Friday, May 26, 2017

Gem Institute and Music Museum Field Trips

Since we were going to be in Carlsbad for the Flower Fields, we set up field trips at the Gem Institute and the Museum of Making Music while we were there. Both places take homeschool group tours, but you have to schedule in advance. At the Gem Institute you have to go past the guard booth and show your ID, which makes you feel kind of important. The tower on the front of the building has this beautiful sparkling crystal in the top.
It's not a huge museum, and none of my pictures are very good, but we loved seeing all the beautiful minerals and gems! This crystal pendant was hanging in the front window, and what you can't tell from the picture is that it's HUGE—probably as tall as Daisy. There are beautiful colored inclusions in the quartz, and when the sun comes through, it makes rainbow patterns on the walls and floor.
They did have some things the kids were allowed to touch. Hooray!
There were some interesting works of art made from gemstones—carved pieces like these, and others.
One of my favorite things was this display of orchestral instruments, all carved from precious stones.
I loved this. It's called Ametrine, and it's only found in one area of the world, where the minerals amethyst (the purple one) and citrine (the yellow one) occur naturally together. The sign said that at first, gemologists usually cut and faceted the stones with yellow on one side and purple on the other, but now they've found ways to cut them where the two colors join and blend, to give a more modern, free-form look. Aren't they all beautiful?
We always love malachite!
The display of opals was really beautiful. The museum had a birthstone exhibit that these were part of.
A rainbow of gemstones! I'll take one of each, please.

Our next stop, the Museum of Making Music, was great too. We had a whole tour and class, led by Mr. Bill (or Mr. Bob? or something like that) who was such a nice, friendly man. (He seemed greatly disappointed in us when none of the kids had heard of Elvis Presley, though.) First he had us sit in a drum circle and let the kids take turns conducting us. Adam LOVED that, as you can see.
So did Ben.
So did Daisy!
And at the end of the museum tour, there was a room with a whole bunch of different instruments the kids could try out! It was a little nerve-racking for Allison and me, keeping track of all ten of them and making sure no one dropped or broke anything, but the kids loved it!
Note Teddy in background, waving a zither or some such thing around
This was a great culmination of our Sound and Percussion Unit!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Field Trip to Rosewood Recording Studio

Because I am lucky and I have the most awesome friends, we were able to take a field trip to Rosewood Recording Studio during this unit. I've known the Randles since high school (they were part of my inspiration to homeschool our children, in fact) and they are the nicest, most interesting people you could hope to meet. Guy gave us a great introduction to sound basics and then showed us how he mixes and captures sound in his studio. He even recorded the children singing and then showed them how he could isolate individual voices, slow down and speed up different tracks, add customized reverb profiles, etc. They LOVED it!
The dogs were very friendly too.
It's such a cool studio, full of so many cords and microphones and instruments!
Doesn't it make you want to play some music?
And Kristen even took us to visit her horses afterwards. Such a fun day!

Monday, April 10, 2017


Ever since I was in high school, playing in a percussion ensemble of my own, I have loved going to the BYU Percussion concerts, and I've always wanted to take my children to one! The college has added a group specializing in Eastern music since I was there, and that is really strange and interesting (though the regular Percussion Ensemble is still my favorite). The steel drums group, Panoramic Steel, is always really fun too.

So, we made sure to schedule a field trip to the "Evening of Percussion" concert during this unit. We loved it! And the children were using my mallets and drumsticks to drum on everything for the next few weeks…but that was inevitable, of course. :)

A few other percussion-related resources:

This is an interesting video about a day in the life of a symphonic percussionist

Demonstrations of how to play African log drums.

We looked up videos of pretty much every percussion instrument on YouTube, just so we could hear what each one sounded like. It's interesting to hear the difference between a marimba and a xylophone, for example, or glockenspiel and celesta.

