Archive for August, 2007|Monthly archive page

Language school compositions: progress report

I had a fun day at the Language School today. We are seven weeks into Term 3 (so three weeks from the end of term) and by this time we are in the rehearsal stage for this term’s compositions.

Middle Primary students have created two group pieces. The first – “Winter” – was started when we were in the grip of a really cold series of winter days. We explored the sensation of ‘cold’ first physically (pressing our hands and cheeks against cold surfaces outside, opening the windows and feeling the cold wind enter the room and touch us) and then aurally, going through all the percussion instruments in the room and ranking them in order of the ‘coldest’ sounds, and techniques for producing cold, rather than warm sounds.

This exploration has resulted in a 3-sectioned piece, involving a big ‘shiver’ of cold sounds added progressively, a multi-layered melodic piece utilising ‘cold’ sounds played in rhythmic and melodic ostinati, and a version of Largo from Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (with the solo performed by Melanie, our wonderful violinist and intern from the Melbourne Conservatorium).

Of course the weather is much warmer now, with recent temperatures reaching 25 degrees (bit alarming for August – it is still supposed to be winter!); we will need to imagine ourselves back into those cold days for the performance.

Middle Primary’s second composition is drawn from their work with the Alphabet Dance, in which they created a dance movement or gesture for each letter of the alphabet. We have now started to choose words to spell out, and to arrange these into a dance piece.

Our theme for the words is Fruit, and today we invented a chorus that pays homage to the mighty banana:


(Try to imagine the funky syncopated rhythm we use for this).

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Honesty and ethics in research

Honesty in research is a many-layered thing, and while on one level it is simple – the truth is the truth is the truth – on another it is complex and requires much thought and deliberation. Honesty with others about what you want to do and why, honesty with the research participants, honesty with yourself as you describe, analyse and write up what happened…

Yesterday at the University of Melbourne visiting academic Martin Woodhead of the Open University, UK gave a presentation about the Young Lives research project. This is a huge longitudinal study into the lives of children in 4 different countries, at 20 different sites in each country. It uses both quantitative and qualitative methods of inquiry, started in 2002 and will track the lives of the children involved over a 15-year period.

You can read more about Young Lives – An International Study of Childhood Poverty here.

Some time in yesterday’s presentation was spent discussing the data gathering methods that are being used by the qualitative research team in the field. Life course draw-and-tell. Visualising and drawing ‘well-being’. Body mapping. Community mapping. The methods were engaging and hands-on, and encouraged forth what sounded like candid and significant responses from the young people involved.

So much so, that the children asked the researchers if they were “coming back again next weekend?”

They weren’t; great care had been taken to explain to the communities the nature of the research, its time-frame and how it would be conducted, and how the researchers would only be there for one weekend. But the children had had a wonderful time and wanted that these people from outside, who were so interested in their lives, and encouraged them to draw and talk and express themselves freely and creatively, would come again, and again.

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New enterprise needs a name

A clarinet-playing friend got in touch the other day to see if I wanted to join his newly-forming Clarinet Quartet.

Absolutely! What a nice way to kick off the spring!

We need a name. The two of us sent a relay of text messages with suggestions, including:

  • A Moment of Clarity
  • Chalameau Chums (though I don’t expect anyone out there who is not a clarinetist knows or cares what ‘chalameau’ refers to)
  • The Democratic Republic of Clarinets (‘democratic’ because we will swap parts, taking it in turns to play First/Second/Third Clarinet).
  • Licorice Sticks
  • Lickety Sticks (which started a flurry of ruder suggestions, much to my surprise)

The name-hunt is a work in progress. Suggestions invited…

How and why I do what I do…

My focus this week is on my own methodology as a music educator, and considering where my work sits within contemporary thinking about multi-literacies. It’s an interesting thing for me to navel-gaze in this way, because I have not studied a particular music education pedagogy, in fact I have not studied ‘education’ at all. My tertiary studies have been in the area of performance and communication skills, and it was within the latter that I gained my early experience in how to facilitate others’ involvement in authentic and high-quality music experiences.

So here are my early thoughts on the question of Just What It Is That I Do in planning and leading projects and tasks in a music classroom or music project.

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trust me…

In a collaborative project, there are trust relationships on all levels, in all directions. I spend my Saturdays working with the fabulous, creative, generous artistic souls of rawcus and a small team of musicians from the Orchestra. We are working on a show called Hunger for this year’s Melbourne Festival, and this rehearsal period (Aug-Sept) has us in the home stretch of creating and locking in material.

Thinking about the creative journey of taking a show from the seed of an idea to a fully-realised production, and some of the issues we have faced in the Ensemble in recent weeks, got me on the idea of trust, and the web of trust relationships that are an essential part of the creative process:

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The unbeatable metronome

I think one of my most useful resources in the ESL music classroom is my metronome. I use the old-fashioned kind – with the tick-tock swinging pendulum and the little weight-slide that you use to adjust the speed.

The students I work with at the Language School love it. It’s a strong visual cue, it makes the regularity of a beat tangible, and predictable. It teaches them about the discipline of keeping to a pulse in music without me needing to find simple words that can explain the concept to them.

