Archive for February, 2008|Monthly archive page

Creating a soundscape

Today at the Language School I created a graphic score with Middle Primary, of a soundscape of ‘scary sounds’. Last week we brainstormed different sounds that you might hear in the middle of the night, that might make you feel unsure or frightened, and experimented with ways to make the sounds, using the creaking doors, chairs and floorboards available in the room (ample choices!).

We started off by going through the list of sounds and deciding how many times each one would be heard in a 2-minute soundscape. Then we decided which sound should come at the end, which at the beginning, and what should happen in the middle. Once we had determined these, we could plan where all the others should go in relation to our beginning, middle and end.

Each child chose a sound to draw, and was given a coloured square of paper. I ruled up a large, broad sheet of paper into a grid. As the coloured cards were finished and passed to me, I stuck them on the grid in the order we had already discussed.

We didn’t have time to perform it today, but finished sticking up all the sounds (coloured cards with drawn images on them) onto the score, and talked through how we could perform it. The children seemed very pleased with themselves, and understood the process.

Here is the score we made:

soundscape photo

Geghard Monastery

I can’t resist sharing two more photos, from the beautiful, awe-inspiring cave monastery at Geghard, Armenia.

geghard interior

Geghard means spear in Armenian. The church is named after its most holy relic, the sword brandished by a Roman soldier to pierce Christ’s side as he was on the cross. It was brought to Armenia by two of the apostles (Bartholomew and someone else, I think). The sword is now in the Treasury at Echmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, but for many centuries it was housed here at Geghard.

Geghard interior 2

Mid-term observations

This week is the midpoint of the term, so it is a good time to reflect on where each of the classes are up to at the Language School, and what kinds of adjustments I am making.

Upper Primary

We are composing music inspired by the book Aranea by Jenny Wagner (illustrations by Ron Brooks). The students have responded enthusiastically to the book – it was a suggestion of mine, and the class teacher didn’t know the book at all. She too has responded enthusiastically.

This teacher is very collaborative. She has enlarged pages from the book to make a giant-sized book to use when the class reads together. She has taken words and phrases from the book, and from the words we have developed for our music, to use in the students’ weekly literacy tasks. This week, she photographed each student playing the xylophone and asked the students to write about the photo of themselves as a creative writing task.

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Brain space

It is a very busy time just now. Ethics application went in today but the list of big things I need to write is… big.

It makes me aware of how much brain space I normally like to use for teaching. Teaching for me is very creative.  I develop a composition project for each of my three classes and these progress from week to week. Each week I go in with a plan that builds on whatever was created the week before; at the end of the day I make notes and transcribe all the music we came up with, and sometime before the next class I fashion these ideas into a possible shape for us to try. It is a very responsiv and open process.

However, it takes brain space, and today I feel very very aware of how little I have left! Administrative tasks do this to me – there are usually deadlines and tangibles and ‘deliverables’ with admin, that make the tasks have priority, somehow. Also, it is hard to go into creative inventive head space when there are tangible administrative things hanging around, nagging at you to get done.

I am doing an extra day at the Language School this week, so I have less time between lesson days to plan and let the latest ideas roll around in my head and get worked on by my subconscious. I go there again tomorrow and while I have a plan of what I will do with each class, and where each project is up to, I can feel a kind of heaviness in my head that makes me look forward to having a day with no deliverables or big tasks attached to it.

Kaputan climb

This is a hill-top church in a small town called Kaputan, a short drive from Yerevan, Armenia. We visited here on our first day. There was no snow in Yerevan on this day- it was grey and foggy, and all the surrounding mountains were obscured by thick smog. Kaputan, by contrast, sparkled, and the sunlight danced off the snow.

Ethics application (and other distractions)

If you want to do a research project that involves humans in some way (interviews, observation, and videotaping, in my case) you need to apply for project approval by the designated Human Research Ethics Committee. It is a very formal, detailed, painstaking process. I am in the middle of it right now, planning to submit my proposal next week.

So far, not so bad, I am happy to report. Here is my favourite piece of succinct description so far – the one-paragraph description of my methodology. This would have boggled me completely, less than a year ago. Now I am writing it! Hooray, how I love signs of progress!

This is a qualitative study, a case study that aims to capture the music program in a particular time and place, as it is experienced and perceived by the students. Embedded within the case study structure is a phenomenological approach to the inquiry, in that no presuppositions are being made about the subject of the inquiry. Grounded theory will serve as a procedural model in drawing conclusions from the resulting data.

Lots to do still, but after my meeting with my supervisor today I feel re-energised and ready to put the whole thing together. That will happen on Friday, mostly as the rest of this week is pretty full.

I am also preparing an application for a student bursary at the moment, and at work at the Orchestra, am entering the Outreach Program for a couple of awards. Lots of forms to fill in over these next few weeks.

