Originally published in Minion Feeding 101, November 14, 2015
“We are the Music Makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
These opening lines of the Arthur O’Shaughnessy, poem “Ode,” were the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the title card for ThinkFun’s musical learning product, Compose Yourself.
The cards were created by celebrated maestro, composer and cellist Philip Sheppard, who said he created the product with one goal in mind:
“This is a labour of love aimed at one single, simple point; that is to enable a child to feel (with goosebumps) that a bar of music can have the potential of a Lego block,” he said.
This is a very simple premise that opens up a vast pool of creativity. The product itself consists only of 60 transparent note cards, a simple instruction booklet, and a pull-string carrying bag. The entire thing is contained in a box small enough to be a stocking stuffer, but the worlds of musical inspiration it opens up are outstanding.
Plus, it is overwhelmingly easy to use.
The title card contains a code to log into and register on the Compose Yourself sit. Using the cards, users can put together a musical composition. Each card has four ways its notes can be played, with a coinciding number designation for each note pattern. Once at least four cards are plugged in (although the piece can be longer), it can be played back with marimba style, orchestra, or a combination of both sounds. The composer can then go back, add, or change cards, move them around and refine the piece.
Once completed, they can name their piece, print out the sheet music so they can play it offline, share it via email and social media, and (if using a desktop computer) download an MP3. The cards work with both desktop and tablet devices, but not with mobile phones.
Sheppard described one of his own struggles working on a particular piece as a reason for creating these cards.
“(Late) one night, I was working on some music for a film and I was stuck,” he said. “I thought to myself, what would Bach or Mozart do? Well, they would take a few notes and turn them upside down or backwards until their musical lines danced across the page, through an orchestra right into your heart and soul.”
He then found a piece of transparent paper on his desk and tried this idea out. By being able to physically flip these notes around so quickly, he ended up writing three pieces that night. And so, the seeds of Compose Yourself were planted.
My biggest complaint with this product is that it didn’t come around sooner.
When my oldest was in fifth grade, she was active in both choir and her beginner guitar club at school. Unfortunately, her experience in music class was so frustrating it nearly poisoned her love of music. There was nothing wrong with the instructor (who was also her guitar and choir teacher), but this particular year was the dreaded “Recorder Class.” This simple plastic woodwind-meets-whistle has been the way music teachers have taught beginning music concepts for ages. Somehow, my daughter just couldn’t master even the simplest song on it.
Whether she couldn’t synchronize her fingers with the right holes, or whether the sound just didn’t move her, she became more and more bitter (and at times downright angry) with the instrument. She did learn enough to earn a good grade at the end of the year, but grew to hate the instrument so much when her class performed a end-of-the-year recorder concert, she found me in the audience as her class filed back out of the “cafetorium,” deliberately got out of her line to approach me, and defiantly planted the recorder in my lap.
“There! I’m done,” she said, as she hurried back in line, relieved to be rid of her musical bane.
What if, just what if, I had said, “Why not write your own piece to practice with; one the shows your frustration with this instrument?”
She would have loved that, I think.
Having access to Compose Yourself might have been a simple way to do this, making the experience so much better.
To find out how much this product would inspire, I had both my daughters (and myself) create some personal compositions. The outcomes, not to mention the reactions from my girls, were much more impressive than I would have thought.
My youngest, 6-year-old Erin, tried first.
Using an iPad, we sat at the kitchen table while she insisted on putting together a song without our suggestions. Her face upon first seeing her result was priceless, and she named her piece “Angel Songs” because they “sounded like angels,” and she liked hearing it in both the Marimba and Orchestra/Marimba combined versions.
“I felt is was neat that I got to hear my song, and I want to listen to it everyday,” Erin told me. “I like having the printed paper that has the musical notes. That was really cool.”
She told me she wanted to share her song with her choir teacher in church (a member of the local symphony orchestra), so he can play it for her on his guitar.
“I love my song,” she said. “It sounds like an angel playing an angel song and drum, and I want to play with (the music cards) for a long time.”
Since using a tablet devise prevented her from being able to create an MP3, she really wanted to make sure she was able to save her song later using a desktop. I told her when she finishes her homework each day, she can create a new piece. Being able use something educational as an incentive for taking her school work seriously is appreciated.
Listen to Erin’s “Angel Songs” here.
My 13-year-old (and former recorder curmudgeon), Molly, used the desktop computer to create her piece. The age 13 is a tough one when it comes to getting them excited about something, but she really wanted to try this product. After kicking little sister out of the office so she could concentrate, she composed a piece she called “Into The Garden.”
She said this piece was “really fun to create and compose.”
“You can create up to four lines with your own music,” Molly said. “It can help teach people to write and compose their own music. It can also help to calm down and relieve stress. I thought that it was a good idea for teachers to try out in a class for a lesson or anything related to this subject.”
One of her favorite things, was being able to create an MP3, and putting it on her iTunes list among some of her favorite artists. In the days of digital downloads, this made her feel she was a worthy musician. I was happy to see her love for making music was still intact.
Listen to Molly’s “Into The Garden” here.
Finally, I had to try this myself, and created a song for (and about) my young composers: “Two Daughters.”
I won’t go into to too much “composer notes” details, but this piece takes me through a day of being woken up by the over-enthusiastic six-year-old, the sluggish awakening of the young teen, the manic mornings, sibling bickering and laughter, and the calm-downtime at the end of the day. One thing I wanted to work with was repeating certain note patterns to hold it together. Not too bad for my first digi-composing attempt.
Listen to my “Two Daughters” here.
I will say this: the game suggests age 6 and older, but adults will find it addictive as well. This was a very relaxing and fun process, and one which will be repeated often by my family.
— Story and Images by Lisa Kay Tate
— Music composed by Erin, Molly and Lisa Tate.