Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Christmas spirit

Last night friends and I gathered together to sing carols. This has become a tradition of mine – every year (except last year, when I was travelling in December and January) I hold a Christmas Carols party. It is no doubt a very daggy event (in the eyes of many), but the people who come tend to be the people who don’t hold this prejudice – they come because they love to sing, I guess, and love the old songs that tell us that Christmas is upon us.

This year the wonderful Simon and Victoria hosted the party in their home in Alphington, and suggested that once we had sung through our favourite carols, we hit the streets, and raise some money for Oxfam.

It was such a lovely evening! We were about twelve people in total. And in general, we had very positive reactions from the people we called on. The only exception was the woman who yelled at us ferociously, “Don’t come in! There’s a dying dog in here!” And when we apologised, backing away as fast as possible, she replied by telling us to “f*** off!”.

But that was an exceptional response.

Others were delighted, and brought out members of the family who had gone to bed, or who were watching TV. We sang until about 9pm, I think, by which time the air was getting cool. For Victoria, this brought to mind The Sound of Music, and Maria sternly telling the Nazi captain that

This night air is not good for the children’s voices.

Certainly we were getting tired towards the end.

We had guitar (Nico), clarinet (me) and violin (Rose) to accompany our efforts. We decided we sounded pretty fine indeed. We raised $150 for Oxfam, and we plan to make it an annual event.


I think for me, Christmas feels like Christmas when the ‘markers’ start to appear – the events and things that you do each year, that become traditions, so that when they happen, you know you are in the midst of the festive season. I guess for some people this is things like the Myer Christmas windows… in fact, these used to be a marker in our family when we were little, but so much of the way Christmas is marked in the general public is so commercial these days that it is bereft of any genuine Christmas spirit at all.

Instead for me, it is things like going to hear The Messiah being performed (which I couldn’t go to this year, but missed just the same), or playing for a friend’s carol service the Sunday before Christmas ( a new tradition of the last few years). My own carols party has become one of these markers, and because the same people come every year, we look forward to laughing at the same jokes every year (substituting the word ‘thong’ for ‘throng’ in While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks for example, and collapsing helplessly into giggles as a result, unable to complete the verse). Other people bake traditional biscuits and share them with friends. Or start the Christmas pudding mix and make sure everyone in the family has a turn at mixing it, and making a wish. Or baking dozens of mince pies. Perhaps these kinds of markers are so effective because they hark back to earlier days, when we didn’t just buy all the things we needed. We made our own music, made our own sweets, and made an event out of the activity so as to share it with many.

Last year I didn’t really celebrate Christmas. I enjoyed that too – it was nice not to have all the shopping to do, to be able to avoid the bombardment of messages (generally exhorting one to ‘buy! buy! buy!’) through all forms of media. I was in Sarajevo, where people wished me sretan bozic because they could see I was foreign (and therefore probably celebrating Christmas rather than the Muslim holiday of Bajrom, which they had all just finished celebrating).

But interestingly, tellingly, I still found myself singing. On the eve of Christmas Day, after spending much of that snowy day wandering around the ancient centre of Sarajevo, in and out of artisan shops and stalls, I got home to my friend’s mother’s house where I was staying, relatives came around and we ended up singing Bosnian sevdah the whole evening. (You can read about that night here). It was a beautifully moving evening, and like last night, shows music to be perhaps the most precious of gifts that we can share with others, and use to gather people together.

Here is a final photo from last night’s carols – one house we visited had just as entertaining a show on their front porch as we provided!


New bike

Here is a nice end-of-year photo…. Bicycle Victoria has donated two bikes to students in the school (as part of a larger campaign,  I think). The school chose two grade 6 students to be the lucky recipients. This photo shows one of them receiving his bike.


Remember the joy of having your own bike? Of learning to ride? These children were chosen both because of the efforts they have made in school, and their particular personal circumstances that mean a bicycle of their own will provide them with chances to socialise, be independent, feel noticed and acknowledged, and have fun with their peers. They were so happy! Safe riding, both of you.

