Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page

MTeach, week 4

(Posts written on this subject are written with the MTeach students in mind, as a way of giving them notes on what we do in each class – but hopefully of interest to others as well).

Last week’s session with the MTeach students at Melbourne Uni was focused on inventing melodies. I taught them a workshop project I like very much, that involves inventing melodies through chance processes. Several people in the group had brought their own instruments with them, others played tuned percussion, guitar (including bass guitar) or piano.

This is an outline of the project:

Cycle of 6

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Drought breaker

Today and yesterday I made it rain.

I have been working with the young musicians from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, their last project for the year, and we created a Water Music project (they will go to hear the Orchestra rehearse Handel’s version next week).

They worked with newspaper articles and images to develop themes and textures about the water crisis. We had music depicting Polluted Water (urban waterways), Ice-caps melting, Water Levels Rising (water takes over the world), and, coming from the other extreme entirely, Drought.

The music was highly emotional in places, dramatic and stark in others. Drought ended with a Memory of Water, evoking the voice of a parched, dry earth perhaps, cracked and scarred. It was a sweet, simple melody, first heard as barely more than air – string harmonics over the low creaks of the dry earth (cellos holding down their lowest string and digging the bow into it) – before being picked up gradually by the whole ensemble.

I loved it. It probably had an earnest quality – so many of my projects do – which might make some people cringe, but in fact children of this age can be very earnest and idealistic, and these kinds of issues and ideas (water crisis, etc) speak to them very directly, I believe.

As always, we marvel at the growth in the young players, in the development of their musical ideas and engagement, over the two days of the proejct and over the course of the year. This is the third time we have run the ArtPlay ensemble program as a one-year program.

And yes, it did bucket down yesterday, and it rained again today. I have done a number of water projects over the last year and a half, and it is strange, but everytime I do one, it starts to rain. Given the scarcity of rain in Melbourne these days, that is no mean feat. Perhaps I should pitch my projects further north?

For Rosa, For New England

Two weekends ago I was up in Armidale, New South Wales, which is part of the New England region. Very pretty, very chilled-out place to do a project. Lucky me. I was working for AYO (Australian Youth Orchestra) leading an education project with the Bloodwood String Quartet (very impressive young quartet of players) as part of the Young Australian Concert Artists regional residency program. The Quartet and I worked with young string players from the Armidale Youth String Training Program (who have been playing on average around three years, and are aged between 9 and 14, I’d say).

Such a nice project! First of all, the quartet was great – very open to the group-composing process, and to facilitating a composition with a small group of young players, very inventive with what they came up with, and very happy to try some of my odder ideas.

Then, the host school – the New England Conservatorium – proved a peaceful, happy place to be. It is perched high on a hill at one end of the town, in a grand old building with a stately staircase at its entrance, and a circular drive. Not to mention a director who had everything organised and was completely unflappable and welcoming, in the midst of a full weekend of workshops happening in all directions, not just our grou.

Lastly, the motel room I was provided with was immensely luxurious – I think it was more spacious than the entire flat I live in in Melbourne! But I was there to work, so didn’t spend much time enjoying the perks like the flat screen TV. (I am amused to see that on their website they offer up their adjacence to McDonalds as the prime Unique Selling Point… clearly I am a little outside their target market. But still, it was very, very comfortable there. Proximity to McDonalds, or indeed Red Rooster which was over the road, didn’t both me).

So what did we do?

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Regional Teachers’ Forum

A couple of weeks ago, a group of music teachers from around Victoria came to the ABC Southbank Building to take part in a forum about what their needs are, as music teachers working outside city centres and well-resourced areas, and to hear about the kinds of things on offer from different arts organisations that are based in Melbourne but have regional programs.

I presented a short workshop for them, to give a demonstration of the way the Orchestra I work for creates music with participants who may have very little prior music-making experience (as well as those with lots).

We started with one of my favourite games – Zip-Bop, which I have described in a post a few weeks (read it here). This game is a good warm up, covering things like:

  • loosening everyone up and encouraging a playful, non-judging energy
  • Encouraging a range of vocal sounds
  • Encouraging strong physical gestures
  • Developing quick reactions, and fast decisions (demonstrating the kind of teamwork you get when everyone contributes to the whole flow of the game, rather than focusing on their own contribution).

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Nearly at the end of term…

I realise that I haven’t given my usual updates yet on how the different projects at the Language School have progressed this term – and we give our performances next week! So here is a quick run-down on how the different class projects have panned out this term.

Lower Primary

When I came back from Bologna, three weeks into the school term, the Lower Primary students were about to go on an excursion to the Melbourne Aquarium. To help them prepare, their teacher was going through lots of fish-related vocabulary with them. On the walls in their classroom I saw worksheets with the different parts of a fish anatomy labeled (gills scales, tail, fins, etc), and coloured in vibrant hues.

