Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page

Playing slow, then feeling weary

Today I led a workshop for some secondary students and Orchestra musicians. It was a one-off event, they came to the Orchestra’s rehearsal studios, and we had a 2 hour workshop, aiming to compose something for us all to play together.

It ended up being a bit of a jam session. They had brought quite a lot of instruments with them – couple of violins, flutes, clarinets, a sax, several guitars, and electric bass and an electric guitar. We then loaded up with all kinds of percussion instruments, tuned and untuned, brainstormed some ideas of ‘things that are most important to us right now’. Then we divided into 4 groups to develop a vocal riff around any of these brainstormed ideas.

Each group created their own riff…. around this time my mind was jumping all over the place. I had originally imagined us breaking off into small groups at this point, building little pieces around each of the vocal riffs (working them into songs, and developing melodies from their rhythms), but the amps were a bit unyieldy, we had someone playing the studio piano, and, well…. it just seemed like it would be fun to keep this instrument combination all together!

So I thought we’d work up some arrangements for each of the vocal riffs. That was waaay too ambitious – this was just a 2 hour workshop! We started on the first one, and realised quickly that we had enough happening here to keep us busy without moving on to the other riffs. Here are the words we worked with:

Money does buy food.

Money does not buy family, friends or love.

We set it to a very laid-back, r’n’b groove. Two girls took on the roles of vocalists, and harmonised it oh-so-sweetly. I worked hard with a group of xylophone players, possibly playing instruments for the first time, helping them develop their own riffs and then lock into the groove.

Because it was a slow-feel piece, we had problems keeping it together. Slower tempos mean that rests last longer, and for young musicians it is hard not to jump in early, to anticipate the downbeat a bit. In fact, it is hard for everyone. We talked about the issue of playing slowly or not speeding up, and the following suggestions were made:

  • I think about going downhill on a bike, and how I have to keep my hands just lightly squeezing the brakes, if I want to stay in control of the speed. Keeping control of the tempo when you’re playing requires you to stay engaged with the music with your brain in the same way.
  • Our violist talked about feeling the beat with your body, moving with it, relaxing into it.
  • Our percussionist talked about feeling heavy… imagining an elephant stepping in time to this music, or a sense of stickiness on the floor… Letting the music feel heavy and weighted down.

We tried pairing up different instrumental sections, getting the players to listen to the other group with one ear, and to their own playing with the other ear. Listening for the anchor points.

It worked, by the end of the session our music was really holding together.

It was a lot of fun and felt very satisfying… still, once it was over and the percussionist and I had put all the instruments away, I felt thoroughly exhausted. I used to have more energy. I think I burned out this year. I wonder when I will get my energy back? I have it in the workshops, but it is this feeling of utter depletedness that I have once it is all over that concerns me.

Ideas too… I often feel like I have no more ideas. It’s not true, the ideas come, and I know they will come, so I don’t worry about this too much… but when I am wanting to plan, I just feel tired at the very thought of a workshop!

I am trying to cruise a bit, for the rest of this year. I need to. Hopefully next year I’ll have more to give again. Maybe once the thesis is written. Maybe that is the thing that has sent me so close to the edge (even though I love doing my research, and it is everything else in my life that has been pear-shaped this year)…

Here’s somewhere I wouldn’t mind running away (back) to… Belongil Beach again:


(Sigh)… not long to go now, until the end of term and the summer break. I’m not going away, but I’ll have far fewer projects to think about. Just my research thesis. 🙂

Eat, sleep, do yoga…

I spent the last week in Byron Bay, on a yoga retreat at the Byron Yoga Centre.

It’s a great way to recharge… everything in the environment supports us to just focus on why we are there, feeding us nurturing, nourishing food, giving us lots of space to take part in as little or as much as we want…The teachers were inspiring, and after quite a number of years’ dedication to a particular style of yoga and teaching, I loved broadening my horizons to take in some new ideas. I stretched my comfort zones too, and wonder if I am a little stale in my practice at home.

Byron Bay is famous for its beautiful beaches, surfing, hippy culture, and backpacker mecca-dom. But the Yoga Centre is a little away from the town centre, just over the road from Belongil Beach. If the weather had held out it would have been a week of swimming and sun, as well as eat/sleep/yoga, however, northern New South Wales was hit by big storms last week, and Byron saw plenty of rain. It was a bit cold, a bit damp at times, but still wonderful. A few more sunny days would have just been a bonus.

Here are a couple of fellow retreaters, retreating here from the sea (water wasn’t as cold as the weather):


At the end of the retreat I felt energised, recharged, refreshed…. I then went up to Brisbane to stay a few days with my sister and her family. I continued my yoga practise on their balcony in the early morning, breathing in the frangipani scent and feeling peaceful to all the world.

