Archive for October, 2008|Monthly archive page

The piano

A couple of years ago someone donated a piano to the Language School I work in. It is lovely to see how the different people in the school interact with it.

Some children gravitate towards it everyday – at lunchtime and at playtime. Some have learned to play in their country of origin, and they bring music to school with them to play. Sometimes their friends gather around them, other times they play on their own, perhaps enjoying the solitude and the oasis they create for themselves.

Other students are fascinated by the instrument, and have clearly never had the opportunity to try it out before. Sometimes on their own, sometimes with friends, they sit at the piano and touch the keys. They get bolder, little by little, and go from prodding out single notes one by one to using all five fingers of the hand, playing notes simultaneously, using the left and right hands simultaneously, and inventing patterns and melodies.

When the piano first arrived, I occasionally found teachers playing it. They would go into the room at the end of the school day to play. At those times, it seemed like this single instrument was offering a kind of solace or personal space to everyone in the school’s population. Teachers seem to use it less often now. They are very busy, and I guess the novelty has worn off. But I like to think that it is there for them to turn to, if they ever find themselves in need of an expressive moment in the day.

My favourite pianist is a new girl in the school. She is in the secondary section, so I don’t teach her. But everyday that I am there, she comes into the room, on her own, without fail. She prefers to play on her own – she often stops if I am there. The one time I tried to play with her, she politely joined in the different things I suggested, but as soon as I left, I heard her embark on her own music – the music she had gone in there to play, presumably.

One day she had a copy of Fur Elise with her. I was on the other side of the room, writing in my notebook, and trying to be invisible to her, so that she wouldn’t feel self-conscious. She played this piece – not the notes that Beethoven wrote, but her own interpretation. She copied his written rhythms accurately, in both hands, very slowly, but she improvised the notes. I guess she understands the rudiments of how Western notation works, but is slow to read the pitches. Or perhaps she learned in the past, but can’t fully access the information anymore.

She’s from Eritrea. I think I have gleaned (from our halting conversations) that her father is a musician. She clearly has a very strong affinity with the piano, and it is an amazing thing to watch. I hope it is something she will be able to continue to develop through her schooling, but the likelihood is that she won’t – so many of the African students are far behind the educational eight-ball when they arrive here, as their schooling has been so disrupted and irregular, and the families are often incredibly disadvantaged financially. I am investigating the possibilities of some kind of scholarship for her, that might enable her to have some piano lessons.

Identity, improvisation and ESL

I have started experimenting with a new strategy at the Language School this week (I know, I said I was going to ‘keep it simple’ – it never works out that way in the end!), a music unit on Identity, in which I want to get all of the students improvising, and feeling confident to improvise and invent.

As I commented in last week’s post, there are a lot of new students at the Language School this term, so the majority of the children in each of the classes have very little English – spoken or understood. Whenever I start teaching something new from scratch, I have to work out what words I am going to use to explain it, what vocabulary I will introduce in order to give some convenient labels, and what is best demonstrated and taught implicitly.

The improvisation task I set up today involved each of the children playing tuned percussion. We located the octave from C to C’. I asked them to start on one of the Cs, and finish on the other of the Cs. They had 10-12 counts each to fill.

That was a lot of language for them to take in. Some understood, and managed. Others worked it out as we went around the circle, one child having a turn at a time. I counted the numbers 1-10 out loud for each person, hoping that, for those that hadn’t understood the instruction, the consistency of the counted numbers and children stopping on or just after 10, would make the time length clear to them.

In between each solo we had a chorus that they all played together. This was a way to keep them all engaged, with a task to perform in the near future.

However, the concept of improvisation was a new and challenging concept for most of them. I started by writing the word on the board, spelling it out for them. The we wrote a definition of it on the board as well – ‘making up our own music’.  Already, at this point we were losing the focus of the non-English speakers. However, I needed to get this explanation out of the way, demonstrate it, and then set them to task, so that the non-English speakers would have someone to copy, as quickly as possible.

They all struggled a bit with the idea of making up their own music. Some just waved their hands in the air, looking completely stumped. We don’t have enough common language to be able to reassure them that it is okay just to try, to just playing something and see what they think of it. We (the class teacher and I) said all this, but I don’t expect it was really understood.

Therefore, it really highlights either the relationship of trust between the students, the music program, and me – or perhaps it highlights the power relationship, that at some point they will just do what they think they are being asked to do, without knowing if they have understood correctly or not, because that is what is expected of them at school. It must feel a very vulnerable position to be in.

