Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

End of term round-up

I did my last teaching day for the term today. It was a corker. The last class – preps – were kind of all over the place. Last week I’d noted that I should give them more variety, hand out more instruments…. but I would say that the bigger range of instruments led to way more distraction, because they all wanted to change, and try everything. And they are not a very discipline class overall. Very excitable. Next time I’ll go back to just 2 or 3 different instrument groups.

I’ve been doing lots of ‘Conducting’ with the early years groups. I teach them hand signals for ‘pick up’, ‘play’, ‘stop’, and ‘put down’. Anyone who misses a cue, or plays at the wrong time has to give me their instrument and sit out. Different children get to try conducting. It teaches them to keep their eye on me, and to stop playing on cue.

It’s been quite a hit (though I think I am exhausting its novelty now). They watch incredibly carefully, especially as sometimes I try and ‘trick’ them…. they take great delight in being absolutely accurate.

The other thing I’ve been doing with the lower years is metronome work, where we set the metronome ticking and try and play in time with it. They also get an incredibly strong focus with this.

That’s at Pelican Primary School. At Language School, we finished the term with a performance last week for Refugee Week, and an end-of-term concert for the parents and other classes. Here’s what we did:

Lower Primary

We finished composing our song Many, many butterflies, inspired by their visit to the Butterfly House at Melbourne Zoo, and in part a strategy to encourage them to ‘play like butterflies’ on the instruments (ie. not whack them so hard). We accompanied it with guitar, and lots of quiet triangle, bell, and glockenspiel playing, tapping gently on the pulse and working in cycles of eight beats.

Middle Primary

We composed a rousing song for Refugee Week, Big Strong Heart, which included call-and-response verses, and a chorus in 2 parts. At the public performance last week we taught it to the audience and they sang with us. Yesterday at the school concert we taught it to the parents and other students. We accompanied it with four different rhythmic and tuned percussion parts. I have a pretty skilled drummer in the MP class at the moment – I will be coming up with some new project ideas for next term that will engage directly with his skills.

Upper Primary

The UP class performed two items for the end-of-term concert – our percussion piece based on riffs from Beyonce’s song Bellydancer (I assume it is Beyonce – that is what the kids told me), with its very funky 12/8 chorus Shake-a-balika-balika Dancer. Then they performed the song they wrote for the builders, to celebrating the completion of the new library building. They performed this song a few weeks ago, at the opening ceremony for the library, and it was so well-received that we decided to perform it again.

So now I get a break from teaching, which is great. Next week I am back with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble with a 2-day project based on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and then one day of artist training for the Royal Children’s Hospital. Then I got on a week’s holiday.

Tuned percussion strategy

At Pelican PS I’ve developed a new strategy for building skills in students working with tuned percussion (we have a small range of Orff-style xylophones and metalaphones). They often find it difficult to locate notes on the instruments, or to get used to the leaps and stepwise movement in the parts.

The following strategy came into being one day when, out of the blue, the music room wasn’t available and I didn’t want us to waste a lesson doing something unrelated to our instrumental work. I decided to get the students to sing and play their parts, using vocal sounds and body percussion. Drums were easily covered with chest thumps and patsching. Guiro players mimed their pattern and imitated the guiro sound with their voices.

For the tuned percussion, we had an ostinato:



It’s basically a pattern in fifths, following a Dmin, Dmin, C, Dmin chord progression. I got them to ‘play’ it on their bodies, using the following points:

D = knees

A = top of head

C = floor

G = shoulders

They weren’t hitting these body parts in order to make a sound; rather, the intention was to create a visual simulation of the distance between the notes on the xylophone.

The students seemed to enjoy dong it this way. It proved to be a good way to help them memorise the pattern (bear in mind these are children who have not had a lot of regular opportunities to play tuned percussion instruments), to stay focused on the ostinato, and to internalise the sense of distance between the notes. Later, we kept all of these body percussion parts in the piece, and used them as a warm-up before moving onto instruments. I’ve since used it with another class, for a different tune (a more complex one, with stepwise movement as well as leaps), and they too have responded well to this way of practising a riff, away from the instruments.

