Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

Piazzolla, syncopation – and a program finishes for the year

It’s school holidays, which for me means ArtPlay projects (ArtPlay being the fantastic children’s arts space in the heart of the city that Melbourne is so lucky to have). In the April and September school holidays I lead two separate ensemble projects at ArtPlay – the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, and City Beats (you can read about the April projects here). It makes for a full-on week straight after the full-on term finishes, but I love these groups. We make some fantastic music together.

The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble always takes inspiration from a piece of music they will hear the MSO perform shortly after completing their workshop days. This project however, had a newly-commissioned piece by Elena Kats-Chernin as its focus, so we decided to work with the same starting points or brief that Elena had been given by the MSO (music of Piazzolla) and take some short pieces of musical material from the score of her piece as well.

Piazzolla’s music is characterised by many things, but one that Elena focused on was his “strange harmonic twists”. Typically in our MSO ArtPlay projects we build pieces around modes, but this time I decided to get the group to work with chord progressions, and to practice adjusting their riffs and melodies to fit across a progression of chords. It wasn’t easy (the group is made up of children aged 8 – 13, and while some are very skilled on their instruments, others are only just getting started), but we took it slowly, chord by chord, and eventually we got the progression (and its accompanying riffs as invented by the group) sorted.

We also focused on syncopated rhythms, which has proved quite a theme for the whole year. In small groups, I asked them to invent a rhythm in 4/4 by establishing a clapped cycle of 8 beats (quavers, or eighth notes), and choosing 1-3 numbers to leave out (ie. not clap). This gave us 4 rhythms, all of which had syncoptated elements.I got them to perform these rhythms on their instruments, not with notes, but with percussive sounds they could make – slapping a cupped hand on the mouthpieces, swiftly dragging a resin-ed cloth over violin strings, tapping keys, etc. Sounded cool!

We also familiarised ourselves with the rhythm you get if you clap just numbers 1, 4 and 7 – the typical tango rhythm. We listened to some different Piazzolla examples – originals with him performing, and arrangements by other composers/orchestras – and the children could recognise this tango rhythm, and also tried counting out cycles of 8 under their breath to try and identify which numbers had been left out in other rhythms they could hear.

This was our last project together for the year, so it was an opportunity to cast my eye arond the group and note the kinds of developments and changes I’d seen over the year:

  • The clarinetist who took on an improvised solo each project, but in this third project was now really listening to what he was playing, slowing down enough to hear the music and have time to hear his ideas in his head before playing them. No more guessing and hoping for the best!
  • The serious young violinist who took part in three try-outs (in previous years) before being offered a place in this year’s ensemble. She is so quiet – one of those students you fear will get overlooked… but in the small groups she always had contributions to make, was always engaged, and locked the music into her memory as it evolved. She played a solo with her small group in this September project – a melodic line that she created herself and played with considerable assurance.
  • The young trumpeter with his somewhat unstable playing (in the tradition of young trumpeters everywhere) whose playing had just soared this project! I commented on it to his mother and she explained that he’d just been given a new trumpet, and was practising all the time. Such a difference a decent instrument makes to young players!
  • The very shy clarinetist whose contributions in the warm-up games became gradually more extrovert as the year went on. She remained quiet, but upon closer attention revealed many original ideas.
  • The flautist who is the youngest member of our group and who I suspect was occassionally a bit overwhelmed by all the boisterous big kids, but who is a lovely player. In this project, a brief explanation I gave her group about sequences in music, and how you can use them to build an improvisation, led to her performing a confident and musical improvised solo with her group, making rich use of sequential material
  • The cellist who plays beautifully but who struggled to make eye contact with any of us at the start of the year, still struggles to make eye contact with any of us! And still plays beautifully.
  • Another young trumpeter who grooved away during our syncopated rhythmic taps, and embellished our whole-ensemble choruses with extra notes, a few more each time. He was having a ball!

We will hopefully see many of these young players again, because now that they have finished their year in the MSO Artplay Ensemble, they become what we call Graduates, who can take part in a big range of creative projects throughout the year. The whole program between MSO and ArtPlay is into its 5th year now, and I am getting the privilege of seeing these young musicians grow and develop into their teenage years. That’s unusual for someone like me who usually works in schools or with groups for finite periods of time – unlike teachers in schools.

Musical understanding

I am currently reading Teaching for Music Understanding by Jackie Wiggins, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s written in a highly readable, direct, sympathetic, no-nonsense style, with lots of practical suggestions and explanations. I am finding that much of what she suggests holds true for my own preferred approach to music education, and it is wonderful to read such clearly articulated descriptions of education values and strategies that I hold dear, but sometimes struggle to label.

For example, she acknowledges the wealth of information that has been written for music educators about teaching the musical elements, but suggests that musical principles – such as simultaneity and ensemble, balance, tension and release – are also an incredibly important part of musical understanding. She writes,

These principles are broader than the specific elements as they seem to connect to more than one of the elements. Simultaneity and ensemble are related to rhythm and texture but also to pitch in terms of intonation. Balance is also related to ensemble. Tension and release are an important part of harmony but are also linked to rhythm, dynamics, tempo and even form.

Wiggins, J. (2001). Teaching for Musical Understanding. New York: McGraw-Hill (p. 69)

I never give much explicit attention to the musical elements in my music teaching. It seems to me that if you take a compositional or creative approach in your teaching – when the students are engaged in creating their own musical work – all the elements will be present, and the students’  learning and understanding will grow through the manipulation of these, through the creative process. They are elements after all. They are all present, all the time. And they can learned very effectively through implicit teaching, and rigorous musical environments.

Jackie Wiggins presented at the ASME [Australian Society of Music Education] conference I attended in Launceston in July, and another approach she talked about was the use of dimensions, or metadimensions. Metadimensions might be genres or styles or other affective qualities, that can prove a powerful “doorway in” to creative work. I started to see that the sort of broad starting points of compositional language that I use in the projects I lead with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble to take this approach.

She talks about “creative probelm-solving” as being the broad descriptor for the kinds of composition tasks her students engage in – “problem-solving” in that the tasks that are set require the students to undertake their own investigation and develop their own solutions. The tasks are authentic, and very open-ended. The questions the students ask are the same questions an adult, or a profssional musician would need to ask if tackling the same problem. This too, is true of the way I like to work with students. I’ve essentially adapted my own group-devising processes I would use with peers and other professionals, for the work that I do in primary/elementary schools. The questions that need to be asked in order to solve the problem are essentially the same.

I realise too, that in a project-based context, I try to give participants a range of experiences, and then a musical problem to solve. The ‘experiences’ might be new concepts or techniques, or particular musical strategies that I think will be useful in the creative problem-solving task that follows. I wonder if, when mapping out my pedagogy, and how it varies in the different environments in which I work (from orchestras to refugee/minimal schooling backgrounds) I could build my workshop plans around the two strands of Experiences and Problem-solving?

Mondrian Mondrian Mondrian

Ever since I wrote my post on my Music and Visual Arts workshop that I taught at the University this semester, my blog stats have gone through the roof. Every day, it seems 30 or more people read that post.One day over a hundred read it.

Now, I am not complaining at all about the number of visits – bring it on, I say. But who are all these Mondrian fans? Why so many of you? (No disrespect to Mondrian intended). Have I unwittingly tapped into some kind of zeitgeist? And what do you think of the workshop? Have you tried it out? Leave some comments, I’m fascinated.

Changing signs on Johnston St

As we ate our late Sunday morning breakfast (or was it lunch by then?) Tiny and I watched three men change over the billboard sign that we can see from his balcony view. It only took them a few minutes – very impressive. No longer will we gaze upon the ‘Australian Idol’ poster, now we have some kind of hayfever drug on display. At least it isn’t one of those Mak*ng L*ve? Do it… longer” billboards. They are so tacky. And have such impoverished design values. And questionable grammar. I don’t get the use of the ‘…’ before the word ‘longer’. Why the pause?

Oh, who cares. Here’s a photo I took of the guys at work, that cloudy morning after the night before.

billboard sign changing (big)

Celebration at long last

I handed in my Masters thesis on July 23rd, but Saturday night just past was the night of my celebratory ‘handing-in’ party. It was Tiny who held things up – this was his first gig-free Saturday night since I handed the thesis in.

