Schubert to Seuss

Posted by Adrian Anantawan on Saturday, July 30, 2011

Schubert to Seuss

Above: The CODA Kids read Dr. Seuss at Hawthorne P.S.

Over the past fifty years, you can argue that there as been no wordsmith who has been as singularly influential to multiple generations of young English readers as Theo Geisel or, better known under his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss. Hidden behind child-friendly words, Dr. Seuss reaches into the whimsical psyche of a youngster, transforming their world through charming (but never patronizing) poetry. His collected works are a cultural institution, primarily known not because of their inherent educational value, but for the way they artistically transcend their utilitarian purpose. Dr. Seuss survives to this day, not because his books fulfill prerequisites in a curriculum, but like classical music, reflect to the deep, constant qualities of the human condition.

Working from the premise of using children's literature as a tool to understand chamber music, I scoured my local library, in search of a story that could describe certain sections in any given piece of music. Eventually, an evidential truth arose between the relationship of instrumental music and storytelling. Both, when crafted well, reach dynamic emotional qualities, through symbolic representation (i.e. the words in literature, or in the case of music, the notes), which is then subliminally interpreted by the reader/audience. Therefore, when looking for an appropriate book, it wasn't the plot itself that was a concern, but rather, finding elements within the plot that would carry emotional value to a child. It was in that light that I discovered Dr. Seuss' My Many Coloured Days, a book dealing with the emotional archetypes encountered by a child through (as the title states) colours. The beautifully illustrated book goes as follows:

Some days are yellow.
Some are blue.
On different days I'm different too.
You'd be surprised how many ways
I change on Different Colored Days.

On Bright Red Days how good it feels
to be a horse and kick my heels!

On other days I'm other things.
On Bright Blue Days I flap my wings.

Some days, of course, feel sort of Brown.
Then I feel slow and low, low down.

Then comes a Yellow Day and Wheeee!
I am a busy, buzzy bee.

Gray Day. Everything is gray.
I watch. But nothing moves today.

Then all of a sudden I'm a circus seal!
On my Orange Days that's how I feel.

Green Days. Deep deep in the sea.
Cool and quiet fish. That's me.

On Purple Days I'm sad. I groan.
I drag my tail. I walk alone.

But when my days are Happy Pink
it's great to jump and just not think.

Then come my Black Days. MAD. And loud.
I howl. I growl at every cloud.

Then comes a Mixed-Up Day. And WHAM!
I don't know who or what I am!

But it all turns out all right, you see.
And I go back to being... me.

When I read this, I knew that we had our candidate for an interactive activity for CODA. If there's one thing that is always popular with children and classical music, it's the role of the conductor. Perhaps its the feeling of being directly involved in aesthetic choices within a performance, or acting out emotional characters with a baton, but conducting allows the ultimate interactive experience between a child and musician. Wouldn't it be great if we could get the kids to conduct the various emotional states of a piece like Schubert's Death and the Maiden?

Layered upon this was My Many Coloured Days; what if we decided to relate the Schubert piece to colours? Instead of a standard baton, we could use a crayon, corresponding to the colours represented story, and the kids could conduct specific emotions. The activity was coming together, but there was a little research that needed to be done first. Was there any literature in the world of psychology, relating colours to emotions? I was already familiar with synesthesia, where one sensory input travels through multiple cognitive pathways in the brain, resulting in a perception of multiple senses at once. For instance, there are those who can "taste" colours or "see" sounds. However, I think to a certain degree, we are all synesthetic in our experiences in the world, albeit not as literal as those diagnosed with synesthesia. How many times has a piece of music evoked a strong mental picture in your mind?

After a little more research, I came across a particularly interesting article on an emotional colour wheel developed by psychologist Robert Plutchik (courtesy of Wikipedia):

While the colours in his colour wheel did correspond to the same colours in Dr. Seuss' story, it was interesting to see the classification of what he considered "universal" emotional archetypes, and how they were grouped. What we needed to do was create our own colour wheel for My Many Coloured Days, which led to the following relationships:

Bright Red Days (happy)
Bright Blue Days (energized)
Brown (tired)
Yellow (fast)
Grey (slow)
Orange (funny)
Green Days (calm)
Purple Days (sad)
Pink (carefree)
Black (mad)
Mixed up (confused)

As an activity, each chamber group in CODA looked for sections in their music that were red, orange, and the rest of the colours mentioned in the book. Interestingly, there were no emotions that were not expressed in each individual piece, ranging from Haydn to Janacek. Also, given the subjective nature of emotions, students at Hawthorne (the target audience) could choose to conduct a greed day (calm), with a black crayon (mad), with some hilarious results.

Tags: "dr. seuss" "robert plutchik" 

The CODA Project

Created in 2010 by myself and colleague Bryan Wagorn, the Community Outreach for Developing Artists (CODA) program was implemented June 2011 at the National Arts Centre (NAC) Summer Music Institute (SMI), founded by Isreali violinist Pinchas Zukerman.