Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

Inside and outside ‘The Square’

A number of interesting scenarios have come up in discussions recently:

In one undergraduate class at Melbourne University, a group was asked to create a piece in response to an abstract painting by Russian artist Stepanova. It consisted of very free, dynamic spirals of paint, and words in Russian scattered across the canvas. Their piece included some dramatic and evocative ‘spirals’ of different percussion colour, underpinned by piano playing very straight, arpeggio-driven, tonal piano chords (essentially a I-IV-V-I pattern). When I questioned the choice and musical role of the piano, one of the group turned to me in mock exasperation. “Let’s face it G,” she said, “She’s the only one of us with any musical skills!” The rest of the group all nodded in agreement, and I was dismayed.

In a postgraduate class, a group was composing a piece depicting sea people having a wild, joyous party under the light of a full moon, on a beach. One of the group, while trying out some ideas on the xylophone, found she could play part of a theme of music from a party scene in the Disney film ‘The Little Mermaid’. She played this one phrase as her part in a group composition with many layers, and it had a lot of energy and infectious drive.

In a professional development session for music teachers, designed to build their confidence in using creative and compostional approaches in music with their students (rather than only note-learning, and pre-existing ensemble charts), one group of secondary teachers was asked to create music depicting ‘an island’. The project brief required them to imagine this island and its characteristics, and create music to depict this. The group’s first decision was that, if it were to be ‘island music’ then it would ‘obviously need to have a Calypso rhythm’. They never created an image of the island itself, but put together a piece of Calypso-style music with the percussion instruments they had.

In a composition project for young musicians working alongside professional musicians, we are focusing on the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Themes from the Leningrad Symphony have been written out and given to the young players to learn. Others are being taught aurally. At the same time, the young players are exploring some of the compositional techniques used by Shostakovich, and applying them to their own compositions. In the final outcome, the Shostakovich quotes will be embedded within the children’s original composition work.

For me, each of the above raised questions about when and why we use pre-existing musical material (or, extending from this, music frameworks with which we are comfortable and familiar) in creative music contexts. It suggests insights about individuals’ comfort zones and their willingness to think outside the square (or conversely, to stay firmly within it).

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Heartbeats and other useful musical motifs

I was teaching a class of MTeach students last week, who were working on group compositions inspired the old Selkie legends of Scotland and Ireland. I’d asked them to explore ways of depicting and utilising stillness and silence in their music.

As I listened to the work of one of the groups, I found myself wanting to suggest they add a ‘heartbeat’ rhythm on a low-pitched drum. We discussed this later, and I realised that for me, the heartbeat rhythm is an incredibly useful ‘wildcard’ in compositions. It can suggest:

  • stillness and quiet
  • increasing adrenaline
  • fear
  • thoughtfulness
  • drama and tension

and lots of other atmospheres.

Which led my to compose this post, where I will start listing some of the useful composing strategies I often suggest to groups, as effective and versatile musical content. Cliches? – maybe. Fillers? – sometimes they probably play this role. But they also have the capacity to hold an audience’s attention, to create atmosphere and a sense of tension or anticipation. Learning to play a heartbeat rhythm can teach a young player a lot about creating drama and tension through very simple repetition.

What other musical motifs can you think of, that can play a similarly versatile role, and that are within reach of even very young, beginning musicians? I have also thought about:

  • Drones
  • the interval of a perfect 5th (or a 4th, when played downwards. Think of Mahler 1…)
  • Tremolos

I’ll add more as I think of them. Please contribute any that you know are an important part of your own toolkit – we can compile a comprehensive list.

Syncopation without explanation

I’m a big believer in implicit learning environments – where a musically-rich and consistent environment enables students to build all sorts of understandings about the language of music and how it functions, without dependence on explanations or theory. This is the main characteristic that underpins my teaching at the English Language School I work in once a week as a music workshop artist.

