Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Soundwalks

Recently, someone told me about a book they had read that was a sound-tour (in words) through Paris in the time of La Boheme – gas lighting in the streets and so on. I wish could remember who told me about this book, as I can’t recall enough detail to track it down. But beyond that, the conversation got me thinking about soundworlds, and the way that soundworlds of children may be very different to those of adults.

I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for a while. Regular readers may remember me blogging about the Pelican Primary School children and the sense I was getting that multiple sounds played simultaneously seemed to cause a knee-jerk reaction in them of chaos and distraction and excitement. I wondered if this was due to their chaotic living environments, or to do with the fact that many of their parents (and indeed, some of the children) had escaped violent, frightening and unpredictable war environments. I wondered what I might learn if I were to ask them to start tracking and monitoring their own soundworlds in different ways.

I am thinking about this idea for Timor too. The city in which I shall be based – Lospalos – is quite far from Dili and Baucau (the two largest cities in Timor-Leste), and life there is characterised a lot by the natural environment, and the industry of subsistence farming and agriculture. A ‘soundwalk’ in this environment would be an interesting thing for me to undertake and experience… how would my ‘map’ of this sound environment differ to that of the children’s?

What do I mean by ‘soundwalk’? I just googled the term and came up with this stub from Wikipedia:

A soundwalk is the empirical method proposed by R. Murray Schafer for identifying a soundscape for a specific location. In a soundwalk you[who?] are supposed to move through a limited geographic area, with your ears as open as possible, registering all the environmental sounds that you hear.

Perception happens according to Schafer in three categories: keynote sound, figure sound and soundmarks. Keynote is the basic environmental sound that is steady, predictable and always there. It is the base of the sound. Figure sounds are in the front of the perceptive focus. They are surprising, sudden or annoying. Soundmarks are these sounds that you identify a place with consciously. It can be the special sound of a clock tower, a tourist attraction or a special acoustic.

Soundwalks might be an interesting way for me to start engaging with the local environment at the same time as with the local community. It’s a few years since I’ve read Schafer. I need to return to him.

This site – London Sound Survey – is amazing. Lots of recordings you can listen to. I listened to the one called ‘child accordionist on the underground’, in which you can hear a pound coin being dropped in the child’s tin. The website is incredibly comprehensive, and it’s inspiring. Worth a visit.

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Presenting music for children

I am not often convinced by orchestral concerts for children. It’s not that I think they don’t engage – they are often highly engaging and fun – it is more that I am not sure they provide a lasting impact on the children. Often, these concerts are designed – at least in part – to introduce children to instruments of the orchestra, or to focus their listening on aspects of music that is possibly completely unfamiliar to them. I’m not convinced that this outcome of knowledge or familiarity/recognition is retained by the children. I am more interested in interactive, participatory environments where children make their own discoveries and feel a sense of agency and input over what takes place in the musical space.

When I sat down with the student representatives from the Academy of Music (where I am directing the Community and Outreach program this year) I was a little dismayed to find them clinging so steadfastly to the idea of presenting a concert to children. I’d hoped we might move a little beyond that format in this program. However, their argument was strong: they are engaged in music-making and concerts as their principal activity at the Academy, so that is where their attentions and energies are being placed. Quite a number of them already have prior experience in presenting music to children in different formats, and they felt this was something they’d like to do as part of their community and outreach commitments this year.

So we set about planning a concert. We talked about repertoire (it needed to be based on music the students had already performed this year in the public concerts, due to limited rehearsal time), audience size (60 was deemed a good number to aim for, not too large, not too small), and options for staging the concert (we had a large, fairly flexible space to perform in, and the musicians liked the idea of performing in the round, with children quite close to them).

Establishing a dialogue

The concerts are going to be preceded by classroom visits, with the musicians going into the participating school in groups of 2 or 3 to meet the students and engage them in some kind of dialogue. The might play to them, they might lead them in some music-based games or activities, and they can also give them a heads-up about the concert and some of the music that will be performed. In this way, every child attending the concert will have met up to 12 of the musicians they see performing that day. They will know their names, will know about their instrument, and will have shared some kind of exchange with them.

Playing with the space

This project, of school visits followed by a concert, is taking place this week, and I am feeling very excited by what we have planned. The concert program starts with solo music, moving through duets, trios, quartets etc, until there is a full chamber orchestra performing. The music being performed is not typical ‘children’s concert’ music – there is quite a lot of contemporary music being performed, including a piece for amplified solo flute, interspersed with pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Academy’s slogan this year is “Music is everywhere”, and we are creating a very flexible performance space with the help of 16 ‘baffles’ (large space-dividers on wheels) that will start in the shape of a closed octagon, but with individual baffles being wheeled open to reveal different performers so that the music is indeed coming from every direction, and in unexpected ways. The children will be sitting on pillows and cushions (which they’ll bring with them) inside the baffles.