Learning songs from each other

I had a plan this term that, as part of a music project based on ‘Identity’, I would invite the children in each class to sing for us a song that they remember from their home country. We would learn to sing each others’ songs. The students would get a kick out of hearing the songs from their countries sung in their language by their peers. We could prepare instrumental arrangements for some, and make recordings and DVDs of the songs which we could then distribute to all the students at the end of the year, as a kind of ‘time capsule’ of their time at Language School – who they were, what they remembered, and who they shared this experience with.

Nice idea. It’s not the first time I’ve had it either. And not the first time I’ve planned to do it. However, I find it really tricky to make happen.

I find that:

  • the students are often reluctant to sing. Sometimes this is a reluctance to sing on their own. Sometimes it’s a reluctance to sing, full-stop. Sometimes it is a reluctance to sing music from their other country (and there could be any number of reasons for this, that in the context I work in are not possible, nor appropriate to probe).
  • if they do sing, it is often difficult to get a clear sense of it, clear enough to be able to teach it to others. Sometimes the melody, or even pitch contour, is unclear, and changes each time they sing it. Sometimes the rhythm is unclear. I suspect too, that I may be too solidly grounded in Western music to hear all the subtle rhythmic nuances in the music of other cultures.
  • it is often slow work. What are the other students doing while I am trying to coax a song from an individual? This kind of task would perhaps be best done outside of lesson time, but like most music specialist teachers, I am fairly fully timetabled.
  • the students don’t often seem that excited by this as a project idea. Of course there are exceptions to this, students who are delighted to teach you their songs. However, they are definitely in the minority. One of my research participants talked about how important it was for students at this school to be learning ‘Australian music’. Perhaps that is what the students want to be doing. They want to learn new stuff, and look to the future.

But what a missed opportunity! Perhaps it is unrealistic to do this in the context of music teaching. Perhaps it is better done as an outside researcher or music-collector, coming in specifically for that purpose, and just gathering one or two songs at a time. However, in that context, they wouldn’t have the trust and familiarity that the students have with me.

Then again, maybe I’m too familiar. And maybe the content of my lessons – instruments, instruments, instruments, and composing – is too familiar, because the students really enjoy doing music in this hands-on way. Maybe an outsider, with a specific song-collecting project, would be able to enjoy a different rapport with the students, and therefore get a different response.

A friend of mine did a project like that, working with parents as well as students in three or four different primary schools. He created a lovely song book at the end of the project. He is more skilled and experienced than I am in transcribing songs from African and Asian cultures. DF, if you are reading this, do you have any comments to add about your experiences, or in response to the above issues?

The stick-passing game

This is a great game. I first learned it from my friend and colleague (and all-round inspiring human being) Eugene Skeef. It was during the year I worked in Bosnia with War Child. A group of us had driven out to a town called Ljubinje, in Republika Srpska. This town was extremely isolated – situated near two inter-entity borders, so people there didn’t have a lot of freedom of movement. There was a very motivated and energetic drama teacher there, so our team went out to work with him and his students and give them some support in building a creative and peaceful life.

Eugene led the workshop. He asked all in the group to go outside and find a stone. It needed to be a stone that was small enough (and large enough) to fit comfortably in a hand. Smooth stones were preferable, but not essential; ideally the stones would have a certain robustness too, and not fall apart on impact.

Everyone went out and found a stone to their liking, and came back into the workshop room. Eugene got us all to sit or kneel on the floor in a circle, with our hands on our stones in front of us.

He then explained how the game works:

On a given count, everyone passes their stone to the right. They have to place it on the floor in front of the person on their right. They then pick up the stone that is now in front of them (placed there by the person on their left). Continue reading

Playing in time

With our focus on jamming and improvisation this term, I’ve been looking for ways to help the children play more in time with each other. This is tricky enough to teach in English, let alone with students with a very minimal command of English!

