Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

First day back at Language School

Both my schools wanted to delay the start of music lessons until Week 4 of term – this week. Today I was at Language School and I had a great day – I was reminded of how much love teaching there!

The school is divided into three classes, with 13 children in each – lower primary, middle primary, and upper primary.

With the Lower Primary class, we had a hit on our hands with the song Mobakomeenofway. (I have not idea if this is how you write the words, but that is how they are pronounced!) It is a call-and-response song, with a chorus that we all sing together. The rough translation is:

Teacher – “Hey everyone, do you want to come out and play?” (Oh wenne makolay, mobakomeenofway)

Everyone – “yeah, yeah, we want to come and play!” (Yeah, yeah, mobakomeenofway)

The chorus repeats mobakomeenofway four times. It’s a catchy tune, and I’ve added quite vigorous actions to it. I’ll try and record it next week so that I can add a sound file here. It is a winner of a song for that age group.

With Middle Primary, we are going to be exploring songs from their countries. I started things off with a Somali song (roughly a quarter of each class is Somali this term). It is the song that my friend Duncan Foster collected and transcribed from students and parents in another Melbourne school, Heybaad Waxaad. It is apparently quite a well-known song, lots of the Somali students recognise it.

I’ve chosen this song for several reasons:

  • It’s a fun and catchy song and I love singing it
  • It gives the Somali children a little bit of additional ‘status’ or pride in themselves and their culture, within the classroom. This was something the class teacher commented on today. She felt that it gave them confidence… there are also sometimes problems with other children rejecting or isolating the African children, and their teacher felt that celebrating a song from Africa was an important way of demonstrating that there is no tolerance at the school for that kind of exclusion.
  • It acted as a useful demonstration of the kind of song they could introduce as being from their country. It let me say, this is a song from Somalia. Who can remember a song that they learned in their country?

This suggestion led to two children (two Somali boys, as it happened) demonstrating clapping games and chants from their country, which they taught all of us. We’ll continue to gather clapping games and other children’s songs next week. I think they left our music lesson on a high.

In Upper Primary, we did some work with instruments. I passed various hand percussion around the circle one at a time, asking the students to demonstrate a sound or rhythm on it – either a rhythm they already knew, or one they improvised on the spot. One boy played a rhythm that reminded me of the opening riff of Dicholo by Ayub Ogada (which I first heard on the soundtrack to the film The Constant Gardener). We developed a four-bar phrase based on his riff, and played in on a range of different instruments, building some different sounds and techniques into the playing. We then finished the lesson by listening to Dicholo, and their eyes widened as they heard the opening riff and recognised its similarity to their own.

Something interesting – the students tend to giggle as soon as the vocals start – I think they hear all unfamiliar languages as sounding quite silly or funny. They all collapsed into giggles and started to roll around on the floor. Well, it was the end of the lesson – they were probably also tired. They only giggle like this the first and second time they hear the vocals. They usually calm down by the third time.

Shoalhaven project photos

I spent the weekend working with the delightful Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra, up at Riversdale, which is  part of the Bundanon estate bequeathed to the Australian people by artist Arthur Boyd. It was an incredibly satisfying project. Musically, the group proved themselves to be extremely open to creative ways of making music, and excellent collaborators, with great communication skills amongst themselves, and the ability to keep progressing through the task.

Often in these 2-day composition projects I have a team of professional musicians working with the young players. Not for this project, however. Their two music teachers/directors were there and kept an eye on the different groups as they worked, as did I… but it was satisfying to see the way the young people just got on with the task without that adult guidance or input. It suggests to me that sometimes, the adults are possibly getting in the way of the young people’s composing. Certainly this group had no shortage of ideas, and their responses to the starting points I gave them (different artworks by Arthur Boyd, and the stories behind their creation) were thoughtful and original.

Riversdale is a stunning location, built on a hill overlooking a sharp bend in the Shoalhaven River. Boyd’s home was built in a traditional homestead style and these days houses the library (complete with fantastic paintings from the Nebuchadnezzar series). Visiting groups stay in the purpose-built Boyd Education Centre, an award-winning design by Glenn Murcutt that takes you right into the heart and splendour of the landscape. There is a large rehearsal space with sliding doors that open out to a view of the mighty Shoalhaven River, guests sleep in simple, comfortable dormotories of four beds each (I had one to myself though – very privileged!), and we are woken each morning by the sweet light of sunrise.