Performance and motivation

This post is inspired by some recent observations at Pelican Primary School. One of my first big realisations at Pelican was the limited ability to concentrate and focus among the students. I know that this is a common occurrence in primary schools, but it is perhaps particularly prevalent at schools with a similar demographic to Pelican. Therefore, my first big question to myself was, “How can I get them to increase their focus?”

Music is an incredibly disciplined undertaking. I always warn students that “there is lots of waiting in music” – they must wait to play at the right time, to stop and then wait again, to keep their attention on the music even when they are not playing, etc.

However, it seemed to me that the Pelicans didn’t really see the point in waiting. Their focus was so scattered that it was hard to deliver those kinds of lightbulb moments of understanding in the warm-up tasks (which is my usual strategy) – they just weren’t sticking at anything long enough for it to work its magic. Without this understanding of what we are aiming for, they have no particular motivation to stick with it. A vicious circle ensues.

Then, because those moments of success that yield understanding are so fleeting, there are few opportunities to demonstrate to them how well they are doing, and begin to build on their pride and confidence.

This is where class performances have begun to be a real solution and important part of the music curriculum. “The students need to see another class perform,” I decided. It needs to be a strong performance, so that it sets a standard and can act as a reference point for all the other classes.

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Feathers and focus

Last week I introduced the Lower Primary students to feather-balancing. This is an activity I learned in a circus skills workshop, and it is the most wonderful task. It involves balancing a peacock feather on the palm of your hand, or the tip of your finger. As you get more skilled you can try balancing it on other parts of the body, such as the nose or forehead.

The trick to keeping your feather upright and balanced is to keep your eyes on ‘the eye’ of the peacock feather (the brilliant, brightly coloured top-piece of the feather design). Maintaining this kind of steady eye contact in one direction is very challenging for a lot of the students at the Language School – maybe it is for primary school students everywhere. They tend to look to me or their teacher for direction, reassurance, or approval (perhaps because they quickly get in the habit of watching the teacher and other students for all cues about what to do).

feather balancing

Marko’s eyes lit up when I demonstrated the task.  (He is the very bright, articulate boy I wrote about a few weeks ago, still coming to grips with reading). “I can’t do it,” he said almost immediately. But he had’t been looking at the eye of the feather. He tried again, with me calling constantly, “look up!” and “look at the Eye. The Eye!” He got the hang of it then, and the look of pleasure and pride on his face was very satisfying.

Later that day, children from the class raced up to me in the playground. “We liked the feathers!” “I thought that was pretty good!” and “We’ve been practising!” they told me excitedly.

The feather balancing is effective because it is so achievable. Everyone can do it. Some will start to challenge themselves, trying to balance it in different ways. It gets them focusing with their eyes, and with their bodies. Their teacher commented that it was the most focused she’d ever seen some of her students, in their whole time in the school!

I challenge them by getting them to keep their feet in one place, to encourage more focused physical awareness and control. When all of them are balancing their feathers at the same time, it transforms the room into a kind of mystical, other-worldly jungle of strange, bobbing  floating creatures, suspended upwards in the air, gliding their way around the room.

bunch of feathers


In my last post I described a tactic I’ve developed at Pelican Primary School that, to my surprise works incredibly well  as a way of introducing instruments, playing techniques, and building focus and participation. It involves just one instrument to be passed around the group, with each person getting to play it, one by one. Nothing else is taking place at this time. Everyone’s attention is on the person with the instrument.

The focus we get when just one instrument is passed around surprised me at first, and surprised the class teacher too. The first time I tried it, the kids had been really badly behaved – disruptive, unfocused, a little bit crazy… we started the one-instrument-taking-in-turns idea about two-thirds of the way through the lesson. Suddenly they were calm!

