Category Archives: Education

Artist Projects 2016: Shag

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What kind of party would he have if he stopped by The Winchester Tavern during the zombie apocalypse? Image: Lisa Kay Tate

The Artist: Shag

“Shag” is the name So-Cal artist Josh Agle, created by taking the last two letters of his first name and first two letters of his last name, and merging them together into one nifty moniker.

He was born in 1962 in Southern California, and lived in such varied places as Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Utah growing up. He studied both accounting and architecture at California State University in Long Beach, and eventually decided to be an “illustrator for hire.” However, his sleek, mid-century style began to receive more and more attention from art lovers and galleries. Since his first solo show in 1997, Shag’s work has made its way into solo and group exhibits worldwide, been featured on everything from pillows to purses, album covers to lanterns, and he has gained legions of loyal fans.

His subject matter ranges from adult-oriented stories in lounges and parties, to family-friendly images, including many commissions for Disneyland and other high-profile clients. There are often well-known commercial logos, famous bars and buildings, and tourist attractions, all in his simple, colorful, retro style.

Whether worthy of a cocktail lounge or family theme park, Shag’s images are always filled with color and life. Images: Lisa Kay Tate (left), and D.M. Short via Creative Commons.

Whether worthy of a cocktail lounge or family theme park, Shag’s images are always filled with color and life. Images: Lisa Kay Tate (left), and D.M. Short via Creative Commons.

His work can be seen in shows and collections worldwide, or at his own stores in West Hollywood and Palm Springs.

Many fans of the mid-century style recognize Shag’s laid-back swingers, barflies, tikis, and retro families, but Shag himself has said these people and places are secondary to the tale they tell, as quoted in a bio the book Tiki Art Now! curated by Otto von Stroheim:

“Most of my paintings are set in the middle of a story or situation,” he said. “[The] characters are interacting or reacting to each other in the outside elements.”

“Date Night” by Lisa Kay Tate.

“Date Night” by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Project: Groovy Tales of Make Believe Away Places

Painting a Shag-style picture isn’t just about style, it is about storytelling. Shag has said he is more interested in the “narrative” of the story than just the scenery, so this is a perfect chance to tell a swingin’ story from outer space, after a zombie invasion, or in any other alternate world.

With this project, think about telling a Shag-like narrative in an out-of-this-world scene. What’s happening at the party on Mos Eisley? Who is hanging out on the U.S.S. Enterprise holodeck? What’s happening at the harvest fest in Hobbiton? Throw a party anywhere you want, and tell its story in a Shag-like environment.

From looking at Shag’s imagery, there are three things that seem to stand out.

• His people are very simple. The eyes are often variations on black dots, their bodies are often lanky and lean, and their clothes are never too complicated. If you look closely at his subjects’ hands, he often uses the cartoonist’s trick of drawing only four fingers (including the thumb). The trick is, don’t just let them stand there, give them something to do. Put them out there, and let them mingle a bit.

Take a look at Shag’s simple way of painting figures and faces (left) to create a Mid-Century style in your own characters (right). Image compilation: Lisa Kay Tate

Take a look at Shag’s simple way of painting figures and faces (left) to create a Mid-Century style in your own characters (right). Image compilation: Lisa Kay Tate

• He doesn’t use outlines. Draw your picture in a thin pencil first, but color it in with marker, colored pencil, crayon or paint avoiding any black lines around the edges. This can include both patterned or solid colors, but no black cartoon or illustration style outlines.

• Make the background fun and colorful, adding some details that help tell the story. Is the sun setting, or rising? Are they in a person’s home or a public place? Is there a band playing in the back, or surfer in the foreground? Shag loves hanging fixtures, random pets and animals, wall art, pools, plants, and countless other patterns and details that help set the scene without over-complicating things.

To really appreciate Shag’s world, take a look at the details behind the main characters in his work (left). What would you add to your worlds? (right). Image compilation: Lisa Kay Tate

To really appreciate Shag’s world, take a look at the details behind the main characters in his work (left). What would you add to your worlds? (right). Image compilation: Lisa Kay Tate

Make it lively. Make it colorful. Make it deceivingly simple.