Here are some photos of the groups at work during the day, sunrise over the river, and the view from the hall on the day of the concert.

Note for travellers:

The Bundanon Estate is open to visitors on Sundays. The nearest town is Nowra, about 3 hours drive south of Sydney. If you are travelling on to Melbourne, linger awhile through this part of the coastline – it really is beautiful. The beach and bushland national park at Jervis Bay should not be missed.

Arthur Boyd and Merric Boyd

I’m heading up to Bundanon (Arthur Boyd’s beautiful property in southern New South Wales that he bequeathed to the people of Australia as an artist retreat) this weekend to work with the Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra. We’re going to be creating a Shoalhaven Symphony together (the Shoalhaven being the river that runs through Bundanon and the whole region), taking inspiration from some of Arthur Boyd’s paintings, such as this one:

I love projects that grow out of artworks. Boyd is a particularly inspiring starting point, as he has such a vigorous, energetic painting style, and creates his landscapes often through mere marks and lines, overlapping each other… you get a sense of the haze that is so often washed over the Australian bush, courtesy of the light here. There is also a strong sense of love for humanity, and humanistic principles, in his work.

As I always do for these kinds of projects, I’ve been reading up on Boyd to get as much detail in my head about his life and work, as you never know what story might spark a completely new turn in the composing process. I happened upon this site that gives a biographical overview of Merric Boyd, Arthur’s father, and images of much of his work. Arthur Boyd’s great humanity and generousity are placed in even stronger context after reading this description of Merric Boyd’s life. Do visit the site (even if you have never heard of Arthur or Merric Boyd – or Doris or Mary or any of the others in the clan, for that matter). The description of their home ‘Open Country’, filled with artists (family members and adopted others), is always inspiring, and somewhat humbling.

Two sisters

On our first day of temple exploration at Angkor Wat we opted to have a guide with us for the day. She had lots to tell us, and we learned many things we didn’t know about the history of the buildings and the stories behind the carvings and bas-reliefs, and the symbolism of the many motifs. However, on our second day we felt we wanted to explore on our own. We hired a tuk-tuk driver, consulted the many guide books to decide where we’d like to go, and headed off at sunrise.

We both loved the Preah Khan site. It covers a lot of ground, with a long central corridor running straight through it, but is not of the same giant height proportions of some of the other temples. As you explore, you find yourself in corridors, courtyards, galleries and sanctuaries. For the most part the paths are well-trodden and it is easy to guide yourself through. But we had read about two very special wall-carvings that were harder to find. The Rough Guide to Cambodia described them as “sublime” portraits of the two wives of King Jayavarman VII (the king who build Preah Khan and lots of other temples during his reign – the Lonely Planet author called him the Donald Trump of the Angkor era). Their names were Jayadeva and Indradeva, and they were sisters.

The Rough Guide suggested they were in one of the tumbledown sections in the northern part of the temple and that they were hard to find without the help of a guide. Fortunately a Russian-speaking guide came along just at that time, and I mustered up the little Russian I could remember to ask him if he knew where we could find the portraits of the two sisters. Fortunately too, he was only guiding a couple of people, because as he led us down a series of narrow, low-ceilinged corridors, we realised that no large groups would come down here as it was just too small. We also realised that there was no way we’d have found it without guidance.

The first of the two sisters is more visible, at the end of an alcove. Local people had lit incense sticks and left flowers.

Then the Russian-speaking guide indicated where we would find the second sculpture: bend down and stoop through a low doorway, into a nook that seemed to be filled with rubble. Then turn your head sharply to the left, look under the fallen lintel, and there she will be.

Both Tiny and I felt excited by the find (even though we had been led to it, and not discovered it by ourselves). We were struck by the fact that these were evidently portraits – both women looked completely recognisable from the carvings. The details in their faces were unique to them – unlike the many apsaras and other female figures that adorn so many of the temples. We stayed in the cubby hole a long time, just looking at one then the other, making way for other tourists when they arrived.