Firstly, I want to state my own position: I believe that we all have an innate understanding of music, that gets built on everyday, when we listen to music (of our own choice, or as background music). I want to tap into this innate knowledge somehow, in building ensemble-playing skills. I think that one of the main things that gets in the way is trying, when we become so focused on effort and on getting it right, that we tense up and become more awkward (and less natural or easy) in our efforts. (This earlier post talks in more detail about the way I like to teach, for those who would like to know more).

Therefore, I don’t like to bring to much attention to the issue of ensemble when it arises, because I don’t want anyone to get tense or worry about it, or think of themselves as failing somehow. But I do want them to be aware, and to develop more sophisticated understanding of how to play together. There were a few things that happened this term at the Language School that seemed to work, so I’ll list them here.

Continue reading

“What would you do if…?”

The above heading is the way I started some questions in my recent interviews with newly-arrived students (10-13 years of age) for my Masters research project. They are hypothetical questions, asking the students to tell me what they would do if they were the music teacher, or if they could play any instrument they wanted, or other suggestions along these lines. The idea is that they answers will give me further insights into the way they perceive the music program – in terms of what is already taking place, what they most engage with, what they perhaps miss about music in their home country, etc.

However, none of the three students I interviewed responded to these hypothetical questions very comfortably. Before I started my research, I had discussed my interview questions with the principal, and she had said that she thought the hypothetical questions would be difficult for the students. I thought a lot about how I would present the questions, but knew that I wanted to be able to ask them, just in case I got some rich, informative responses. But I was wrong, the questions were difficult for the students to answer, so yesterday I chatted with some of the class teachers about why this might be.

One suggested that language was the problem. Continue reading

Improvising, composing and jamming

It’s end of term, so time for a bit of a wrap-up of where this term’s projects got to at the Language School.

I started the term with an interest in developing some improvisation skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students, and developing music on Identity, that would respond in part to music the students would teach to the class from their own countries and cultures.

Lower Primary on the other hand were so crazy and unsettled that the focus was to get them to be able to play together, to follow some simple conducting signals so that they might experience the pleasure of playing in an ensemble. I’ll write about them in a separate post.


This proved tricky to introduce in some ways, and some of this was to do with language, some of it was cultural, and some of it was to do with the way that student learning develops in Language School (ie. the systems that support the students to learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we were doing began to settle, musically.

In the end, what improvisation do we have? In the Upper Primary piece, we have a drum part (played by seven drummers, so pretty loud! They are sh0wing considerable restraint, I have to say) which came from the young Sudanese girl at the start of November. I am guessing that this was a rhythm she knew from somewhere else. She has left the school now, by the way.

We have 3 xylophone parts, and here the origins of the parts are more varied. One part came from me – I taught it, and the student plays it exactly the way I showed her, and she seems to love it. Her friend, playing next to her, is envious, and has tried through various sneaky means to swap parts (to no avail). The friend, May, has an improvised part to play. I originally asked her to invent her own melodies, always ending on either C or G. The first week, she did this well. She was reluctant, but with a lot of encouragement, she gave it a go, and executed the task well. The following week however, she mutineed. She wouldn’t say a word (not in English, not in Chinese), and I wondered if perhaps she needed to withdraw from the piece altogether, so pained she seemed. This week, I spontaneously came up with a new strategy.

“May,” I said, “I think that today we should choose music for you to play, that you can remember. We will all help you make this. I think that will be easier for you than always making something up.”

May looked a little unconvinced at first (something of her usual facial expression in music, it has to be said), but a couple of other students surprised me by saying, “Yes, it is easier, I think. It is better.” So May agreed.

I asked her to play me (improvise – though I didn’t use that word) one of her melodies. “Start on G,” I suggested. She played a string of notes, I asked if she liked them, I sang them back to her, she thought they sounded okay, and I wrote them down on the blackboard. We did the same with a second melody. Of course, she referred back to ideas she had already worked with in the previous weeks when she was improvising. And her third melody was her most ambitious, with jumps and triads and a definite ‘hook’.It seemed like she was gaining confidence in the process, and her own contributions.

