What is a crankie anyway?

One of the tensions we find ourselves navigating is how to use our precious classroom time to cultivate the discipline necessary for playing a stringed instrument, while also creating an environment where young imaginations can frolic with wild abandon. The early stages of playing violin, viola or cello are notoriously complex – establishing posture and musical fundamentals is a painstaking process requiring lots of repetition. Even with an arsenal of fun games to keep things playful, the rote nature of things can end up feeling a little uncreative. (The education world has plenty to say about the pitfalls of “drill and kill” type repetitions. However, some research out there suggests that, if done in the right way, repetitions may actually help unleash creativity!) So, we wondered, what kinds of activities would enable our students to share their own ideas, to tell their own stories and to unleash their own expressive potential right from the beginning? Our recent Crankie-making experiments have given our students the opportunity to do just that. 

For the uninitiated, a crankie is a kind of scrolling picture show also known as a “moving panorama”. It was first introduced to us by December’s guest musician Marji Gere. Crankies have a fascinating history and variants can be found dating back to the 19th century. (New Bedford is home to one of the most famous moving panoramas of all "Grand Panorama of a Whaling voyage Around the World", measuring a whopping 1275 feet!) Crankies are also enjoying a mini-renaissance in the folk music world thanks to Anna and Elizabeth - check out their Tiny Desk Concert here.

For our second Crankie experiment in March, we had two goals in mind - the students would create original text that would fit in with the avian theme of March's fiddle concert and would create images to accompany the text. With that in mind, we invited local poet David Dragone to present two poetry workshops. The students collaborated to create a poem entitled Sky Dance. 

Sky Dance

A soaring bird flies in the sky
Proud and tweeting loud.
Birds are like butterflies—
They float gracefully in air
Like planes without care.
Birds fly almost through clouds
I could almost care to see them flare
Flying and sighing
Against the sky so blue
With some dancing away
Without any care
Or flying so light and so far
That they flew out of sight
Beyond all the rainbows
With colors I love
That come out after rain
And don’t let the unicorns throw rainbows
And candy on you. If you look up
Luck is something you’ll need
To see colors paint sky.
Eventually, the rainbows will disappear in the sun
And I will want to play music
Because my name is violin
And I play with a big grin
Across from where a swan floats on a pond gracefully
And then writes a poem.

Alongside this process the students painted an atmospheric backdrop for the crankie, reflecting the changing colors of the sky from sunrise to sunset. Each student also took a line of the poem and added illustrations. The process culminated with a Big Reveal presentation at one of our classes when guest fiddler Rachel Panitch improvised music inspired by their poem. The crankie then received its public premiere at March’s Norman Bird Sanctuary concert to an enraptured audience. 

Through this process, we noticed several rich experiences were happening for our students:

  • Collaborative art making. Working together to make art is an incredibly sophisticated journey - the "give-and-take" of sharing space on a canvas, the courage of articulating an unusual idea in front of a group of friends and bouncing back if an idea doesn't work.
  • Process and Patience. The many phases of the project allowed students to witness the many steps it takes to get to a final performance. It doesn't happen all at once - an important and challenging experience, especially for young artists.
  • "But how does it work?" Curiosity is an important ingredient for meaningful learning experiences. The students were fascinated with the structure of the beautifully carved wooden crankie box itself and each student delighted in the hands-on experience of cranking the story for themselves.
  • Old art forms can be magical. For a technology-saturated generation, you'd think an old-school scrolling picture show might lack the flash and pizzazz needed to capture their attention. However, the students seemed to delight in the experience precisely because of its slow-moving simplicity. In that first classroom crankie performance, time seemed to slow down - a little magic was unfolding. As one student commented "It's like watching a dream".

For the next round of crankie magic, we're busily dreaming up ways that our students can collaborate to create a musical soundtrack! And while that sounds like a very tall order, the seeds have already been planted - here they are with March's guest fiddler Rachel Panitch collaborating on a new musical composition using graphic notation! Look out world - some very young composers are on the loose...