Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Melbourne weather

Oh, the weather, the weather… yesterday morning as I cycled to the pool it was dark and grey and even though it was already about 7.30am I wished I had brought my lights and reflective jacket with me.

Not only that, it was raining! Then later, when I left the pool to go for coffee, it was drizzling! Imagine drizzle in this hard-baked city. Then later again, when I left my home at lunchtime to go buy bread I had to put on a cardigan. I bumped into my neighbour in the street and she had dressed her 2-year-old daughter in a BEANIE!

It was as if Melbourne had forgotten that it is Melbourne in the middle of a drought, and a record-breaking heatwave… for just a few hours there it felt like we were in another country. Ireland in the midsummer, perhaps.


(view from my balcony on a rainy day – but many months ago…)

Then today things are back to ‘normal’ in that it is pushing thirty degrees and very sunny. Tomorrow is another day with scarily perfect fire conditions, so everyone is on high alert. The fires are still burning, in different places.

Back to school

The teaching year has started in earnest. I missed my second week of term due to illness, but last week made a good start and with the teachers, have chosen some fun themes to work on for compositions this term.

(Check out The Language School tab at the top of the page to know more about the school I work in each week as Teaching Artist).

There are three classes, and lots of new students this term. Lots of new students means the median level of English language understanding in each class is drastically reduced. However, the good news is that a couple of the truly disruptive elements from Lower Primary last year have moved on to other schools, and early indicators are that we have three very happy, peaceful, functional classes this term.

Here’s what I plan to work on:

Lower Primary

The theme this term is on the beach and water safety. Fun! I do like creating music projects around rules and words of warning for this age group. A couple of years ago the theme was Germs (trying to increase their awareness of Personal Hygeine), and we had a lot of fun in Lower Primary writing a song with a forthright, sing-your-heart-out chorus that described how

Germs live… on your hands

Germs live… in your bottom

Germs live… in your ears

Germs live… up your nose

They loved it. We all loved it. But I digress.

Water Safety. The Beach. The class teacher I am working with is just fantastic, she has lots of ideas and keen to reinforce anything we do in music in her other lessons with LP during the week. I knew they had been looking at some picture books that showed the different things you might do at the beach, so we started with a brainstorm on What things do you bring to the beach? and What things do you do at the beach? We listed various useful nouns (bucket, spade, towel, sunscreen etc) and verbs (jumping waves, building sandcastles, digging holes).

We will use these words in a chant and a song, I think.

I also invented a very simple song that I hope we will use as a warm-up game. It involves turn-taking, and accumulating voices. It’s very simple, but sounds good.

Middle Primary

With MP I am going to work on alphabets. This is a project I’ve done before actually – the alphabet dance and using the letters on the tuned percussion instruments to spell then play words. I am planning on writing a book later this year so intend to fine-tune some projects that will feature in that.

The Alphabet Dance is inspired by a fabulous dance performance I saw about 8 years ago, performed by the Leigh Warren Dancers, Quick Brown Fox. I always say you can get your ideas for music projects from anywhere, and this performance was rich fodder indeed.

The idea for the Alphabet Dance is simple – create an alphabet of 26 discrete movements, one for each letter of the alphabet. Then choose words or names to spell.

The hard part is memorising all the moves. Last week we got as far as letter ‘L’ which seemed an excellent start. Past experience tells me that it gets much harder from here on in.

Rather than post information about how the dance is progressing each week, I think I’ll post some ideas about helping groups memorise things like dance steps or musical phrases. I think that finding different ways to repeat things, so that they start to go into the memory but the students don’t get bored with the repetition, is key.

Upper Primary

At recess the class teacher and I talked ideas. Sathy told me that the theme for the term is food, and Taste of Australia. The students will learn to cook some different recipes and be talking about different cultural foods and recipes in class.

‘Food’ is another rich topic. Sathy and I came up with lots of possible things to focus on:

  • foods form different countries (my colleague Sheldon King wrote one of my favourite songs ever with some students at this school – “I come from China…. I eat a lot of dumplings….” It had a reggae feel and was very cool…)
  • building chants or songs from the text of recipes (a bit like the way Spicks and Specks contestants have to sing familiar tunes to words from completely unrelated tomes – such as customer charters or car manuals)
  • Measurement – using all the different kinds of measurements (cup, teaspoon, ounces, grams) that you find in recipes
  • Actions into dance moves – using all the verbs you find in recipes (chop, knead, mix, stir) and performing them as dance-like gestures.

