Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

A strong start

In writing this blog I’ve been reflecting on what it is I do when I teach music to ESL children, and generate music compositions with them. Up until this term, these reflections have been specific to the Language School setting that I’ve been in since 2005. The blog has helped me identify some of the key strategies and approaches I use, and I am gradually working these into a more defined pedagogy, that will be the subject of some of my forthcoming research papers. Now that I am also working at Pelican Primary School, where the majority of children are ESL, but not/no longer newly arrived, I’m starting to compare the modifications I make to my approach between the two different sites. Over the next few months I plan to start defining those elements of the pedagogy that remain the same across both sites, and those that I can change.

Some key differences between the Language School and Pelican PS:

  • Language School has smaller classes
  • Language School lessons go for twice the amount of time each week (double periods instead of single periods)
  • Language School teachers (generally) play a more active role in the music classes, and more follow-up work takes place between lessons (this may chance at Pelican, as I am still establishing my relationships with the teachers there).
  • Pelican students have way more English! I talk more there, and give more explicit descriptions and explanations with some things.

This week, I identified one key part of my approach that doesn’t change from school to school. That is the importance of a strong start. The Strong Start is about the lesson having a clear beginning, where the whole group gathers together, and the musical environment is created. At the same time, hopefully, a safe and supportive environment is also created, so that people’s creative and imaginative contributions are encouraged and endorsed by the group.

Music therapists also use this technique. I’ve heard it described as a kind of ‘frame’ for the lesson. MTs will often start the session exactly the same way each week, so that the opening activity (a song, maybe a game or another particular activity or task) acts as a kind of ‘cue’ for the participants: “now we’re in music… now I am engaging my music self… etc”.

The importance that this kind of stablising routine has for me as a music teacher was highlighted this week with one of the classes at Pelican. One of the teachers asked, when she brought her class down to music, (a prep class, in the last period of the day), if they could complete something they hadn’t yet had time to do, that needed to be done that day. Wanting to be flexible and easy to work with, I agreed. But the thing she wanted to do involved one child talking through some work she had done, answering the teachers questions while the other children listened. Unsurprisingly (for this time of day, and, I suspect, because we were in the music room environment) the other children didn’t listen very well, and got pretty restless.

The same teacher gave out fruit to all her students at the start of the music lesson. They had been out of school on an excursion all day and probably needed the snack to keep them going, but it meant that their hands and mouths were completely occupied for the first fifteen minutes of the music lesson, so there wasn’t really anything I could do with them!

In both of these lessons, the strange, unclear, unstructured start to the music period meant that the children’s focus dissipated, and I never got it back. I realised this week how important it is that I recognise the way the Strong Start to the lesson ensures some good work gets done, that the same starting activity, if undertaken sometime into the lesson period, won’t work to pull together their focus.

This isn’t a criticism of the teacher, more a note to self about recognising the strategies I have in place that are essential, that lead to my lessons being effective, fun and smooth-running. The strong start to lessons is one of these, and is a constant in all the lessons and workshops I run, with all groups.

(This earlier post lists the many disciplines and approaches that have had a strong influence on my music pedagogy).


I’ve been doing a lot of composing and inventing  this month, and encouraging others to do the same, and this leads me to think once more about creative energy and new ideas – what makes them come, and what makes them work?

Working with the Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra on the weekend, one of our initial warm-up games was a simple one of passing sounds around the circle, and indicating changes of direction by making strong eye contact with the person they intend to pass the sound to.

“Really look at them,” I encouraged the students. “Strong eye contact means holding your gaze. It also means making a decision about who you are passing the sound on to, and committing, 100%, to that decision, not changing your mind midway.”

This post is not so much concerned with how to encourage and facilitate original ideas from players (I can write about that another time… I have probably already written about it before), but with what it is that makes creative ideas work.

Here are some examples: some of the initial ideas that have evolved in my many different projects this month have not been particular convincing for me. The song I wrote with the Upper Primary students had, I felt, a bit of a cheesy, folksy melody, I thought. It wasn’t very cool, not very hip.  I accompanied it on guitar, and frankly, I am a pretty crap guitar player and don’t have the skills to groovify things that way either.

However, the melodic idea had come from one of the students, and that was important to the process. It could be accompanied with a perky xylophone riff, and that made it sound better. The melody from the student led naturally into a chorus. Basically, by committing to this initial idea, even though I wasn’t convinced by it myself…. it evolved into a really catchy, fun, cool song, worthy of the students’ time and pride.

