Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Post-thesis world

Thanks to everyone who has sent their good wishes to me about the completion of my thesis. More than one has mentioned ‘rest’, ‘relax’ and ‘champagne’…. well, I’m not very good at rest, not yet anyway. There is still a bit of a backlog of projects to get through, and project planning for work coming up in August. But knowing that I have handed it in does make a difference in my mind, and while I might not have done any proper celebrating yet, I’m enjoying the space that has been created, both mentally and physically.

Mentally, it is just that it was a big thing that needed to be done. Everything else on my To Do list is small in comparison. When I took my three thermally-bound, single-sided copies (such a waste of paper! But those are the rules) to the Faculty Office to submit them, the staff there burst into a spontaneous round of applause.

“Oh I love it at this moment,” said one. “The sight of these three books, and the look of euphoria on the student’s face.”

I hoped I was looking suitably euphoric. Mostly I just felt tired, and distracted by a strange sense ofย  urgency to read through the copies one last time – which I knew I didn’t really want to do.

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Dragon Teacher

In the Middle Primary classroom there are quite a few new students. I mentioned one of them in my post last week – Volodya, from Russia – and I am still trying to figure out how to channel his creative energy. Meanwhile, I feel I am turning into Dragon Teacher.

Volodya has something of a hard set to his jaw, although with keenly observant eyes, and lots of energy. The moment he enters the room he rushes up to me, asking if we will play his game today (a warm-up game that is similar to one we played last week). I smile at him and say, yes, we will be playing some games, but I don’t know if it is his one, and as he wanders off to sit down, I suggest to him that he can also play his games outside of music class. (Sometimes I feel protective over my time – we only have an hour and twnety minutes a week – a long time for music lessons, but I always have lots that I want to do).

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Language School projects, Term 3

I started back at the Language School this week. Every term, I try to invent a composition project with each class that relates to a topic that will be under investigation in their classroom work. It turns out that all three classes – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary – are all doing Transport this term. So… three projects inspired by transport? Here are my early thoughts:

Lower Primary

Once again, we have a very competent, functional class here, who have lots of ability, and good focus. I didn’t try to start any themed work with them; rather, I just took them through a number of ‘foundation’ activities, in order to get a better sense of how they are in music. I’ll keep you posted on how their transport theme will play out – probably a chant based on road safety, as I did last term at Pelican PS.

Middle Primary

We listed all the different ways the students travel to school – train, tram, bus, car, walking, even bicycle. Then we experimented with a vocal percussion piece of ‘train sounds’. I have quite a few new students in this class, including a lively, easily distracted boy – Volodya from Russia, who is very cool and keeps breaking out into break-dancing (and comments on everything, but EVERYTHING I say!) Hmmm…. will need to get all of that creative energy channeled in a positive direction, quick-smart. Also in the class is Oscar, the very bright Liberian boy who started midway through last term, who can drum and beatbox with gallons of style and skill, and who I suspect will get bored with the slowness of the others in the class very, very quickly. With these two students in mind in particular, I think we will put together a hip-hop, beatboxing chant/song/dance about public transport, maybe utilising train station names, street names, tram and bus numbers, and so on.

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Last Sunday

The Melbourne Design Festival is on at the moment, and as part of it, last Sunday there was an ‘Open House’ day when members of the general public could get to see inside some of Melbourne’s favourite pieces of architecture, such as the Manchester Unity building.


So Tiny and I got all excited, and cycled into the city to do a little sightseeing, before he headed off to work, and I went back home to work on my latest writing project (a research report on one of my ensembles). We figured we’d spend a couple of hours checking out some inspiring architecture, having lunch, and hanging out the way normal people who have proper weekends do.

I was particularly keen to see inside the Russell Place Substation. We arranged to cycle past that one first. To our horror, there was a queue snaking its way out of Russell Place and into Bourke St. “Let’s go straight to the Manchester Unity Building,” Tiny suggested, so we cycled directly there.

But the queues were even longer. In fact, it was quite bizarre – the majority of people queuing were teenage girls. Why are teenage girls so interested in the Manchester Unity Building, I wondered? But no, it turned out they were queuing for some under-18s gig at the Hi Fi Bar (on Swanston St), opening shortly. Once we rounded the corner into Collins St, we saw a crowd of (Gen X and above) people wearing overcoats and gloves (instead of mini skirts), and carrying copies of The Age. Suffice it to say, this was our crowd…

But that queue was even longer…


We didn’t do any sightseeing in the end. We had lunch, and marvelled at the idea that all these people felt so free with their Sunday time that they could spend a couple of hours standing in a queue and think nothing of it. Unlike the pair of us, who were on Tight Schedules….

