Music projects from texts

Yesterday I was at the Language School, and got the three classes I am working with this term (Lower, Middle and Upper Primaries) going on their new project for this term – building compositions from books. I suggested to each teacher that they choose a book that has a lot of staying power with their class, that we could use as source material for composition work. I am imagining we will try:

  • Setting some of the text to music, or finding fun musical ways to ‘sing’ the book;
  • Building chants and rap from words or phrases from the text (not necessarily in order, or in context)
  • Creating music that responds in some way to the images in the books.

Many of the students who have had little prior schooling (due to growing up in war-torn countries or refugee camps) may struggle to remember the alphabet, but can remember whole songs word-perfectly (in English). I want to see if approaching a text through music, using different tactics including mnemonics, assists them in their reading, oral language, and word recognition. The three teachers have been wonderfully responsive to this idea and by the end of yesterday we had a book for each class. Each one offers some kind of vocabulary and emotional content that is appropriate for the age group.

Books chosen: The Very Hungry Caterpillar (with its wonderful vocab of days of the week, numbers and food); Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? which lists different colours and animals and has a gentle rhythmic repetition to it; and Whoever you are, by Mem Fox, which has a strong affirmative message of diversity and common humanity, as well as some phrases that are crying out to be sung!

In the lessons yesterday I did a lot of work on pulse and rhythm – building an understanding of what these two words describe in music, inventing some fun rhythms from the names of students in the class, and putting these on instruments, then creating structures that required students to be able to alternate performing a rhythm with performing a pulse, moving seamless from one to the other.

With the older students I also tried to create an image of a brain working in two halves. I have no idea what they made of my exaggerated mime of thus concept! But they laughed…. and hopefully some understood. As with last term, I will be repeating my warm-ups over a series of weeks, in order to give the newest students time to make sense of it all and find the work more predictable.

The Upper Primary teacher enjoyed the opportunity to write her own observations of the kinds of responses her students were giving in music. She noted that the two newest students (who have very little English) were included and participating right from the start and added, “It is not as fast or immediate in their classes with me.” As I found in my research project last semester, music does seem to be particularly well-suited to offering a clear participant role to students with very little English, and I structure my tasks with this in mind. She also noticed the ways that different students showed small moments of resistance and how these were gradually countered.

I was happy with one of my responses (to a girl in Upper Primary who is very musical, but always wants to do her own thing, rather than play as part of a section):

“I can see that you have lots of music ideas in your head, haven’t you?”

She nodded.

“That’s wonderful to have so many good ideas. But for now, can you play just the rhythm? So that it is the same as everyone else?” She smiled suddenly, directly at me, and from then on played as a strong member of the section.

As always in the ELS, I don’t know exactly what was going on for her. Maybe up until that point, she hadn’t understood that she was supposed to play the same as everyone else. Maybe she was bored, and it was too easy for her (very possible, as she is musically pretty on the ball), so she needed a stronger motivation to stay with the section. Maybe she just wanted some acknowledgment from me of her musical offers, and her competence.

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