This suits me, and suits the students – language and explanations can be cumbersome in an ESL setting where too much talk can mean you lose students’ attention quickly. It’s tiring for them, to be constantly trying to figure out what is going on, listening to people talk in a language they are not very familiar with!

So visual cues and clues are like gold. Here are some of the tasks and games I’ve been doing with the metronome these last few weeks:

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Language censorship, Harry Potter, and authors

Last night I went to an authors’ do – a get-together for writers of Young Adult fiction who do school workshops for the agency Booked Out. My sister invited me along (she who wrote Notes from the Teenage Underground).

It was a chance for the writers (who came from all over Australia – in Melbourne for Children’s Book Week) to get together and socialise as well as chat about their work, and exchange notes from the field, so to speak. Writing must be a pretty lonely profession sometimes. At one point the conversation turned to swearing in books for young adults – the kinds of words a writer might want to include, but that get knocked back by editors, and how strongly the writer might want to fight for a vernacular that others could take offense at. And constant deliberation about what is appropriate for the age-group, when you take into consideration schools and school libraries and other ‘gate-keepers’ who might keep young readers from your books if they deem them inappropriate.

Which brought me to thinking about the most recent Harry Potter book. I’m quite a Harry fan (even though I feel like my sense of the world I live in becomes a little warped and a little more tense whenever I get immersed in the HP books – I have to ration my reading somewhat, consequently). And I was surprised to find the word ‘bitch’ in the last big battle scene of the latest book.

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John Cage for primary school musicians

I spent my afternoon in the LaTrobe University library looking through John Cage scores. The Orchestra has a project coming up that will be part of the Melbourne Festival’s Musicircus , a big sunset-to-sunrise performance event. I will have a group of about 30 child and adult musicians creating a performance event to be part of this, so I went with the co-curator of Musicircus Tim Humphries to do some research among the Library’s collection of Cage scores, and get some ideas.

Here are some early thoughts:

  • Inspired by Cage’s A Dip in the Lake – ten quicksteps, 61 waltzes, and 56 marches for Chicago and vicinity, a vocal section using addresses of places in Melbourne. (I need to find out what Cage actually did with all the addresses in A Dip…, too).
  • Mesostics, that might then be sung or somehow played – but created by the group in the first place. I think we might create them from the day’s newspaper. (What’s a mesostic?)
  • Include instruments such as tin cans (paint tins?), a battery-operated buzzer (this is how John Cage describes it – the mind boggles – it could be any number of things!), transistor radios, mobile phones…
  • Transparencies with various lines, dots and markings on them that can be randomly superimposed upon each other to create unique graphic scores to be read by the group.
  • Creating compositions using elements of chance (eg. dice) and an idea I had today using coloured squares and rectangles… I’ll make a template of this idea and post it soon. I’m quite excited by it as I think it will be simple to do but will sound very effective…
  • Unison sounds of inhaling and exhaling (following either a graphic score, or a conductor who indicates the pitch contour of the sounds and when the group should inhale or exhale.
  • Metronomes (the old-fashioned, visually-interesting kinds) all set to different tempi, ticking away constantly in what will be a very resonant performing space.

We’ll only have about three hours to rehearse all of this on the performance day, which will mean setting tasks for small groups to develop on their own, and then ordering each of these responses to make one big piece. We’ll work at ArtPlay.

Then again, we may perform in separate groups – either concurrently and independently of each other, or consecutively. It’s all in the spirit of the Musicircus!

In praise of struggle…

I’m thinking today about struggle and good art. The collaboration with the theatre company that the Orchestra’s outreach program is working with is one of the most challenging things I have done, artistically. It has hit a couple of snags recently. That’s mild language – in fact, in the last 8 days we have had two major dramas and each time, I feel myself sigh a bit more heavily inside.

The director and I spoke today and vented some frustrations – not towards each other, but towards these snags (as I shall call them). Her more than me – I had the advantage of a couple of days’ stewing time, and a visit to the Japanese Bath House yesterday evening to help me calm down and take my mind off it all. We both agree it could well be an amazing show that we are in the middle of creating, and we both feel that in a way, these challenges that keep arising are part of that amazing-ness. They are the grit that is forcing us to keep digging away at the material that we devise, to be demanding of it, and challenge it.

We need the musicians to feel this too though, and to keep trusting us.

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Warming up

With each class at the Language School I do the same series of warm-up games for several weeks in a row. I’ve learned to do this (my instinct and preference as a teacher is to create new things all the time), because the repetition means that the students start to build confidence in what we are doing and what they need to do to take part, and I can actually see what they are capable of. When they are doing something unfamiliar, they are just working out what to do by copying the others, and they don’t always understand what is going on, and how it all fits together.

Both middle and lower primary students start with a game I call “names in the space”. I set up a rhythmic pattern in 4/4, of claps, followed by two spaces. I start; I say my name in the first space. In the next space, the students all repeat my name. Then, the person next to me in the circle says their name in the next space, and in the space after that the group repeats that person’s name. And so on, around the circle.

The game is useful in several ways – it challenges their oral language because the game requires them to ‘land’ their voice in the space, (separate to when they are clapping). They have to wait their turn. They have to stay engaged, as everyone must give the response in every second space. It also reminds me of all their names, right at the start of the lesson!

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