Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Slowly coming to understanding

We finished the music term at the Language School last week, and presented our compositions to parents and friends. Only two students were graduating on to mainstream schools this term, which means we will have lots of the same students returning next term.

It was an interesting term. It seemed to take a while to get settled. I suspect I was more distracted by things outside the school for much of the term – redundancy, and the intensive thesis-writing mode I was in, in particular. Each class have lots of new arrivals, so the level of English understanding was almost zilch.

Interesting things to observe were the different ways students started to show their understanding of what was going on. ‘Experiences of success’ can come in many different ways. For example, I see them taking pride and care in knowing how to put the instruments away at the end of the lesson. This sounds like a small thing, but it is probably an act that is familiar, that they can figure out on their own. These newest students – boys and girls – will pass me the instruments one by one, then scout the room for anything further.

In terms of musical development, things happen at their own pace. Middle Primary has a new student from Ethiopia (I think, or maybe Somalia) who has had very little prior schooling. She spent the first couple of weeks positioning herself next to the teacher and looking very lost. She joined in everything until she had to do something on her own (such as say her name in time to a shared beat), at which point she would get very quiet and shy, understandably so. In the class composition she chose to play the glockenspiel, one of a group of four who were all playing the same melody. She never quite got the hand of it. Her teacher sat beside her, guiding her hand, and saying the rhythmic syllables (based on different fruits) out loud. Then she seemed to invent her own part, which we encouraged her to do; musically, harmonically, it worked, but her rhythm was never quite accurate enough to make it truly fit with the other parts, and for a few weeks there, we were all just tolerating it, and those others in her group got progessively louder (and therefore progressively faster) in order to drown her out!

So it was with great delight in our concert that I noticed her making small adjustments in her music, so that it fit better with the other parts around her. Gradually, she was building confidence in what it was she was to play, and therefore slowly getting to a point where she could let the other sounds into her ear, and be guided by them. My sense was that she had dropped into a new level in music, that I think will allow her to experience even greater awareness and success in the lessons next term.

The presence of lots of new students highlights for me the importance of patience, of trusting that understanding comes slowly, or at different speeds for different children, but that it does come. As with their English learning, it is first about exposure to the new language (sounds) and a slow absorbing of the rules and syntax, through experiencing them, rather than having them explained. If the environment is consistent, then understanding grows, and actual abilities can flurish, and start to be developed further.

Buried in books

I’m on holidays! Up in Byron Bay, where the rain is falling thick and fast in a way that leaves us Melbournians open-mouthed at the wonder of it all. It’s still warm and humid, so we can wear thong (flip-flops) so who cares about getting a little wet?

I’ve been relishing this break from thesis writing. I’ve been reading obsessively, and can happily recommend these books:

  • DogBoy by Eva Hornung. This was the first book I read on this holiday. Couldn’t put it down. It’s sad though, heart-breakingly sad, and it sat heavily in my head for a long time after. I went back to re-read certain sections (hoping to make it easier on myself, to no avail). The writing is beautiful. Just thinking about this book now, a couple of days after finishing it, I am again taken back into that world.
  • Things We Didn’t See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam. This one was also compelling. Lots of gaps that never quite get filled in. Such assured writing – he never lets go of you as a reader.  “It’s quite a ride,” was my first comment, when someone asked how I’d liked it. Fascinating, alarming, and compelling as you long for him to make more sense of things for you. A vision of an amoral, apocalyptic near-future that is quite imaginable. Last night at dinner those of us who have read the book wondered aloud how different it might have felt to have read it during the last months of Howard’s reign. Are we a littl more optimistic now? Or simply a bit worn down from the frustrations of the Howard era? Anyway, it was an intriguing thing to ponder. Striking cover art too.
  • Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brookes. Oh, I loved this one too. I loved the heroine, and I loved the evocative, rich writing that created a whole village and community for me. Strange twist at the end took me by surprise, and the desperation and exhaustion of the community as they battle the Great Plague is palpable.