Continue reading

My research project – as it currently stands

I am officially* in the final three months of my Masters research project. I have collected data (interviews with students and teachers), transcribed these, observed classes and written up detailed notes of what I saw, and kept an ongoing journal of thoughts, ideas, and small epiphanies. I am now in the data analysis phase, going through all of this written material, looking for themes that emerge, cross-referencing these between the three different students I am focusing on, and, eventually, getting stuck into some more targeted reading, as my themes emerge and the gaps in my understanding can be identified.

My research question:

How do Language School students perceive the music activities? What do they think they learn? What do they engage with most strongly? What sense do they make of the program and its existence at this school?

To answer this, I am doing a qualitative case study. Three case studies in fact, interviewing three different students, each from the same class (Upper Primary) but from contrasting cultural and educational backgrounds. Please be introduced:*

Susan from Sudan. Extremely disrupted, inconsistent schooling before coming to Australia. A bright, bubbly girl who loves music, has highly developed learning strategies for all the challenges she faces in school, and is a social leader among her peers.

Kevin from China. Very hard-working, clever boy, who had absolutely no English when he first arrived. He blossomed by his third term (the time when the research interviews took place), taking a leading role in the class music-theatre piece, and keen for new challenges.

Leki from Thailand. Very bright girl. For her, school is a great delight, for she is an only child in a quiet household, and school lets her connect with her peers and build a social world. She is quiet, and says very little. But she watches and observes. Her style of engagement is quite passive, but attentive. She is happiest out of the spotlight, but loves to laugh with her friends at every opportunity.

*Pseudonyms used for all participants in the research project.

Analysis so far…

I am doing the first detailed read-throughs of the transcripts at the moment, making notes in the margins as I go, and annotating those themes that seem to recur most frequently.

In my early observations, I am finding the following:

Continue reading

A band comes to visit…

Last Wednesday we had a great music-filled day at the Language School. My friend TTG arranged for his band of young musicians – the Jazz Band from Melbourne Girls College – to come to the Language School to give a concert.

They are a young band – I think they’ve been playing together about a year or so, with a number in the group being relatively new to their instruments, playing alongside some older students who are very skilled. This was a performance opportunity for them, because they have worked up a very slick program over the last year, but also a wonderful chance for the Language School students to have an up-close concert experience.

MGC jazz band

We were treated to classic hits like Tuxedo Junction and Louie Louie. And my favourite for audience participation – Tequila.  We brought out some of the hand percussion that I use in music classes and distributed it among the students. TTG taught them some rhythms and they played along. As the closing number, TTG had also written an arrangement for the band of a song we knew – Kavisha Mazzella’s As I Walk This Country.  Everyone sang their hearts out, and it was a beautiful, moving point of connection.

playing along

Then, at lunchtime, the MGC girls and teachers hung around the playground. Some went off to join various soccer and other ball games. But others got out their instruments, some spare mouthpieces, and some antiseptic wipes (naturally!) and let any of the Language School students who wanted to, have a turn. They formed a long line (I’d like to say orderly, but that doesn’t happen…. lining up takes a lot of practise!) and one by one had a try of the sax, the trombone, or the guitar. The sounds echoed around the surrounding streets.

trying the sax

The sky initially threatened rain, but in the end, it was sunny enough for sunglasses and sunhats! Students from the secondary school came and joined in as well, so it was a whole-school event. I’ll finish this post with a photo of one of the teachers doing the Twist with one of the students – it was a great way for everyone to let their hair down at the end of a very full school year.

dancing teacher, dancing student

It was a such a great day, for everyone involved. And so worthwhile – TTG and I agreed we should do this kind of project again. Of course it is great for students to go and see professional performers – orchestras and the like. But it is also incredibly valuable for them to see people their own age playing and performing. It lets them imagine and see possibilities, and recognise that these start with small steps, and gradual progression. There are many things that make instrument learning inaccessible to many students – finances and family support being two major ones. But sometimes, too, that sense of something being out of reach for you, can be challenged by mind-seeds getting planted and watered, and by the desire being invited, and encouraged. I think this concert would have planted seeds in students’ minds. Many of the Language School teachers also spoke about this with me, at the end of the day.