I decided (in working out my teaching vocab) to call their improvisation ‘[name]-music’. As in, ‘Jane-music’, or ‘Ajak-music’, trying to emphasise that all of their improvisations will sound different to each other. This, later, will be our link back to the overall theme of Identity. We would sing and play the chorus together, then I would call for an improvisation from someone by saying, ‘Maya-music!’, inserting the appropriate name. Using this structure and labelling, everyone in the class had a turn.

Weekend away – with photos

I spent the weekend with friends in the north of the state, in the very dry Wimmera region, not far from Dimboola.

I was probably only away about 28 hours, but even after that short a time I felt rested and refreshed. They have the most beautiful farm house, filled with unique and beautiful pieces of furniture and keepsakes, and quite an extraordinary landscape of sand hills, native pine forests, scrublands, and pastures. It was my first visit to their place but I feel a special connection with it – by chance I was at their home for dinner the night they needed to sign the sale papers, and I witnessed their signatures.

Their property sits very close to Lake Hindmarsh – now completely dry for its seventh year. The drought has hit this part of Victoria very hard indeed. We drove to the middle of the dried-out lake, which is 20km wide. This is a view looking towards the horizon. The skies out there had me captivated – I took photo after photo and couldn’t get enough of the changing cloud formations and colours.

Beautiful ancient eucalypts. These are landmark trees – you can see them clearly on the horizon as you approach the town, as they are perched on a sand hill, higher ground than the surrounding farm land.

We decided I should plant a tree (or three) in honour of my visit. There are now three ‘memorial’ trees near the entrance to the property that are ‘mine’ (although it will be up to them to water them). This is me in planting mode – note the very glamorous fly net I borrowed from my hosts.

tree planting

tree planting

Here is another view of the sky. One of my many attempts to capture it.

Good things come in threes

Today I have been writing research memos. I am trying to get a bit of clarity on my research methodology, and on the early emerging themes that are swimming around in my head, before I have made any proper analysis efforts.

First, an admission – I am doing all this in the wrong order. I should have had my research methodology well and truly decided at the time of putting the ethics application in. And I did have it decided, but since then, the more I read, the more I have been feeling that what I have proposed is not quite right. My research project doesn’t seem to neatly fit in one methodology.

A second admission – I’d like to use a bit of a pick’n’mix approach. A bit of this for the data collection, a bit of that for the analysis, yet another approach for interpreting… I suspect this is unorthdox at best, messy and potentially incoherent at worst.

You see, to me, research projects feel like arts projects. Someone said to me on the weekend, as I described my project, that he didn’t envy me… to have to ensure an objective position on all this data that I am so close to and so entwined with… but this feels natural and ideal to me. In a devised project – whether it be theatre (like Hunger last year) or music, or another discipline – one of the most important things is to let the show reveal itself to you. You keep asking questions – setting up possibilities that feel like that might reveal something new or exciting or unexpected, or beautiful – and remain open to the outcomes. Gradually the links and connections, and the natural narrative that is the result of this combination of people and events, at this particular time, will emerge.

I feel very at home with this kind of approach to work, and have developed an instinctive style. This instinct keeps kicking in in my research project, and I don’t know how much to pay attention to it. Maybe it is sloppy and immature of me. The methodology books I read (on case study, grounded theory, and phenomenology, mainly) give me little thrills as they spell out the necessary steps to ensure good research practice. I like the idea of following something to the letter. But at the same time, my instincts also keep jumping in, with their own take on how I should respond to the data I have collected.

Speaking of which, at this post-transcription, pre-analysis stage, as I let the phrases and ideas from the interviews marinate in my mind, all together, I feel like what I write is ultimately going to move through three stages – kind of like concentric circles, with no. 1 on the inside, no. 2 around it, and no. 3 the outer ring:

  1. Firstly, there will be the students’ perceptions of the music program – what sense they make of it, what they feel takes place, and what they feel they learn.
  2. Then, this will move into a broader discussion of the experience of ‘transition’ and the impact this has on students of this age, in how they communicate, use language, respond and perceive their new surroundings. In particular, I wonder how appropriate this research question is for students of this age, when they are in the midst of such a confusing time, trying to make sense of so many new things.
  3. Thirdly, I think this will lead to a discussion on research methods appropriate to this age group, when ina time of transition. How do you elicit responses from someone when any perceptions they have are infused with the newness and unfamiliarity of their situation? How much can they articulate (in any language) at this stage? What effect does learning a new language at school have on their first language, in terms of effective communication? What kinds of research approaches are effective in this kind of environment?

I think I will probably present each of the students as individual case studies, then look for convergent themes between them.

Does it get better than this?