Right now, I have just got started on Linda Jaivin’s new book, A Most Immoral Woman. Jaivin has a cheeky, flirtatious, disarming way of writing, that balances out the pompousity of her main character Morrison (a man, not the most immoral woman of the title). I haven’t read any of her other books, but heard her speak about this novel (and read from it) a week or so ago on Radio National’s The Book Show.

Apart from the reading on this holiday, I have plans to go to yoga classes (have been to two already), and maybe, maybe…. do a surfing course. I’ve always thought surfing looked like the most amazing past-time. Devotees get a kind of glazed, evangelical look in their eyes, and they are so committed that I figure it must be a pretty addictive experience. I’m keen to find out for myself what joys it contains.

Next week, back to work. Four days of workshops at ArtPlay. And the thesis is coming along, coming along. I’m up to my conclusions now, so taking a bit of time this week to re-read everything I’ve written and ponder what my resulting conclusions might actually be.

Finish line in sight

I finished my Lit Review chapter last night. I now have just my Discussion/Conclusions chapter (or chapters – not sure how it will pan out) to write, and my Introduction. It’s quite a relief to get this close!

The Discussion points are interesting. Here are some of the things I think I’ll be writing about:


The instruments are clearly a point of focus for the students. They nominate them without hesitation as the thing they like best about music. One child uses the words ‘music’ and ‘instruments’ interchangeably – which might be an issue of language (perhaps the two words are the same in her language) or it might suggest something about what she thinks ‘music’ (the subject at school) means and entails.

Why are the instruments such an obvious highlight? Is it because they are tangible, physical things (we don’t use books or much other equipment in music)? Is it because they allow a tactile experience, and require use of kinetic energy? Is it the sound of certain instruments that attracts the students (they each nominate they same two instruments as their favourites)? Do the sounds comfort and nurture the players, or offer an important emotional release? Is it something to do with their novelty – perhaps these students haven’t seen instruments like these in their countries of origin? Does that novelty suggest a quality of abundance, richness and luxury in Australia that was not present in their countries of origin? Is it to do with the suggestibility of the instruments – that you can see straight away how to play them? Their accessibility? Is it because everyone in the class always has something to play, and that there is a wide range of sounds, from all around the world, to choose from?

To answer this I’ll be looking at some music therapy sources, to see what they have to say about the qualities and appropriateness of different instruments.

Continue reading

Writing, writing, writing

I am making Thesis Progress. I sent a draft of my methodology chapter to my supervisor today. I am halfway through the Lit Review. I have written two of my three ‘findings and discussion’ chapters. So I am feeling pleased.

Can’t sleep though. My head is too full. I need something like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, to extract thoughts from my head and make room for new ones. Or just stop them crowding me when I need to rest.

Writing about writing isn’t very interesting – hence all the posts on non-work related things. Most of my time is taken up with the thesis (just as well I am unemployed pretty much, these days). And what will I do when the thesis is done? I’ll need to find a job. Where will that momentum come from? I hear from friends who have been through this process that there comes a point where you can’t really see or imagine anything beyond the thesis. You can pretend… but nothing seems real.

Certainly for me, with all that has happened over the last couple of years, the thesis is the last big commitment I have to see through. Once it is finished, my life and my days will be one big vaccuum, ready to suck in something new. I feel little rushes of excitement when I think about this. Trepidation too. It is scary to have everything become so open. But I have been restless in my life for a long time now, so any new direction will be welcome. I’m certainly open to considering everything. I figure the offers won’t start rolling in until I’m truly free, so for the time being, it is back to the writing, to getting the work done and submitted and finished.

Proper rain

Last Friday night there was an earthquake in Melbourne. 4.6 on the Richter scale – big for us, though not on a scale of earthquakes elsewhere. Still, think of the year we have had so far – heatwave. Firestorm. Less rain than ever before. Now an earthquake. What next? asked a friend recently. A volcano?

I’ve noticed Melbournians have a new way of talking about rain. “It’s raining,” we’ll announce with joy. “Yes…. but it’s not proper rain,” will come the reply, and we’ll have to admit this is true.