Ensemble and democracy

A couple of weeks ago now – the day I returned from my week of leave in Byron Bay and Brisbane, actually – I heard Professor Jonathan Neelands (Warwick University) speak at the University of Melbourne on Acting together: ensemble as a democratic process in art and life.

Who wouldn’t be immediately intrigued by a concept like that? Such a sublime marrying of political theory and art-making. As ever, I love finding parallels between art-making and other, more established, articulated agreed-upon theories, disciplines and methodologies.

Regular readers will note how very behind I am in my blogging (due to a couple of pretty busy weeks), so forgive me if I just add some (potentially disconnected) notes here on this most interesting presentation – copied into this post pretty much word for word from the notebook I had with me on the night, into which I was frantically scratching away with my pen, throughout the talk.

Drama… ensemble… activism (as in, being active, as much as anything else). Process is more important than outcome. The struggle, rather than the end result. This, Prof. Neelands stated, is true in activism as well as in art. A sense perhaps of subjugating yourself to the greater good.

Hmmm… in principal I like this value, however, I don’t think it is so easily summed up. At the end of the talk I raised the question about orchestras, where everything that happens in arguably for the greater good, but leaves individual players stifled, frustrated, without any genuine creative outlet or sense of one’s own contribution. Prof. Neelands countered this by saying that it is not ‘the greater good’, but the absence of any true democracy, that causes this numbing of the spirit in orchestras.

In drama, individuals are asked to put the ‘common good’ ahead of their own private interests.

In democracy too.

Neelands was open and unapologetic that, in all that he discussed, there was strong idealism. Idealism, and proceses that depend on idealism, he said, are probably not realistic in society. But in a classroom, or in an ensemble, it is (or should be) realistic.

I liked this statement too. I have long hated the argument often raised again perceived injustices or inconsistencies (or double standards, or unnecessary/avoidable harshness), in schools, of “Well, that’s life.” No, I counter. It isn’t life. It is school. There is plenty of time for life (and all its attendant cruelties and injustices and harshness) when these students have left school. But when else in their lives might they discover who they could be in an environment designed to support them and bring out their best? Since when did we need to toughen people up, exactly? Resilience isn’t learned by facing life’s toughest battles as soon as possible. Resilience is far more likely to prosper and grow in a loving, encouraging, positive environment.

Right. Off my soapbox, back to Dr Neelands.

Here is a quote from Michael Boyed, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, talking about the company’s commitment to engaging young people in creative, integrity-filled ensemble work:

[It is] a chance to create a better version of the real world on an achievable scale that celebrates the virtues of collaboration.

Another scribble from my notebook:

Democracy is an unfinishable process, it’s constantly re-defining itself… you can’t just claim something as democratic and then assume it is, and will remain ever-thus. You have to keep working at it, checking it, supporting it, not taking it for granted.

We live in societies that discourage active participation, that encourage passivity. Do direct, participatory forms of theatre lead to direct, participatory forms of living? ie. democratic principals of living in society?

Rather, Prof. Neelands pointed out, we tend to have ‘representative’ versions of democracy, and therefore also of theatre – people who act on our behalf, as our representatives.

What are the reasons people – young people, but also people of any age – may be reluctant to participate actively in a class or in an ensemble? Fear of ridicule, being looked at or the subject of uncomfortable attention, of being judged, of wanting a quiet life, of a reluctance to lead or demonstrate an opinion…. these are parallel with the reasons for why people don’t actively engage in their communities.


Drama teachers teach as if their students have a choice of whether to be there or not. Imagine if every teacher, or every subject, taught like this!