Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page


I am in the middle of marking at the moment. Students often find it difficult to articulate their ideas about teaching music and integrated arts, especially when they are new to these subjects, and are grappling with how to set about teaching them in their own classes (as generalist teachers, not specialists). There can be a lot of paraphrasing of the set text, albeit in a very haphazard, two-unrelated-sentences/phrases-thrown-together way, joined by a conjunction and little else… that’s when whole chunks aren’t being copied verbatim. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what they are on about:

(The additional time required for planning an integrated arts unit) may challenge teachers as the concept of time within the curriculum is a difficult notion to grasp. Time is a continuous changing matter…

Hmm. Last time I looked, time was not ‘matter’ at all (though I agree it is continuously changing. I’d be worried if it wasn’t). Though I wasn’t aware that teachers in general struggle with the concept of time. Most people come to grips with the notion of time sometime during their early childhood (I think my student means that there is never enough time to fit everything into your teaching day – it requires constant management).

Her comment reminds me of a quote from Mike The Cool Person of The Young Ones, who, when asked by Helen Mucous the Escaped Murderess “Is that the time?”, answers smoothly:

No, time is an abstract concept. This is a wristwatch.

Another thing that made me giggle was one student’s list of the range of creative decisions students can make when they are involved in an integrated arts unit:

The artistic benefits… allow students to become creative in their work. Depending on the task, students may need to consider instruments, props, colour, paper, costumes, pencils etc.

It was the inclusion of pencils in this list that made me smile. From broad concepts to the very specific… Still, perhaps this is because I am a musician, rather than a visual artist.

Ten more of these papers to go. Nearly done.

Current writing and thinking

I’ve been writing papers this week – one that I’m submitting to the next ISME conference in Beijing (ISME being the International Society for Music Education) and one for the CDIME (Cultural Diversity in Music Education) conference, taking place in Sydney in January 2010. Both papers are drawn from my Masters research and thesis.

For ISME, I’ve written about the pedagogical approach I have developed for work with children who understand very little English. I have drawn a lot on my blog posts over the years in writing about my approach – this blog is often the place where I first start to try and describe things that I am trying, or revelations I am having. In the paper I describe the kind of teaching language I use (very pared-back and minimal), the importance of visual cues and other environmental scaffolds, and the way the project-based approach supports student learning and understanding.

For CDIME my paper looks at some of the methodological issues that arise when doing research with children from non-English-speaking backgrounds. It was quite a surprise to me that there was so little published guidance on conducting interviews with children via interpreters, for example. First there are the issues in the way the interpreters understand the research, and the questions you are asking. For example, I wanted some of my questions to be fairly ambiguous in the language they used, in order to elicit ‘pure’ or uncontaminated responses from the children. How easy were these ambiguous questions to translate? How easy is it to talk about music if you are not used to talking about music? (I think musicians learn to talk about music over many years. This is not a debate about music-specific terminology, rather, a discussion about the intangible nature ofmusic that means we can’t point towards things that are difficult to label).

Other things arose too, such as the additional interpretive layers that arose through the additional voices; also, questions about social and cultural conditioning were present. Interactions between adults and children vary between different cultures. How much were these expectations a source of confusion for the children being interviewed? In some cultures children would rarely be asked by an adult for their opinion. Was it therefore awkward for them to respond to my more personal or hypothetical questions?

And so on. Very interesting stuff for me. Anyway, I got both papers finished last night, in time for the deadline. I have one more to write, which will be more concerned with the children’s perceptions of what they are learning and doing in music lessons at the Language School. In particular, do they know they’re composing and inventing material? Who knows, if so? And for those that are still trying to make sense of the whole school environment, what do they think is going on?

That final paper is due at the end of October.