So we contented ourselves with following the Characters and Spaces tour in the Festival guide, which was well worth checking out. We liked this wall at the back of the Centre Place arcade, with its evenly spaced Helvetica characters that spell out “We live in a society that sets inordinate value on consumer goods and services” – an odd statement to find in a shopping arcade, to be sure.


And we peered away happily at the detail in the mosaic on the facade of the old Newspaper House building – it contains such prosaic things as lamp-posts, and telegraph poles.


I like this view I took of people walking through the arcade.


But next year we will go online and book a time to visit the open houses. And hopefully not be quite as busy.


I handed in my thesis today.

That felt pretty good. ๐Ÿ™‚

Lots of writing still to do on related things – papers I need to write and get submitted, and a new research report to finish for ArtPlay.

But still. The big bit is done.

First day back…

Today I taught at Pelican PS. We have a new music timetable which sees me teaching all the older classes on Wednesdays, and the younger classes on Fridays. After finishing last term on a bit of a high, feeling very at home in this school, and excited about my plans for the students, today felt surprisingly heavy and tiring. I suppose I am feeling pretty heavy and tired at the moment (the intensity of the conference, the rush back, the immediate transition into the new teaching term, nearing the end of my thesis edits… all taking their toll).

The first class I took today was one that had been quite unsettled for most of term 2. They were easily distracted, hard to keep on task, took ages to settle every time we stopped one activity in order to transition to another… At the end of last term, we had a composed a rather edgy little melody on xylophones, created a more soothing countermelody for the metalaphones, and had a ripping guiro riff, and a punctuating drum part as well. We’d worked with rhythms drawn from the rhyme Solomon Grundy, and though it sometimes felt like lifting weights for me (to keep them focused and working together), we had started to combine all these layers to make quite a satisfying piece.

I started the lesson today by asking them what they remembered us doing in our last lesson last term. (This was a bit of a ruse – in fact I hadn’t taken very detailed notes!) Well! I was surprised by how engaged they were by this question. Different children remembered different things (including some work we did with the egg shakers and metronome that I had totally forgotten about), and as they refreshed my memory, I began to ask more targeted questions, and their hands kept shooting up in the air to answer.

So that was a good beginning. We started our work by recalling the melody played by the xylophones. I got them to ‘play’ it on their bodies, assigning different pitches to different points on the body, from low to high. Together we figured out how to play the melody, showing these intervals. (This is a tactic I’ve developed as a preliminary step to working on tuned percussion, to get them to start preparing for the intervallic leaps).

Then we moved onto instruments. I accompanied on guitar. It sounded really, really good! Their teacher was beaming as they left the class. I think he felt really happy for his students – they are considered one of the trickier classes in the school, and perhaps don’t have lots of experiences of success. But they were a big success in my class today.

Next I want us to develop some song lyrics. I think the music that we have is going to be an introduction and/or bridge in a larger song. I’m not sure what the song will be about. But I have devised a plan for getting us started on the words. I had initially thought I might ask them how the music we have composed makes them feel. (As I said, to me it sounds kind of edgy). However, I don’t think children from ESL backgrounds can always articulate their sense of how music makes them feel, very easily. So I have decided I will bring a set of large-scale ’emotions’ cards with me to the next lesson. I can borrow these from the University library. They depict primary age children showing all sorts of different emotions. I thought I might get each child in the class to choose which card they think is most appropriate for this music, we will gradually eliminate cards until we have narrowed down the options to a single emotional ‘set’. Then we will decide on a scenario or detail to describe in our song, and hopefully the words will generate freely after that.

I think it may prove a more effective way of linking emotional responses (and depiction of emotions) in music. The ’emotions’ cards are from Lakeshore Educational materials. The set they have in the library is an old one I think, but judging from this website, there are many such sets still available.

Do children have their own unique musical language?

I’ve just come home from four inspiring days in Launceston at the ASME conference (ASME being the Australian Society For Music Education). Lots of highlights, lots of great conversations, and a great chance to catch up with colleagues in the academic world as well as all the Education Managers from the different orchestras around Australia and in New Zealand. I even found two Italian speakers to hang out with – my joy knew no bounds!

I will need to write about this in more detail, but will blog now about an idea that I am really intrigued by, and that came up in two separate unrelated research projects.

In one, Nick Reynolds (University of Melbourne) has been investigating the characteristics of children’s compositions in a music technology environment. A group of 7 primary school children composed hundreds (200, I think he said) of compositions of varying lengths, using waveform, midi and other recording software. These compositions were then analysed, and Nick also interviewed the children about their compositions, and reasons behind certain choices.

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Lessons about music, learned on my holiday

Last week I enjoyed seven days of real holiday down at Sandy Point, a fairly isolated part of the Victorian coast line (though not too many hours drive from Melbourne). No internet, no mobile coverage… just lots of books, and lots of instruments to play. Tiny (boyfriend – that’s his pseudonym for this blog) and I didn’t in fact get through all the many ‘projects’ we brought away with us. But we did spend a lot of time doing not-very-much, and in the process, I amused myself drawing the following parallels between our adventures and some important lessons in music learning and music making.