They were such beautiful pieces of art. “Sublime” was a highly appropriate descriptor. If you are trying to find them, the nook/alcove is near the end of a north-eastern corridor. But do ask a guide if you can.

Haiti blog

I was away (and therefore not connected to the world via my usual media outlets) when the earthquake in Haiti happened. Little by little I am filling in the gaps about the catastrophe that took place there. (It’s interesting to realise, if you miss a ‘big event’ when it happens, how difficult it can be to get a clear, informative summary of what has happened from a single source).

I stumbled upon the blog Dispatches from a Fragile Island, written by a guy who is currently working in Haiti as part of the emergency relief efforts, although that wasn’t what brought him there in the first place.  He and his family were just getting settled in a new life there when the quake happened – he is a journalist who was intending to be a house-husband/UN Spouse. He is posting photos, videos and descriptions and it is well worth a read.

Jungle temples

One of the most striking images at Angkor Wat and surrounds is the sight of temples being taken over by the jungle. Trees that have grown over doorways and walls – trees that themselves look incredibly old, but are obviously younger than the temple. This one is at Ta Prohm.

Monks are a frequent and charming sight throughout Cambodia – but they are especially picturesque in their robes and parasols among the ancient stones of the temples.

Sunset circus

Phnom Bakheng  – a small hilltop temple, currently under renovation – is considered to be THE place to be to watch the sunset. We went up there on our first night. There were hordes of people jostling for a prime position. We were told you’d be able to see the towers of Angkor Wat in the distance and indeed you could – very, very far off into the distance! The sun settled behind a cloud before it reached the horizon and we both felt a little underwhelmed and bemused. “I see better sunsets on Brighton Beach in Melbourne,” I told Tiny. He felt the sunsets from his childhood home in Bulleen were also of a far superior nature.

We both preferred our second Angkor sunset, at the equally lofty, but slightly less crowded Pre Rup, where this photo was taken.

Angkor Wat

This is the reason you leave your accommodation at 5.30am – sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Many faces of Bayon

The Bayon at Angkor Thom was pretty extraordinary, and was our favourite place to be first thing in the morning. Just us, and the dozens of faces, looking out in all directions.

This next image is sadly a little overexposed. I’ve had a bit of a play around with it in iPhoto… I still like it.

Conceptualising learning – some new terms

From January 11-13 I attended the Cultural Diversity in Music Education conference in Sydney. It was an interesting conference, with a big range of workshops to participate in (Papua New Guinean log drumming, anyone? Balinese gamelan? Freedom songs from Pretoria?), papers to listen to, and some interesting plenary sessions that got everyone talking.

I presented my paper on some of the methodological challenges that I identified in conducting interviews with newly-arrived children – things like the kinds of questions you ask, things to consider when interpreting their responses, ambiguities that arise when you are working with interpreters, creative interviewing techniques and tools, etc.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my early research ‘discoveries’ (for want of a better word) was a kind of map of the way that newly-arrived children first make sense of their new environment, and then work within it. I saw the way that within every aspect of schooling (from making sense of school cultural rules, to discipline-based learning like music or English) the children followed the same pattern or stages of learning:

Level 1 – where everything is learned by copying. The children don’t necessarily understand the intention behind the task, they are simply doing what they see others doing, and so figure out their participation in this way.

Level 2 – where the children begin to understand the intention, purpose and meaning behind the different things they do. They have more moments of illumination, and they begin to conect together previously separate bits of information and experiences.

Level 3 – they understand both what to do, and why/how to do it to such an extent that they can lead and show others (thus providing the ideal ‘model’ for those students who have just arrived in the country and are at Level 1).

Tony Lewis, an ethnomusicologist at Sydney Uni, hasbeen exploring a similar idea in terms of how music gets learned in different communities. He described his own conundrum when learning first African drumming, and later Papua New Guinean log drumming, where he found that all the local people learned simply by being there. There was no culture of teaching, or explanation – people just watched and listened and joined in as best they could, gradually building proficiency through an aural and visual process. By contrast he knew that for himself, as someone with a lot of formal musical training and ability to make quite detailed ‘maps’ of rhythms and sounds, the more he engaged those faculties developed through prior training and knowledge, the faster and more efficiently he would be able to make sense of the new musical language he was studying.

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