Lots of possibilities. I am most taken with the idea of the different measurements and creating a recipe from that. Maybe we won’t make ‘food’ our overall focus, perhaps we will jsut draw inspiration from the format of recipes and create a musical piece on a different theme, using those formats.

Warming up the groups

I haven’t invented any new warm-up games in a while. But my tactic is still to create a warm-up routine for each group and repeat this at the start of the class for at least 4 weeks. This is to give all the students, including the newest ones who have the least English, the chance to feel familiar and confident with each of the games, and so get the most benefit and learning from it. I think it takes at least 4 weeks for a whole group to reach this point.


Each class learns at least one new song with me each term. We tend to sing these near the start of the lesson, as a unified ensemble way to finish the warm-up section before moving on to the composing component.

Sometimes I teach the same song to every class, which means the teachers can then use it as a shared song in the weekly primary school assemblies. This term I am teaching everyone As I walk this country by Australian singer-songwriter Kavisha Mazzella. It’s a very moving, peaceful song, and they sing it with a lot of sincerity and expression. We often sing it at the end of term when we are saying good-bye to students who are moving on to mainstream school.

Otherwise, songs I am planning to teach this term include:

Little Sandy Girl ( a game-song from the Carribbean. I sang it to my nephew last week – changed the words to be Little Sandy Boy as we were coming home from the beach and he loved it).

If I had a hammer (60s protest song. It’s always a winner. I wish I played guitar a bit better as it really benefits from a bouncy, rhythmic accompaniment, and my strums are a bit on the wet, church-y side of things. Well, that’s where I learned to play guitar!)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Negro spiritual. I really love this song. I have a nice 2-part arrangement for it that I’ll use).

“Gur-Lump” Went The Little Green Frog One Day (a song I learned from one of my nephew’s Playschool CDs. It’s a Lower Primary song and such a winner. They love the drama of it, and the La-di-da-di-da chorus, and it teaches them excellent ensemble skills for pauses and tempo changes).

Brixton Market (a colleague Duncan found this one and taught it to me. I haven’t used it before so looking forward to teaching it).

Linstead Market (another Carribbean song. They are so catchy and joyous).

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll add more later.

Recognition for young adult author

Anyone who missed the interview with Simmone Howell in last week’s Age can check it out here… here’s to ever-increasing profiles for young adult writers (and equal prize money)!

I re-read her latest book Everything Beautiful last week. It’s a truly lovely book, gutsy and honest, like its protagonist.

A year of changes…

I asked for a year of changes this year, acknowledging that my profound sense of restlessness seems to continue, unabated. The Universe has kindly responded.

As of Wednesday last week, I finished my job at the Orchestra. My role as Creative Director, Community Outreach, has been made redundant. I found out three weeks ago. I have learned that, no matter how conflicted your feelings about a job may be, redundancy is not a pleasant thing to go through. It’s been mighty stressful, and hugely distracting. I’ve been working there since 2000, and joined the management team in 2002. I built the Outreach program up from scratch, and have been its chief driver and creative visionary for all that time.

I had a wonderful send-off, despite my sadness at leaving, and was given a pair of quality tap shoes as my farewell (in response to my expressed desire to learn to tap dance once my Masters thesis is handed in). Musicians and staff were present, some warm speeches were made, and I ended the evening with a group of fun and supportive friends, eating a fine meal in Cafe Segovia.


A beautiful, yet telling, full moon in the background. And a tram speeding past. Thanks to the passer-by who captured this great shot.

So what shall I do with my year?

  • Start a self-promotion campaign, contacting all my contacts and supporters and toutine the many project ideas I have that I was never able to get off the ground with the Orchestra? Spend some time and money putting together the necessary DVD footage and images to give people samples of my work, and set myself up with a business card and website? (I need to do this anyway…)
  • Say ‘yes’ to the various one-day-a-week casual gigs that will come my way (have already started coming my way) – a bit here, a bit there, some interesting things, some new environments…?
  • Travel? Seek adventure and say “Booh” to the Global Financial Crisis? (Are my skills and experiences sufficiently well-established to take a Leave of Absence from the professional arena for some months?)
  • Go and be a volunteer in a developing country, and gain the experience that would enable me to apply for paid positions with NGOs?
  • See how I go living on much, much less money, play clarinet more, make more time to make more music, remind myself of the musician I am, and see what comes in from that?
  • Go and live somewhere else, recognising the limitations of thinking and  that seem to constantly rear their ugly heads in the arts and education in Australia? Get a bit more value out of my EU passport?

