Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Pelican pavement art

With all the students from grades prep to 6 now required to play in the one playground area, the Pelican Primary School students have less room to run around than they used to have, and all the big kids and little kids have to share the playing space. It’s resulted in some lovely collaborative play, where the older students have been invited to lead playground activities for the younger students.

Today I witnessed some gorgeous scenes of grade 6 boys encouraging little Preppies to jump rope with them, or try hula-hooping, or kick a soft, squashy soccer ball to each other. Two girls had the idea of setting up a chalk art competition (with a chocolate frog for the winning piece of art). More and more of the school was drawn to this activity so that by the end of lunchtime the drawings covered a large part of the yard. As I walked through, excited children called for me to come and admire their work. Here are some of the winning entries:

It was such a happy  lunchtime. I found it heartwarming, I have to say, especially when I remember how much fighting there used to be in the playground in the past. This is a good, healthy and happy place to be at school, I thought to myself as I took these photographs.

Pitch, implicit learning, and innate understanding

I had another ‘moment’ in my exploration of teaching pitch concepts today. (I’ve been posting on this topic, see below). Today at Pelican Primary School I introduced the Slit Drum to the prep class.

I invited one of the children to come to the front to play. She wasn’t sure what to do, so I suggested she hit each of the ‘tongues’ of wood, one by one, and see if they sound the same or different.

“Hit this long one, and then this short one,” I suggested, pointing to the tongues I meant. So she did that, and one of the boys in the class called out happily, “I can hear that it is short-long-short-long!” And as she continued to play, he sang along with her – “short-long-short-long” – and some others in the class did the same.

It was a happy moment for me. I have been puzzling over ways to build students’ understanding about the concept of pitch, highs and lows. I try to find ways, in the musical environment I create in the lesson, for these concepts to be available to those children who are ready to connect them to their own innate understanding about how music works. Young Will, calling out his observation to me, was doing exactly that. After the puzzles of the recent weeks it was satisfying to be reminded that some children are ready to work with these concepts, and will make the necessary initial links in their own time, if I provide the right environment. I think of this as providing strong environmental scaffolds.

Building the Education Revolution

I think most of the schools in Australia are undergoing building renovations at the moment, thanks to the Building the Education Revolution funding from the Australian Government. That’s all very well, but for me, it has meant the loss of a music room (invariably in the part of the school that is getting overhauled, eg. the multipurpose room, or the hall), and having to teach music in the classrooms.

This is happening at both my schools. Things at MELS aren’t so bad, but at Pelican Primary School the new schedule and classroom space is much more crowded, and I now have to work out lesson ideas and lesson plans that I can do in classrooms that are filled with desks and chairs, and without access to the range of percussion instruments I am used to.

Some of my ideas so far:

  • I’ve negotiated extra computer lab time for the 5/6 class, so we are going to focus on music technology while the building work is on. We are starting with an online audio editing tool I’ve discovered, called Myna. For teachers wanting a very user-friendly introduction to music software for their students, and who have a fast broadband connection, this tool is definitely worth a look. At our first lesson, the students were immediately and enthusiastically engaged. We set up a class account and they started saving their work. At our second session (today) the internet was down for some reason, which was a reminder that online tools aren’t always reliable for classroom work when you only have one short session a week. We plan to try out Audacity as well.
  • The 4/5 class said they were keen to do a musical of some kind. I thought at first we might write one ourselves, but now I’m thinking they’d probably really like to work with one that has already been written. Any suggestions of good classroom musicals, around 25 mins in length, with songs that can be accompanied by guitar or keyboard?
  • The 3/4 classes are going to learn recorder. I wanted to do ukuleles but the school doesn’t have any money to buy enough for a class set. We already had enough recorders in the school for two class sets.
  • The 1/2 classes are doing some jazz and scat singing (inspired by my Big Jam experiences). They loved writing their own scat lines today! Next week we’ll start on lyrics for a children’s blues. Maybe they’ll sing about waking up late, getting to school, homework, etc. And I plan to dig out some classic recordings of scat singing by Louise Armstrong and others to share with them.
  • The preps are working on the idea of graphic scores. I want to encourage them to play in response to symbols – which at this early stage are pictures of particular instruments. I stick the pictures up on the wall and point to them one by one (reading left to right) and they play at the right time. The next stage will be to get them to do this in small groups without me conducting/pointing. Then we might be able to work with symbols that they draw for themselves.

So we are getting there. Last week I felt incredibly fed up with the arrangements but this week everything felt a lot more positive and calm. I imagine the teachers have been feeling very unsettled with moves and classroom changes (they are all now crowded into one building instead of being spaciously spread across two), and I expect that this second week has given people a bit more time to work out how to make the new spaces work best for them.

The Big Jam – a big success!

The Big Jam opened the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on 1 May with a big glorious sound. Federation Square was packed with people, many of whom came along with instruments – including saxophones, trumpets, violins, and even a sousaphone! For people further up the back the on-stage action could be viewed on the big screen above the stage. Here are some photos from the event:

Members of the Signal Art Ensemble positioned themselves among the crowd, to act as ‘ideal participants’ and give some leads to other people with instruments.

