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.
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.
What we have done so far:
- I told them the story of the book, and we looked at the pictures. They told it back to me, and we summarised the story into four sections. Later in the week, they read through the book with their teacher, and approached some of the unfamiliar vocabulary.
- We wrote a sentence, or pair of sentences, for each of the four sections, describing what was taking place. These then became rhythmic phrases.
- We identified an emotion for each of the four sections. I then proposed a mode (I call it a ‘family of notes’, and describe the strong pull towards certain pitches – tonic, subdominant, median – as the different strong members of a family) for each section. Dorian for sad music, Mixolydian for happy, etc.
- The students worked in two groups, with a glockenspiel each (pretty noisy, but it didn’t last for too long) in the Dorian mode, and invented a musical phrase (1 per group) for one of the sentences chosen for the second section, depicting The Storm.
- Then we arranged the sentences further, into multi-layered chants, songs, untuned percussion. This is where we are now up to. Lots of material that needs to be ordered into a discreet musical section. Then we need to get started on the other sections of the story.
This is largely a very happy, cooperative group, working together well. However, there are two girls that, each week, are reluctant to take part. There are lots of reasons for this (including issues about their general transition to schooling, language etc) but it is interesting that always, by the end of the lesson, they are happy and participating and contributing. I came to the conclusion this week that the warm-up I do at the start of each lesson (usually a series of different games, very playful, but each with its own discipline, requiring teamwork, focus, and awareness of pulse) is not working for them. They don’t really like it, their focus and participation always improves when we get stuck into the main part of the lesson.
I’m not sure why this is, but tomorrow, I plan to skip the warm-up and get straight into the composing work, and see if they respond any better. I’ll save the games for later in the lesson, when we are ready for a break.
This class have taken a while to settle this term. They are very young, and many in the class have little or no prior schooling. Consequently, we have spent the first few weeks focusing on some of the routines and rules of the music classroom
Things like ‘good listening’, ‘good waiting’, ‘good looking’, taking in turns, concentrating on a task for longer than feels comfortable for some. Trying to instill in them an excitement for doing things all together, as an ensemble.
By last week we were ready to start on a more long-term composing task, and I introduced their book to them – Shoes from Grandpa by Mem Fox.
- We read the book together. As a warm-up we did lots of call-and-response rhythms, so they were getting good at imitating rhythms. I repeated the last line of each page to them, and asked them to say it back to me. We did this a few times.
- Then I read the book again and asked them to say the last sentence of each page with me. Next we clapped it while we said it, always in the right place in the story. Next we played the rhythm on instruments.
- Rather than singing through the whole book, which has quite a large vocabulary for this age-group of non-English speaking children, I decided to focus on the last line. The children already remembered this line (in which the main character, Jessie, wishes someone in her family would just buy her some jeans, instead of all these fancy clothes) and enjoyed its sentiments. We used the phrase, “She doesn’t want…” and made a list of all the clothes she’d been given, in the order they appear in the story. Then we created a series of riffs in this format.
- I asked the students for ideas of how to sing this ‘she doesn’t want… shoes’ phrase. There was a moment of blankness among them. I knew this was a hard question for them, but I just wanted to see… and then one student made an offer, a really strong offer. This was a great moment because this boy had been a bit disengaged at the start of term. It was wonderful for him to offer an idea and have it be used for the class composition. He looked pretty pleased with himself.
- So now the piece is starting to take shape. We need to build a structure for the different musical elements we have, and then think of a fun way to perform it. Maybe with costumes, of all the different clothes mentioned in the song,
Middle Primary are going great guns. It is a very focused, high-achieving and cooperative class this term. Their book is What’s that Noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie, and we have been doing a number of tasks on listening.
What we have done so far:
- We read the book together, and talked through what was happening.
- The students listed all the different sounds mentioned in the book they could remember.
- We learned to say the repeating chorus together (an eight-line ‘chorus’ that rhymes, and is repeated throughout the book). Then I asked for ideas of how to sing it. (I wrote about this process here). Through this we fairly quickly came up with what I thought was a pretty cool, catchy song.
- We then returned to our list of noises that we remembered from the book. I wanted to make this more extensive, so asked them what sorts of sounds they can hear when they are in bed, trying to sleep, like the little boy in the book. This gave us a wonderful list of sounds, from radios and TVs in neighbouring houses, to doors creaking, windows rattling, footsteps and people snoring.
- We divided the group in half. One half put on blindfolds and lay down on the floor, ‘trying to sleep’. the other half roamed the room as quietly as possible, trying to make scary noises using whatever was available in the room. Then the ‘sleeping’ group suggested which sounds had been the scariest or most sinister.
- Next, we will use the sounds and make a big graphic score of a scary soundscape, that the whole class will perform together.