Learning by Listening: LCBP Brings Soundscape Education to Burlington Classrooms

In an effort to teach people with a diversity of learning styles about the watershed, the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP) has been bringing soundscape lessons to local classrooms and afterschool programs. Environmental soundscapes recorded by LCBP Education and Outreach Steward and musician Madeline Reilly were featured in the recent annual Waterways Stage Festival, an afternoon of student theater performances in Burlington, Vermont exploring concepts related to lake stewardship and restoration. The LCBP is proud to provide funding to Waterways Stage and to support the implementation of valuable soundscape lessons in local classrooms.

Clockwise from left: LCBP Education and Outreach Steward Madeline Reilly with recording equipment; a classroom from Champlain Elementary observes the recording process; students gather onstage to perform at the Waterways Stage Festival. Photos: LCBP

Bringing Soundscapes into the Classroom

What is a soundscape? A soundscape is broadly defined as all of the sounds of a particular place, taken as a whole. Just as one might take in a landscape visually, active listening reveals the contours and features of a soundscape.

In February, LCBP visited a third-grade classroom in Burlington’s Integrated Arts Academy. Students had recently begun developing a play with Lauren Larken Scuderi, Teaching Artist at Very Merry Theater. A hush settled over the classroom as Madeline pressed play on her pre-recorded soundscape, filling the space with sounds of Canada geese flying overhead, Lake Champlain waves splashing inside an echoey cove, then shifting to a gentle rain and the call of spring peepers. The students, who had been primed on the fundamentals of active listening in the first part of lesson, took turns sharing what they heard and brainstorming how to integrate the soundscape into their play.

This soundscape recording featuring the sounds of the Lake Champlain Basin was played for students, who took notes on what they heard. Credit: Madeline Reilly

In March, LCBP brought the lesson to Burlington’s Old North End Arts Center, an afterschool program with a focus on fostering creative expression and learning. Students in the program had also been working with Very Merry Theater, developing a unique performance about Lake Champlain.

In early April, two fifth-grade classes at Champlain Elementary took to Oakledge Park in Burlington, VT to hear and record an environmental soundscape in real time. With Madeline’s help, students identified birds based on their songs and reflected on the sounds of the turning season. Braving the wind, which that day still had the bite of winter cold, students huddled at the waterfront to watch the recording process unfold in real time. Then, moving up onto a trail sheltered by evergreen trees, they tried recording their own presence in the soundscape, splashing through fresh mud puddles. With the help of their music teacher, they’ll use these soundscapes in their own musical compositions.

Soundscapes and Ecological Stewardship

Environmental soundscapes are increasingly being recognized for their conservation value. Within functioning ecosystems, species occupy what acoustic ecologist Bernie Krause has termed “acoustic niches,” or unique bands of sound frequency (or pitch) that allow for efficient communication. By inhabiting a variety of niches, species avoid overlaps in sound that may otherwise disrupt communication. Sounds also fall within an important temporal order: think of a dawn chorus of birds. In addition to the variability in sound frequency, the sequence and timing of sounds throughout the day also help distinguish communication.

To simplify the concept of a soundscape, consider an orchestra. Typically an orchestra features a set number of various instruments, which play at various pitches in coordination with one another to produce musical sound. The orchestra could experience minor disruption and carry on; for example, if a single violin player called out sick, the show would go on. But if one day fifty cello players and a lone violinist came to play, the orchestra would fail to produce its intended musical experience.

Ecosystems disturbed by human development or other factors (two examples include logging and the introduction of invasive species) may experience acoustic disruptions that affect the health and functioning of individual species, as well as the ecosystem in its entirety. Studying the frequencies and sequences of ecosystem soundscapes can reveal the impacts of habitat degradation and seasonal disruptions related to climate change.

Students noted feelings of happiness and calm while listening to the soundscape recording. Photo: LCBP

Bridging Science and Art to Foster Connection

With a background in both environmental science and musical composition, Madeline sees soundscape education as an integral part of fostering students’ ecological consciousness. When it comes to communicating science to broader audiences, soundscapes and music create the perfect pairing for engaging people’s minds and hearts. While they teach important listening and naturalist skills, students are also encouraged to build their own relationships with the world around them.

An important aspect of the lesson includes asking participants what they hear and how they feel while listening. A theme quickly emerged when students were asked to share: nearly everyone responded with words like “calm,” “peaceful,” “happy,” or “excited.” Paying close attention to the world not only helps us protect the species and ecosystems we rely on, but also brings us joy and a sense of belonging—aspects Madeline believes are essential to inspiring and sustaining ecological stewardship.

Finally, these lessons also give students a sense of agency around environmental challenges. They already have the skills needed to pay attention and be creative with the world around them, and they don’t have to wait to make a difference.

Waterways Stage Festival: A Celebration of Watershed Stewardship

In April, the student groups who had been working with Very Merry Theater gathered at Burlington’s Old North End Community Center for the Waterways Stage Festival. An annual event that LCBP is proud to support, the festival is an opportunity for students to present their plays to family and community members.

The festival featured four performances. For the first time in festival history, a group of homeschooled students joined in the festivities, presenting a play about the conservation of the American Marten.

One play emphasized the importance of preventing litter near our waterways and keeping public beaches clean. Another portrayed the science behind cyanobacteria blooms, the impact on Lake Champlain water quality, and ways to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering our waterways. The final play focused on the recent total solar eclipse and explored possibilities for responsible tourism.

For both students and the teachers supporting the development of the plays, the festival represented the culmination of several months of learning and creative process. The LCBP looks forward to seeing this program continue to grow and support the many ways of learning about Lake Champlain.

And next time you’re outside, take a moment to listen to the sounds around you. What might they reveal about your environment?

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