Signal Art Ensemble in the Jazz Festival

On Saturday the Signal Art Ensemble gave its first public performance, as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. We performed two pieces that the group had composed themselves, taking inspiration from the Australian Art Orchestra’s Miles Davis: Prince of Darkness concert. Here are  couple of photos from our rehearsals, on the day of the performance:

For one of the pieces we created, each person had to devise their own graphic score, organising their ideas according to time durations on a stopwatch, rather than bars and a conductor. Here are a couple of examples:

These are photos that I took with my little camera. However, the official photographer for the project was the young and talented Tarrant Kwok, and some of his images will be up later on the Australian Art Orchestra’s website, and on my website, once I get it going.

Making sense of tonality

This term at the Language School I am revisiting a project idea that I developed in my first year at this school (about five years ago now). It is a way that I try to create understanding among the students about tonal relationships between notes, and give them information that will help them compose melodies that have a sense of shape and tonal balance to them.

Here is the basic tonality premise that I wanted to give them: A key signature or tonality brings with it a strength or sense of ‘home-ness’ to particular notes. The tonic has a strength that makes it good finishing point, for example. The notes of the triad have a similar sense of groundedness to them. Other notes of the scale, if played at the end of a phrase, will sound less complete. But melodies sound interesting if they include a mixture of triad notes and other notes.

In a class of new arrivals, who are only just beginning to learn English, I don’t want to get into these explanations. Too many words! Too much new language will bog us down, and slow the task down – and I find that ESL/new arrival children need to have glimmers of success appear early on in new tasks, to give them confidence and a sense that they are on the right track. Therefore I decided to explain the concepts using language they already know. Continue reading

More on pitch contours

Further to the post below about my work with pitch with Middle Primary students at the Language School, I had a very pleasing experience with the class last week. When we came to the point in the lesson where we were preparing to play our melody on the glockenspiels, the students (who were all sitting on the floor) spontaneously broke into singing through the melody, patting the assigned parts of the body as they went. This was the group that I felt the whole exercise hadn’t worked for at all, and here they were, performing it with confidence and accuracy and strong recall.

We got the glockenspiels out quickly and tried it out on the instruments. I also played a few games with them, where I would touch one part of my body (eg. the top of my head) and they would play the corresponding note that we had assigned to it (eg. high E). I did this quite a few times with high and low E, to try and establish the octave, and the difference in the sounds. We worked in small groups, and those who weren’t playing copied my gestures and said the appropriate letter name, while their classmates played the appropriate notes. Then we swapped over, so that everyone had a turn.

However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of pitch is now understood by the class. (Jackie Wiggins gives some compelling and thoughtful argument to what it means to have established true musical understanding in her book Teaching for Musical Understanding). But hopefully they now feel a little more confident with the task, and with this confidence will come the mental space for new concepts to take hold.

What this experience demonstrates too, is that some things just take more time that you anticipate. Or, alternatively, that if the energy in the room isn’t right on the day, some tasks just won’t take root. And that, even when it seems like nothing is really working, nothing is going in or making sense, it probably is!

The future of classical music?

I came across this blog by Greg Sandow today, which I’m adding to my blogroll. Greg is based in New York, and writes about classical music, audiences, new media, and many other things. He is exploring many different aspects of the classical music world, from the point of view of performers and composers as well as audience members. I found it interesting reading.

I puzzle over what it is that I personally want from orchestras. I don’t always feel very patient with the typical performance format. I’ve blogged about my desire to only attend concerts that are in some way life-changing – a tall order, and you can read that post here, if you wish follow that train of thought further.

Last week I went to hear the Australian Art Orchestra perform their Miles Davis: Prince of Darkness concert, and the two pieces that everyone wanted to talk about afterward were the new work by Anthony Pateras, which used the vast, broad space of the Melbourne Town Hall to great effect, and was an incredibly engaging, intriguing work to listen to, and the techno-inspired interpretation of Davis’ Black Satin which was loud but vibrant and fascinating in the way he utilised the band and the electronics. (Gratifyingly, these were also the two pieces I chose to focus on with the young musicians in the Signal Art Ensemble. I chose well!). Continue reading

Christ stopped in Echuca

Last week I did a bit of travelling in regional Victoria, presenting Professional Learning courses for teachers who are participating in the Musica Viva in Schools program.

In one town our venue was a church. I think K (the musician I was working with) and I must have been in slightly giddy, overtired moods when we got out of the car and entered the building. We walked into the room we were to present in and were confronted with this sight:

The photo was taken on K’s iPhone – can you read the little signs? (Jesus, God, and Joseph)

“I didn’t know they were coming to this session,” I said to K, and we giggled mercilessly and helplessly about  these signs over the chairs for ages.

Probably you had to be there, but I thought I’d share anyway.

Oh, it was a busy week. I was probably nearing hysteria at that point.