Now, however, a mild but amusing distraction:

Here at WordPress, when you have a blog you can access a stats page which tells you how many people (other than yourself) are visiting your blog, and how people are finding your blog – either through referral links or through search engines. The stats page shows you the terms people are typing into the search engines that bring up your blog in the results. Some of these are quite intriguing. Some are plain odd.

  • I get hits from people searching for ‘Armenian mafia’ almost every day…
  • Lots of people find me after searching for Parisian street names, such as ‘Rue du Bac’ and ‘Rue Tiquetonne’…
  • Someone once googled ‘impenetrable sentences’ which was a phrase I used in an early entry, complaining about some of the unfathomable academic texts I was reading… clearly someone else thinks similarly about these to me…
  • Lastly, I am slightly alarmed by the search engine query ‘how do I polish my clarinet?’ Is this a euphemism, do you think?

Let’s finish today with a photo.

rooftop layers

Sarajevo rooftops. Spires and mosque domes and pitched roofs all on top of each other, covered in a layer of powdery snow. Only the merest hint of colour warms the picture. I love this city.

Sarajevo photos

Regular readers will know I am recently returned from glorious overseas travel. I spent a white Christmas in Sarajevo, staying with friends, rejoicing in being back in Bosnia, a country with big pieces of my heart and soul invested in it. Here are some favourite pictures.

bascarsija Dec07

Bascarsija, the central and ancient heart of Sarajevo, Christmas Day. All the shop keepers wished me Happy Christmas. I wished them Happy Bajrom (Muslim festival held a few days earlier) in return. Smiles all round.

Bosnian jugs

Traditional jugs and urns on display, getting snowed on.

Princip Bridge

From this bridge, Gavrilov Princip shot Prince Ferdinand, and started World War I.

Sarajevo rose

A “Sarajevo Rose’, a scar on the road left by mortar shell explosion, that has been filled with red. The Roses act as a kind of memorial of what took place here, and perhaps are also a defiance that claims beauty back from acts of violence. There aren’t so many left of these now, but some years ago, there were many.

view to Alifakovac

After getting off the tram from KB’s house in the centre of town, this is where we are. The steep road you can see on the far side of the river leads to Alifakovac, the cemetery on the hill that overlooks the city.

cemetery stones

Ancient grave stones alongside newer memorials, Alifakovac cemetery, Sarajevo. December 2007.

Writing songs

I had a particularly good lesson with Middle Primary today at the Language School. This is the group aged approximately 8-10 years old. There is quite a mix of children in the class – the most dominant ethnic group is Chinese, but there is a big range of English skills in the class overall. They have been very responsive in music so far this term and we are developing a nice rapport.

As explained in an earlier post, I am building a music project with them based on the picture book What’s that noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie. Today my plan was to create a melody for the main repeated ‘chorus’ (as I call it) that recurs throughout the book, and is rhythmic and rhyming.

I decided to use a tactic I experimented with last year with the Upper Primary class when we worked with Mem Fox’s book Whoever you are. I get the whole group to say the first phrase (or pair of phrases if it is easy to memorise) over and over, letting it work itself into a consistent rhythm. All the while I am listening out for any hint of a natural melody that might emerge from an individual or from the group.

That melody didn’t emerge today, so I started on my second step – I sing the two phrases, for them to copy and sing back to me. I improvise a new melody each time I sing them. I make some deliberately odd, and others quite melodic, in order to demonstrate a big range of possibilities, and in the hope that none of my melodies gets stuck into anyone’s head.

Then I ask the group,

“Did you hear how I changed the music many times? Who would like to sing their own music for these words?”

Today we had hands shooting up straight away.

At this point I hear all the ideas, one by one, and I notate them. First I sing them back to the child, to check that I have heard it accurately (sometimes their pitching can be ambiguous), and then I go to the piano to check (perfect pitch would be a great asset, but not one I can claim, sadly).

This would be a risky approach if no ideas were forthcoming, as the class could lose momentum and energy, but as I said, I have a nice rapport growing with this group, and I felt confident that some of the children would be happy to have a go.

One of the later suggestions seemed to please everybody, as all joined in with it when I played it on the piano – so that was the one we stuck with. I invented a simple accompaniment on the piano and we sang it a few times, to get the feel right and let the melody and implied harmonies digest a little.

We then repeated the process with the next two lines. The melody we came up with for these suggested the shape for the next two lines and suddenly our chorus was finished. It had all come from the children apart from one rhythmic suggestion that I made for the very last line (mindful of how I wanted it to fit in the larger piece we will be composing). I think it is fine for the teacher/adult to have a voice in the process – it is a collaboration after all, and I am one of the collaborators!

What I love in particular, is that before we started on this process I already had an idea in my head of how this chorus could be sung – and now we have a melody that is totally and utterly different. I would never have composed it myself. It really has emerged from a group process and that is a very satisfying thing. The children know this too. I saw their faces light up as they began to see where the process was leading us – these are children with very little knowledge of English, and very little prior experience (if any at all) with this kind of group devising process. There was enough repetition for them to see how all this incomprehensible jumble of speaking and singing was starting to connect and form a shape.