Then yesterday I came back to Melbourne and went back to work, developed a crashing headache within a few hours, and am now wondering how I will hold onto all the wonderful effects of the retreat, back here in the madness of my working life?

More improvisation ideas

In my last post on my new explorations into developing the improvisaiton skills and understanding of the Middle and Upper primary students, I described how I had been getting them to start and finish on particular notes, keep track of a ten-count time length, and play a series of notes in-between.

I have been wondering what the next step should be.

Two weeks ago we tried out a kind of ‘jam session’ with the Upper Primary students. I asked different students for rhythmic ideas, and asked them teach me and other students. For many, as I have found frequently in the past, they may know a rhythm or phrase to play, but they can’t repeat it consistently, nor with a sense of regularity, so it is hard to use in a group jam session.

However, in that session, one of the Sudanese girls came up with something that she was able to repeat consistently, over and over again, upon which we built up a number of other layers.

The students’ first response, when all have an instrument and they are to play together without a great deal of explicit instruction, is to play as loudly as possible, speeding up as if it is a contest or a race. They get a big buzz out of doing this, usually laughing a lot and generally acting like it is just a mad game. That week, however, after letting them do this, I asked them what was going on. What was important in this kind of music? They were to be playing the same rhythm as the Sudanese girl on the lead drum (who was a lot quieter than them). How could they make sure they stayed together?

This was a really interesting discussion. Of course they worked out that they could listen to her, but that they could also watch her, and let her be the leader. The ensemble improved enormously, immediately, and everyone began playing with greater awareness and sensitivity.

Therefore, the following week (last week) I decided to work on this skill a bit further. I brought out my trusty metronome (which I have written about in most glowing terms in the past on this blog).

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Happy to report that the strategies are working…

Today was a calmer day with the Lower Primaries. As is my first main strategy, I didn’t introduce any new material this week (to give the newest children the chance to feel familiar with what we are doing, and build confidence), although I did play around with the order of tasks.

We started with our call-and-response song Dham dham dham. I sang it, and they echoed what I sang in response. Because they know the song, they tend to start singing along with me. However, I gradually got them to stop doing this (with a series of pantomime ‘shock-horror-indignation’ reactions that I’m sure would embarass me horribly if I were to see myself, but to which the children respond with a smile and renewed effort) and soon the structure of the song was well in place. Then I invited other children to sing the lead part, and they did this very convincingly and confidently, which tells me that they fully understand the structure of the song. Good! We have learned it well, and they are still having fun with it.

It is very endearing to hear their version of the words. I learned them from an English transliteration – possibly what I sing makes no sense to a Hindi speaker (if it is Hindi we are singing – in fact I don’t know) – and they have learned them from me. It is interesting how some of their choices of consonants or vowel sounds are consistent across the class, but differ to what I am singing.

Then, once again I asked them to sit in the chairs while Mel and I brought out the instruments and placed them in a long line.

My small moment of genius today was to call on Tzu to play Twinkle Twinkle to the class on the xylophone. (Remember a couple of weeks ago I reported him playing this during one of our random glockenspiel sessions, and taking us all by surprise?) Tzu took on this role very happily, and it led to us using Twinkle Twinkle as the basis for our playing today. After the count-in, everyone played the rhythm of the words in unison, stopping together at the end of each phrase, and at the end of the song. They then changed instruments, moving one place along the row.

The tactics are working. The class was calmer today. They were calmer around the instruments. They were more focused in their listening. They took pride and care in stopping and starting together in time with the song. And with Tzu playing the tune so accurately on the xylophone, we have been able to set a new benchmark for some of the students to aspire towards. For some, learning and remembering a recognisable tune like Twinkle will be beyond them, but for others, it will be a highly attractive challenge. Having someone to copy makes it seem more achievable.

I won’t be at school next week (taking a week’s leave to go see family in Brisbane and do a yoga retreat in Byron Bay!) but for the week after that I plan to make some small mats to take in with me – another visual cue for them to work out how to position themselves in the space.

This week’s flowers

Yellow roses… lovely! I love having flowers in the house. They are beautiful to focus on when I raise my gaze away from my qualitative data analysis books to think for a moment.

They were a gift. Lucky me…


What does this weekend hold? I went to my Italian class this morning – the first Saturday class I have been able to get to all term, and it was lots of fun. The teacher and I chatted about the Shonberg Ensemble’s concert, at which I glimpsed him, across the foyer. He loved the concert too.