This could be a chance to re-invent myself. Trouble is, I am still figuring out who I want to be.

In the absence of a decent Plan A, I shall go with my Plan B – get the Masters thesis written and submitted in the next month, go for a week’s holiday in Byron and learn to surf (and do more yoga), then sit back and see what happens. I am so good at activating things for myself – I wonder what would come to me if I just stayed still for a time? Also, once the Masters is finished then I truly am free.

Black Saturday – white ashes

For the last three days in inner-city Melbourne we have awoken to the smell of ash in the air. The morning sun burns an intense orange hole in the pale sky. It is chilling.

The bush fires are still burning. Some towns have been on alert for over a week now, and exhausted people have nights of half-sleep as they keep one ear cocked to the radio, listening for warnings.

Two whole townships have been lost. And the photos in the paper yesterday show the destruction and devastation of landscapes that, were they depicting another place, could be covered in snow, so white and thick is the layer of ash that covers everything.


(This link takes you to a photo gallery where you can see this stark and grim image by Craig Abrahams, and other photographers from The Age).

Last Saturday – now referred to as Black Saturday by our media commentators – was the hottest day I can remember in Melbourne. I had to go to work, leading workshops at Artplay. Before I went into the city I cycled to the market to do my weekly shop. It was about 9am but already the temperature was soaring and the vegetables were wilting. I wasn’t inclined to linger.

The workshop venue isn’t air-conditioned – I’m surprised the workshops weren’t cancelled, given the dire weather warnings we had had all week. We didn’t hear any news all day, we didn’t know to ask about it. Our lunchtime conversation focused on my own personal drama.

That evening I drove to a friend’s house for a BBQ and on the way there the 7 o’clock news came on the radio. It was not just stories about the fires, it was up-to-date warnings for the residents of different areas, telling them where to gather, what the current fire movement in their area was. I was shocked – it was the first I’d heard. My dear friend Ms P lives in one of those areas. I tried to call her. I got throught to voicemail. I left a message then sent a text.

About 10.30pm she sent me back a message: “I don’t know anything yet. I’ll know more tomorrow.” Which meant that she was safe, but she wasn’t with her house. I prayed for her and visualised a kid of protective shield around her home, trying to see the fire passing over it without touching it. At that stage I still had little real sense of the enormity of what was taking place.  I knew my friend was what they call ‘fire-ready’. There have been bushfires before. Victorians are experienced and knowledgeable with fighting fire and protecting people and property. Everything would be okay.

The next morning we heard that Marysville had been completely burned. It’s hard to imagine a whole town, gone. Just like that.

Then the stories started to come through. How fast the fire had moved. How people who’d stayed to defend their properties  in many cases simply had no chance of survival. (The current fire wisdom given to residents in fire-prone areas is “Leave early, or stay and defend”. Probably makes sense if ‘defending’ means attending to spot fires and falling embers as they occur. But there has been much debate and outcry this week that this advice was incorrect for the fires that burned on Saturday).

Late Sunday I got another text from Ms P: ” I’m okay. House is saved. Miracle! Bobby has died.”

Bobby was her aging, loyal horse. Pretty tough. Vale Bobby. Later I learned how Ms P only just escaped, driving away from her house with the flames of the firestorm just behind her. If she’d delayed even another 30 seconds she doesn’t think she’d have made it. We have read about the danger on the roads at that time too. It was impossible to see anything because of the smoke. There were many accidents. Many were incinerated in their cars when they ran off the road and crashed, unable to see.

The smell of fire in the air on a weekend is one that brings back vivid memories for people of my generation (aged in our mid-30s and above). There was the (now-discredited) household chore of  the Weekend Burn-off, in the incinerator in the backyard. Everyone I mention this to knows exactly what I’m talking about, especially if they grew up in the suburbs. We would gather up the rubbish from the week, take it to the incinerator, and set it alight. By Sunday evening there would be traces of smoke wafting in the air throughout the neighbourhood.

But we are older now, and when you wake up in the inner city to the small of smoke in the air, it is not nostalgia for the past that you feel, but a heavy aching sadness and empathy for the people and animals that have lost their homes, and the craziness of  a world climate that is changing, that our leaders won’t take seriously.

On Sunday last week, the sky was a colour I’d never seen before – a kind of Rothko white-grey, that gave an impression that it were overcast, but with whiter clouds on top of that background. It had an eery, apocalyptic feel, a friend suggested. Ashes upon ashes, reflected in the sky.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal