Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Thoughts about Refugee Week compositions

Every year I create work with students for performance during Refugee Week (20-26 June in Australia, with June 20 being World Refugee Day). We’ve created songs, instrumental pieces, music inspired by individual students’ stories of flight and sanctuary, recorded pieces, and live performances. Some of the songwriting has been particularly memorable and can still bring a choked-up feeling to my throat when I think of the sincerity and emotion the children perform them with.

Some of the students I teach have been through unimaginably awful experiences. At the Language School they are learning alongside other newly-arrived students, who may be immigrants or in Australia on temporary visas, relocated here due to their parents’ work. Not everyone is a refugee, but everyone has come from somewhere else and shares the experience of being in a new country, and of leaving another home behind.

One of my first Refugee Week projects was Lingua Franca, in 2001. The range of prior experiences that the students had was summarised beautifully by one Chilean girl, who wrote:

Some people leave their homes and it’s as if it is just light rain. Some other people though, HAVE to leave! As if it is a big and terrible storm.

This poetic comparison, using the weather as a metaphor for human experiences, became a song, Some People:

Some people leave their home in light rain.

Some people leave in a storm

Some people choose when to come or to go.

And some people have no choice at all.

One year, the class teachers and I decided to focus on people’s homes in their countries of origin. First we asked all the students to draw pictures of their homes. This yielded some very vivid images – from skyscrapers and technological advancement (China) to planes dropping bombs on houses and people (Afghanistan). Then we interviewed them about their picture, pointing to different details and asking what they represented. We wrote down every word the students said, and used these words and sentences to create songs.

One five-year-old boy from Sudan drew a picture of a lion and described the way a lion tried to come inside their hut one day! His classmate, a young girl from Denmark, drew a picture of a house with a large love-heart taking up most of the ground floor, and flowers in pots on the window sill. These images, and others from the class, became the following song:

There’s a heart inside my house, with a ribbon that I lost.

There are flowers in the window at the top.

There’s a swing on a branch on a tree,

And good friends live next door.

Lions want to come inside, but the heart will protect me.

This is a song that still brings a lump to my throat – the last line in particular, with “the heart” a metaphor for the protection that adults and family provide for children.

Maps of the heart

In this year’s project, I started by brainstorming “the most important things” with students. I asked them to draw a “map of their heart”, showing all the things they cared about, and giving greater portions of the heart to the most important things, and correspondingly less space to less important things.  I introduced the idea that hearts sometimes get broken, or cracked. If you have lost something important you might have a hole or a gap in your heart, a piece that you have left somewhere else, or with somewhere else. The students (all upper primary students) found this a compelling thing to think about representing.

I found that their responses could be divided into categories about friends, family, small cracks and holes, and the future. Many of them included future plans, hopes and dreams in their hearts. In response to what these “heart maps” revealed, we’ve developed three pieces of music – one about cracks in the heart (the pain of leaving a country, and saying good-bye to people you care about), the importance of your family and friends when you change countries, and the future – all the things they hope to be and become.

Risk and fragility

But this focus on what for many may be quite raw and traumatic experiences is risky. I don’t know what it will reveal, and I need to move the projects forward very gently, and very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if I am too careful, and if my efforts to avoid too much examination of danger and terrifying experiences is ignoring a reality for some students. For example, our song about friends and family is in the relatively peaceful key of G-mixolydian (G major with a flattened 7th), and declares:

I miss my country, it’s far away from here.

But I’m lucky, because my family’s with me,

And I have good friends.

Friends and family

Taking care of me.

We wrote it in one lesson, using the words that had come up in their brainstorm in response to their heart-maps. As we sang it through at the end of the class, one of the Somali students said to his class teacher (who was sitting beside him),

“But I don’t miss my country. It was a bad place, very danger, very sad…” and he mimed shooting a machine gun across the heads of the other children in the class.

“That’s true,” said his teacher immediately. “The things that happened there were very bad, and you don’t miss them. Maybe though, you can think about the place, and the things that happened there, as different. The place itself was not bad, but many bad things happened and you couldn’t stay.”

At this point I asked them what they were talking about, and we discussed this issue with the whole class. Not many students contributed – perhaps because they didn’t have the language, perhaps because we were at the end of the lesson. I wanted to find a way to include that student’s comments and concerns in our song. We wondered if he could perhaps speak at the end of the song (prior to the next piece in the cycle – this project had become a 3-part song cycle). But he didn’t really respond to the suggestion. He was happy to play the instruments in the song, and perhaps didn’t want further scrutiny over his prior experiences. Or perhaps he did. It’s difficult for me to know for sure, and I only see the students once a week.

Ultimately, I believe these creative process are important for the students on several levels. The ownership they feel when they help to create music that they later perform to others is incredibly important to them, and they feel very proud of their efforts. Every step in the composition process takes place in class, so they know exactly how each piece came into being. It is also significant that through writing songs, they get to tell their stories to a larger audience. The challenge for me is making sure the stories we tell are indeed their stories, including the uncomfortable ones… or not.

Workshop notes for teachers

It’s the end of a very enjoyable day and I am sitting down with my cup of tea to write up the notes from today’s workshop. I presented a session entitled “Musical Creativity in the Classroom” to a group of very delightful, responsive teachers from schools all over Melbourne, and even one from Portland in the far west of the state. My overall aim was to look at some strategies for getting students started with composing and inventing their own musical ideas, and to then work through some ways of organising and structuring the material they create. I promised everyone I’d provide a record of what we did today – hopefully it will be of interest to others out there who weren’t at the session today. Let me know how you go!

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Building “family capital” through music

I enjoyed reading this article from the Creativity Culture and Education website recently. It discusses the importance of families participating in arts and culture activities together and the benefits of inter-generational arts activity, but also describes some of the barriers that exist (unwittingly or not, on the part of the presenters) for families in getting involved in projects and events. I remember reading some Australia Council research sometime ago that described the way experiences in music-making that were shared with family members were more influential and powerful (in predicting involvement/engagement in the arts in the future) than those that were experienced in schools.

It was this statement that led me to develop the Jam project model that I present for the MSO each year in Federation Square. I wanted to create a music event that would be attractive and appropriate for people of all ages and all levels of experience, all playing together. This meant there needed to be entry points for all people – the wee ones who take part with a parent sitting beside them, those who are slightly older and able to work more independently but not yet learning an instrument, young kids of primary and secondary school ages who are pretty competent on their instrument (whether it be an orchestral instrument or band instrument, or rock band instrument…), adult musicians, adult non-musicians… We needed to offer them music that allowed for all these different levels of experience and skill, and present the workshop in such a way that all those different age groups would be engaged and hopefully challenged.

It’s quite a tall order, but I think we acquit it well! The Jams I lead for the MSO last an hour (the right amount of time for the youngest group of participants), and I bring in with me musical material that is accessible and highly engaging. I prepare a short score or part for each instrument so that they have something to look at when they first arrive and are warming up, and that they can take home with them afterward. There is always a team of MSO musicians on hand to play alongside the participants and make sure they feel comfortable with what we’re doing. The Jams with MSO are free, and held throughout the year.There is one coming up on Wednesday 30 June so if you are in Melbourne, grab your family and whatever instruments are to hand (pots and pans are welcome!) and come along and check it out.

Magazine clear-out

I’ve been on a clearing-out mission of late, and went through a pile of old copies of Music In Action. Better give them a last read-through before I chuck ’em, I decided, so I did, and selected a number of articles that were worthy of closer attention. They provided good material in the orchestra pit that I have been in for the last few weeks (playing Reed 3 in a season of Anything Goes), but the time has come to file them or put them in the paper recycling. Here are some of the things that caught my eye in particular:

Music technology – free stuff and lesson ideas

This article describes Finale Notepad 2008, a fairly basic but free piece of notation software. The author suggests a lesson plan that gets students to create and notate a 12-bar blues. Very user-friendly.

Ar Pelican Primary School lately I’ve been working with Myna, which my students are really enjoying. This software has its limitations – its library of music being one of them (there’s a lot to choose from, but you can’t always find exactly what you want), and the fact that it is web-based (and therefore dependent on a fast and consistent internet connection, which isn’t one of Pelican’s strengths) – but as an introduction to loop-based music software, it is great. Very clear interface and lots of sounds that my students love to play with. Myna is definitely worth a look. It is new software, only recently launched, so additional support for educators is in its infancy. But the forums are pretty helpful.

Another article (by Antony Hubmayer in South Australia) describes a group composition process that he uses in Year 8 classrooms, working with ACID Music. I plan to give it a shot with the year 5/6s at Pelican. He calls it Compositional Chairs, and it involves students starting a composition, then after a set period of time, they must shift one place to the next chair (and next computer, with a different composition) and work on that one. This change of seats can happen as many times as you like. At the start of the lesson it is good to give the students some musical parameters for the composition work.

It’s a bit like an Exquisite Corpse game, but with the ability to see/hear all that has been added to the piece before you. I might try it this week, and see how my students like it. I am thinking it could work well if the students were in pairs. I have some quite reticent students in my class, and they would benefit from getting ideas from other people. Thanks Antony for this excellent idea.

Keith Swanwick

I enjoyed reading an article about the legendary Keith Swanwick. Nothing revolutionary for our times now, but plenty of good reminders and principles. (I say “nothing revolutionary” but of course, that doesn’t mean his recommendations are now standard practice. They’re not – especially in environments that are focused on classical music alone).

Classes should be actively engaged in music making wih all the children participating as discriminating listeners, performers, creators, composers or improvisors. Activities must utilise the broadest range of music. Skills and contextual literature studies should not be a means in themselves, but support the central dimensions of composing, performing and active listening.

Christopher Small

Dr Ros McMillan described an era in music education in Australia (the 1970s) when a copy of Small’s Music, Society, Education was “brought in from overseas, only one copy around, it was read and quietly passed on like any X-rated literature”.

Music in Australian schools in the 1960s and early 1970s lay in a coma of conservatism. In those schools where music was taught, the curriculum was largely music appreciation. Often the only practical music making was singing although instrumental lessons were available in affluent schools. With examination systems controlled by university music departments, the style of music in schools was overwhelmingly ‘classical’.

Small questioned the assumption that the music of post-Renaissance Western culture was the supreme achievement of mankind in the realm of sound, and that “the musics of other cultures were no more than stages in an evolution towards that achievement”. He points out that the notion of the composer being separate from both the performer and the audience is unique to post-Renaissance music, the effect being to separate both performer and audience from the very act of creativity. The process of creation has been completed “before any performer even approaches the work”.

When I was a student at the Guildhall in the 1990s in the Performance and Communication Skills postgraduate stream, we felt like the explorations we were making into how musicians can/should/must make and perform and communicate music, were new and radical. It was later that I learned that it had all been said and written about earlier, by people like Small, Swanwick, Paynter, Schafer… I love that there is so much out there to read!

Teaching Artists gathering

Recently ArtPlay convened a meeting for some of their regular artists – performers and makers who lead workshops for children at ArtPlay in a whole range of arts disciplines. The meeting was the first of several to take place this year, and the grand idea is to share ideas and thoughts on practice – how and why we do what we do, to start to identify and unpack the transferable knowledge between different arts disciplines, and that which is common to all disciplines. Different projects and practice will be offered as examples for commentary and critiquing throughout the year.

I think that all of us present were adamant about how valuable this gathering was. ‘Teaching Artistry’ (for want of a better descriptor) is something of an invisible artform – usually it is an adjunct to a more public audience-based practice, and frequently (because the work usually involves children) it holds a much lesser status than the ‘real work’ of the professional on their own. Those of us working in the area as a substantial part of our arts practice often do so somewhat in isolation, rarely getting to see the work that other people do. This series of meetings is a chance to hone, refine, develop and extend our arts practice as it exists in collaboration with young people and communities.

Everyone introduced themselves and it was interesting to hear the words that people used. Again, this is an area of arts practice that can be hard to label. My colleague Rebecca laughed as she admitted that her description of what it is that she does tends to change every day! I liked Simon’s explanation – he said that collaboration was a key characteristic for him, that his work exists in  collaborative environments. This is something that is also true for me. Simon also talked about his commitment to “empowering kids… raising the status of their work”, and of his enduring interest in what it is that happens when artists work across communities. “I believe artists are an essential part of the community, we have a role to play, we need to be there.” (I’m paraphrasing here, I hope I got the gist of his words right). Lastly, he admitted that he has realised that “this” (teaching artistry, collaborative projects, as opposed to artmaking on his own, eg. painting) is his artform, and that he needs to keep reminding himself of this. That is has taken him time to learn this.

The gathering finished with a bit of Sir Ken Robinson, who may well say the same things every time he speaks, but they are such damn fine things that he says, and are so valuable to listen to again and again, to be reminded of them. This is the quote that I wrote down:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, then you’ll never come up with anything original.

Place that alongside the context of the performative (ie. test-driven and report-ridden) conservative culture of our schools today, and it rings alarmingly true.

What to do when you make a mistake

I think one of the hardest – but most important – things to learn when playing in an ensemble is what to do when you make a mistake. The natural response tends to be that you correct the mistake on the spot, which gets you out of time with the others in the group. Teaching people to keep going, to listen to where the others are up to, and drop back into the music is essential, but the confusion that a lot of young people feel about what it is you’re asking for, and how to do it, can bog them down with anxiousness. Trying to establish this concept at the Language School, where verbal explanations aren’t always helpful, is even more challenging.

Today one of my students had just taken on a new xylophone ostinato. It was quite a complicated riff but he was mastering it well. However, once we added it to the other ostinati being played, his focus sometimes wavered and he would miss a beat, or hesitate over a note for a moment, before playing on. I wanted to find a way to demonstrate to him, or explain to him, that he needed to forget about the note that he’d missed, and keep going with the music.

Inner hearing. Continuous pulse. These are concepts that are hard to explain in just a few words, especially when you don’t have notation to act as a visual aid. But I’ve been thinking about what took place in the class and think I have some ideas about what I could have done better.

Firstly, this riff only ever needs to be played four times in a row, but I was getting him to loop it many more times than that (as a way of locking into it). He tended to get the first four (even more) repetitions out fine, without any problems. So keep it to this. Why complicate matters?

Secondly, I tried to explain to him what I wanted him to do. This wasn’t the best solution because he probably couldn’t understand what I wanted him to do anyway, and was feeling stressed, and because my efforts were also making me feel anxious  (because I sensed how awkward and clumsy they were). It was the afternoon and no one was at their freshest for dealing with a whole lotta words.

I know that my students at this school learn musical concepts most effectively in context, through an implicit environment. How can I create this implicit learning environment? By keeping the number of repetitions of ostinati down to an amount that the students can manage successfully, they will build confidence and security in their own part first, and after that they will start to absorb what is going on in other parts, and instinctively start to anchor themselves to certain points in these. There are always one or two students in the class who understand and do this already. The others just need more time.

Explanations make me tense, as well as the children, because I become so aware of the limitations of them. We are all much happier, and much more relaxed – and therefore more likely to play to our best – when we let the music be our focus, and put our energy into playing, rather than talking.