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.

Also in Lesson 1 the students invented a kind of chorus or bridge in a minor key (ie. I think it will probably function as a chorus or bridge. The children didn’t label it in that way).

It makes you faster, it makes you stronger

It makes you smarter, because you think better.

The rest of the song is in a major key. Hmmmm. But it is all pretty catchy, and encourages off-beat clapping, which I am happy about as getting kids to clap off-beats comfortably is one of my little goals. I’m confident we will make it fit somewhere.

Looking at this now, it seems we did a lot in Lesson 1. Not slow progress at all.

Lesson 2

One of the students made what he thought was a silly offer (hoping to make others laugh); however, I really liked it!

It goes BANG! BANG! BANGITY-BANG!

“Tell me some more ‘noise’ words like Bang!” I asked the students, and we listed a bunch. This led to  another verse/bridge:

It goes BANG! OINK! DING-DONG CLUNK!

It goes RAH! NUNK! BOING-BOOM BOOM!

We practised the song as it stood so far, and tried singing it with a stick-drum accompaniment.

Lesson 3

This week I wanted to start including some instruments, and building up some ‘strings’ of different sounds, where the children take it in turns to play on different instruments – one sound per beat. We’d done this as a warm-up task a few weeks earlier and it worked quite well.

“Which instrument in this room makes a ‘bang’ sound?” I asked. One of the students proposed a drum would, and I asked him to choose one. “What instrument could make a ‘ding-dong’ sound?” I asked next, and another student suggested a pair of cowbells would make a ding-dong sound. She went and got them. We continued in this way until an instrument and a player had been assigned to each of the ‘noise’ words.

Then we set up the structure – first we all sing the words, then the line is ‘echoed’ by the people on instruments. They have to use their inner hearing to know when to play their instrument.

This worked pretty well the first time. Then we wanted to move the instruments around so that others could have a try, and we lost their focus. It seems like they are fine until we shift the energy somewhat, and that is when I tend to lose them. I know, of course, that this can happen anywhere and I pay a lot of attention to transitions between activities and how they are set up/managed… however, it does surprise me how quickly these children will ‘depart’, in terms of their focus.

So at this stage, after three lessons on the song, we have quite a lot of words, the beginnings of an instrumental section, and a potential chorus or bridge. What we need still is some kind of introductory verse, that introdces the ‘Amazing machine’ that the song is describing.

I think it is also important that from next lesson, I start ptting all of this material into a context. They need to see/hear how it can all fit together. I think they will start to feel pretty excited about their work at that point. Right now, I’m not sure all of them get it.

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