Parties are the best way I know for gathering all your dearest and most interesting friends together in a room. I have such a fabulous group of friends, all interesting and engaging in different ways. Lots of arty folks, lots of teachers, lots like me who straddle the two worlds. Family came along as well, and friends from my Italian classes, who I see every week and am therefore more up to date with than the friends I have known for years!

Tiny very kindly agreed to hold the party in his groovy bachelor pad-warehouse apartment just down the road from my little shoebox apartment. Saturday night was one balmy night, so everyone was there in the summer clothes and it really felt like winter has shifted along and spring has truly started.

Thanks to everyone who came along for making it such a fun night. A couple of people brought me flowers which now adorn my living room, along with an ‘award’ for my fine achievement in completing my Masters – here is a photo.

party flowers

Saying the Koran

It’s Ramadan at the moment, and for one class of grade one students at Pelican PS it turns out that means murmuring prayers from the Koran intermittently throughout the music lesson. It started when the class arrived at the music room door – one of the boys was speaking very quickly in Arabic, and it sounded to me like a learned prayer. I asked him what he was saying and he said it was the Koran. Another began to join in, enthusiastically. “It’s the Koran, he’s saying the Koran,” other children informed me. They spoke very fast, like it was a race, and I remember when I was child going to Mass how some of the longer prayers like the Creed (do we call that a prayer? I don’t know…) sounded like incredibly fast and complex whisha-whisha whispering, and it seemed amazing to me that people could remember all those words in order.

In that class, we started with some circle games to get the focus settled and then began to sing a song, one that they already knew. But after the first verse I realised there was something odd in the sound, and it took me a while to adjust my ears and work out what was going on. Someone was saying the Koran (I’m describing it as “saying the Koran” because that is what the children called it) while we were singing.

This hasn’t happened before. I figured it probably had something to do with Ramadan. I stopped the song and asked the children concerned what they were saying while we were singing. I assured them they weren’t in trouble, that I had noticed they were saying something else and that I was interested to know what it was.

This question led to a stream of information about Islam and being a Muslim, in the words of emphatic, intense grade ones. They told me about how there is the God Allah, and about how Adam was the first prophet and he “made everything”. One boy went off onto a kind of tangent after mention of Adam, about how the aim was to get to the place where everything was perfect, all green fields, beautiful mountains and where you no longer had to do anything, you didn’t need to eat, you could just be there… I must have looked puzzled, because one of the girls then chimed in, helpfully, “It’s kind of like paradise”.

I was intrigued. The children went on to talk about the evils of a character called ShayDan (I may have remembered this name incorrectly, and I have no idea how to spell it), who might “come up and whisper in your ear, tell you to do bad things, like, he might tell you to go up to this other kid and bash his face in!” One boy re-told a story he had been told at the mosque about a young boy and girl who had been going to the mosque to pray, but ShayDan had come up to them and gone into their ears, and then they didn’t go into the mosque they went away and started behaving very badly, and this was because of ShayDan.

All very interesting. I never quite worked out why they had started saying the Koran during the song, as most of the Muslim children had been happy enough to sing along. I suggested that we sing the song again, and that children who wanted to say the Koran could say it after the song was finished. And if they didn’t want to sing with us today, they could just stay silent. What was interesting this second time through was that pretty well all the Muslim children now wouldn’t sing, and took the option of being silent. One girl started to sing, but had a stern finger wagged at her across the circle by one of the boys, and though she protested, saying, “What?” and gesticulating back to him, she stopped singing too. It ended up being a rather feeble rendition of the song, with the remaining non-Muslim children looking a little confused about what was going on.

Anyway… I draw no particular conclusion from this lesson. I’ve taught lots of Muslim children before, and taught during Ramadan, and never had anyone start ‘saying the Koran’ during a song before. I know that there are many groups within the Muslim community who hold different views on the place of music, and on participation in music, and I’ve been in schools that respond to these concerns in different ways. That day at Pelican I went back to the staffroom and asked if anyone had had children start reciting Koranic verses in the middle of classes before and no-one had. Sometimes I know that teachers wonder if the children create new rules for themselves of what they can and can’t do at school, knowing that the non-Muslim teaching staff won’t know which are real rules and which have perhaps been invented by the child, or are exaggerated or misinterpreted…. It can get very complex. I need to do a lot more investigation, so please forgive the scant attention and uninformed deliberation I am giving this topic tonight, and consider these thoughts as my initial entrees into a complex area for discussion! Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear of other people’s experiences of opposition to music or songs for reasons of religious belief.