Most of all, make it fun! Shag’s art loves a good party, so blast off,  have a ball, and draw your favorite subjects. Shag said in an interview with the site Art Beat Street, there is a little of himself in all he does.

“I relate to all the characters in my paintings,” he said. “I think they all contain a little bit of my personality.”

Originally ran in GeekMom July 6, 2016.

Artist Projects 2016: Dale Chihuly

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What if glass artist Dale Chihuly was commissioned for famous sites like Starfleet Academy? Image: Lisa Kay Tate

The Artist: Dale Chihuly

Dale Chihuly is likely one of the best-known, and best loved, living glass artists today, with his bright-colored, architectural installations found world wide. He has been exhibiting his work continuously since 1967, and has been featured in museums around the globe.

He was born in 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, and first learned about working with glass when he was studying interior design at the University of Washington.

 He really began exploring the world of environmental works with materials like neon and blown glass when he first enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in 1967, and also received a Fulbright Fellowship to work at the Venini glass factory in Venice, Italy.

His smaller works include glass cylinders inspired by Native American textiles, “Seaforms” glass pieces, a Venetian series of Art Deco inspired vases, and one of latest series, Rotolo, creating complex forms from a simple coil of clear glass.

Chihuly’s work has inspired others for several years. In 1971, he co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School artist-in-residence program in a Washington tree farm, using primitive conditions and the minimal materials. The site still serves as an international center of art education. Other early projects include the Artpark in New York state, near Niagara Falls, which utilized colored sheets of glass in simple arrangements.

Chihuly is especially recognizable for his installations and commissioned work in hotels, theatres, parks, cruise ships and other high-profile venues world wide, including creating the set of an opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. His outdoor installations, are particularly popular, as they seem to give the surrounding area surreal or fantasy-like feeling with flowing ribbons and coils, floating orbs, spikes, glass blossom-like shapes and other brightly hued, blown-glass forms.

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Dale Chiluly is best known for his vibrant and bright blown glass installations found all over the world, like “The Sun” found in Kew Gardens, and his chandelier at Victoria and Albert Museum, both in London. Images by Adrian Pingstone and Patche99z (Public Domain). Artist image: Erik Charlton, Flickr Creative Commons.

In addition to his glass works, he has worked on paper with graphite, charcoal, acrylic, and more. His permanent installations can be found everywhere, including the Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio, the Glass Art Garden in Tayoma City. One of his exhibitions, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem, drew more than 1 million visitors to the Tower of David museum to see his works.

Chihuly is still releasing prints, hosting workshops and creating installations. He is often asked what his favorite project is, and answered that on his official website, saying he has worked in “many great projects” over the years including Chihuly Over Venice and Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000, and his work in Seattle at Chihluly Garden and Glass.

 However, Chihuly has decided to keep his options open for now.

“Perhaps,” he said, “the next project will be my favorite.”

The Project: Flying Colors

Chihuly, although very different in style from fellow well-known present day artist Maya Lin, also takes advantage of the environment for which a piece is intended.

His use of color, form, shape and even lighting effect work with the surrounding atmosphere to both enhance and celebrate it, whether in a natural setting or building.

With this simple project, we’ll creative small-scale replica of what a Chihuly installation might light look if commissioned by a fictional school, headquarters, military base or other famous location.

This method is similar to those many elementary art teachers use as Chihuly projects, but the secret is in the color. The color scheme and design for an installation on the stark, floating environment of Empire Strikes Back’s Cloud City might be very different that the glowing natural world of Avatar’s Pandora. Would an exhibition at Hogwarts highlight the various House Colors? Would a one at Starfleet headquarters symbolize uniform colors? What if he did a piece for the TARDIS? Would it be the famous blue, or look more like the wardrobe of the Doctors?

Since blown glass isn’t a method that can be learned for a summer afternoon family crafts, here are two ways to create Chihuly-inspired looks using upcycled water bottles and plastic party ware:

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Hanging Gardens of Pandora.

