ at Luray Caverns, photo from their website

Three years/2500 attempts = 37 formations/5 octaves = The Stalacpipe Organ.  There are so many cool paths you can take from here, looking at caves and earth science, spelunking, Virginia history, invention of musical instruments, more math and physics of sound, inspiration for creating your own tube-length-instruments.  Or just check out the site for Luray Caverns and play the audio clip.

And finally, for sheer amusement value, “Flight of the Bumblebee” played on an iPad.  Is this cheating?   Having played this piece on the flute, I’m going to say yes.  If you’re not out of breath by the end, it doesn’t count.  🙂

Plum Blossoms, Bamboo, and Pine Sprigs

Welcome in Lunar New Year with the spirit of friendship (as represented by the flower arrangement above) and with an arrangement of my own suggestions for cool resources and activities.

Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year Parade, Chinatown, New York City 2009, photo by ho_hokus

History and Culture

A brief but interesting collection of information on the New Year as celebrated in China, from the University of Victoria

A nice resizeable map of China, with or without more detailed information, from National Geographic

Asia-Art.Net, a collection of really beautiful examples from several cultures, organized by medium or by culture.


Why is it Lunar New Year?  Observing the Moon, from Science NetLinks

Arts and Crafts

Disney’s family activities offer up some fun and easy decorations for the holiday: a festive ribbon dragon, a beautiful lacy banner, and a good-luck goldfish.

The Smithsonian strikes again!  (I love these guys as much as I love National Geographic!) The Sackler and Freer Museums are home to the Smithsonian’s Asian collections, and they have both Chinese centric and Across Asia teacher resources as part of their larger set of Online Guides.

Theater and Music

Two fabulous resources from the Kennedy Center’s Artsedge:

Puppets on the Move: China and the Silk Road and

The Sounds of China Pod Page, with music to listen to and connected information and activities.


Also from the Kennedy Center, Chinese Calligraphy and Ink Painting

And finally, from Read-Write-Think, which is run by the National Council of Teachers of English, a very cool Fairy Tale Autobiographies lesson plan, which uses Chinese tales but could be adapted for pretty much any culture.

Not enough?  Then come celebrate with the Peabody Essex Museum, on Saturday February 27! (Chances are very good you’ll find me making paper lanterns in East India Marine Hall…)