Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Autoharps and Omnichords

What is a digital Autoharp?

I mentioned yesterday that I taught Kal-El to play one in a couple of minutes and that he has been using it to accompany himself while singing the theme to the original Spiderman. We took video, but it is not as easy as it should be to grab an excerpt off of our video camera so it may be a while before we get it posted.

First of all, I should note that Kal-El is obsessed with Spiderman despite never having seen a Spiderman cartoon or movie. We have superhero posters in our basement playroom and he likes them. I sing the song around the house and when he showed an interest I let him see this video on You Tube.

He knows every word. What is sad is that with the exception of the alphabet song neither of my children usually sing and when I sing they usually ask me to stop (no, it's not because of the quality of my singing!) They both really only like instrumental music. Whenever songs have words they ask me to turn it off. I seem to have found a crack in Kal-El's armor with Spiderman however.

Anyway, a regular autoharp looks something like this:

To play one (for those who don't know) you hold down the button for the chord you would like as you simultaneously strum the strings like a guitar, usually with a pick. If you don't hold down the button while you strum ALL the strings will sound rather than the select few you need for your chord.

What I called a "digital autoharp" is really called an omnichord. Here is a You Tube video of someone playing one. Obviously it has some bells and whistles a regular one does not.

I will forewarn you that Kal-El's video will not be quite as impressive.

For an experienced adult, I don't think that it is any easier to play an omnichord than an autoharp. For an almost-four-year-old there are huge advantages to the omnichord. It takes a lot less coordination to strum the striped touch pads then it takes to strum actual strings with a pick. Also, you can set it to continue to play the chord you choose after you let go of the button. It plays the chord in the background, like a hum, until you choose another chord. This is supposed to allow you to "accompany yourself" by setting a groove (drumbeats are also available) in the background while you play other rhythms or melodies with the "strings." However, for Kal-El it means he can push the chord button he wants, let go, and concentrate on strumming and singing. He only needs to push the buttons when he changes chords.

Is it easier to play than the guitar or the piano? I think the answer to this question depends on how good you actually are on the the piano or the guitar and how good you are on the omnichord. I don't play guitar but I do play the piano and have done so many times in rooms full of 30 children. I play the piano reasonably well, but found it difficult to play the piano, sing, do solfege hand signs, and redirect squirming kindergarteners at the same time. It was easier to do all of this playing an autoharp because a couple of steps in the process are eliminated and sometimes that's all you need.

The price is about the same for either type (about $200). However another big advantage to the omnichord that I did not mention is that you NEVER HAVE TO TUNE IT. I used to get really sick of tuning autoharps (as well as replacing strings I broke in the tuning process). The downside from a Montessori perspective is that it is a plastic, digital object with no real strings and no "let's take it apart and see how it works" value.

To make it easier for Kal-El to play I put a couple of stickers on the Omnichord. Almost all songs can be harmonized adequately with three chords (Spiderman is jazzy so really needs more, but we made some compromises). I put a different-colored sticker on each of the three chords he needed. I also tried putting the pattern he needed to play the song across the top of the instrument (there's plenty of extra space for that type of thing). So it read something like blue, green, blue, green, yellow, blue. However, he found it much easier to experiment himself and decide aurally which chords matched the notes he was singing best and memorized the pattern... A classic Montessori example of how kids are better off when they find their own way.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a blast from the past that Spiderman video was. Kal-El's Uncle used to sing that song too at a very young age. He loved the cartoon.

    I can't wait to sing it with Kal-El and he can show me how the harp works!