The “Coils”

Color the outside of clear (clean and dry) water bottles in the desired hues, and gently cut off the bottom. Adults might want to get it started for younger crafters. Next, cut around the bottle, in a coil fashion so it resembles a spring or curly hair.

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Plastic water bottles colored with felt tip markers or suncatcher paint, can be cut in coils and arranged for Chihuly-style chandelier.

You can leave the top of the bottle in place and lace a string or pipe cleaner through it for hanging, or cut off the top, and lace the coil through a hanging thin chain. These also can be mounted on wooden posts, long wrapping paper tubes, hanging wire baskets, or just from fishing line or floral wire.

Remember, think about where this is going to go, and think of a color scheme or design to best suit it.

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The Monster University Quad art

The “Plates”

Using permanent markers, paint clear plastic plates or clear plastic cups the desired hues. Thinner plastic items are easier. Place them on a cookie sheet lined with foil, and bake at about 350° for a few minutes, until the plastic warp it like blown glass. This can take from 1 to 2 to about five minutes, depending to on the plastic. Keep and eye on it, and don’t bake it too long.

This is also good way to utilize the bottom of the water bottles used for the coil method, instead of plates.

Once painted and melted, arrange these in the pattern you want, glue them on a flat piece of balsa wood or corrugated cardboard. If you use a glue gun, place the glue on the board, as it may continue to warp the plastic a little.

This work might not be as detailed as Chihuly’s blown glass pieces. His own advice for young artists is to remain inspired by others, yet follow one’s own visions:

“Surround yourself with artists and see as much art as possible,” he says. “Go with your gut and create something that nobody has ever seen before.”

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Clear plastic like plates, cups and water bottle bottoms can be melted to resemble shapes inspired by Chihuly’s baskets and Seaforms

Artist Projects 2016: Grandma Moses

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Grandma Moses in Westeros? Image: “On The Night Watch” by Lisa Kay Tate

Originally ran in my summer Be The Artist series for GeekMom.com on June 10, 2016.

The Artist: Grandma Moses

Most people might not know painter Anna Mary Robertson, but they know Grandma Moses (Robertson’s nome d’arte) as one of the most influential folk artists of the Twentieth Century.

Moses was born in 1860 in Greenwich, New York, and spent most of her life working on farms. She was one of 10 children, educated in a one-room schoolhouse (where she discovered she loved painting), and left home at 12 to work for a wealthy families doing chores on their farm. One family, who noticed her interest in some Currier & Ives prints in their home, even purchased her some crayons and chalk.

She met her husband, Thomas Moses, at age 27 when they were both working on the same farm. They spent their first 20 years of marriage working on four different farms, while Moses made potato chips and butter for extra income. They were eventually able to purchase their own farm. This wasn’t an easy life. The couple had 10 children, but five of them died in infancy.

In 1927, after 40 years of marriage, Thomas passed away. By the mid 1930s Moses was devoting much of her time to the peaceful pastime of painting, as arthritis was preventing her from doing embroidery. She concentrated on images of rural life, from everyday events and chores to seasonal holidays, and her works were filled with activity and motion. In 1938 an art collector ran across her work, and in her late 70s Grandma Moses began her new life as a soon-to-be world famous artist.

She was often known as “Mother Moses,” “Mrs. Moses,” and what eventually became her most famous moniker, “Grandma Moses.”

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Grandma Moses’ “Sugaring Off” (right), sold years after her death for $1.2 million, and a postage stamp was created in her honor in 1969. Images are Public Domain.

She didn’t start painting until late in life, but this doesn’t mean she didn’t enjoy a good run as an artist. During her career she created more than 1,500 works of art, wrote an autobiography, won several awards, and received two honorary doctorates.

On her 100th birthday, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared Sept. 7, 1960 “Grandma Moses Day,” and played piano for this influential artist. Her health was already declining, however, and she for lived a little more than a year, passing away in December of 1961 at age 101. In 2006, one of her most famous paintings, Sugaring Off, sold for $1.2 million. Not bad considering she sold her first paintings for around five bucks.

Her long life and successful art career reflected her charming, happy, and lively nature. This life philosophy was summed up in her autobiography, My Life’s History.

