Archive for March, 2008|Monthly archive page

Prison workshop #2

I approached the second session in the prison with a certain amount of nervousness. The first one had gone so well – would we be received with more skepticism on this second visit? I wanted to push the guys a bit more, challenge them further musically – would they resist this? Did they want it? Maybe these sessions are more of an opportunity for them to chill out, than to build skills. Music can be a fairly hardcore discipline when you start to develop skills. It takes focus. I didn’t want to set up things that would give anyone a negative experience, or sense of failure.

Here is what I was aiming for:

  • Work with rhythm and pitch separately to start with – try to encourage more detailed listening from the group, awareness of other parts, working in sections, adding more complex layers.
  • See if we can stimulate some deeper expressive/emotional responses musically – in particular responding to R’s idea (R is our cellist) to use an extract from the Dvorak cello concerto as a stimulus for reflections on separation from home and loved ones.
  • Try to build on the quiet ensemble singing that came spontaneously in the first workshop, during Y’s improvisation on Just the Two of us.

Getting through security takes time. We have to sign in, have our irises scanned (one by one – we are already on the system of iris recognition so this is faster than it was on the first day); we put our personal items that we don’t need for the workshop (wallets, mobile phones, keys, ID tags for the orchestra office) in a locker; we transfer the small items we need for the workshop into see-through plastic bags, and put these through the x-ray, along with our instruments. Then we walk through a walk-in X-ray machine, kind of like a cone-of-silence pod, one person at a time. After this we get scanned with the hand-held metal detector one by one (arms outstretched, back then front), collect our instruments and other x-rayed items, then go three at a time into first a sound-lock room, in which we do the iris scan again, and then out into the corridor and into the large light room where we do the workshop.

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Visual cues (4)

Second day of Professional Learning Seminar for the Song Room, on creativity, music and story today. What a fabulous group of participants we were blessed with! Taking part in music and creative work can feel quite confronting for people, and many of those in our group admitted to feelings of apprehension on the first day. But they also said they knew how powerful music and the arts were proving for the children in their schools, and they came along to the 2-day seminar to build up their owns skills in order to make more music and more arts happen in their schools. Bravi to them!

There were some more visual cues from SY that I want to add to yesterday’s post:

  • A rope, spread out along the ground. We made a line and had to run along it in bare feet, one at a time. Again, this a great strategy for organising the children in the space, as they love the playful pretending that is taking place as they act out the story, and absolutely everyone wants to run along the rope. So they are all waiting patiently, 100% engaged.
  • When the group gathers together to discuss something, SY spreads a large piece of velvet fabric on the ground, in a rich dark red colour. It provides a visual cue for the boundary around which we will sit. It suggests a kind of formality, or ritual, to the act of gathering together.

I am pretty tired from these two days. I have loads of energy throughout, but once the day is over, I crash.

We had a theme of pirates across the two days – arrrgh! Today we wrote a Pirate Chant, which had some fun lines:

Pieces of eight, yea HO, me hearties

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum (Land Ahoy)

Walk the plank, brandish the cutless

Hoist the Jolly Roger,

X marks the spot!

That was our chorus. My brain has turned to mush and I can’t remember the verses. If anyone from the course reads this post and can fill in some more, please do, via the comments section (link at the top of this post). I will add more if/when I remember more.

Visual cues (3)

I have written about visual cues for ESL students in the past – using a metronome to encourage a sense of pulse and ensemble, and floor markings giving student reference points for organising themselves in the space. Floor markings also seem to assist students in letting go of physical anticipation/tension, and assume a more passive stance, which made a big difference when they were having a try of the violin for the first time.

Today I have been working with SY, a wonderful early years educator and drama guru, who specialises in story-making. We are leading a 2-day Professional Development Seminar for primary classroom teachers. Today was Day One.

