flamboo 1The Montalvo Arts Center is a place so wonderful that a few weeks after visiting I’m pretty sure I dreamed it up. The campus is 175 acres all dedicated to art, a complex of beautiful gardens and pathways extending out from a villa built in 1912.  They do programs for children and adults, offer residencies to artists, and offer concerts and exhibitions both inside the villa and outside in nature.

The week before teaching for the Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s teen camp, I came out early to observe one of Montalvo’s summer opportunities: “FLAMBOO!”, a bamboo flute making class for elementary school kids taught by Shelley Phillips. She’s certified by the Pipers’ Guild of Great Britain, which has a long history of teaching and playing these simple and yet beautiful instruments.

To give a demonstration, Shelley and I sightread a Boismortier duet at the end-of-camp celebration with parents.  Later at the Boxwood Festival and Workshop she gave a demonstration on stage:

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How’s this for making promises and setting parental and institutional expectations? Over the course of one week, children ages 7-13 selected pieces of bamboo, worked with hand tools to make them without any electricity, learned how to make a sound on them, and learned a song by ear that they played at the celebration on the last day. (Oh, and all their flutes are different lengths, which means they’re all in different keys, and the camp only meets 2-3 hours a day. I don’t know about you, but pulling this off is Jedi master territory to me.)

flamboo 3But of course they were successful. By the time I visited on the last day of the camp, we even had time to take a publicity photo for the kids’ band and do a little individual coaching.

Reflecting on the program, there are a few things that seem particularly valuable to me:

Math and flutemaking go hand-in-hand, and especially so when using a natural material that varies from piece to piece. Everyone was working with a unique piece of bamboo. Among other things, this meant that the lengths of the flutes varied – so students had to calculate the places where they would put their finger holes. You couldn’t use your neighbor’s work; everyone had a unique set of numbers to go with their unique piece of bamboo. flutemaking(There’d be a lot of ways to bring this out for school administrators, I’d think, but the beauty of summer camp is that you can know it’s valuable and just do it.)

Perseverance. I tried to make my own flute later that week. Let me tell you that filing out a hole, trying it out, and filing it some more means sticking with something even if it’s not immediately interesting. I was more than three times older than these kids, but I think they had demonstrated more than three times my patience. In a time when we’re all worried about what happens to kids when they imprint on the instant gratification of a digital world, there’s something wonderful about seeing them sit under a tree and pass an afternoon in a pursuit that’s about a process unfolding over time.

Cultural sharing across generations. The students learned to play the (oft-overlooked) recorder part to Stairway to Heaven. (I’ll pause while you go listen and realize that it’s always been there.) The kids went along with learning a song that they didn’t recognize, but drew the line at believing their parents would know the words at the end. The looks on their faces when every adult in the room sang the line? Priceless. And I think it’s more than cute – it’s one of those moments where children realize that something exists outside of the world they’ve known. It might be the social studies educator in me talking, but I do think moments like that help us to start understanding the abstract and complicated idea of change over time…

flamboo 2Learning by ear. Shelley had decided not to get bogged down in note names and had them focused on the direct experience of the sounds of different chords. This was part philosophy and part practicality – after all, with all the flutes being different lengths, everyone was using different fingerings to arrive at the same pitches. So chords had names like “cat” and “dog” and “fish” (which make about as much sense as letter names when you think about it, so why not?). I will say there are some students who want to know Why Something Works – while coaching I worked with one student on overblowing the octave (one of those standard first-steps-in-flute things); he was able to do it and yet very worried that he couldn’t describe how he was doing it. Now, no one really knows what mechanism does that, but he wasn’t deterred in his search for an explanation. And again, why not? Some of us learn this way too. But it’s good to have a balance, and usually we’d err on the side of having kids who can name notes but not play them. Taking the rhythm at the end of Stairway to Heaven, do I need them to be able to write it out? Or is what I really need for them to be able to play it?

All this being said, these are process-oriented things that are hard to represent to parents at a final, end-of-camp celebration.

That’s one of the tricks of arts education, I think – finding ways to show both process and end product.  There’s so much value everywhere, and so little time sometimes…

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