This Music Education forum in the United States discusses the issue of children not participating in music classes, and points out that there are other groups (such as Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventist groups) who may abstain from music involvement. And this article draws upon one music teacher’s experiences in the British education system.

Pelican songs

At Pelican Primary School we are gearing up for a special music assembly on the last day of school (Friday next week). The school’s much-loved, bright, energetic, warm, funny principal of twenty+ years is leaving (retiring – much deserved) and it is a beautiful opportunity to give the classes who are ready a chance to share their work with an audience, and at the same time offer the principal a farewell gift of music.

The songs we have written make me smile. Sometimes they make me laugh. I have to remember how funny and sweet these children are (it is sometimes easier to remember how challenging they are). We write these songs together, with me writing their suggestions on the board and prompting with gentle ‘steers’ to encourage them to follow narratives through, and keep their lyrics concise. I would never come up with most of these ideas on my own. It’s magic, what they come up with. Here are some examples:

Year 3/4 – The Very Scary Song

We were listening to some music

Our parents watched a movie downstairs

When we heard a noise at the window.

We didn’t know our world would turn UPSIDE DOWN!

Red eyes staring, a green hand stretching,

Black hairy legs were sliding through the crack.

“I’m going to kill you at midnight,” (it said)

We were scared but we knew we had to SAVE THE DAY!

We ran, broke a vase, and stabbed it in the heart.

It turned into a million ghosts.

So we turned on the vaccuum, sucked up all the pieces,

And our parents asked us, “WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?”

The whole song is sung very quietly, except for the words in upper case, which are sung as a scary, dramatic surprise. There are instrumental sections between each verse, using the music we composed last term. What a story to come up with! I especially liked the solution of sucking up the million ghosts with a vaccuum cleaner. Very resourceful.

Year 2/3 – Work Things Out

There’s these kids in a school and they usually have fun

But some times, the dark clouds come

(I introduced the idea to them that the weather, or different kinds of weather, can be used in creative writing as a metaphor for feelings. Hence the second line of the song).

Maybe they can work things out.

Let’s hope they don’t scream or shout.

(Chorus) Work, work, work things out

Think about everyone and please don’t pout.

Work, work, work things out

Shake your friend’s hand and let it go… OUT.

(By which I think they mean, let the bad feelings go out, as opposed to, shake your friend’s hand so vigorously that you dislocate it.)

Sit down, calm your anger.

Count to twenty, your anger will go.

Look for the rules because they keep us safe.

You know what to do.

(Repeat Chorus)

They are very proud of this song. They sing it with great gusto. Today we worked on adding instrumental parts between each verse, after each chorus. It’s coming together. One more rehearsal. I think we are in good shape for the concert next Friday, and I think the principal will be very moved by these musical gifts.

Project stocktake

I’ve been out of town, leading the glamorous life of the freelance project leader… a couple of weeks ago Tony said, “But you’re always busy. What’s making you so much more stressed this time?” I pointed out that at that point I had (and proceeded to count on my fingers) seven different creative projects in my head that I was writing plans for, or thinking through. And that they would take place over the course of the next nine days. It felt a bit like lifting weights with my brain at times. Here’s the rundown of how things went:

AYO string quartet and Picton Junior Strings

Three days in NSW, about two hours south of Sydney. This project focused on Elena Kats-Chernin’s Charleston Noir for string quartet, and the Picton Junior Strings composed their own pieces (with the help of the AYO quartet) utilising the typical Charleston syncopated rhythm, inventing their own new rhythms (also syncopated), and building up some new playing techniques under the guidance of the older players. It was fun. Great group of young players, loads of ideas and enthusiasm. Just a total pleasure. And hopefully the quartet got lots out of the experience too.

Schools tour for MSO

I got back from NSW late on Sunday night. Spent Monday teaching the Alphabet Dance workshop to Bachelor of Education students at Melbourne Uni, then packed my bags, and walked into the city to collected the hired Tarago that would take me a a small team of MSO musicians to Geelong for four days of music projects in four different schools.

