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).

They chant the chorus twice, and then spell it out using their Alphabet Dance movements. This will be a unison chorus.

The dance piece will be in rondo form, so we have four other words to spell out – with a small group of students taking a word each. The other four words are ORANGE, APPLES, PEAR and WATERMELON. Next week’s task is to practise (in small groups) spelling out each of these, then layer them into 2 different textures (B and C), so that the eventual structure of our piece will be A (the Chorus), B, A, C, A.

It’s not an easy task, and these two compositions are a lot to fit into a 90 minute session with children of this age group – but they are incredibly focussed and enthusiastic, and they are really motivated to remember the movements and spell out new words. It’s a good reinforcement of their understanding and remembering of the English alphabet, and encouraging them to think of words they know to try to spell out with the dance. Yay for Middle Primary!

Lower Primary’s piece is also coming along well. They have been working on question-and-answer phrases in music, specifically, one I particularly like and have used as a warm-up task in the past:

“Can I have some more please?” (|| || | |)

“No. You can’t.” (|. || _)

We started the term chanting this, and then clapping the rhythm, practising the Question and the Answer separately, and in two groups, until everyone could do it accurately.

Now we have everyone playing a glockenspiel (imagine! 12 of them, at this age, all with an instrument each! “You’re a brave person,” their teacher told me today at the end of the lesson), and we play the question on A, and the answer on D. They are pretty good at this now.

The piece is structured so that we have a C major 8-beat moment interspersing 4 repetitions of the Q&A. (D minor, then C major – one of my favourite progressions. So simple, so hooky, and so versatile). I’ve divided the Lower Primary kids into two groups. Group 1 has a simple scale to play (G mixolydian) over the 8 beats of C major), and Group 2 has a little melody (A aeolian, essentially. But I love the ambiguity of modes and use them a lot for this reason).

They had trouble keeping track of all this material today, but that’s okay, it was the first day. We have time. Next week I’ll ask them to list for me some of the things they would like to have ‘more’ of. We’ll organise their responses into rhythms that fit these two melodic phrases and sing them while playing, and that will help them remember what and when to play.

I’m going to call this piece ‘More’. An intriguing, enigmatic, quirky name. Well, I think so!

My Secondary students were as enthusiastic and cooperative as they always are – such a delight on a Friday afternoon! They are real workers. We have created quite a substantial amount of material this term too. The first piece has been created by layering together their words from the ‘musical alphabet’ (letters A-G). It’s quite beautiful. The structure is a little complex, but we completed it a few weeks ago, and revisit it for a short part of each lesson. Today we made a few refinements – a ritardando (“Imagine the music is starting to feel tired,” I suggested to the student), some dynamic contrasts, and tightening up a few rhythmic elements. This kind of detail makes a lot of difference in polishing a performance, but I also find the students’ focus is supported if they have specific musical aims to think about with each note they play. I offer small suggestions gradually, so that the music evolves organically throughout the term.

The Secondaries second piece evolved from a class improvisation, and it has as its ‘chorus’ an African-sounding pentatonic melody that is played on the xylophone and violin. I like the words – they are light-hearted and fun, and we wrote them quite irreverently in about 2 minutes:

So-so feeling, I’ll be happy, I don’t care

When I’m with you, baby darling, love-love you

We also have created some cool rhythms to play on the djembes, agogo bell, tambourines and cabassa, that we constructed by stringing the names of class members together and performing them vocally in deliberately rhythmic and syncopated ways.

Today we discussed how to organise all of this material, which has developed independently of each other. The students were very enthusiastic about writing some rap verses (in their own languages, rather than English) to perform over the rhythmic sections. They also had some ideas about creating a dance to go with it.

I’d love them to go with the dance idea. Now the plan is to consolidate the content and structure next week, and start to create an understanding of performing for an audience, which on the day will be made up of other students and teachers. I plan to try to create an understanding for them of how the performance will go, and how the space will be organised, right from next week.

A good term’s work, I am thinking. Looking forward to seeing it all take shape over the next couple of weeks.

(Previous posts on Musical Alphabets here, and on Language School projects here.)

5 comments so far

  1. Maria on

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on the musical alphabet. What a wonderful way to combine literacy, music, and dance. You mentioned in your other post that you’re keeping a close eye on students that may be struggling with this. How is that going? How do you work together with the literacy teacher– is some of the musical alphabet work woven into her lessons, and are you starting to see if this work results in any tangible literacy outcomes?

  2. musicwork on

    Hi Maria,

    Thanks for visiting! So far, pretty good, with the musical alphabet…. the biggest issue for the students is remembering each of the ‘letters’. It is also MY biggest issue – but we get there. I love it when one of the students remembers a movement or corrects me or the class teacher. (I should point out, my style of teaching has me – and usually the class teacher – doing everything the kids do. Copying is so important at this school as a way of making sense of all classroom work. And a lot can be learned about music – like other artforms – through copying what someone else does).

    When I started this project I was looking out for kids who might not understand the link between the alphabet and the dance moves. (Some of them are only just learning the English alphabet, so the letters, and their order, are not necessarily familiar). I haven’t seen evidence of this connection not being understood (but I suspect it would be hard for me to differentiate between that lack of understanding, and simply not remembering. We dance the alphabet forwards, and backwards… we repeat ‘tricky corners’ (groups of 4-5 letters where we frequently get stuck) over a number of times in a row, and I invite individuals and pairs to show what they can remember.

    However, moving on to this next stage, where we spell out particular words, rather than the whole alphabet, is going to be much easier for the students – I think! They will have less to remember. They will be spelling words out loud, and hearing other groups spell out other words out loud. Some will go home or out to the playground and find new words to spell, because they are enjoying the challenge.

    Your question about working in hand with the literacy teacher, follow up work in the classroom,
    and evidence of improved literacy outcomes, got me thinking about the whole question of teacher collaboration, and I am going to write on this topic in my next post (hopefully today sometime!) as I think I’d like to give a longer answer than is suitable here. So please drop by again!

  3. Maria on

    Thanks for the answer. I am very interested in dance, literacy, and working with immigrant children (combo of my personal professional lives), so what you are doing sounds really neat!

  4. musicwork on

    It’s been a great way to get the children moving, and I think they really enjoy the tangible link with their language learning. This is the furthest I have taken this particular task idea. I have used it just as a dance in the past, of spelling A-Z with an interesting combination of moves. I think moving it on to the point where the students start to ‘write’ words and sentences is where the connections with literacy and creativity really start to feed off each other. We had a lot of excited momentum in the class today.

  5. […] on my Alphabet Dance project idea (which I also described in detail on this blog here, here and here, if you want to check it out) and today’s workshop was to introduce the project to the […]

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