However, challenges do arise when the only person in the room able to maintain the musically-consistent environment is you. And when you can’t give verbal explanations (you can, but the majority of students won’t understand and will either tune out, or get stressed or confused) it can be hard to establish a critical mass of understanding of certain concepts.

Here’s a challenge I am grappling with – the Upper Primary students are learning the song People Get Ready. We’re accompanying it on xylophone with a 2-part riff that has a slightly syncopated rhythm. The notes are simple and easy to memorise, but the students struggle to imitate the counting. They tend to speed up and lose the syncopation.

Tony (my boyfriend – also a musician) suggested I do some work with all the quavers in a bar of 4/4 and try and establish a bit more understanding of the hidden beats. “Get them to clap on certain numbers of a cycle of 8 beats,” was his thought. I’ve used this kind of tactic before, but felt unsure it would work in the ESL setting, because it would introduce a new rhythmic idea, and the students might then be confused about which rhythm was to be used. How could I establish that this was just a teaching tool, rather than a new part of our musical arrangement?

However, I had no other solution, and I was also curious. I could see that for some students it might cause confusion, but that for others, it could offer some clarity about how the synocpated rhythm worked. They might figure out the relationship between the two all by themselves.

Here’s what we did:

  1. I wrote the numbers 1 to 8 on the whiteboard, and asked the students to count them out loud, 4 times.
  2. I put a red square around number one, and asked them to clap on the 1, as they counted all the numbers aloud.
  3. I put a red square around number 2, so that they were now clapping 1 and 2 in the cycle of 8.
  4. I gave out untuned percussion instruments and got them to play on those numbers now (as a way of repeating the exercise a few more times but adding an additional element, as well as creating new interest).
  5. I then added some more squares, around numbers 3, 4, and 7. This clapped numbers now became our syncopated rhythm. Beat no. 5 was the one they had to get used to waiting for in their heads.
  6. We clapped this new rhythm, counting all the numbers aloud, and giving a wave of the hands on beats 5 and 7.
  7. I asked individuals to clap or play the rhythm on their own (another tactic to encourage listening and attention – they like to perform on their own – and add new interest to the task).
  8. I brought out the bass xylophone. Under the different squared numbers I wrote the notes of the syncopated riff we had learned the previous 2 weeks. One by one they took it in turns to play (or try to play) the riff, with this new awareness of silence on beats 5 and 8.

This last step was more confusing than I’d expected. We had previously learned the notes by counting aloud how many times each note was played before changing notes:

C C C F_ FF | F F G C_ CC

(Hopefully my spacing between letters, and use of underscore,  shows some reference to the notation here!) Now we had new numbers to count aloud – that’s a lot of similar numbers, meaning different things – and the feel of the pitch contour and rhythm together suddenly felt more awkward.

For some students, it was easier to play the riff (and blur the syncopation, as before) and ignore the numbers from the cycle of 8 beats we had been using in the previous task. When they tried to count the 8-beat cycle while playing, and keep track of the note changes, they got confused. Others, however, had little moments of understanding the relationship. You could hear it in the way they started adjusting the riff, paying more attention to beats 5 and 8, and sitting on the middle or back of the beat, rather than right at the front.

So the strategy worked for some students, definitely. But perhaps I am still missing something. Can I make this even simpler, in an implicit, rather than explicit way? I’m sure I can. I’d love any of your thoughts.

Game for children who struggle to stay quiet

This warm-up/cool-down game is a lot of fun, and encourages groups to sit with silence, and control exactly when their instrument makes a sound.

The rules are very simple:

You can play whenever you want to, as often as you want to.

But! If you play at the same time as someone else, you are both OUT.

Some children get very excited by the freedom of being able to play whenever they want. They tend to go out very quickly (I usually do a trial run of the game the first time I introduce it, so that these kids get a clear understanding of how it works).

Others cotton on very quickly to the fact that the one way to stay in the game is to never play. I make sure everyone at least has their instrument in their hand, and really encourage them all to ‘be brave’ but also to ‘look at the other students, look to see who is getting ready to play’.