More photos

My computer is too full at the moment to load all the photos from my trip into it. So I can only post photos from the last roll. Here are some favourites:

A Study in Form:

study in form

A mighty Caravaggio (on the right wall), in a church in Piazza dei Popoli, Rome. How I gazed!


Italians talking with their hands – more games with reflections, this time on the train to Pisa:

Italian hands

More thoughts on my teaching methodology

As I started planning the next term at the Language School I began to make a list of  some of the key principles I keep in mind when working in this environment. It is starting to look a bit like a methodology description… nearly. Here goes:

Things I learned from my research project in 07:

  • Repetition builds confidence. It gives the students time to become familiar with a task, and then to build skills. Create a warm-up sequence for each group and repeat this at the start of each lesson for about 4 weeks.
  • Lots of the children can only copy. They simply don’t have the language skills yet to understand any explanations. Therefore everything we do in music class should be do-able simply by joining in what the other kids do. Music is ideal for this.
  • Syllable awareness is a challenge for many of the students (and a significant step towards literacy as well as oral fluency), therefore a challenge worth pursuing. It is also an ideal, self-evident compositional tool. It is good to work in both directions (the rhythm of words becoming music; setting music to the rhythm of words) – this is one of the ways I work with text from books, for example.
  • Establish with the group the important skills for music work – Good Looking, Good Listening, and Good Waiting. And Working Together. I use these phrases to reinforce the ideas to the students in every lesson. The language is simple and familiar. I can add the gesture of pointing to my eye/ear to further illustrate the meaning for the newest students.  I make a point of praising students who demonstrate these skills – this gives me a further chance to use the phrases and increase their familiarity.
  • Keep the mood light and happy. School is hard work for these students – they are navigating and negotiating a lot of unfamiliar territory, all in a new language. Music should be fun, a time for everyone to feel good. Use light-hearted questions to refocus attention (eg. “Who is the teacher?” and “It’s Eric’s turn. Who is Eric?” are some tactics I use).

Ideas from music therapy:

  • The role and use of a consistent ‘framing’ song (ie. a song or chant that always starts/finishes the lesson, and frames it in the children’s minds so that they come to recognise this space as a safe/creative/non-judging space).
  • Using the idea of entrainment – matching the ‘tempo’ of the group’s energy with a task, game or song, and then moving it one notch at a time towards the energy level you need them to be at for the main body of the lesson.

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Ideas for Term One, ELS

Tomorrow is my first day back at the Language School (ELS). I will have three classes again – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary. The age ranges roughly correspond to years P-2, 3-4, 5-6 respectively.

My plan this term is work again with books and text, and to develop music composition activities that support some of the oral language and literacy goals for the classes. We will try chants drawn from the text, song-writing, composed music that expresses the emotion or dramatic journey of the story, and other ideas.

But it is hard to find the ideal books for this kind of work. It is good if there is an element of repetition in the text; fairly simple vocabulary, as lots of new words will make it too challenging for the newest arrivals; but it is also important to find age-appropriate books if possible, that fit with these vocabulary restrictions. It is good too, if the books introduce useful new vocabulary – such as clothes, colours, foods, transport, and so on.

The books I have chosen for this term, in consultation with one of the teachers, are:

  • Shoes from Grandpa by Mem Fox (Lower Primary)
  • What’s that noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie (Middle Primary)
  • ARANEA – A story about a spider by Jenny Wagner (Upper Primary)

Shoes from Grandpa is very light-hearted, and lists lots of different kinds of clothes, it has a rhyming scheme that is fairly regular, and is repetitive, adding a line to the repetition at a time. I first came across this book reading it to my 2-year-old nephew in Brisbane.

What’s that Noise? What’s that sound? has an excellent ‘chorus’ that rhymes and is repeated throughout the book. It starts with a feeling of scary noises in the night, and ends in fantasy world, so musically there are lots of jumping-off points for composing.

Aranea is in fact quite a wordy book, but the story, very simply, poignantly told, and the illustrations, are beautiful. This is a book I had as a child and I loved it, and loved my parents reading it to me. It has simple refrain that is repeated 3 or 4 times through the story, but more significantly for this age group, it has a level of emotional content that I think they will connect with. The story has parallels with a refugee or immigrant’s experience, of arriving in a new place and feeling unsafe and conspicuous.

However, despite liking things about each of these books, I also have some doubts. I will continue to search for books for ESL kids, that do not require the vocab of a native English speaker, that have ‘pathways’ into them via repetition, refrains and ‘choruses’ in the text, that have engaging, age-appropriate story lines, and musical properties! A tall order, I know, but probably someone out there has already written such books.

If you have any recommendations, please leave them as comments – thanks!

And now, because I am in a reflective mood, here are some photos of reflections on the River Arno, in Pisa, from my recent trip.

clouds on Arno, enhanced

cloudy water

Gothic sunset