“I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered,” she said. “And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

The Project: Grandma Moses visits….

Grandma Moses was what is known in the art world as a “primitive” or “naïve” artist which, in the simplest terms, is an artist with no formal art background. In other words, she was completely self-taught.

When she was a girl, she painted her earliest landscapes using lemon or grape juice and other natural materials from ground grass to sawdust.

Later, she would call her own work “old-timey” as she avoided depicting modern day features like tractors, cars, telephone poles, and other signs of present day life in her paintings.

Now, here’s the challenge: what if Grandma Moses visited a favorite fictional location, making sure to avoid any “modern touches?” Some places may be easier. She might visit a harvest dance in Hobbiton and be right at home. However, a garden party at Wayne Manor near Gotham City might need some dialing back of the time line. How about Gallifrey? Or Narnia?

As far as the painting technique, follow Grandma Moses’s own discipline of painting “from the top down.” She would start with the “sky, then the mountains, then the hills, then the houses, then the cattle, and then the people.”

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Grandma Moses painted “from the top down.” Start with sky, add the landscape.

This is an easy way to create a scene one simple step at a time. Use any medium you like, from watercolor to acrylic, or use more translucent colors for the background and brighter, more opaque colors for the figures and fore ground.

Paint straight to the canvas or paper, don’t draw it first.

Paint the sky and ground, as if there were just a big empty space. Add some natural features, as Grandma Moses did, like mountains, hills, trees, rivers, or streams.

Next, add the “man-made” features, like buildings, carts, barrels, tables, bridges, and anything else you feel captures the scene.

Finally, bring in some people and animals, (or orcs, white walkers, dinosaurs, dragons, or whatever your world needs), just as if you are adding figures to a playset. Don’t worry about overlapping what you already painted. That’s part of the action.

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Even with the buildings added, there’s something missing without a few folk and critters.

These steps will make it easier create an entire world without being overwhelmed and wondering where to start.

No matter where you think Grandma Moses visits, make sure there is some sort of activity, be it a battle, a wedding, or just the every day to-dos of an era.

Every place, every moment, every story, from comics to classics, can be filled with activity, be it peaceful and laid-back or frantic and frenzied. Just take a moment to relax, concentrate, and imagine that moment.

This is what Grandma Moses did, as she told Time Magazine in 1948:

“I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.”

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“Smallville, 1942” by Lisa Kay Tate

Classical Music for Science Lovers

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Post originally ran in GeekMom on April 16, 2016:

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Albert Einstein and Alexander Borodin knew the importance of being inspired by both music and science. All images by Lisa Kay Tate.

In 1991, I had just graduated with a bachelor’s in Animal Science, and was cleaning out stalls for an area veterinarian in the mornings, waiting tables at a comedy club most nights, and working as an overnight disc jockey on the odd weekend.

I hadn’t yet decided to go on to graduate school, and was, at least for that summer and one semester to follow, lacking a “calling.”

I only knew I wanted to continue with a higher “fallback” degree in some type of animal or biology-related science, but try to pursue a career in the arts or journalism. When I continued with my Master of Science, I joined the campus radio station, newspaper, dabbled in radio theatre, and even joined the local “contemporary stage band” my final semester. I loved the sciences, but was more in tune to the arts. The disciplines of science and music, in my mind, worked well together.

Of course, this lofty and slightly off-center opinion was met with equal sneers from my fellow science majors and extracurricular arts participants, but is it really such a weird marriage?

Think about it. The innovation of various sciences can be a beautiful art form, and there is an almost mathematical science to composing a musical masterpiece.

I was really thinking about this in 1991, when I ran across a CD by a classical pianist named Richard Kastle. He played straightforward classical standards, but his gimmick was his Harley-riding punker look.

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Present day composer Richard Kastle was inspired by an image from the news, but he isn’t the first to create music based on the animal world.

The label bore the warning: “Parental Advisory: This album contains classical music, no lyrics whatsoever.” I liked that, and I purchased the CD.