I can think of many projects where the initial musical ideas haven’t grabbed me as much as I’d hoped, or where I haven’t been completely sure how I will link a range of different musical material. But each of these, when I reflect now, evolved into something I felt truly proud of. Some of the songs in the Aranea project. Fish don’t have legs. The Wintery music project that the children’s teacher said provided the students with brilliant vocabulary throughout the winter term. The pressure of time meant that I needed to stay with these ideas, but the very act of staying with them, and really trusting them, is what allowed their potential to be revealed.

I usually teach the warm-up game I describe above with the emphasis on the eye contact as an important part of communication in ensemble music-making. However, it occurs to me today that there is also an important lesson for the participants in what it means to commit to a decision – to choose something because a choice must be made, but to then commit to that choice and see it through, rather than stay with one foot in the water, one foot out, waiting to see if a better option comes along.

Slow progress in songwriting (1)

I’m going to write a series of posts (starting here) that follow the songwriting process at Pelican Primary School, and compare it to a similar project at the Language School. I was at Pelican today, and felt very aware of the baby steps we take each week as the songwriting progresses. Things feel faster at the Language School with the same age group (Lower Primary) so I thought I’d keep a log of what takes place, just to see what is really going on.

First, a couple of important differences between the two schools:

  • At the Language School there is a maximum of 13 students, and the teacher is actively involved. We have music for around 45 mins each week, but can stretch that to 60 mins if the students are engaged. The children are all new arrivals, so have minimal English language skills
  • At Pelican, there are around 17 students in the class. It is a Grade 1/2 composite class. We have music each week for 45 mins, and their teacher is in the room with us, but doesn’t play an active role, remaining on the sidelines and monitoring what is going on. Lots of the children in the class are from Language Backgrounds Other Than English (ESL, therefore).

At Pelican, the class topic for the term is on simple machines. I liked the idea of some of the verbs that could be used (hammering, cutting, twisting, pushing, etc), and the idea of a machine that is made up of many simple components, so that was our initial starting point.

Lesson 1

I asked the students to list all the different simple machines they could think of. The list included hammers, saws, levers, springs, and so on.

Then we began to organise these into lists and phrases, chanting,

It’s got… 5 wheels, and

Two axles, and

Ten cranks and

One lever!

A tune began to emerge from the children (I let them chant it, and listen for any pitches that emerge through the repetition – it’s quite an effective way of finding a melody with this age group, as there are always one or two who naturally and unselfconsciously move towards singing from chanting). Later, I realised it was possibly channelling a Shania Twain song. Don’t know the name of it, but I think it is Shania. From ages ago. I’ve no idea how that happened.

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Project wrap-up – May

I’ve come to the end of my crazy-busy month of May. I think it will prove to be my busiest month of the year, in terms of the range of projects I’ve done. Here’s a bit of a run-down/wrap-up:

Jam with MSO in Ballarat

Five musicians and I took the Tarrago up the Western Highway to Ballarat for the afternoon. We did a one-hour Jam with a group of children and parents. The kids were aged from about 3 upwards, I’d say.

As is often the case with the Jams, we had very little knowledge beforehand of who would be turning up, and what instruments might be there. Fortunately, this project took place in a music shop, and the store manager was very easy-going about letting us use a big range of percussion instruments from the floor stock. We shared these out among the participants and started by asking for ideas of ‘words’, or themes that we could base some improvisations around. In the end, we had the words ‘love’ and ‘machinery’ (“Love machinery?” suggested one of the MSO musicians with a bit of a devilish glint in his eye. Only one of the parents giggled along with me… so we decided to drop that particular emphasis and treat them as two separate words. Ahem).

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ESL students in performance

Last week the upper primary students performed their original song for the Language School’s opening ceremony for the new library. It was a lovely event – the whole school assembled outside, the two student leaders from the secondary school acted as MCs, our local member of parliament was there to do the ‘official’ thing – ribbon-cutting and so on.

My students performed really well. They were quite nervous, I’d say, but they sang confidently, with strong voices (but not shouting – we’d spent quite a few weeks learning that distinction). The words were not memorised, so we wrote them out and put them on a low, free-standing easel that they could look at while they performed. So as they sang, their eyes were glued to these words, and their faces deadly serious (despite the fact that the song is quite humourous). Afterward, I reflected on how I could have better supported them to raise their eyes from the words – not just in terms of their memorisation, but in terms of their understanding of performances, and their role as performers.

I think that it is important to prepare all students for performance experiences, but particularly new arrivals, who can be so critical of themselves, and so unsure of the validity or ‘right-ness’ of what they perform. I prepare them as much as possible for what the experience will look like (the environment), and what it may feel like (the emotions  and reactions they may experience).

Preparing vocab and the environment

To start with, especially with the youngest students, I give them an understanding of the audience (“the people looking”, or “the mums and dads”, or “the other children and the teachers”). Sometimes we draw faces on the white board (everyone gets to draw faces), so that we can talk about what the faces (ie. the audience) can see, to try and build awareness of how the students should position themselves on stage. We migh also learn the words ‘audience’, and ‘concert’.

Discussing feelings

I find that new arrivals sometimes feel that the feelings they experience are because they are new/foreign/don’t understand/don’t know anything/aren’t good enough. Therefore, I try to discuss how they might feel when they perform their music with people watching them, and that these feelings (of shyness, embarassment, fear… these are the words they volunteer) are normal, and are part of the whole experience.

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Music and literacy

I thought I’d write about one of the newest students in the Lower Primary class at Language School. His name is Marko (a pseudonym). He’s from Eastern Europe. He is bright, funny, and has an impish mischievousness about him in music class. He is also  notably articulate, which is an unusual thing to say about a new student.  But Marko’s oral language is highly developed. He has already spent some time in a mainstream school before coming to Language School.

Today the Lower Primary students worked on glockenspiels. They invented little four-beat melodies choosing from three different pitches. They worked all together, playing through these tunes slowly. I noticed Marko seemed to be struggling, which surprised me, because he has been so very bright in all the classes. I went to help him. I pointed to the letter names written on the board, and said them out loud for him. I noticed that he needed to look at the board before playing the next letter. Look up, look down, locate, play. Look up, look down, locate, play. That was fine – most of the students start like this, but then they begin to process the pattern, they memorise it, and can play more fluently. Marko didn’t seem to be sure about which letter was which without comparing it to the letter-shapes on the board.

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The wonderful clarity of western-style notation

I’ve found myself in the middle of a really interesting project with the Middle Primary students at the Language School. A focus this term on pulse has taken us into working with simple rhythmic notation (using crotchets, quavers and rests – or quarters, eighths, and rests, as you prefer). I hadn’t planned to introduce western-style notation this term – in fact, I’m not sure it has ever featured in my work at the Language School – but now that I’m in the middle of it, I’m not sure why it hasn’t been a feature.

For one thing, it’s visual. And it can be ‘read aloud’ by the students using simple, logical sounds (ta, titi, and sah). It makes sense to them.

We started with whole notes/semibreves. This was not a good place to start, as they hadn’t yet started internalising pulse. Ditto for minims/half-notes. Things really cranked up when we got on to the crotchets and quavers. We began to invent different rhythms. We said them, clapped them, then put them onto untuned percussion instruments. We divided into two, then three groups, and so were playing three different rhythms concurrently.

And here is the joy of it all – it all hung together! Beautifully. “Well, of course!” I can hear all the music teachers chorus,with a slight air of impatience. These tools have been around a long time, because they work. But what is exciting for me is to see just how quickly and effectively they work without much verbal explanation. They are supported by the musically-consistent environment of the music classes (we have strong attention to musical detail); they also enable the children from China and Thailand, some of whom have had music instruction prior to arrival in Australia, to tap into their knowledge and learning from their country of origin.

For the newest arrivals, and those from refugee backgrounds, who tend to be sruggling with literacy and who have had incredibly disrupted schooling, if any schooling at all, it also seemed to make sense. There are five children in the class who fit this description (Horn of Africa, and Middle Eastern nationalities); only one child was clearly still guessing what was going on, the others seemed to have made sense of the task and were gradually piecing things together.

Today, we progressed things further, writing a rhythm, and then adding pitches to it to make a melody. I gave them a 5-note pentatonic scale to work with, and asked them to suggest which pitches should go where. As we progressed through the rhythm, I played them what they had invented so far. We came up with a funky little tune, and learnt it. Applying pitches to a known rhythm was a good challenge even for the most competent students. They had to figure out how to glance quickly at the board, and then back down to their instrument. We did a lot of echoing, so that they could establish a strong aural memory of the tune.

So, now in week four, we have a 3-part rhythm played on a range of instruments, and a melody, which I have started accompanying on the guitar. What’s more, it all hangs together, with very little direction or correction from me. I think the visual representation of what they are playing helps them put the different parts in context with each other, perhaps.

I think it is going to become a song. The school has been asked to perform in a local Refugee Week community celebration at the end of term – I think this Middle Primary song might end up linking to that event.

Attention spans of the Pelicans

Pelican Primary School is a very multicultural, inner-city school, with probably well over twenty different language and cultural groups represented. English is a second language for many of the students. In fact, quite a number of the students in the school first attended the Language School where I also teach (and have been teaching since 2005), so it has been lovely to be able to reconnect with them, and admire how fluent their English is now, how tall they have grown, etc.