Proper rain soaks the ground. It takes the puddles a while to disappear – not just a few hours. It makes things really wet. It gets in the way of plans, means you consider things like an umbrella, or sensible shoes.

We don’t really get rain like that anymore. It rained this evening, while I was at my Italian class. We all stared out the window, completely distracted as we watched it get heavier and heavier. I started to feel a bit rueful, as I was on my bike and wearing very un-sensible shoes. But then it stopped. And it didn’t come back. I rode home in the dry.

A friend told me about children she knows here in Melbourne. According to their father, they are fascinated by rain (the way that other children might be fascinated by dirt, perhaps). They just haven’t really seen it, so when it rains they are taken completely by surprise, and are transfixed – for as long as it lasts, that is.

After the fires

On Sunday I went to visit my dear friend Pip, who lives in one of the areas devastated by firestorm 4 weeks ago, on what is now known as Black Saturday. She was lucky – her house survived, quite miraculously. Most other houses in the area were destroyed. The devastation was awful – it rendered us speechless. It was also surprising – as we drove up the mountain there seemed little evidence of what had happened there, but then all of a sudden, there were crashed, burnt out  cars at the side of the road, and remains of houses – just rubble, really. And black trees, black ground.

after fire 1

This bushland is on Pip’s block. There used to be thick undergrowth.

pip's house

Here you can see the miracle of Pip’s house – the fire surrounded it. You can see from the scars the way it burned around and around… but the house didn’t catch fire. Pip had already evacuated.


log pile

This is what’s left of the log pile. The scattered cinders on the ground were logs for the wood stove. The five charred stumps are the logs that were too hard and dense to be split by the guy who split all the other firewood.


This isn’t a great photo… if you look carefully though, you’ll see a kangaroo behind the trees on the left hand side. This was the first ‘roo we saw on Sunday. He was on his own. Pip said the kangaroos had slowly been returning. Later that day I saw a gang of about six, all hopping through the bush. They stopped when they saw me and went back the other way. So much wildlife was killed too. That some are around, and now returning, is good.

There are other signs of the land recovering. We ate tomatoes that had grown in Pip’s vegetable garden since the fires. The rose bushes, black and charred, have small green shots emerging from their bases. Baby steps. But all of this is exceptional. So much has been lost and destroyed. For every miracle, there is much to mourn.

Our politicians so often disappoint us. I found this article by Leunig, from last weekend’s Age, stirring, and to the point. With friends that evening we discussed it, and read passages aloud. It resonated very strongly with us, and that is not always typical of Leunig – he can polarise views. This one is worth reading.

Also from Saturday’s Age, Chloe Hooper wrote this very moving article about the injured wildlife and the healing efforts that are part of the recovery.

Exquisite sound poetry

A couple of weeks ago I was driving to Melbourne airport in the middle of the afternoon. I had Radio National on and found myself listening to a most intriguing, beguiling, beautiful sound poem on the Poetica program. I’m posting the link to the audio here. The poet’s name is Jayne Fenton Keane. Her creation uses sounds from the US Navy’s marine audio archive and includes all sorts of magical underwater sounds that she describes at the start of the program.

So many compelling, descriptive textures and sounds. However, I particularly loved the voice of the mermaid. In the interview she describes who this actor is and how she came to take on the role. It’s quite perfect. Anyway. Enough raving. It’s stunning work. I’d love to set her (Fenton Keane) and all her equipment, up in a room with children. The results would be gorgeous, I’m sure.

I have acquired a cello

… a cello.

Perhaps you will recall in my list of Things To Do once the Masters is finished… learning to play a cello was on that list. That led to me acquiring one through a friend who was going overseas. How serendipitous!

I am yet to have a lesson, but as experienced eyes may note from the photo below, I show excellent natural technique. Note for example the bow-hold – faultless. Hmmm…. after so many years watching MSO musicians explain to workshop participants how to hold the bow, I thought I’d have some idea, but no, it clearly didn’t get absorbed as deeply as it might have done.

