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.


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