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.

We then talk about the music they are performing. Where has it come from? (It has come from them, from their words and stories and musical ideas). I emphasise how impressive it is, that students who have only been learning English a short time, can sing a song in English that they have written themselves. We use the word proud, as a way to describe how we hope they will feel, and how we (their teachers and I) feel about them.

I also remind them that it is good to have fun in music, and that the people listening want to have fun too. So if things go wrong, or go differently, we don’t need to worry. No one needs to know. I won’t mind. I encourage them to smile in the performance, and I hope that they will relax sufficiently that they can enjoy the experience!

Supporting students to do their best work

I think it is incredibly important that students’ experiences of performance – no matter how low-key or high-profile – are successful and positive experiences for the students. Sometimes I feel that students’ work and efforts are undermined by the adults around them not taking the work seriously, seeing it as a ‘nice thing for the kids to do’ and ‘a good experience’, and being oh-so-ready to not worry about the outcome, and not worry if things don’t go so smoothly. I certainly agree with the non-judging approach, but not at the expense of creating an environment that supports the students to do their best work.

For example, many schools have different classes perform items at the weekly school assembly. Often, this assembly is first thing on a Monday morning, because that is a convenient time for parents, and is a strong way to start the week’s work.

However, if a music item is to be performed, that has been prepared by the music teacher in the class’ weekly music lesson, it can mean that many days have gone past since the children have last practised their performance piece. To perform at assembly, they will have to get up and essentially perform it cold.

In addition, it may be that assembly is held on a day when the music teacher isn’t in the school. This poses a further problem – either the children will perform without the support of the music teacher, or the music teacher will need to come in to support the students in their performance. The latter is my preference, in terms of creating the strongest and most supportive environment for the children to perform within, however, that assumes the teacher will be remunerated appropriately for their time.

Can the people in the audience see the performers? If not, they may get restless, and this will not support the performers. Are the people in the audience aware of how to be a supportive audience member? I often ask both parents and students to wait until the end of a performance piece to take photos. I am often amazed by parents who wave and gesture and try to get their child to look at them and smile for a photo, when I have just spent the last pep talk before the start of the performance reminding the children to look at me and to stay inside the music until it is finished.

Performances may be scheduled to take place outside, and certainly if the weather is fine, this can seem a lovely idea. But outside performances of music created by primary school children needs good PA support, or they won’t be able to hear each other, and the audience won’t be able to hear. And again, the performers’ confidence will falter. Energy often dissipates when groups go outside to work – voices trail away with no surfaces to bounce off. And the energy of the group is no longer contained by walls or other ‘boundary’ structures, so focus is much harder to maintain.

So often, we want our students to have performance experiences for the confidence and joy it can bring them. I therefore think it is essential that we as teachers remain true to this intention right down to the smallest details. Otherwise, we are essentially patronising the students, suggesting that just the fact that they got up and had a go, is all we expect from them. Therefore, I think the onus is on us to create the strongest possible performance environment that genuinely respects and honours the students’ efforts, skills, and contributions, and affords them the status we would give to adults. This in turn is also respect for the music itself, and its ability to connect us all, in so many intangible ways.

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