Then home to do some clearing up – clearing the way for a weekend of study and data analysis (in case you hadn’t guessed… I don’t read those tomes for fun). But soon this afternoon I shall head off to the wonderful Mr Franzke’s Prahran studio to do some playing for him. He needs some clarinet tones, so I shall happily oblige. Nice to play… it’s for a film project I think.

Taming the Lower Primaries – again

After the madness and borderline chaos of last week’s class, I approached the Lower Primaries this week with a steely plan in mind. First, I would make things as visual as possible, and try to ensure we kept things moving along (to avoid anyone slipping into distraction because of an inability to concentrate for more than 30 seconds at a time). Second, I needed to maintain a serene, calm, smiling mindset – hang in there with that serenity even in the face of wild revolution. And be sure to notice the small moments of engagement that can be very easy to miss.

The children arrived in relative calm. Their usual teacher was with this week, and that always helps. We went through our warm-up routine:

  • Standing up in a circle, copying small movements and gestures, in quick succession – eg. hand on head, hand on nose, move one hand to knee, move other hand to ear, etc. It gets them looking and focused, and they enjoy this simple kind of game very much.
  • Sit down super slowly, no hands (arms crossed over chest, legs crossed from the start). The aim is to sit down, cross-legged, as slowly as possible, without touching the floor with your hands. “Who will be the slowest?” I ask them, as we try this task together. Why do we do this? Again, it maintains their focus, it is a physical challenge, it requires coordination, it encourages concentration (in trying to be the slowest), and it is easy for everyone to see who is last, therefore they can copy and be inspired by each other.
  • Pass sounds around the circle one by one. This gets them used to taking turns. I also used this game to introduce the word ‘waiting’. Everyone has to wait for their turn to pass the sound on. There is a lot of waiting in music – when you are not playing, at this age, you usually feel like you are waiting! (because you are of course dying to play!)

Then I asked them to stand up and come to the piano. We sang the song we have learned this term – ‘Dham Dham Dham’ – a call-and-response song from India that we repeat several times, getting progressively faster each time.

Then I asked them to sit down in the chairs (arranged in a long line at one side of the room) and told them that Mel and I would get the instruments out now, so they needed to wait.

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Improvisation and ESL

I am developing some new ideas with two of my classes at the moment, trying to devise some new ways to encourage students to improvise and create their own music.

There are a number of things that make this challenging in an ESL context, with the lack of a common spoken language underpinning everything:

  • The children do all their initial learning by copying what other children do, and what the teacher does. How do you reassure them that your demonstration is not for them to copy?
  • Many come from school cultures where there is a right and wrong answer for everything. They have the most confidence in their own ideas when there has been lots of contextual information given, to help them reach their conclusions. They are reluctant, most of them, to just jump in and have a go, and figure out what to do a little at a time. This kind of learning makes them feel very uncomfortable.
  • They also really like to do things that they think sound good, sound familiar, sound right! They like to play tunes they know. How do you move them away from this?
  • Their playing technique on the instruments can be very varied. We are working on tuned percussion at the moment. Some of them have trouble using the mallet so that the notes ring and resonate freely. They dampen the sound by pushing down with the stick rather than bouncing it away. Therefore, what they play sounds timid and unsure. As they listen to it, they lose confidence, because it doesn’t sound ‘right’. Adjusting technique is best done by demonstration, I find (ie. I play, they play, and I try to show them the different sounds that can be made, and say “yes!” very enthusiastically everytime they play a note that has more resonance – hoping that they will hear the difference and start to subtly adjust their technique), but this can be a bit hit-and-miss as the attention can stress them out, because they don’t understand what you are asking for.

My initial forays have been interesting. We have started by learning the word ‘IMPROVISATION’ (“a big long word…”) and that it means, “make up your own music”. (However, I suspect at least half the class are not quite sure what ‘make up’ means). I also emphasise the unique qualitities of each improvisation by naming it as their-music (ie. Harry-music, Jane-music, Moira-music, etc).

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Back to square one

I had a challenging day at the Language School this week. Each class presented me with situations that required more patience and open-mindedness than I was expecting, so the next few posts will try to examine what happened, and what the learning is. This post focuses on Lower Primary, the chaos that we experienced, and observations on individual student needs, and strategies to help new students make sense of what is going on.

With all three classes that I teach there, there has been a big influx of new students. This creates a kind of instability/transition in any classroom, but the impact in Language School is even more dramatic because it drastically shifts the balance between those in the class who have already established some English language skills,  and are familiar with the classroom routine, and those who have neither language skills, nor an understanding of how school works.

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