Here's a sample of a piece written for water percussion

You've probably heard of this percussion group called "Stomp." They create percussion music with all kinds of "junk" like garbage cans and brooms, and with their bodies too. We watched a couple videos of this and the children liked it. (I played a percussion piece in high school where we just clapped, drummed on our knees, stomped, pounded on our stomachs, etc. to create the music, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever!)

Have you heard this piece by John Cage for prepared piano? So weird and cool. I've always wanted to play something for prepared piano.

And of course, there's also Cage's famous piece 4'33", which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of just…silence. Or rather, all the ambient sounds—people coughing, programs rustling, etc—ARE the music. It's one of those avant-garde concepts that cause lots of arguments about "what is music"—but you can't argue that the idea is interesting! I've always thought it would be fun to hear this one performed live.

Carl Nielsen's 5th Symphony has a really cool snare drum part—the snare drummer is basically directed to "fight against" the conductor of the piece in one section. The drum part calls for wild, ad-libbed drumming, even playing in a different time signature than the rest of the orchestra, and without regard to what the rest of the musicians are doing. It's a symbol of war and chaos. Eventually the drummer is "defeated" by the rest of the music and goes offstage, still playing. You can read descriptions of the piece here and here. And you can listen to it here (for that crazy snare drum part, start at about 15:40)

And here is a video of the children drumming on the couch and other things. They really love doing this and they love watching videos of themselves doing it. :)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Field trip: echoes and pyrite in Ophir Canyon

One of the things I found most interesting in this sound book I read was the way the author talked about listening—really listening—to the sounds around us. He talked about how different places in the world have distinct sonic characters in the same way they have distinguishing visual characteristics, and he described having his students go on "sound walks" while blindfolded, so they could experience a place acoustically, kind of like you'd do a "nature walk" to see birds or something. This seemed like the coolest idea to me! So we tried it in various places: near a busy construction site, in our neighborhood, in a downtown area, and then in a more remote country area by my friend Cathy's house. The sounds in each place were so different! It made me think about how much the sounds are part of the experience when we go camping, or hiking. It's so peaceful to be somewhere where all you hear is wind and birdsong!

While we were in Tooele County, we went to a place we'd been wanting to go: Ophir Canyon, where our rockhounding guide assured us there is pyrite to be found! We always welcome the chance to find cool rocks, and this was a really easy site because the roads getting there are all paved, and you can find all kinds of pyrite just in the pile of mine tailings by the road!
Teddy got one of the rocks and walked around talking on it like it was a phone. Very businesslike.

And, as an added bonus for our Sound Unit, we discovered some great places to hear echoes in this canyon! You can hear them in this video:

Monday, April 3, 2017

Anechoic and Reverberation Chambers field trip

When I was little, my dad would sometimes take me over to the Science Building where he worked at BYU, and show me all the coolest things: the top of the pendulum, the giant ground sloth skeleton, the wave machine, and best of all the anechoic chamber. I LOVED going into this room where there were no echoes, no outside sounds—only the most silent, muffled air I'd ever experienced. And I would have given anything if, for this field trip, I could have just called up Dad and asked him to get out his key and go with us to the anechoic chamber again! But…now that he's gone…we had to go through the regular channels. And it wasn't too hard: you can just sign up for a tour here at the BYU Acoustics Outreach page. On the night we went, we were the only people in the group, so it was great.
The anechoic chamber has been remodeled since I was young: back then it was all made of yellow insulation, and the foam pieces weren't quite so aggressively triangular! So it was cool for me to see this updated version. Our tour guide was really knowledgeable and answered all the children's questions with great patience. (The little ones were kind of nervous about the wire mesh floor, and I remember feeling just the same when I was young! It feels very precarious. It's actually strong, though—they can put a grand piano on it with no problem!)

My only regret on this field trip was that I didn't get to walk around yelling and shouting with as much wild abandon as I felt like I could when I was there with my dad. :) And I wish I had thought to make a recording while we were in there! But, never fear: here is a recording made in another university's anechoic and reverberation chambers which will give you the idea.

