“Creative learning as it should be” – Shona McCarthy, CEO Edinburgh Festival Fringe
In February 2020, with generous support from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, we tested out our new Piano Dissection workshops in four primary schools across Edinburgh. The response was excellent, with pupils and teachers alike overflowing with enthusiasm, and asking us to return as soon as we could.
Long term Pianodrome mentor and supporter Rob Bushby put together the following case study.
For more information on our workshops please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The pupils were so engaged, it was lovely to see them so excited and stimulated throughout the Pianodrome workshop. They loved investigating the piano parts and sounds, and enjoyed having the freedom to make noise and music without restriction.” – Teacher, Craigour Park Primary
Piano Dissection workshops – a case study
Improvised piano noises greet 15 primary school pupils as they shuffle in to a stark light classroom. The pupils greet the piano noises with diverse responses: furrowed brows…nervy smirks…bemused, quizzical looks towards the back of the protagonist performer, and to each other. Haphazard piano-sourced sounds continue as the solo player is joined by another. He removes the instrument’s front cover to reveal its mechanical innards, and adds to the soundscape – not just with standard plink-plonk notes but with lid bang, wire pull, pedal doof, harp-strum…
What is this?
An instruction. “Gather round. Close your eyes”. Most do. All tune in. Slapdash discord finds a semblance of beat, if not quite a fully formed melody. Heads bob as they identify a rhythm. Smiles…some lingering confusion…wonder…marionette dancing, even, at the back of the standing group, unseen by most.
“Have a go!” An initial small group forms at the keyboard for a mini-collective jamming session, exploring the piano components and how they respond to interaction. “It’s like a ghost playing” says one, observing the exposed mechanism’s movement. All who wish to get hands-on, as initial scepticism fades.
A Pianodrome Portfolio – Performance, Place, Pupils
In physical form the Pianodrome is a 100-seater amphitheatre constructed entirely from over 50 discarded pianos, a spectacular upcycled venue. But Pianodrome is also a is a radical re-imagining of the piano, of performance, and of the places where music and art might pop up. It’s a statement of values – ones that speak to culture, sustainability, and as we discover, education.
As part of The Edinburgh Fringe Society’s ‘Fringe in Schools’ programme the Pianodrome team is providing piano-dismantling workshops to showcase how an everyday object can be seen in innovative ways, and contribute to Scotland’s learning landscape. Creativity, inclusion and enjoyment are common themes to explore.
Pianodrome’s broader thinking is that a society-wide investigation of how we use materials is urgently required, that cast-off objects can be repurposed and given a new life. By giving pupils a direct experience of music-making, manual tasks, problem solving and creative thinking, they are encouraged to think differently about their own interactions with the world. It’s the 3Rs (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle), the circular economy and environmental awareness all wrapped in a 3-hour class-based workshop – Interdisciplinary Learning in action.
The opening aural immersion is followed by an investigation of the piano itself and how it works, then an explanation of ‘Pianodrome’, and a dismantle-and-create session.
Keys, hammers, boards and strings are introduced, illustrated by listening and describing sounds: low and high, light and deep, notes that sound the same but different (“that’s called an octave”), short (“dampened”) and long (“sustained”), an endless echo, a twang and pluck of strings. The response? “Amazing – we got to find out what’s inside and how it works!” and “The inside of a piano looks really cool”.
As the back-story of the Pianodrome unfolds – “We take what other people see as junk, turn it into a beautiful sculpture and give it new life. We give a spiritual resting place to these pianos and their stories and histories” – there is realisation and revelation. Why build it out of pianos? “You have to really, don’t you, because it’s called Pianodrome” (brilliant!); “It’s musical, so it makes sense to”; “It looks like a big chair”; “It means they’re not thrown away, and saves cutting down more trees to make it”. And, with a blunt truncated logic: “If you cut down trees, that’s the climate, isn’t it”. Connections are being made, bigger pictures referenced.
The dismantling begins. A couple of pre-liberated keyboards are rendered skeletal, stripped of their moving parts which then form the torso and limbs of piano stick-figures. Unscrewing, bashing, clipping and gluing are the hands-on surgical techniques applied to this operation.
A soundtrack backdrops the workshop. Pupils are stepping away from work stations to take solo turns on the intact upright piano, then pass on a ‘now-you-play’ baton every few minutes. Quieter children have been purposefully selected for the session. According to Pupil Support Officer Evey, “this sort of engagement is priceless, especially for some of our kids who don’t always get the freedom to investigate, to really get into stuff”. Illiana provides the only familiar tune all session – Baby Shark – assertively, on repeat. Ryan discovers some power chords, then finds that the sustain pedal adds to their potency. Chloe and Ellyse, both wary of keyboard and limelight, create an elegant harmony duet. Blessings composes a delicate octave-straddling refrain…Does it have a name? Yes. “Melody…Blessings’ Melody”.
Es & Os, STEM & Piano…
Experiences and Outcomes (often called Es & Os) are a set of clear and concise statements about learning and progression in each curriculum area. Within Expressive Arts a top line requirement for Music is for “learners to have rich opportunities to be creative and to experience inspiration and enjoyment”. “I loved it” says one pupil, “it made me feel exquisite!” Tick. But there are wider learning contexts and opportunities, too.
Scottish Government’s commitment to STEM teaching and learning – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths in old money – is stimulating a fusion of approaches such as STEAM (yes, with Arts) and STEM By Nature. STEM with an added P for Piano may or may not stick, but the links are plentiful. The physics of sound vibrations and biology of the ear; the multiple components of the instrument and how they are put together; and the counting of notes and measuring associated with keyboards and music – all amply illustrate the rich potential of the Piano as a source of STEM learning.
Literacy – a responsibility for all teaching staff – is apparent in pupils’ curiosity, listening, and discussion. There’s teamwork (“shall we lay the pieces out neatly together?”), free play, unstructured & interdisciplinary learning, patterns, organisation, motor skills, tools management, risk assessment, creativity… Learning for Sustainability – an entitlement for every learner and an element of every teacher’s Professional Standards – is evident, embracing approaches that help to “develop the skills, knowledge and values needed to live sustainable lifestyles”.
As pupils leave expectations have been exceeded, albeit some were low: “I thought it would be boring, but it was really interesting and better than a normal Monday morning”. “10/10!” “Amazing! I liked everything, especially testing out the sounds, playing on a real piano, and making piano people”.
Teaching staff, alert to opportunities offered by Edinburgh’s cultural institutions, reflected on the learning and outcomes from the session:
“The pupils were so engaged, it was lovely to see them so excited and stimulated throughout the Pianodrome workshop. They loved investigating the piano parts and sounds, and enjoyed having the freedom to make noise and music without restriction. The amount of talking and discussion generated was amazing. They came back to class full of enthusiasm to share what they had experienced and made an impromptu presentation, explaining the activities, their piano-person creations, and how they felt about it all. Even the shyest pupil found her voice to tell her part.”
“Music activates more areas of the brain than language” according to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, “it reaches into different crevices”. On this evidence, Pianodrome – and a piano-dismantling session – reaches parts of the Curriculum and stimulates pupils in ways that are well worth tuning in to.