I wonder if it is the fact that there is just ONE THING going on in the circle. They all focus on it. Their interest in instruments is genuine… also, perhaps they see that they are going to get a turn, and so are happy to wait for that (and sense that they should behave well, or they might miss out). It is a visual activity as well as a physical one – they can see what is going on throughout the task.

I also wonder if they struggle with the noise level when multiple instruments are passed around the circle. Not only does this create confusion about where their attention should be directed, it may trigger a kind of panicked ‘chaos’ reaction in their brains.

Earlier this term a brass quintet came to perform for the students. The whole school was in the hall for the concert, and apparently they were pretty naughty. The next day in the staff room, teachers told me about it, shaking their heads in a kind of amazed horror at the memory of it.

It was at this time that I began to wonder if in fact these children don’t cope very well with too much noise (which is ironic, because they generate a lot of it). Unfamiliar or unexpected noise can be a very stressful thing. Hearing loss or damage can cause people stress and make them respond in a snappy way all of a sudden if constant jarring noise is inflicted upon them (like the players sitting in front of the brass in a confined orchestra pit, for example). I wonder if a lot of the Pelican students have a similar, reflex reaction to unfamiliar, loud sounds. They get overwhelmed, they feel a little panicked or over-excited inside, and they don’t have the self-discipline (or group discipline) to have a programmed, calm response when this happens.

Interesting… What can I do to help them? Develop their listening skills… playing music that gradually adds parts could help, as they will be actively involved in noticing and accepting each new part as it is added, and hearing/experiencing how it ‘locks in’ rhythmically… Encourage them to listen critically to recorded music and its elements… encourage attention to good quality of sound when they play… see if they can articulate how they experience live music in their heads and in their bodies, thus hopefully building greater awareness and understanding of the experience, both physically and mentally. And emotionally.

Progress at Pelican PS

It is already week 8 of the term, which means things are starting crank up, in order to round up by week 10. I’ve been enjoying my new teaching at Pelican Primary School, and little by little and working out some effective tactics with these kids.

  • Starting the music lesson the same way each week (a Name Game – very simple) really does seem to ground everyone and pull the focus in. Often it is all the warm-up we need.
  • Things can still be chaotic when I bring the instruments out…. but I want them to have these experiences. One thing that is working with all the year levels is to take just ONE instrument (a drum, a xylophone… it works with all of them), and pass it around the circle one by one. Despite their time being spent mostly just waiting (and hopefully listening to each other), they focus incredibly well when we do this. Who’d have thought?
  • We need to move through tasks lightning-fast with the younger children, particularly the preps that I teach last lesson on a Wednesday. It’s like aiming for constant distraction, but with a little bit of music work disguised in every task.

I’m also developing my rapport with the different teachers, as we get to know each other. A couple of weeks ago, I posted my realisations about the importance of a Strong Beginning in each of my music lessons. Since that week, that class has always been ready to start on time, and I’ve had some great support and participation from the teacher. Now I can also see what the class is like despite a strong, clear start to the lesson. That’s been important to know as well – it means that little by little, I can get a sense of what will work with this class, in the last lesson on a Wednesday afternoon.

Brainstorm for new song

Last week I started a songwriting project with Middle Primary at the Language School. We have been working all term on some instrumental music, but have recently been invited to perform in Refugee Week celebrations at the end of term, so I decided to add a song to our composition.

We brainstormed together, and I wrote their words on the whiteboard. Orienting questions included:

  • Is it easy or difficult when you come to a new country. [Everyone said ‘difficult’]. What sorts of things are difficult?
  • How do you feel? How did you feel when you first arrived?
  • What do you miss from your old country?

Below are some of the results of this brainstorm. Some of their words are very poignant, such as the reference to ‘suffering’, and the sadness of saying goodbye to friends and a country you would like to be able to stay in. In the end, we only used a few key phrases in our song – we’ve written a song that will be ideal for audience participation, as it has a ‘response’ that repeats constantly throughout the song.

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