This punk-meets-classical angle gained him some good attention over the next few months, and while some found him original and refreshing, others found him to be a hack. I’ll leave that decision to the individual listener, but there was one thing about Kastle’s CD, Streetwise, that I really found intriguing: an original piano piece called “Batcave at Dusk.”

In his liner notes, Kastle explained Nineteenth Century composers often wrote music inspired by paintings, a practice called “impressionism.” “Batcave at Dusk” was inspired by a news story, in what Kastle called “video impressionism.”

“I saw a news program in which the reporter interviewed a guest who had taken a video camera into a batcave in South America,” Kastle wrote. “The footage inspired me to compose a piece about bats in their environment.”

This stuck with me, because it combined my own fascination with animals with my life-long love of music.

If I had heard this song when I was a kid, I might have been more serious about my musical training, and be more of a refined guitar player rather than the mediocre enthusiast I am today. However, this classical soundtrack helped me remain in the animal-related science towards an advanced degree. In short, it worked. Science and music worked together to helped me towards a goal.

I’ve since learned this mix of science and classical music is nothing new. Many of the great composers were influenced by the sciences, and some of the world’s greatest scientific minds were influenced by classical music.

In order to help young scientific (or musically) inclined minds blend these two worlds, I’ve “curated” a very basic and short classical music soundtrack for both young scientists and budding audiophiles.

Physics:Sonata for violin and piano in G major, K.301” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1778)

The world’s most famous theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, was a music lover and amateur musician. He traveled everywhere with his violin (he called “Lina”), and even performed some benefit concerts. Reviews of his musical talent were mixed at best, but he often cited Mozart as an influence and inspiration, his musical harmony mirroring Einstein’s own work in understanding the physical nature of reality.

“Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” Einstein once said, according to an article in the educational site Open Culture. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

He loved violin sonatas, and admired Beethoven and Bach, in addition to Mozart. Apparently, however, he wasn’t too crazy about Debussy or Wagner.

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“The Planets” by Gustav Holst looked more at the emotional appeal of planets than their physical properties, but that doesn’t mean this work can’t inspire budding astronomers to look towards the skies.

Astrophysics: “The Planets” by Gustav Holst (1914-1916)

In “Los Planetas,” Holst explored seven extraterrestrial planets of the Solar System–before Pluto was discovered, then demoted–and gave each planet it’s own movement and personality. Mars was the warrior, and Venus the peacemaker. Mercury was the winged messenger, Uranus a magician, and so on. Holst wanted to convey each planet’s emotional appeal, rather than just the Roman deities for which they were named. Holst’s work was influenced more on astrology that actual astronomy, and but that doesn’t make the allure of wanting to travel beyond the stars, and learning more about them, any less powerful.

A fun video interpretation of this piece was done by children’s show hosts Dick and Dom of CBBC fame for the U.K. educational music program, Ten Pieces. A link the video can be found on my GeekMom post about Ten Pieces and its secondary grade counterpart, Ten Pieces II.

Ecology: Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig Van Beethoven (1808)

Beethoven lived in the “big city” of Vienna, but often got away from it all by taking countryside strolls and retreating to rural workspaces. He loved the natural world around him, from the meadows and streams to the changing of the weather and the time of day. This was his inspiration of his Symphony No. 6, more commonly known as the “Pastorale,” the Pastoral Symphony. Consisting of five movements, this piece travels through a day in the country, starting with an Awakening of early morning, a Scene by the brook, and a happy gathering of country people. It later takes a darker tone as a thunderstorm rolls in, but concludes with the peaceful “after the storm” feeling and Shepherd’s Song. Not only did Beethoven use instruments to depict natural sounds of water, rain, and wind (or “storm instruments”), but also for regional animals, especially birds.

Now, here’s the test for true music and nature lovers: try to listen to this piece without picturing Walt Disney’s mythical interpretation from his 1939 film, Fantasia.