So we started by writing a song about fish.

“Tell me about fish,” I asked. “What do you know about fish?”

They all looked at me blankly. I often ask these very open questions for which the answer is to state the obvious. The children suspect it is supposed to be trickier than that, I think, so they hesitate to answer. I always help them out…

“What do fish have? Do they have … legs?”

No, they all laugh, and tell me quite firmly that fish don’t have legs.

“Okay,” I answer. “Fish don’t have legs – what do they have?”

“Fins!” calls out one child. And so we began to write our song:

Fish don’t have legs. Fish have fins.

Fish don’t have bottoms. Fish have tails.

Fish don’t have hands. Fish have gills.

Fish don’t have hair. Fish have scales.

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Reflections on interviewing children

I interviewed three children for my Masters Research project. There were a number of challenges with this:

  • They are all ESL students; that is, they are only just learning English. Some are not literate. Each has a different level of confidence with spoken English.
  • This meant I decided to include interpreters in the interviews. Two of the interpreters were already present in the school, as Teacher Aides, so are familiar to the students. One student had to work with an outside interpreter that I hired for the project.
  • Despite the presence of the interpreters, I wanted to engage the students as directly as possible with my questions, so tried to develop interview designs that incorporated visual elements, and put less emphasis on spoken language.
  • One student spoke several languages already – one at home with her family, and another that she had used in school, in her second country. Her spoken English is apparently now more comfortable to her than her ‘school’ language. (According to the literature I have read, this is not uncommon – there is a point in language learning for children where the new language that is typically used everywhere except in the home, becomes more comfortable than the mother tongue, used only in the home). However, the language she spoke at home is still apparently her most comfortable language. Therefore, I arranged for her to have an interpreter for her ‘home’ language present. In the end though, she spoke mostly in English in the interview. The interpreter was very helpful in ensuring she understood the questions.
  • The child who worked with the outside interpreter was incredibly nervous in the interviews – so much so that sometimes her whole body trembled. She smiled and laughed the whole time and was happy to continue, but she was clearly nervous. I don’t know if this was because of the outside interpreter, or because of the interview context, or becuase of something in the way I had set up the room, or simply that, as quite a shy girl who is quite quiet, she was just reacting to the strangeness of it all. If there had been more time between interviews, I think I would have been able to process this discomfort more, and perhaps explored some other options that she might feel more comfortable with. But the relentless time-span I had to work with made any kind of reflection very difficult. This is probably a significant weakness in my research design, but one I had very little control over.

Not all of my visual tasks worked well. Some took a little too long, for example. Here is a summary:

In the first interview, the children came with a drawing they had prepared earlier, that showed a music lesson here, compared with amusic lesson in their home country. We used these picures to compare their experiences, and to help me get a sense of the context in which they would speak about the music activities they do with me.

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Transcribing, and more transcribing

I have finished nine of the interviews I need to do for my Masters research project. Three students from the Language School, three interviews each. It was incredibly important I get them finished within this term, as the students will all move on to mainstream schools in Term 4. I was in Bologna at the ISME conference for the first three weeks of term, so time was really of the essence once I got back.

I filmed each of the interviews and recorded them on tape as well. I am currently transcribing every word from the tapes. This must be one of the most time-consuming single tasks of the research project. However, I am quite enjoying it. The interviews happened so close to each other, there was no time to really process and consider what each participant had said prior to the next interview taking place. Thus, as I transcribe, I also get to think about what they are telling me.

I still need to interview their teacher, to get her thoughts on their perceptions of the music activities (according to her own observations, also informed by the fact that she teaches them every day of the week, so knows them well) and the interpreters (to get some further perspectives on any culturally-specific responses the students may have given me).

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Watch out for these names…

I have just come back from a wonderful concert of Schubert Lieder at the Australian National Academy of Music. The big sensation of the afternoon was a set of three songs performed by tenor Christopher Saunders accompanied by Berta Brozgul, a pianist at the Academy.

Oh. My. God. It was stunning. It was one of those moments in a concert where suddenly you realise that something really special is taking place and you are compelled to hang on to every word, every note. (I used to work at the Wigmore Hall in London, where every great artist performs, so I heard a lot of concerts. I quickly realised that great performances have something that sets them apart, so that the air in the hall shifts suddenly, and every single person is held in the moment. They aren’t all like that. It is rare, and incredibly powerful).

Christopher Saunders is a young tenor. They are both young. Afterwards the audience buzzed around, and theirs were the names on everyone’s lips.

How wonderful, to be so in agreement with everyone! How wonderful to go to a concert and find yourself truly transported by it! These are sad days for me, in general – lots of difficult things happening that I have to get through –  but this afternoon nothing mattered except the beauty of this music, and the magical, inhabited way it was performed. Bravi to the duo. I’m so glad I went.