This diversity of language at Pelican PS suggested to me that many of the pedagogical strategies I have developed at the Language School would also be effective here. In fact, I saw a tremendous opportunity to be able to refine and further develop my ideas, and ensure they are applicable to a mainstream school environment, as well as to the specialised Language School classes.

However, there are some big differences between teaching at the Language School, and teaching at Pelican Primary School. One of these is in the way the students engage with teaching and learning, which can perhaps be considered in terms of the length of time that students can concentrate for, or how easily they get distracted.

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Settling in to new school

It is now the fourth week of term and I am settling into my new role as the music teacher at Pelican Primary School (a pseudonym). I felt a bit dazed after the first week, thrown by the experience of working with unfamiliar students and unfamiliar teachers, in an unfamiliar school, with unfamiliar musical instruments and equipment. I came home feeling quite deflated, wondering how it was that I thought myself to be a dynamic, exciting music teacher.

Week 2 brought some reassurance to me. One was the way the children greeted me by name as I walked through the school ground. I’d forgotten how nice this is, and now that they know who I am, they seem delighted to call hello as I walk past (umpteen times, in the case of some eager beavers). Then, there was the pleasure in having classes arrive at their music lessons, brimming with excitement to tell me how they could remember all the things we did the previous week, or the words to the song we’d learned. I can’t have been that dull, I said to myself.

By week 3, I was able to start plotting the composition projects I want to undertake with each class. Now that I’ve seen them in action, and the way they respond to me and my teaching style, and also how their teacher participates in the lessons, I can build appropriate projects for them.

I’m also discovering that, while 45 minute lessons feel pretty short to me, they are far less onerous in terms of planning than the double-period lessons I teach at the Language School. Also, the way my day-and-a-half teaching load has been timetabled sees me in the school from 11.30-3.30, two days a week, and I am discovering that this slightly shorter day is giving me a valuable opportunity to really pace myself, and figure out how to be an effective teacher without leaving myself completely wasted and depleted of all energy at the end of the teaching day.

This question of ‘pace’ is one of my personal goals for 2009 – so often, when I come home from a project day or school day, I am virtually comatose, unfit for any further kind of communication. Often I need a nap. Imagine if I had a family to look after when I came home! Impossible…. I am full of admiration for the dynamic teachers I know who go home to families at the end of the teaching day.

Composing as an alien concept

Here is an interesting discussion I had last week with a colleague from South Australia. We were talking about my research at the Language School, and about the question the students’ understanding of composing, and whether they think of what we do as ‘composing’ or not.

My colleague made the point that ‘composing’ – the idea of creating new music, original ideas and sounds, and structuring them into compositions that go on to exist in their own right, is not a universal concept. That, in many other musical cultures, the notion is quite an alien one. Sure, improvisation is a feature of many musical cultures, but musical invention often stops at that point.

I am not a specialist in world music, or on the characteristics of different musical cultures, but, drawing on the little knowledge I have, this seemed to make sense.

  • In Indian classical music, improvisation is a strong feature. But the musical structures and scales within which this occurs are ancient, and while they may evolve and change under the hands of different masters, this is different to new works being created from nothing.
  • In traditional African music, similarly, the forms and structures are traditional, and while they may be interpreted by different performers, and while improvisation is a key part, the idea of composing something would be quite strange, perhaps even inappropriate or disrespectful.
  • In gamelan music, I am not sure. Certainly there are many traditional and ancient forms; however, new music also evolves. For example, the kecak monkey chanting and dance (that becomes part of the storytelling of the great Ramayana saga) was developed in the 1930s for tourist audiences in Bali. I know that the gamelan group I work with through Musica Viva, Byar, is constantly developing new versions of their music. Perhaps, however, this is yet again an example of revising ancient forms, rather than composing completely new material.

What of the musical traditions of the indigenous peoples of Australia? I’m not sure here. Again, I think the music performed is traditional, and passed down orally through the generations, rather than composed from scratch by contemporary performers.

In this context, when I ask the question, do the students know they are composing?, I am assuming familiarity with what may in fact be quite an alien concept to these students from all around the world. I have always believed that to some extent, the confusion or inhibition that some students display when we undertake some of the more free creative tasks, was due to cultural differences, and their unfamiliarity with an education approach that invites and encourages student input (as opposed to the ‘transmission’ style of teaching). But I think now I should consider the possibility that the notion of ‘composing’ is one that has no real parallels in their cultures, and so must be learned and understood as an entirely new concept.

Comments on the role of composition in other musical cultures are warmly invited.