Friday, 8 January 2016

Boom! Whack! An inspirational team-building exercise using percussion (quietly)

​I recently had the opportunity to run a team-building exercise within my normal group of colleagues. I had a blank canvas. Previous exercises had ranged from the deadly serious (a brainstorm of the diversity issues preventing us from being a fully-inclusive workplace) to the silly (a quiz of observation, in which we were sent out of the room and subsequently had to identify which physical attributes / articles of clothing our colleagues had changed during our absence).

I immediately wanted to do something musical, if possible; something that would be enjoyable, but also force us to work as a team. My first idea was to acquire a set of those Christmas crackers containing tuned whistles. With one person per whistle, this is the ultimate in building a co-ordinated team: in fact, the players are more dependent on one another than they would be in a real band. Everyone must play exactly on cue, otherwise the melody simply doesn't work.

I also researched companies that would come into the office and run singing or percussion workshops. Apart from the cost, I foresaw one major issue with this - and also with my cracker whistle idea - which is that we'd rather quickly become deeply unpopular if we held a noisy bongo workshop in a meeting room next door to a customer sales pitch.

Tactfully tuneful

So now I was on the hunt for something musical, but quiet, and also cheap. With just a few days to go, I discovered a website describing Boomwhackers. Boomwhackers are coloured plastic tubes of varying lengths. When hit against a hand, thigh, or immovable object, they produce a dull thud that happens to be a pitched note. A complete set of eight Boomwhackers contains a diatonic octave. It is also possible to buy sets that add the semitones to form a full chromatic octave, or to extend the range to a second or third octave. A simple plastic cap over one end of the tube alters the pitch down by an octave, providing even more options. (For reasons that a physicist can explain better than me, the resonance of a tube with a closed end produces a standing wave of half the wavelength of the standing wave in the same-length tube with an open end. This supposedly explains why a clarinet plays at a lower pitch than a flute, despite being of similar lengths.)

Because they are simple, cheap, brightly-coloured and indestructible, Boomwhackers are used mainly in early-years musical education. A search on YouTube found that they are used by adults primarily as a comedy esoteric musical instrument, in much the same way that a kazoo might be. Audiences apparently find them delightfully funny; in order to play any sufficiently advanced music, the players must be constantly and frenetically picking up and putting down different tubes.

Thanks to Amazon Prime's next-day delivery, I acquired two sets of Boomwhackers. With the help of an enthusiastic Boomwhacker blog, I created a set of Boomwhacker "sheet music" of gradually-increasing difficulty. I reasoned that some of the workshop participants would not be able to read traditional music notation, so I used a simple block representation.

The scratch orchestra

I announced that we would be forming a scratch orchestra of sorts, with a stated aim of learning and playing a piece of music, with harmonies, within the half-hour slot I had allowed. There was a moment of mirth when I opened my holdall to reveal the Boomwhackers for the first time, but also an immediate sense of some excitement when I demonstrated how they worked. Everyone grabbed one or two each, and we ran through the first couple of exercises - simple scales - with ease. It was working well.

The remaining exercises introduced different rhythms and a modest amount of harmony, to get the participants used to reading more than one line of "sheet music" at a time. Finally, we came to the promised outcome: the traditional song, Frère Jacques, to be played as a round. The first run-through was scrappy, but after just a couple of attempts, we managed a more than passable performance. There was even a little cheer at the end, and everyone was grinning.


Assuming that you could allow half an hour, I'd be confident running this workshop as the ice-breaker at the start of a conference, say. Sure, there will probably be some people who aren't that musical; but I think they'll have fun anyway. There might be a handful of people who see such an exercise as a waste of time, but my participants seemed to buy into the idea that we were doing something as a team that we could not possibly have achieved without the full co-operation of everyone present.