Four very different schools. At one, we were asked to focus on coaching members of the school’s orchestra and concert band. At another, we came in with a (fairly complex) riff in 7/8 (with 5 bars of 3/8 in the middle of it), which we taught them and helped them arrange parts for. Lots of enthusiasm, but also lots of challenges, for us and for the students. I remember the shining eyes and bright engaged faces of some of the quieter students, especially those who stayed with us the full day and came up to each of us at the end to thank us for coming to their school. This did not seem an easy school environment to work in or to learn in. I wonder how some survive.

At the next school we worked with a group of students from Years 10 and 11, many of whom came from refugee backgrounds. Here we wrote songs and composed pieces, on topics and themes that emerged through a drawing task I gave them at the start of the day: “Draw me a map of your heart. How much of your heart is for the people you love? How much is for the things you love to do? Is your heart whole? Has it been broken? Are there cracks? Gaps? scars or holes?” The students engaged very strongly with this task and it revealed four key themes that clearly resonated for all of them, which then generated the songs and music. Here’s an extract from a song I wrote with one tall young Sudanese man, clearly very proud, and very determined.

My path is clear. Tomorrow is a new day to me.

Hold my head high. Gonna look straight to the god I believe in.

Yesterday I was at war, today I’ve got a second chance.

It had a strong chorus that everyone sang:

Let the rain wash it away.
Until it’s all gone, and your path is clear.

At the fourth school we visited, we worked with a very bright group of musicians, including a bass player, keyboardist, guitarist, and mix of other instruments. Again, a very engaged group, and we created three pieces, two of which were combined as movements of a single, larger piece.

The whole tour was very successful, but also demanding in terms of our energy and creative ideas. I don’t really like to repeat projects in close succession, so I’d planned different projects for each day. Admittedly, this can put a different kind of strain on me and the musicians, particularly when you add four unfamiliar schools into the mix. But still. It was an excellent week. Lots of great outcomes, connections with talented students, shining eyes and happy, engaged, motivated faces. And being away on tour also creates a kind of space, in which you are limited in how many things from home you can access or worry about. I think we all enjoyed that. After a week in the sunshine, staying by the sea on Geelong’s waterfront, we drove back to Melbourne through the rain, and I rushed to get the hire car back to the drop-off point in the middle of city peak hour, and suddenly we were back into that other, non-tour world of competing demands.

Family Jams at Federation Square

Saturday, and the same team from Geelong assembled again in the city at Federation Square, along with a further three MSO players, to lead two jams for families. I’d finished the scores for these on Thursday night while in Geelong (probably part of the reason I was so tired in the school on Friday!); when I started the first Jam my brain still felt slightly woolly and I wondered where my capacity to make a decision about anything had gone to… but in that wonderful way that performance energy sometimes lifts us up and finds new reserves of strengths to call upon, the riffs that I’d written grabbed hold of me, and wham, there we were, playing music together, with about thirty participants of all ages. I found my energy again.

Each of the Jams goes for an hour. The first one was based on a syncopated riff in D minor (currently proving to be my favourite and most trusty key signature for workshops) that was invented by a group of students and musicians in a workshop back in 2005; the second Jam, held at 2pm, used a riff and chant that was invented by another group of students and musicians in a workshop just last year. Both riffs were incredibly catchy and engaging at the time of their invention, so I knew they had strong musical substance to work with. “That sounded lovely,” one of the MSO musicians beamed at the end of the first jam.


Sunday I enjoyed by not doing any work (apart from sending a few emails). Today I was back at work teaching the Music and Visual Art workshop (featuring the Mondrian painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie that is drawing so many people to this blog – what’s the fascination with Mondrian all about, people?) And then tomorrow I’m back at Language School, and the day after that at Pelican PS… so work continues as normal, but the space in my brain has returned, and I’m looking forward to a slightly more normal pace for the next couple of weeks, at least until the ArtPlay projects start up again.

And papers. I’m hoping to get not one, but three papers written in the next two months. Conferences coming up in 2010 that I’d like to be part of. I wonder if the paper I wrote for Musicworks journal (the similar name to this blog is purely coincidental) has been published yet?