SY taught a warm-up game that involves each person having their own little mat to carry and/or place on the floor. The mats are about 25x25cm, made of felt, and in bright colours. She uses the mats to organise a class, and keep control of their movement, all the while giving the children lots of choice and possibility. She starts almost every lesson with these mats, and they teach the children an important kinaesthetic and spoken vocabulary for movement and working in open spaces.

We tried:

  • Placing our mat on the floor and standing on it, ensuring we each had our own ‘personal space’ (measured by swinging our arms around our bodies like a helicopter, and checking we didn’t touch anyone else). SY: My students know exactly what is meant by ‘personal space’ and how to find it because we do this task so frequently.
  • Walking away from our mat, but on a given cue (a drum beat) we had to run back to our own mat.
  • Walking around the space carrying the mat – on heads/elbows/toes/noses, etc – and observing how this changed the way people used their bodies, and the beautiful, unusual shapes they created in the space.
  • Placing our mats on the floor and had to assume different poses, within a given instruction from SY. A pose with your hands touching the floor; bottoms on the floor, but feet off; one hand and one foot only, touching the floor.

Many of these are similar to theatre warm-ups used widely, but the addition of the mats offers ESL teachers a lovely way of organising students within a space without depending on detailed verbal instructions. The mats can help build a vocabulary with the students – both spoken and physical – for working with their bodies in open spaces.

Running away – teaching refugee children

I keep thinking about my day at the Language School this week, and about young Sarah in particular. She is a Sudanese girl in the Upper Primary class, and she keeps running away from the music class.

Generally she runs away at the midpoint of the lesson, when the students get a short break to get a drink of water or use the toilet. She usually tells people – the teacher, or the other students – that she is ‘not coming back’.

Before that time, she is usually taking part in the lesson. Sometimes with a certain amount of light, friendly, unpressured persuasion from me and the teacher, at different times. This week, for example, when we were doing our instrumental work, I set her drum at her feet, and told her she could start playing whenever she wanted, or she could just listen. She listened attentively. I was playing a similar drum at the front of the group, and after a while, while I was speaking to the whole class, I went back to her, took her hand and brought her and her drum up the front to sit with me. “We’ll play together,” I suggested, and she joined in from that point. I felt like this was a good solution on my part, as it would have been hard for her (being proud and a bit stubborn) to join in of her own accord. I think she felt happy to be invited by me in a friendly and gentle way. She had been listening very well up to that point, and came with me very willingly.

But she still ran away at break – usually staying outside near the water taps, or standing in the corridor just outside the music room.

The class teacher went after her to bring her back. (This teacher is not in fact the regular class teacher, she takes the Upper Primary class for a lesson every second week. Sarah doesn’t run away when her regular teacher is there – at least, not in my experience. The children tend to be more settled with their regular teacher, in all of the classes. It makes it tough for teachers who only take them for a lesson once a week or so).

Sarah came back, but wouldn’t join in the music again. She sat on a chair and watched, absent-mindedly squeaking the chair beside her as she watched.

It started to drive me to distraction, the noise of the squeaking chair. I’m not very happy about how I dealt with this situation, though I know I was feeling a certain amount of pressure. This was our last music lesson before the class must perform their composition in a concert in a fortnight’s time, so I was very keen that they get through the piece in as focused a way as possible.

“Sarah,” I said more sharply. “We need you in the music. Come back to the drum.”

But she didn’t. The teacher and I exchanged a look.

I said, “If Sarah doesn’t want to do music, that is okay, but maybe she needs to go to another classroom while we finish working.”

“I think so,” agreed her teacher.

“Maybe she needs to go to Lower Primary,” I added.

“That sounds like a good idea,” said the teacher. Sarah didn’t say anything (as far as I can recall) and she and the teacher left the room.

It was a frustrating moment for both the teacher and I, but also I guess for Sarah. She would have felt ashamed to be sent to the class of younger children.

Teaching strategies

At lunchtime, I spoke with her regular class teacher about it. We were talking more generally, initially, about the expectations even this specialised school can have of the refugee children.

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Today I was thinking about power in a workshop setting. Who has it, how it manifests itself.

