In the early stages of the project, I spoke with music educators and asked what music concepts and methods they teach in the classroom. I surveyed contemporary music education resources and partnered with a music teacher to discuss how these resources can be improved. We found that although there are many products on the market, they lack clarity, hierarchy, and do not speak a visual language that is accessible to students.
After outlining the primary needs of the music classroom, we developed sketches and diagrams related to music concepts, methods, and theory. From there, we drafted a series of educational posters that we tested with teachers and students.
The voice of the music room found its inspiration in classical music, jazz, mid-century modern design, music theory, and beyond. I developed a series of didactic and decorative posters that aimed to convey the movement, drama, and emotion of music. Simultaneously, I received feedback from music students, music educators, and advisers and continued to refine and explore the visual language of the posters.
I took inspiration from the notes and staff in music and found that distilling music to lines and dots provided a playful and flexible way to explore movement, rhythm, and structure. I incorporated naïve, hand-drawn lines and writing as a way to convey the expressive nature of music. These hand-drawn elements keep the visual language of the posters lively, dynamic, and approachable.
The Composer Series was born out of a desire to create engaging and approachable portraits of famous composers. They set the tone for the classroom by providing decorative, large-scale art that immerses students in the world of classical music. Though these posters are not strictly educational, they hint at the sound and personality of each of the composers.
The series takes its inspiration from the composers’ hair, which is suggestive of their period, style, and personality. Bach, for instance, wears a Baroque wig. It is ornate, controlled, decorative, and its curls create a repetitive pattern that is at once simple and complex. Many of these characteristics are true of Bach’s music, which blends a straightforward simplicity with an ornate complexity.
Beginning orchestra students use tapes on their fingerboards as markers for correct placement of the left hand fingers. Tape 1 marks the placement of the index finger, tape 2 the middle finger, tape 3 the ring finger, and tape 4 the little finger. These tapes begin to teach students what fingers are used to hit what notes, this is called fingering.
The posters in the Fingering Chart Series are used to teach students what fingers and hand positions to use when playing. They include each half step from the open string to the fourth tape.
The posters in the Key Signature Series outline the number of sharps and flats in each key and provide a brief description that students can use to remember what each key signature sounds like.
The illustrations developed for these posters convey the characteristics of the key. C major, for instance, is very bright, simple and pure. E-flat major, on the other hand, is thought of as a very dramatic and heroic key signature.
My mom’s unfulfilled childhood dream would soon be lived out through me. She signed me up for private lessons, and her plan was underway. Piano lessons meant very little to me at the time. I regarded learning the piano as an opportunity to be special. I took piano lessons. Somehow that made me more distinguished and interesting. I learned to read music and slowly moved on to playing songs. From there, things began to go awry. Week after week, I would arrive at my piano teacher’s house for music lessons. Week after week, I would play the same song, having made no progress whatsoever. I knew I was expected to be getting better, yet this concept completely eluded me. I rarely practiced outside of my lesson, and when I did, the notes sounded clumsy and unnatural. I was disappointed that playing didn’t come easily, yet the adage “practice makes perfect” meant absolutely nothing to me.
A year later I began playing violin in my elementary-school orchestra. My endeavors with the piano dwindled and finally died. I was more excited to be playing in a group. My friends were in the orchestra, and the thought of creating something with them thrilled me. I distinguished myself as one of the better violinists. I sat second chair in the First Violin section. Sitting in first chair was a girl named Andrea Lam. Andrea had been playing violin for years, and it was clear that she was the best musician in the class. This, of course, meant that I could only go downhill from second chair. As the school year went on, I descended to my proper place in the orchestra. I was demoted from second chair to third, third to fourth, so on and so on, retreating further and further back in the section, and into oblivion. It was becoming evident that I didn’t have it, talent, that is.
My lack of musical ability never fazed me. I wasn’t ashamed that I wasn’t the best; I was just excited to be playing music with people. There was something about the way the harmonies would come together that bewildered me. I could play a part, and someone else could play a part, and someone else could play a part, and suddenly we were playing a song together. We were moving parts coming together to make a greater whole. There were moments when we would be playing through a song, and I would think, “Hey! We’re doing it! And it sounds great!” It was magic.
It was this magic that kept me in orchestra through middle school and high school. I was average at best, and yet I felt so much pride dazzling audiences with numbers like Doodlin’ Digits and Fiddling A-Round. On concert nights. I would sit excitedly in my chair, warm up, wait for the note to tune our instruments, and beam with pride as we played the concert. It was exhilarating. In these moments I felt that I was a part of something bigger than myself. Here we were, mere teenagers, moving people with our interpretations of Christmas classics.
I joined the varsity orchestra towards the end of my sophomore year of high school. They were in the middle of learning an arrangement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and I had to catch up in order to play in the next concert. My first time playing through the music was like learning to read for the first time. It was as if I had forgotten what music looked or sounded like. On the first day of rehearsal, I had all the dexterity of a newborn baby. I played softly, kept my head down, sat in the back of the Second Violin section, and slowly caught up to the class.
As the concert drew near, we were playing through more and more of the song. We were putting the finishing touches on our performance and were able to play through the piece without major mistakes. The first time I heard us play through the song left me dumbfounded. The unfolding melodies, the loud timpani, and the stillness and grandeur of New World Symphony moved me. I felt privileged to get to play the piece for an audience and fill the stage with such beautiful, dynamic, full sounds. I continued to have this experience. Over the years, my heart ached with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, soared with Holt’s Planets, and danced with Tchaikovsky’s String Serenade. The music was greater than I was, but I was privileged enough to be a part of it.
I stopped playing violin when I graduated high school. After eight years of playing music, I learned the following: I am a lousy musician and I love playing music. Something strange happens when you play music. For the length of the song, there is an exchange that is at once private and public. Initially, there is this feeling that you, as an individual, belong to something, that together with the orchestra, you are creating something of value. You are all in it together, even if only for the length of one song. Then there is the feeling that you belong to something much greater than you or the orchestra. You are a part of the music. You are just a vehicle, but the music cannot exist without you. The piece cannot be played without your hands to play it. At the same time there is something deeply personal about playing music. You do it for you, because you enjoy it, you put your heart into it and get lost in it. You close your eyes, you sway your body, you are moved. Finally there is the public performance. You perform for an audience. You are doing something that you love, for someone else. You are giving the audience an opportunity to stop and enjoy the moment, enjoy the music, enjoy life. You are giving something meaningful to a group of people.
Over the years I’ve realized that what I felt as an adolescent playing in orchestra is still important to me as a graphic designer. I still want to inspire, to belong to something great, and to create moments of joy and introspection. I think the connection between music and design comes from the desire to live a life that is enriching and the desire to share something enriching with others.
When I played violin, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the best in the orchestra. It didn’t matter that I was playing in a high-school auditorium. It didn’t matter that I didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was participating in something I cared about and believed in. The common denominator between my life as a designer and my life as a musician is the desire to create something of resonance. If, as a designer, I am given the opportunity to create something that helps someone, makes someone feel understood, or makes an experience more practical, special, or beautiful, I am fulfilled.
I often think about how early on my future kids will start playing music. I will sign them up for a music lesson and tell them stories about my life as a young violinist. I will ask them to live my unlived dream of becoming a musician. They will play music for a few years, and then follow their own paths. In the end, it won’t matter if they stick to music. What will matter is that they will have experienced the magic of making music and will have learned to be moved and inspired.