1. The significance of space, stretching out in front of us, and in front of our students


I read somewhere that standing looking out across an endless vista – towards the sea or mountains, or from a high point in nature – gives our souls room to expand. I love the way I feel my breathing slow and deepen when I stand and look out to sea, or along an endless coastline. I feel small and insignificant, and yet essential and connected, all at the same time.

I think a lot about ensuring there is space in front of my students, metaphorically. Particularly emotional space, in terms of what they feel ready to take part in, or try out, in our creative music lessons. Children come to our classes with so many diverse experiences already behind them. Working with new arrivals, especially refugees, I can’t possibly know what they feel ready to take part in. Rather than guessing, or pushing them, I can make sure there is ‘space’ in front of them, ready for them to step into, when they feel the time is right.

2. Some things work themselves out in their own time

We had a fireplace in the house we stayed in, and it was a temperamental, capricious beast (the fireplace, and the fire within it). Somedays the flames took hold quickly and resolvedly, and we could sit back and enjoy it. Other days, it really kept us guessing, trying to work out the best strategy to get it going. (I say ‘us’, but I should really say ‘Tiny’ – I was more of a supervisor, watching from the comfy sidelines of the couch, looking up from my novel to call out suggestions occasionally).

On our second morning, this was the case. Tiny tried all sorts of things (blowing, rearranging the wood and kindling, opening and closing the door to the fireplace, adding more newspaper). “Just leave it awhile,” I suggested eventually. The cup of tea I’d made was getting cold… and then, not five minutes later, we looked toward the fireplace, and the fire was roaring away merrily! So the lesson here is, sometimes things just need a bit more processing time than you expect. Allowing time is similar to creating space in front of students… we also need to do this for ourselves.

3. The art might already be there…

DSCF4070Are we sometimes so busy being ‘clever’ or ‘interesting’ or ‘original’ that we fail to notice that which is already there, and already compelling all on its own? I like the story of Michaelangelo’s approach to sculpture (that I first read in Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility), which tells of the great sculptor trusting – no, believing – that the artwork was already present and existing, just hidden within the block of marble. His job of sculptor was to simply reveal it, to gradually work away the layers, until it was there for all to see.

Sometimes we might feel the urge to add to it further, leave our own mark…


Which leads me to another fire-building story. Sometimes Tiny found that a roaring fire was just one twitch of a twig away. Adjust a single log, and suddenly the problem has gone. It can be like this when playing an instrument, or composing a piece, or writing a thesis. A single small idea (often not even new material, but a slight different perspective) can be a catalyst for big breakthroughs. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies work along similar principals. The original set of Oblique Strategies (as described in his book A Year – With Swollen Appendices) was a set of cards that one consulted as a way of gaining a new perspective on a problem under discussion, or creative endeavour, or similar.”Honour thy error as a hidden intention” is one of them. This website generates new ones with each click. Do check it out. You might want to start to make your own deck of your favourites.

Sometimes it is out of our hands anyway. Music is ephemeral. We can’t always control how long it exists for.


4. Slow dedication and consistency creates its own beauty… and motivation grows with understanding

On one of our long beach walks I decided to create an ephemeral sculpture. Every white cuttlefish shell I found, I stuck upright in the sand, exactly where I found it. The walk lasted 2 hours. Every time I looked back I could squint and see a tiny, haphazard ‘trail of breadcrumbs’, of these white dots zig-zagged along the beach, dotting in and out of the mounds of seaweed. I started to feel very proud – I thought it looked beautiful – and my motivation grew stronger and stronger. I didn’t want to miss a single cuttlefish. I took many steps to the left or right of our path to reach a cuttlefish I had spied and place it upright in the sand. Here is a photo of one section of the sculpture:


They are hard to see, I know. As I took the photo, the sun was glaring on the back of the camera. Tiny tells me that the two white dots to the right on this image are in fact seagulls, not cuttlefish shells. This is a bit disappointing for me (my eyesight is not very good for this kind of thing). Still, I hope you get the impression.

When I first began this endeavour, I perhaps wasn’t taking it very seriously. It was just a small bit of entertainment, something to look out for as we walked and talked. But as I continued, my intention grew stronger. I think that creative efforts sometimes work like this. At first, we may not always be able to see exactly where we are heading with an idea. It reveals itself as we stick at it. Perhaps this is an argument for making things fun for our students, because if they are having fun, they will be motivated to stay with something. Then, as the intention or shape or structure of the endeavour begins to reveal itself, our motivation shifts, as we have a stronger sense of our goal, and its possibility.