What else? Well, I don’t think I have the position of the cello quite right as the bow keeps knocking into my knees when I bow either outer string. That can’t be right. Or perhaps that’s the reason so many cellists sway about a lot when they play. Maybe it’s in order to avoid their knees.

Also, the strings seem to be a fair distance away from the fingerboard. Holding them down is quite hard work. Perhaps there’s a secret to it. Perhaps it has something to do with the way string players seem to have quite a number of fingers all bunched up on the fingerboard in certain positions. They make it look so effortless, of course! (I suspect trying to play the cello will make me appreciate the clarinet a little more).

Anyway, I am having fun trying to do vibrato and tremolos and other such cool sounds. I am tempted to try the ‘icebergs cracking’ sound we used in a project last year, that involves twisting the bow hair against the back of the cello. It sounds horrendous, though is apparently quite safe, but I think I’ll steer clear of it for the time being.

Definitely the next thing I need to acquire is a teacher.


Halfway through the term

I realised today that there are only four more weeks left of this first term. That means that in three weeks time we will have our end-of-term concert, as I am away in the last week of term, so we can’t have it then. Fortunately the three composition projects are taking shape, with some adjustments to my original plans. Here’s the rundown:

Lower Primary

What a gorgeous class this is! So little, and so bright. The teacher and I have been working closely to develop our unit of work, focused around the theme of The Beach. We’ve brainstormed words in music class based on worksheets she has done with the students, so they have lots of vocabulary to contribute, and she is following up any songwriting we do in class too. All of which means we have loads of cool material, that the students feel familiar with.

We’ve got a happy, chirpy chorus that states

We go, we go, we go, we go, we go to the beach

We then have a jaunty verse, describing the things they bring with them to the beach

I’ve got my bucket, I’ve got my spade.

I’ve got my sunhat, I’ve got my sunscreen.

The last line is quite hard for them to say.

Today we added a cautionary middle 8:

Swim between the flags

Swim with the big people

Look out for the board riders

And if you need help, shout

“HELP, help, help. HELP, help, help!”

Which leads back into the chorus. They’ll accompany themselves on the big bass xylophone, and really, we are all having a ball with this song.

Middle Primary

MP have focused most of their work on developing an alphabet dance – a sequence of moves that has a specific movement or gesture for each letter of the alphabet. Today we completed the remaining letters of the alphabet and started to spell out words that they know (which are mostly different types of fruit. Fruit is a big vocab focus this term, it seems).

In addition to the dance, we are doing instrument work. They would probably mutinee if we didn’t – they do love the instruments above all other things we do in music. Every 2 minutes, someone will thrust a hand in the air, wave it at me frantically, saying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” regardless of what I am saying to the class or in the middle of doing. When I ask them what they want to say, they point to one of the drums (it’s always a drum) and say, sweetly, “Can I play that?” It’s amusing, but definitely annoying after a while.

So… we are making Name Rhythms, where we string four names from the class together and play the rhythm of the syllables on instruments. This composing technique works very well, although it can be a bit limiting in a class with lots of Chinese and African children as they invariably have names of 2 syllables only.  Fortunately this term we have a Thai girl (4 syllables), the class teacher (4 syllables), an Iranian boy (3 syllables) and a Burmese boy (1 syllable) to spice things up.

Upper Primary

There are a lot of new students in UP this term, and most have very little English to work with. My original idea was to bounce off their Food and Cooking theme and do some composing around recipes, but I have decided to shelve that idea, as they simply don’t have the language yet, and the majority wouldn’t understand.

Instead, we will work on some foundations of ensemble music (playing in time, keeping tempo, listening to multiple contrasting lines, starting points for inventing rhythms and melodies) via a fantastic song called Brixton Market.

I taught them this song in the first lesson of the day, and had it in my head for the rest of the day. I bet they did too – it is very catchy. (I just googled the singer and the song and came up with nothing – if anyone reading can provide a link to more info about this excellent song for children, please post it in the comments section). It mentions lots of different foods for sale in the market, so we will probably write a new verse (for one of the Melbourne markets – Preston or Victoria probably, as these are the ones near where the students live).