Another bonus was that, unbeknownst to me, BYU now also has a reverberation chamber, which is basically the opposite of the anechoic chamber. And that was really cool too!
You can see all the hard angled surfaces they have hanging above the floor, all to increase reverberation.

The most amazing thing in this room was the demonstration our guide gave us of standing waves. He turned on a loudspeaker that put out a loud, low sound, and then we walked around the room listening. Because of the reverberation, the waves reflect back on themselves, and that means they sometimes make nodes, or places where the peaks and troughs of the waves actually cancel each other out. We had understood this in theory, but experiencing it in real life was really striking! You'd walk around, wanting to cover your ears because of the loudness of the sound, and then suddenly you'd come to a spot where the sound just…dampened. It became almost soft, as if you'd covered your ears or walked into a different room. And those places were the nodes. We loved this!

I didn't record that phenomenon, but here is a short sample of how a voice sounds in the reverberation chamber: 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sounds around the world

This is a COOL website. It's a world sound map, where you can click on a site on the world map, and be taken to recordings of ambient sounds going on in that location. It's amazing! Monkeys and birds in the rainforest! Rustling leaves in forests! Penguins squawking and ice breaking up! I could spend days exploring these sounds. It makes you feel like you're really taking a trip around the world!

Listen to some singing sand dunes

This video about unexplained sounds was really cool. It freaked my kids out, though! A couple of them had bad dreams about it!

I already referenced Trevor Cox's site on the Unit Schedule page, but it's so good I'll link to it again here. It has links to recordings of some of the "sonic wonders of the world" sites the author discovered (and other sounds, like birds). Just a fascinating collection of sounds! The recording of the lyrebird is one of my favorites! But comparing a balloon popping in different sites (like in an anechoic chamber vs. a mausoleum) is pretty cool too.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sound and language

Image from here
Here's an interesting article about different words for sounds in different languages

This explains why some words are so similar in all languages. I was first introduced to that idea when I read these lectures by Leonard Bernstein, and it was an amazing realization for me. I felt like my mind had opened to all these new concepts!

We also talked about onomatopoeia in, among other works, Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells".

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sound Wave activities and resources

Goldie feeling vibrations (from music coming out of the speakers) pass through a balloon

Some sound wave resources: 

Video about a wave machine that makes the biggest (manmade) waves in the world

Animations that show how sound is a pressure wave. When you see the waves so often simplified visually into sine waves, it's easy to forget what kind of waves they really are!

This video explains harmonics and overtones, two things I have always struggled to understand. Maybe if I were a violinist I'd have gotten it earlier!

This virtual oscilloscope is really cool

This is amazing: scientists using standing waves to levitate objects (called acoustic levitation).

And here are some beautiful patterns made with resonance

This video shows the ever-popular trick of breaking a glass with sound. You can see the waves forming in the glass in some of our pictures here,

This lady does overtone singing—or in other words, singing two notes at once! It is eerie and beautiful and amazing. I can't believe she can do this!!

Here's a video about some high amplitude sound research going on at BYU

Here are some wave activities we did as part of our Water Unit

We also investigated interference effects and other wave properties of light (part of our Light Unit)
This site will tell you how to make a string telephone. Except it never works very well, in my experience.

These pictures show an activity did where we investigated the sound-absorbing properties of different materials. (Something like this.) We stuffed various materials into containers and then listened to which were the most "muffling."

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sound and Percussion Homeschool Unit and Lesson Plan

We did a unit on Light last year, so it seemed like we ought to do a unit on Sound too! I love our physics-related units, though every time they make me wish my dad were still alive so he could be our guest lecturer (and help explain everything to me!). Dad helped me do a science fair project when I was in elementary school where I got to use an oscilloscope from his office, and I loved it. I felt so important. :)

I considered, briefly, making this into a Music Unit as well, but I quickly realized that would be too much. Sound and Music are so entertwined, though, that it made sense to at least cover the percussion instruments, especially since those are so fundamentally about sound and vibration. I consider myself a percussionist too, even though my main instrument has always been the piano and that's what I majored in—because I played in the drumline and percussion section in high school, and I also played percussion with one of the university orchestras during my first year of college. I've always loved percussion ensembles! In all their forms. 

