Language School Projects Term 2

My three composition projects at the Language School are progressing well. Tonight I want to spend some time reflecting on each of them. My overall theme this term was to build pieces around journeys and identity; with the Lower and Middle Primary classes I also wanted to work on their pitch awareness, and start to hone their understanding of high and low notes, and how different pitches related to each other.

Lower Primary

‘Identity’ is a big starting point for this age group – especially when there are lots of students with very little English, and a significant gender imbalance in the group (only 2 girls) which changes the energy, focus and behaviour styles in the group.

I find I often start with, and come back to, names – the children’s names. You can get so much musical mileage out of names. In this project, we have practiced clapping the syllables of all the names in the class. We string several names together in a row and clap the syllables one after the other, to make a longer rhythm. We set up two strings of rhythms and divide into two groups, and clap them at the same time. We practice our rhythmic skills by doing lots of ‘call and response’ rhythms, and multiple rhythm layers games, which teach the children to be aware of, but not put off by, more than one rhythm being performed at a time.

At this point we have narrowed our use of names down to two strings of four names. The rhythms from the syllables take up two bars of 4/4, and are:

  1. Ta ta ta (sah) ta (sah) ta ta
  2. Ta ti-ti ta (sah) ti-ti ta ti-ti ta

Last week we divided into two groups and performed the rhythms consecutively (4 repetitions each), and then concurrently. I want them to get used to playing a number of repetitions in a row, then stopping, but counting the other group’s repetitions, then starting again. Looping this kind of pattern over and over, often enough for them to start to feel instinctively what 4 repetitions feels like.

I gave the low drums to the first group, and higher-pitched, but untuned, hand percussion (agogo bells, wood blocks, tambourines – anything on which a rhythm could be played clearly, so shakers were less useful for this age group) to the second group.

Then we tried the same structure of 4 repetitions, consecutively, then later concurrently, on the instruments.

What will happen next in this project? This week, I want to give glockenspiels to each child. I’ll prepare the glockenspiels into a mode (probably taking off the Bs and Fs, to make a pentatonic scale), and ask each group to choose 1 note per name, so that they make up a little melody. If this goes well, we might make up two melodies per group so that there are four melodic ostinati altogether.

The last thing I hope to do in this project is write a song together about Names. What are names? What use are they? See what answers the children give to these questions, and derive the lyrics from their responses. The melody for the song will probably come from some pitch work we have been doing, working with the first 6 pitches of a major scale, and numbering them off 1 to 6. We have invented, and learned to sing, 4 patterns of numbers. If we put our words about names onto these tunes, then I hope the children will get a sense of how songs are put together.

Then we will together devise a structure for a performance piece, using:

  • The clapped and spoken name rhythms (to show the audience how the music was created)
  • The Name rhythms played on untuned percussion
  • The Name rhythms played on tuned percussion
  • The Name Song, using just the first 6 notes of a major scale

Together we will have to decide how to start, how many repetitions to do of each section, what should best go at the end, and how we should transition from one section to the next.

Children in this class are aged 6 to 9 years old.

Middle Primary

I wrote in last week’s post a little about this project, which is creating a kind of ‘music time capsule’ to describe some of the detail about the children’s current lives here in Australia, remembering where they have come from, and the feelings they are experiencing through changing countries.

This project has started with a chant, which wrote a few weeks ago but worked on again last week in order to start memorising it. In the process, we made some changes to it, which is great. It is wonderful when the music has time to evolve, especially in a term-long project.  The chant is performed in two groups and the structure switches between two different layers performed consecutively, and unisons, performed by the whole group.

The chant depicts the confusion and cacophony of voices and questions that students experience on the first day of school. Most, when they come here, have very little English to help them navigate their way through the day. Some have never been in an Australian school before, so there is lots that is foreign and confusing – even downright scary.

I like our chorus:

WHAT should I do now?

WHERE should I go now?

My head is going CRAZY

On the first day.

There are actions that go with it. The verses vary between giving instructional information (here is the toilet, Here is the Classroom, Here you can wash your hands) and the barrage of questions the students hear (Where do you come from? Where do you live? Where did you learn your English?)