Some of the resulting textures from this game can be very beautiful. The stillness can be mesmerising. At Pelican PS, where I played it for the first time today, there were some surprising winners. Those who had gone out early on struggled to stay quiet while the game continued. However, when we do achieve that universal quietness, it feels very powerful indeed.

I have heard different names for this game. Some call it Sounds in the Silence. Others call it Parking, using the analogy that two cars cannot park in the same spot, or they will crash. I’m not particularly committed to either of those names. I should give the game a name though, so that the children can request it, when they want to play it again.

Music and art workshop

I enjoyed teaching the workshop on music and visual art this week. In this project, you ‘read’ a piece of abstract art as a graphic score, and make decisions about instruments, colour, rhythm, structure, etc. This was with a group of about 20 pre-service teaching students at Melbourne Uni, as part of a subject called Integrated Arts.

We started by working all together on this painting by Mondrian:

Mondrian-Broadway-boogie-woogieI asked the students the following questions:

  • What do you see? (State all the obvious things)
  • How does it make you feel? What response does it inspire? Is chaotic/peaceful/unstable/static/other?
  • Context – what do you know about the painter? About this particular work?

‘Stating the obvious’ is very important, as it encourages participants to volunteer all their observations, rather than editing out the things that they think are less impressive, or too revealing, or some other inhibitor.

The next step is to look at the artwork as a musical score, and start to decipher/interpret it, and make decisions about its elements and what they depict. I used the following list of questions to get the students to focus their observations and decisions:

  • How could you equate the different colours in this painting with different instruments?
  • Do any colours vary into related shades? Textures? How might you represent these nuances with sounds?
  • What kind of atmosphere is suggested by the rhythm/energy/lines/colours of the painting?
  • How close together/far apart are the sounds? How does this vary around the painting? The proximity of lines or marks on the image can be suggested of rhythm.
  • Are there any patterns or recurring marks/lines? How could these be depicted musically?

Our interpretation

We created a very atmostpheric, minimalist piece, with the students divided into groups of four. One of the four took on the Yellow role, playing metalaphone, another the Blue role, playing xylophone, another the red role, playing glockenspiel, and the fourth person was White, playing triangle.

We read the painting as having the yellow lines running continuous, with the other small squares of colour being imposed upon the yellow (as opposed the the yellow colour being broken or interrupted by other colours – we saw it as continuing, underneath). The small squares of colour represented single sounds on the relevant instruments. Each group chose a line to ‘read’, a direction to read it in, and a single pitch to work with. Yellow people played continuous running quavers, very lightly, on that pitch. The others played short tones, in the order and time spacing suggested by the painting, according to the line they had chosen. If we’d had time to take the project further, each group could have chosen multiple lines, and moved from one to the next. The effect of these different lines, each played ona different pitch, all being played at once, and stopping according to each group’s reading of the line, was very hypnotic and peaceful.

However, some people in the group thought that the Mondrian had quite a chaotic feel, like a bird’s eye view of a busy grid of traffic. We could have chosen different instruments and depicted this chaos, using the same group structures.

It worked well. The groups went on to choose different paintings (all by Russian abstract artists – these are my favourites, and the images I felt would work well, when I conceived this project) and create new pieces of their own.

Making progress

It has been a busy couple of weeks but I am getting through everything, in fact I feel quite pleased with my productivity! I have:

  • Designed and taught a new workshop for the Integrated Arts subject at Melbourne Uni that focuses using abstract art as graphic scores for music composition
  • Designed and taught a new workshop for the MTeach students at Melbourne Uni, where they are exploring creative approaches to music, and creating group compositions inspired by the Selkie legend (of the sea people who are seals in the water and humans on land)
  • Planned the forthcoming workshop for AYO in Picton (part of the Silvan String Quartet’s residency in Bundanon), which is based around a piece by Elena Kats-Chernin, Charleston Noir.
  • Led two Jams for MSO
  • Finished two out of three sections for the ArtPlay research report I am writing, that looks at the model of practice we have developed in the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program.