Happy Train – City Beats

The second project I led last week was the City Beats project, an ensemble of children from grades 3 and 4 who have had very little exposure to music-making prior to this project. It’s the second time we’ve all worked together this year – the first time was in April. The City Beats program is targeted towards kids from ‘disadvantaged’ communities. I hate using labels like that – they’re so broad and sweeping, and can conjure up all sorts of inaccurate images… but the project is targeted towards them in recognition of the fact that nearly 100% of the participants in most MSO/ArtPlay projects are kids who have access – through school/parents/community – to be part of music events, to learn an instrument, and to hear different performances. And the children/families who don’t have access to these things also don’t tend to be supported by the kind of community infrastructure/communication networks that lets them know about free or low-cost opportunities.

We came up with the City Beats project as a way of offering an entry point to children who are keen to do more music. They get their travel provided (a bus in and out of the city for the group) and lunch on each of the workshop days. And they spend two days working with me and a small group of MSO musicians to create and perform their own music.

Last week’s project was focused on trains. ArtPlay used to be a train engine workshop, in its former life, in the days when the railways lines in Melbourne crisscrossed the area that is now Federation Square. Also, ‘trains’ in music offer rich composition starting points. There are the sound effects you can make to sound like trains running on the tracks (vocal sounds, body percussion, different whistles); the rhythmic motion of the train (can be played on all manner of instruments); the emotion attached to travel (can be translated in song lyrics as well as melodies); and there are lots of great examples of music you can listen to to get ideas. I like to play:

  • Nowhere Train by the wonderful Melbourne-based vocal ensemble Coco’s Lunch
  • Indian Pacific by Australian composerJames Ledger, an orchestral piece that depicts the epic train line between Perth and Sydney, connecting the two oceans; and
  • Pacific 231 by Honnegar, which has some fabulous rhythmic and harmonic writing in it.

This year’s City Beats Ensemble is a group of wonderful live wires – really open, happy bright sparks with loads of ideas. I said to the musicians at the end of the first day, “We haven’t asked one question yet that has been met with silence. There have been lots of ideas in response to every question I’ve asked. So keep asking them questions, keep handing the responsibility over to them!”

With this project, I want to give the children strong experiences with the instruments we provide (big range of percussion), where they can develop techniques and get a sense of their expressive range, and creative problem-solving tasks, in the form of composition tasks in small groups. We brainstormed some of the parts of a train journey that could be depicted musically, then divided into the three groups (4 in each group) and chose one of those ideas for each group.

We also had some whole-ensemble elements – a body percussion dance that started off the piece (accompanied by the MSO musicians), and a song that we all wrote together.

My favourite part of the project was on the second day when we were preparing to perform the music we’d composed. I suggested the children go outside (ArtPlay is next to a very popular children’s playground) to approach the adults and children there, and ask if they would like to come into ArtPlay to hear their performance. The children did this so beautifully – I think their friendliness and genuine offer quite endeared them to many of the adults they approached!  One group of four adults came in quite bemused – they felt the tiniest bit railroaded, they confessed (excuse the pun) but also genuinely keen to see the performance, to show their support and interest in the children who had approached them.

Within just a few minutes we had gathered an audience of about thirty people – maybe more! – most of whom had never even been inside ArtPlay and had no idea what it was. They were incredibly appreciative – several said on the way out that they felt they had been “incredibly lucky – we were in the right place at the right time!”

What happens next for the City Beats children? They have another performance opportunity coming up this year, but for next year, I hope that some will put up their hands to be part of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble in 2010. We would continue to sponsor their involvement, and provide instruments for them to play if they don’t have their own… so that little by little we can also start to expand the pool from which membership of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble is drawn. I think you need to approach these kinds of cultural change/shift projects with long timelines and a lot of patience. There are lots of barriers (financial, practical, cultural) that make it difficult for many children to access projects, even when the projects are free. One of these is about being made to feel welcome and legitimate, or belonging, and a confidence that your contributions will be welcomed and accepted. Hopefully the City Beats project in 2009 has established that sense for some of these children.