Pathology:Grande Messe Des Morts (Requiem)” Op.5 by Hector Berlioz (1837)

This piece was commissioned by the Minister of the Interior of France to remember soldiers of the Revolution of July 1830, but it wasn’t completed for seven more years. Sure, many composers have a Requiem to their credit, but there’s one thing about Berlioz’s piece young medical minds might find interesting, including those wanting to be part of the world of forensic pathology. Berlioz studied medicine. Well, at least for a short time. Despite writing small musical pieces as early as 12, his parents sent him to Paris after high school to begin his studies in medicine. He had no interest in practicing it and was disgusted by human corpses, much less having to see them dissected. Three years later, he went against his parents’ wishes and concentrated on music. His Requiem is one of his most famous works, despite his distaste in the subject of corpses, and he even revised it two times, the second only a couple of years before his own death. I guess that’s what we call ironic.

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Berlioz didn’t like to deal with cadavers. Even so, one of his most famous pieces is a Death-Mass.

Zoology: “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camile Saint-Saëns (1886)

This is the most obvious of selections, but would be a shame to leave it out. Animals and nature influenced so many writers, artists, and composers (and still do today), but there is no piece so perfect for animal lovers of all ages than a 25-minute work that incorporates and entire zoo’s worth of animals, from mammals (wild asses, lions, elephants, and kangaroos), reptiles such as tortoises, an aquarium’s worth of fish, and fowl swans, hens and roosters, cuckoos, and an aviary, not to mention pianists. There was also a movement on fossils that could easily make paleontologists happy. Saint-Saëns wrote this piece after a less-than-successful concert tour, and had so much fun doing it he put off working on his Third Symphony. He gave a couple of private performances of the work, but he made sure it wasn’t published until after his death, so he could maintain a reputation of a “serious composer.” He died in 1921, and first public performance of the piece was in 1922. Serious composer or not, “Carnival of the Animals” is one of it’s one of Saint-Saëns most famous pieces, and music teachers–and kids–love it.

Meteorology:The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi (1725) This is four-part violin

This four-part violin concerti is known as a “le quattro stagioni.” Each of the four parts, of course, represents a different season of the year, and is actually associated with a larger work called “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.” I debated choosing a less obvious selection for this field. Charles Giffes’s “Clouds” is also a good choice for weather-related music. However, “The Four Seasons” is a more complete all-weather, year-round piece. Plus, there’s an amazing variation on it, the “New Four Seasons,” by another punk-meets-classical performer, violinist and violist Nigel Kennedy. This one definitely worth picking up.

Chemistry:Polovtsian Dances” by Alexander Borodin (1890)

At first glance, one would think I chose this selection because it is part of the opera Prince Igor, which immediately conjures images of a mad scientist’s in the lab. Not even close. I chose a piece by the Russian composer Borodin because Borodin was a chemist and a doctor. Despite being known for his symphonies, operas, and other works, including the popular “In The Steppes of Central Asia,” music was only his secondary career. He was first and foremost a chemist and physician. He is credited as one of the discoverers of the Aldol reaction, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, and lectured extensively. As an advocate for women’s rights, he helped establish medical courses for women in the 1870s in St. Petersburg.

Unfortunately, his own knowledge in medicine couldn’t help him, as he died of a heart attack at age 53 while attending a ball. Even so, Borodin is a true example that one can become proficient in both science and music.

I hope this list will encourage others to look for new ways to combine musical note-making with scientific note-taking, because there is one beautiful thing the marriage of these two disciplines will always spawn: imagination.

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Natural elements and phenomena have always inspired composers, including Beethoven and Vivaldi.

We Are The Music Makers with “Compose Yourself”

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Originally published in Minion Feeding 101, November 14, 2015

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ThinkFun’s Compose Yourself is a simple set of music cards that contains a world of imagination for budding composers of all ages.

“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.

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Erin, 6, took her music choices very seriously.

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.

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Molly, 13, loved being able to save her composition as an MP3.

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.

ThinkFun’s Compose Yourself retails for $19.99, but is available on Amazon for $14.99. Visit ThinkFun.com to learn more about this and other games and products.

Molly, 13, loved being able to save her composition as an MP3.

The first three installments in our “TVW,” aka the Tate Works Catalogue. Being able to print out sheet music for use with multiple instruments is one of the great features of Compose Yourself.

— Story and Images by Lisa Kay Tate
— Music composed by Erin, Molly and Lisa Tate.