We invent the chants together, brainstorming as many ideas as possible (“What do you remember people saying to you on the first day?) and then organising them into themes (eg. grouping all the ‘question’ words together, or all the ‘information’ together, or all the confusing things going on in the new person’s head). I try to introduce some rhythmic variety into the chants as we invent them, looking for opportunities to use syncopation, and rests in unexpected places. These more sophisticated musical elements will required practice, and so allow us to keep repeating sections (and so becoming familiar with the words) while focusing on musical points. I should add, I know the students and their abilities well. When I introduce musical elements like these, I know they are achievable by the group, they will just require a little more work.

Next, we have a song. I blogged last week about my dilemma with regard to this. At this stage, I think I will offer them the song I have made from their material and ask for their reactions. They will tell me if they don’t like it, or want to do another one.

I also want to build up an instrumental texture that focuses on the actual journeys they took, from leaving the door of the home they lived in, to arriving at the door of their new home in Australia. What different modes of transport did they use? The children have been working on the theme of ‘transport’ in their classroom, so the vocabulary is already there. I am imagining we will assign instruments to the different modes of transport (eg. cabassa for a train), invent sentences describing the leg of the journey that used that mode of transport (eg. first I took a train), play the rhythm of the sentence on the instruments (ti-ti ti-ti ta), and then build up a number of layers one after the other, into a rich texture of instruments and interlocking rhythms.

I hope there will be a boat! I would love to make boat sounds using a bucket filled with water.

This group will therefore have a range of material to be organised into a structure:

  • The First Day of School chant
  • The song about the things they miss from their other country
  • An instrumental version of the song using tuned percussion (and the possibility of accompanying their singing)
  • The instrumental riffs about Journeys and Transport

Children in this class are aged 9-10 years old.

Upper Primary

UP’s work is really very detailed. We are drawing inspiration for our composing from the book Aranea, by Jenny Wagner. It is a beautiful book, telling the story of a spider whose web-home is destroyed in a storm, who seeks shelter in a house (but feels very vulnerable), but who eventually can return to the garden to rebuild her home. It has themes of resilience, struggle, fear, and the need for safety. There are lots of parallels with the refugee experience, but these are not explicit, and they are not really the focus for our music project.

Last term we created music for the storm scene. We performed it at the end of the term so it is ready to go. In last week’s class I asked the students what they could remember of it, and between all of them they remembered all the words, and the order of the sections.

We have also created instrumental music to depict the beginning and end of the story, when the spider is building her web. We have a verse and chorus, sung, and accompanied by tuned percussion. The text for the song comes from the sentences the students could recall from the book after it had been read to them a couple of times.

Last week we created some eerie high=pitched, uncomfortable music to depict the White Room, where the spider first goes after escaping from the storm. I think I will record different children telling stories about their first experiences of a new place, and play these recordings over this music.

This week, I would like to create some more moody and atmospheric music, to depict the dark of the laundry the spider moves into, after leaving the white room. Here the focus is on the spider’s tiredness, and sadness as she begins to process her frightening experience. She is safe, but not really happy yet because she is still without a home.

Some of the students like to play the piano. They often come into the music room during recess, and experiment. Some of the Chinese students have learned piano before, but for the Sudanese and otehr Horn of Africa students, the piano is new, exotic and filled with interest. I encourage them to try to use all five fingers. I have taught one of the Upper Primary girls how to pay attention to which finger she is using and to try out fingering patterns that will strengthen her fingers and help them to move more fluently on the keys.

I would like the Laundry music to involve the piano, and other tuned percussion instruments. We will try and make this music at the lesson this week.

At the end of the term, I am hoping that this class will be able to perform their music in a Refugee Week performance at Federation Square, and also to go to a real recording studio to make a recording of each of the sections. Then, their class teacher has talked about using that music to accompany slide shows of photos and images the children bring form home, or create, to show their journeys. This can be turned into a DVD that all the children can have a copy of.

Children in this class are aged 10-12 years old, and this is their second term working together as a class, without any students leaving or arriving.


Any thoughts from readers on the above? It would be great to hear from other music educators or ESL teachers using music with new arrivals and English learners. Please feel most welcome to add your thoughts!


1 comment so far

  1. brave0angel on

    Hi 🙂 Your entry was very interesting.

    I myself was taught by an awesome English teacher when I first went to America at age 13, and she had me do readings every hour. Though this actually helped me improve my reading, I wonder how your music strategy would have worked for me.

    I am currently researching EFL reading from Psycholinguistic point of view, and reading your blog refreshes my mind with a whole new perspective. Thanks! -brave0angel-

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