I’ve been doing all my usual teaching as well, which is going okay. Some of the work at both the Language School and Pelican PS is progressing really well, but some other class projects are less well-established. Sometimes this happens because the regular teacher is absent on music day, which means the students are a lot less focused. If this happens for a couple of weeks in a row we can lose a lot of momentum. Other times, the problem is that the project idea I had for that class doesn’t really work. This has happened with a class at Pelican today. They are a gorgeous class of Prep/Grade 1s, with a very supportive and enthusiastic teacher. A few weeks ago we developed a song that I was completely charmed by (I’m gonna buy a farm… to go with their term theme on ‘animals’) but in subsequent weeks it has really dragged and not engaged them at all. So I need to find a new idea for that group.

Language School, week 4

Some good things to report this week after my tossing and turning last week. Had a great lesson with Middle Primary… I went in hard, making sure I kept things moving the whole time, transitioning slickly from one task to the next. I tackled an apparent attempt from Oscar to extract himself from the action for a period (which, as I pointed out to his teacher, he has done a number of times already, and it creates challenges when he needs to insert himself back into a piece that has been created without the input of his considerable musical skills). And Volodya seemed a bit calmer than he has done in previous weeks, able to stop and listen more often, and to be less (visibly) anxious about being heard.

I have decided to build beatboxing (Oscar’s forte) and dance (a great love of Volodya’s) into this project. We wrote a rap about travelling to and from school, and how the school day passes, and Oscar accompanied this to great effect. The rap is quite funny – it mentions ‘lining up’ so many times it is quite an insight into how dominant the whole notion of ‘lining up’ is for students at this school, and how much time they perceive is spent doing it. Their teacher and I were chuckling by its third mention.

I asked for individual students to dance in front of the class, to show what they could do. (I’d already got a sense that there were some keen dancers in the class). Those of us watching accompanied them with the traditional We will rock you rhythm, stomping on the floor then clapping on the third beat. Then, I asked both Oscar and Volodya if they knew any steps that would be easy enough for their classmates to do, and that they could explain slowly.

Volodya took this task on with great intent and seriousness. He concentrated incredibly hard to slow one of his dance steps down so that he could teach it to the others. And he painstakingly found the English he needed:

You just… turn your foot… a little bit! Just a little.

The teaching was particularly impressive as many students who arrive with well-developed routines or performance pieces (either dancing or drumming) frequently have difficulty altering the tempi within which they perform, or with slowing things down so that they can be shared by the whole class. I rewarded everyone with some feather-balancing work (which they absolutely love), and at this too, they all really shone. So… phew. I’m happy to report some improvements, on my part as well as theirs.

August planning frenzy

I have a lot of new projects approaching at the moment, in fact, some have already started. So this month is one of intensive planning. Here’s a bit of a rundown of what is percolating in my head at the moment:


For the MSO I am leading 3 Jams (and a further 2 at the start of September). ‘Jams’ are express music-making workshops on a large scale. They are geared towards all ages – families, really – and all levels of musical ability/experience. They’re a lot of fun to lead, because they are fast-paced and get a lot of people playing music together with very little preamble. I like to give the participants a brief page of musical ideas to work from, so that they have something to take home and revisit at their leisure, so I have been preparing these over the last two days. Tomorrow’s Jam is based around the standard penatonic scale – a Jam on 5 Notes.

String Quartet education project no. 2

At the end of August I am heading back up to the Shoalhaven area to work with the Silvan String Quartet, leading them in a composition project with a youth string orchestra in Picton. We’ll be basing the project on Charleston Noir by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. This is the second composition project I have built around a Kats-Chernin work, and I’ll be doing another one in September for the MSO. I have to say, I am really enjoying getting to know her work. Her compositional language is proving a fabulous inspiration for these kinds of projects.

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