The thought comes in response to something that happened in the first prison workshop, 2 days ago. We started with a briefing session for the creative team – just 15 minutes to gather everyone together and ensure we started with a shared brief or intention. I described my idea for the workshop – but made a quantum leap (as I tend to do) in which I forget to fill everyone in on my thinking that has led to this idea. In this case, I thought we were all clear that our ideal was for the workshop to flow without any obvious form, that we would be responsive to the group, and follow leads that came from the guys. Of course. But in addition, I knew that we would need a back-up, just in case everyone felt inhibited and nothing came from the group. The back-up idea was what I presented.

Basically, (it felt like) several people slammed my idea. Wham, down, just like that. Because they didn’t want us to have a plan, that the workshop should be responsive.  A surprising kind of keen-ness to assert themselves. Maybe we all have our own ambitions for this project (although the aims stated by all of them are more about building relationships and communication that artistic or content-driven aims. Perhaps they have them but are unaware of them.)

And I wondered if they realised how damaging that kind of blocking can be. We would never respond in such a way to one of the prisoners. Why would we do it to each other? Just as we want to bring out the best in the people we work with, don’t we want to bring it out in each other? And if not, isn’t that kind of patronising? To want it for the prisoners – why? Because we feel sorry for them? That’s not an attitude I have ever encouraged in this community outreach program for the orchestra. We go into projects first and foremost as collaborators, and we work with ‘the raw materials as they are on the day’. (That’s a mantra). Non-judging, trusting our own expertise to be able to make all things work, find the strongest music in everything.

In a classical music setting it is not so unusual to block the ideas of others. It is a harsh world. But as educators we know a lot these days about what creates ideal learning environments, and the security that people need to feel in order to offer forth their ideas. We need to practise these ideals in every learning environment we find ourselves in. Anytime we bring out the best in others, we create something better for ourselves.

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Suspended cymbal?

“Who wants a suspended cymbal?” asks percussionist J, ready to hand a cymbal on a stand over to one of the group.

“I’d rather have a suspended sentence,” was the bone-dry, rapid-fire response from one guy, and we all roared with laughter.

The Orchestra’s project in the prison started today. Me and three musicians from the orchestra, along with our fantastic sound designer D, and the music teacher from the prison S, had our first music workshop with nine guys from the prison. It’s a project idea that I have been nurturing and progressing at the Orchestra for several years now – so this day is particularly satisfying.

This has been one of those projects with a lot of unknowns that were never going to be answered before today. Things like:

  • How would the prisoners respond, and what would they be into?
  • How structured could the session be?
  • Would we be able to move away from simply jamming on songs they knew, towards freer, possibly more esoteric, improvisations and pieces?
  • Would the microphones distract or inhibit people’s responses?

This is a complex project, and its many elements came into being as a response to the characteristics of the environment. We are in a transitional prison, so we wanted to make sure that everyone who took part – even if they would only be around for one session – could somehow contribute to the final piece; we wouldn’t be able to do a final performance, not even in the prison, as many of our participants might not still be there by that date, therefore we needed a project design that didn’t lead to a performance outcome.

To get around all of these issues we have a sound designer involved. I’ve worked with David on different projects since 2000 – he is an amazing collaborator, very generous, very open to experiments, completely skilled and expert in his craft, and wonderful at translating the esoteric wordy descriptions of classical musicians looking for a particular sound into… exactly the sound they are looking for.

David comes to every session. He is recording all the conversations, all the improvisations, catching sound bites wherever he hears them, able to process in an instant a grab of sound, to make a cool rhythmic loop over which more improvisations can happen.

After the workshops in the prison are finished (and the workshops with families – we have two workshops for parents and/or children of people in prison) the musician team will gather together for a further three sessions, in which we will devise a performance piece, or suite of pieces, using the material from all the workshop sessions, and record it.

The CD of this recording will then be sent out to all of the participants, wherever they are. That will be in May.

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