Last night I went to hear the Schoenberg Ensemble perform, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Man, it was good! The sound from this band was extraordinary, their virtuosity had us enthralled. Andriesson’s Zilver, John Adams Chamber Symphony, Kagel’s Divertimento? Farce fur Ensemble, and then Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony op.9, taken at a cracking pace. It was a small audience, but incredibly appreciative. Long extended clapping ensued at the end of each half.

I think the thing that bowled me over the most was the sheer joy of their playing. They were just having such a great old time up there, playing this incredibly technically demanding music, but smiling away, exalting in their own and others’ lines.

Why can’t we see joyous performances like this more often? A colleague I bumped into at lunch today said, “We should remember that this is repertoire for them. They’ve played these incredibly demanding works loads of times, so there is a familiarity there that makes it more possible for one to relax into the performance…”

Ah, true. But then, I am not sure I see other orchestras smiling away as they play the gorgeous melodies and harmonies of Beethoven 6, for example. Which is repertoire performed pretty frequently.I don’t know. Perhaps for a lot of orchestras, playing concerts is just what they do, and it ceases to be special after awhile. Or the audience ceases to be of any great significance. Or they just get tired. Or bored. I don’t know. It’s a privilege, really…. to do that kind of work. Maybe if your life is contemporary music, you have to love it so much to begin with…. and then you just feel compelled to communicate that love.

Maybe it comes down to personalities. I don’t think there could have been a soul in the audience who did not fall a little bit in love with the violist in the Schoenberg Ensemble. Right from the moment she walked on stage she invited us to participate wholly in the music she was playing. She beamed at everyone – the conductor, her fellow musicians on the stage, people in the audience. We couldn’t take our eyes away from her for long. She was bringing out the best in everyone.

I think everyone could do with a shot of that kind of engaging, warm, joyfulness in their lives! Certainly we in the audience were all the better for it. So much so, I am planning to go and hear them again tonight.

Keeping it simple

First day back at Language School today. It’s always nice to go back there – I am always made to feel very welcome.

The plan this term is to keep things simple. There are a few reasons for this. The first one is there is a large number of new students in all three primary classes, and only one or two students in each class who have been at the school long enough to understand what is going on in classes and so lead the way somewhat. ‘Leaders and Helpers’, I call them, in my research summary above. Therefore, we will spend a significant amount of time in each class just getting used to how music classes, and group-composition tasks, tend to work.

The second reason is that it is going to be a fairly disrupted term, as there is a lot of building work going on in the school, starting midterm. The three classes are likely to need to move to temporary spaces, and as the school is already pretty crowded, it is likely that the music room will be given over to general classroom work. This will have an impact on the kinds of composing and instrumental activities we can undertake. The classes will also be going on camp for a week just a couple of weeks before the end of term.

The third reason is that I am knackered! I keep finding myself doing these  big, complex projects at Language School that take up a lot of extra time and planning – despite starting each term saying I’m going to keep it simple! (It’s a nod towards the way I really am responsive to what the students come up with in the early lessons of each term…. but I am really going to be On Guard this term).

So, my focus for each group is going to be a lot more low-key.

Lower Primary will be developing some basic instrumental skills, and learning to follow a conductor. (Pick up instruments/Put down instruments/Start Music/Stop Music… all hand signs). I’ll get them to conduct each other, and develop some interesting simple riffs.

Middle and Upper Primary will probably have similar starting points – that of Identity, Who Am I? We’ll learn some songs, and devleop instrumental accompaniments, but over the term be encouraging them to teach a song, or dance, or game from their home country to the rest of the class. I’d like to film each of these and put them onto a DVD at the end of the term.

Mostly I’d like to get a lot more jamming and improvising happening in the classes. We’ll need to build up their basic skills and understanding first, but hopefully it is something we’ll doing by the end of the term. It’s good for them, I can see the students finding a very joyous release in just playing music together, listening and responding.

I scored brownie points today. I saw the mother of one of the Sudanese students at the school this afternoon. “Oh!” I said, “It’s Mun-Arok!”, which is the way you say ‘Arok’s mother’ in Dinka. (In their culture, this is a second name that a woman can be greeted with, once she is a mother. It is quite a usual way of addressing someone). She was tickled pink that I knew how to say this, and came over to give me a hug. I’m a bit of a show-off sometimes, but languages interest me. I like knowing things and being able to say them, and I love the reaction I get when I get it right!

So what else is going on?