One book I read on my own to prepare for this unit was called The Sound Book, and I LOVED it. It's by an acoustic engineer—or maybe he's a physicist?—who went around the world seeking "sonic wonders of the world."  Here is an interesting article about it, and here is the author's website with links to recordings of some of these sites (and other sounds, like birds). It is an awesome site and I recommend it. The recording of the lyrebird is one of my favorites! But the comparisons of a balloon popping in different sites (like in an anechoic chamber vs. a mausoleum) are pretty cool too.

A documentary we watched and  really liked was called Note by Note, and showed the making of a Steinway 9-foot grand piano over the course of a year. Everything is done by hand, and there are so many interesting details! You can see how each piano has its own distinct sonic character.

We also really enjoyed Organworks, a documentary showing different pipe organs around the world and talking about how they were made, changes to the pipe organ over the years, etc. The host of the show was quite entertaining and it was just generally a lot more absorbing than you might think, reading the description. Although I admit we tend to like stuff like this anyway. :)

Some previous activities we've done in our homeschool that are music and sound-related are:

Making a glass armonica

Making rubber-band "lutes"

Making homemade drums and mallets

Listening to examples of birdsong in music

And here's my Pinterest Board for this Unit, with other links and ideas for activities.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

WWII Field Trips, and Bomber Activity

When she heard we were learning about World War II, one of our neighbors volunteered to tell us about her father and father-in-law's experiences in the war. We went over to her house one day and listened to stories about her father working as a radar operating aboard a submarine in the Pacific, and some of her husband's dad's memories about life before and during the War. It was fascinating! Hearing about what life was like in Salt Lake City, for regular families a lot like us, was a whole different perspective than the more generic one we got from most books about "War life in the United States." And, our friend also had her dad's old navy uniform and coat, which she showed us! It was pretty sobering to see Abe holding it up and think about how boys only a few years older than him were going off to war.
Warm lining from the Navy-issued coat her Dad wore
Another day, we drove up to the aircraft museum in Layton. We're always happy to have an excuse to visit the Hill Air Force Base, but this time our field trip was made extra awesome because we met friends there—and THEY brought their friend, a World War II Veteran, to talk to us! He was amazing. It was an honor to meet him.
The museum owns one of the very kinds of planes he flew in the war. He told us about being shot full of holes over Germany, and making an emergency landing with all his engines out. He was miraculously unhurt, but some of his crew were killed at their posts on that mission. It was incredible to hear about all this firsthand.
We also got to see one of the Norden bombsights, a cool innovation during the war that we'd read about in several airplane books

We didn't spend as much time on military planes as we might have, having covered them earlier during our Aviation Unit, but we did do an activity where we tried to drop gummy bears into paper cups on the ground while running past them at full speed. This is a very small taste of what pilots had to do when dropping bombs (and which the Norden bombsight helped with!). The children loved it.
Some of them took "at full speed" more literally than others...

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The atomic bomb

We did a whole unit on Nuclear Energy a few years ago. It was one of our favorite units! You can find all the posts about that unit aggregated here.

The Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque.

Hydrogen bombs vs. atom bombs

Great article on why we dropped the atomic bomb. And some more good resources on the same subject. Definitely worth watching and teaching. I found a real lack of good information on this subject elsewhere, as most children's books and other modern resources have a sort of glib "we all know better now" sensibility on the subject.

Abe and I LOVED this book, Bomb, by one of our favorite authors, Steve Sheinkin. There is SO MUCH intrigue and so many behind-the-scenes details I had never before heard about. It reads like a mystery novel.

I can also recommend this book (for adults and older children), Hiroshima Diary, which is a journal written by a doctor in Hiroshima in the weeks immediately following the Hiroshima bomb. It is fascinating, sad, and surprisingly good-humored as well. The author seems like a pretty amazing man.
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