Do I do anything apart from work? You might not think so, reading this blog. But I do other things too, even if it is often work-related…

Like today, I was oh-so-happy to speak briefly with the wonderful Mr Franzke, currently in Tassie writing mad music for theatre including slapping the Neighbours theme into a piece of dance music that will be performed in a cul-de-sac. We talked about the CD cover art and credits for the prison CD. I sent off the liner notes text and a bunch of photos (instruments going through the x-ray machine at the prison) to the designers this week. I’m excited to see what they come back to me with. It is not a typical ‘orchestra’ project, so needs to have its own look. Use words like ‘edgy’, Dave advised me.

I have been to see some concerts – the Whitlams with the MSO, which I surprised myself by enjoying quite a lot. The MSO’s Handel concert on the weekend. Then for a post-concert drink where I bumped into a team of show-playing clarinetists. That was fun.

I have been doing a lot of playing this week. I think it is ever since I went over to my parents’ place and pulled all the storage boxes out of the roof. (They have sold their house, so we need to start figuring out what we all have stored there over the years). I found boxes of music, which brought back memories of myself as more of a player… and files of old emails from the War Child days, when they were offering me work in Georgia and I was freshly back in Australia, trying to figure out if I was staying or going away again. It’s interesting to read through it all again, imagine the other decisions I might have made and the life that have grown from those.

I’ve been to see some films – Waltz with Bashir I really enjoyed, although it is an unflinching film, not for the faint-hearted. It’s one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen, I think. I really liked the soundtrack, and the animation is wonderful. I also saw Persepolis recently – another animated film. Totally different look, but equally awe-inspiring. I should seek out more animations.

I made fresh pesto the other day, so have been eating pretty much only that ever since. These are the pitfalls of living on your own. My sister sent me some new recipes to try out though, so I should get organised.

The rest of the time… yeah, I guess it is work-related. I always feel behind. Right now, I need to finish my marking (marking bores me to tears), and start analysing my interview transcriptions. I feel pretty excited about the next phase of my research – but then, I haven’t actually started yet! The excitement might fade once I get going.

I’m going away this weekend, to a friend’s house in Jeparit, which is up in the north-west of the state, in the Wimmera, I think. That will be fun. Good to get away. Four hour drive there on Saturday morning, five hour bus trip back on Sunday. I think I will have, oh, about 24 hours there! But they will be a great 24 hours, I’m sure.

I think overall, I need to get better at leisure. Oh, the dreams I shall realise when I have finished my studies!

MTeach class, week 5

From now to the end of semester, the MTeach students and I will be exploring the music of different twentieth and twenty-first century composers. Today we explored Shostakovich.

For me, Shostakovich is immensely approachable as a composer. For one thing, he is very well documented, with a lot of footage and quotes available that features people who knew him and worked with him, and heard his music performed. If you haven’t seen it before, Shostakovich against Stalin – the War Symphonies, is a must-see documentary that really depicts the times in which he lived and worked. I love it. I probably watch it every year. The interviews and archival footage are interspersed with performance footage of the symphonies by Valery Gergiev conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. If you don’t know Shostakovich’s music, this film is an excellent way in.

He was a composer of his times, and justly celebrated, in a way that we don’t see these days in the ‘western art music’ world. He wrote about current events in a way that his audience connected with very directly. His use of musical symbols (quotes, rhythmic figures assigned specific meanings, melodic fragments) is in dispute between scholars, but his musical vocabulary is certainly a rich one to mine for workshop starting points.

I have led several composing projects based on Shostakovich’s music. My main points are to:

  • identify a current event or topic about which the group feels strongly, to depict in the composition
  • Develop ‘word-songs’ (following Shostakovich’s example with his ‘name-song’, D.SCH) as the main melodic material and mode to stick to for harmonies
  • Choose several rhythmic figures or cells from Shostakovich’s music to incorporate into these pieces.

I find that this is enough to get some really interesting music happening. It did today – even limited to mostly tuned percussion instruments, each group created highly individual pieces of music. The group chose the current controversy over the photographer Bill Henson as their composition focus. They developed word-songs on words like ‘dirt’, ‘art’, ‘pervert’ and ‘photos’. Some of the small-group pieces sounded more ‘Shostakovich-y’ than others, but that’s fine. We are not looking to imitate him wholesale, rather, the intention is to create strong listening pathways into his music for all the participants.

Sunday workshop with asylum-seekers

Daylight savings started today, so we lost an hour, but now have sunlight long into the evening. It’s lovely out – I went running in the park about an hour ago and it is filled with families, people playing with frisbees and soccer balls, lying on the grass…

It was my only bit of sun today because I spent most of the day indoors doing a workshop with families at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Not that I’m complaining – there is plenty more sun on its way, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is a wonderful, supportive place for new arrivals to gather and get support. It was a pleasure and privilege to go and work there for an afternoon.

This kind of workshop – where the participant numbers are unpredictable, where it is a bit of a drop-in environment – is not the kind I usually do. Most of my work is in spaces and with groups that are quite specific and pre-determined. For the kind of composition projects I do, that is what works best.

However, there is a big need for these more flexible, less structured workshops and I took this one on to see what I would do with the time, and how it would suit me.

We had a lot of fun. For most of the time there was just one family – a Sri Lankan family of three siblings and their mother – and a bunch of adult volunteers. The kids were outnumbered! Towards the end of the session another family arrived.

We started with some games, as the group seemed quite shy and a little inhibited, particularly with their voices. I taught them my perennial favourite, Pass the Clap/Ssh/Bing/Bong, and was gratified to see the two youngest getting more assertive with their sounds and who they passed them to. We also played Read The Circle, in the version I have been doing with the Lower Primary students at the Language School where the focus is on high and low pitches.

Then we got out the angklung. I have a one-octave set that my parents brought home for me after a trip to Bali. I haven’t used it much, but I think I will this term. We tried various things. First we put them in order, from lowest to highest (figuring it out aurally). Then we tried out some tunes (Happy Birthday and Twinkle, Twinkle work well), with me calling out the numbers (1-8) that needed to play.

Then we organised them into 3 chords – C major, F major and G major. I proposed a guitar-strum rhythm to imitate, and set up an accompaniment of C | | |  F | | |  C | | | |  G | | | |. To help them get a stronger sense of what we were aiming for, I played the progression to them on the guitar. Once we had got it established, we turned it into an accompaniment for The Lion Sleeps Tonight. We learned the song, then sang and played.

It worked pretty well. People looked tired though, as it was big concentration. We took a break after this.

Then we did some songwriting.

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Emergent themes…

Yesterday I finished transcribing the last of my research interviews. Transcribing is a slow task, but I have to say I found it very interesting. I felt like the period of time in which I did all of my interviews was somewhat rushed. I’d like to have had a bit more time between each interview to consider the children’s responses, and adjust my next set of questions accordingly. However, the end of term was approaching, the delays on ethics approval had eaten away much of my time, and I needed to get them done within a short window of opportunity.

Therefore, it is during these transcription tasks that I get to reflect more thoroughly on the kinds of themes that are emerging.

(A quick summary – my research is a set of case studies of three newly-arrived students at the English Language School where I am the resident workshop artist, and their perceptions of the music program. I am interested in what they make of the program, what they feel they get from their participation in it, and why they think it is part of the school program. I am also curious to draw some conclusions as to how their experience of transition (between schools, cultures, and languages) may impact on their perceptions of learning music.)

I haven’t yet started a more formal analysis yet, but just in these early days of considering their responses, I am finding that:

  • The three students were all very aware of the kinds of tasks we did in music, and the demands these tasks placed upon them, in terms of what they had to focus on, and where the challenges were;
  • Music held a lot of pleasure for them – it is something they look forward to each week. They each talked about playing instruments, writing music, having fun and relaxing. One girl said, “Music brings people together”.
  • The participatory nature of the music classes is new for them, and they appreciate this. For many of the students, their prior experiences of school have been more teacher-directed.
  • The quality and seriousness of what they are learning, and what they are composing, is evident to them, and they feel proud of this.

I am also developing new questions, which are broader in scope, looking at the whole issue of transition for children of this age (10-14 years) – how appropriate is the question that I am asking? How much do children – of any background, and even stable schooling situations – question and/or articulate perceptions of what happens in school? How can you elicit responses from students, even with the help of an interpreter, who are in such a time of tumultuous, unpredictable change? If we were to wait a few years, to give their language and cognitive skills time to develop further, how much detail would they be able to recall about this particular time in their lives, and what they thought about things?

I am finding this larger questions equally interesting. It is something about the effect of transition on how we perceive everything. I think. I have a strong sense that these students have landed in such an alien, foreign place that their first big learning step is just to be open to all these new experiences, to make sense of them as best they can, and accept them for what they are. I don’t think they often feel very confident that what they are making of something is actually what is going on. Their way of figuring it out is more like survival skills – to work out what they know, and leave the rest to later.

Therefore, in trying to work out what they perceive of the music program, I have to place everything that they tell me in that context of them not really feeling like they know anything. Not yet.

Does this make sense to anyone reading it? Can you recommend further reading that describes this kind of transition mindset? I need to dig in further… these are my earliest thoughts.