Participation and inclusion

Between each set, the children in the audience will be led by one of the musicians to create a soundscape that will flow into the opening of the next piece. These will be simple (such as asking everyone to lightly one finger onto the palm of the hand) and will relate in sound to the number of players they are about to hear (eg. quiet sounds prior to the solo instruments, slightly louder for the duos, etc).

I’m really looking forward to working on this project with the students this week. I feel like a lot of the misgivings I usually have about concerts for children have been addressed in this project plan, and I am keen to see how the children respond to the experience. Will they enjoy making soundscapes and hearing their sounds get taken up by the musicians? Will they go along with the flow of the concert that is designed not to need any speaking or instruction for the children? Will they be able to fall into the music, and be carried along by it? Will they be excited and engaged by the musicians’ visits to their classrooms and have lots of questions? What will the musicians take from the experience that is different to what they take from the standard performance program?

We’re documenting it. I’ll put a link up to any photos that get posted after the event.

Timor projects – field recordings and songs

I’m thinking a lot about what musical outcomes I’d like for this Timor residency.

Field recordings

This week I’ve been thinking about some of the people I am likely to meet and music they may be able to share with me. I imagine I’ll be recording a lot of things – songs, conversations, sounds. How might I use this recorded footage? In the past I’ve created soundscapes and recorded textural pieces that weave together field recordings of people and environmental sounds as a backdrop to onstage performance. For this project I’m thinking about using instrumental solos as a foreground over this kind of background.

Tiny will be joining me in Timor from December. He has his own musical priorities for this visit, but he will be bringing his sax with him, and is keen to build his own interactions with local musicians. One thing I am imagining is that Tiny could improvise over the field recording ‘ sound beds’ and that this could become a further performance and/or recorded outcome.

Children’s songs

Something I keen to get stuck into in my first weeks there is building up a collection of children’s songs in the local languages. These can be a mix of songs that I learn from people there, and transcribe/record, and songs that I bring with me that are in English or other languages that can be translated into Tetun and Fataluku. Songs formed a major background of the children’s music projects I worked on in Bosnia in the 1990s. Songs were a way of drawing children together, and introducing them through lyrics to people and places in far-off countries, and to concepts that were supportive of their well-being and happiness. Nigel Osborne is the musician and humanitarian who established the project in Mostar that I was involved with, and I remember him explaining to me:

We started with songs from the local area, as a way of saying to them, Yes! You have a culture and it is a rich musical culture, worthy of celebrating! The River Neretva runs through Mostar, so then we followed the river out to the Mediterranean and introduced songs from countries that have a Mediterranean coast – Dalmatia in Croatia, Italy, Greece, Albania, Tunisia… and many others. The Mediterranean led us to other oceans, and with each new ocean we learned more songs from those countries the ocean touched, until we found ourselves back in Mostar again.

This song project had been running for at least two years by the time I joined the program. When they ran out of oceans, they started with themes, such as Animals. In this way, all the school workshops had a shared focus for activity, and the musicians and teachers could use the songs and the general theme they supported, as a jumping off point for more creative work.

Therefore there is huge currency in songs. My contacts tell me that there is only a very limited range of children’s songs that are sung in Tetun language (and even fewer in Fataluku) so a detailed song resource is something that many people could make use of. It feels like a solid starting point for my residency, and is a project that can be ticking over, a little at a time, throughout the 12 weeks I am there. I also hope to expand outwards from songs into clapping games/songs and dance. I hope that the children there can teach me the games and songs they already know, and that we can enter into an exchange. Earlier this year at the Language School I asked the students to teach me some of the clapping games, songs and rhymes from their country. I filmed their demonstrations, then taught some of them to student teachers at Melbourne University. Those students (who are all younger than me) then taught me clapping games that they remembered from childhood. These kinds of exchanges can stretch very far, very quickly!

(Not) making plans

Timor is, I suspect, a place where projects automatically have an emergent design, because there are so many unknown variables that can disrupt the best-laid plans. It seems wise to keep things somewhat fluid and be ready to recognise and respond to opportunities for interesting exchanges as and when they arise.

Despite knowing this and being perfectly comfortable with it (I am an improviser, after all), I can’t help but imagine possible projects that I’d like to develop. Everytime I talk with someone about the residency, or I read another chapter in one of the many books that have been lent to me by old Timor hands, or I imagine the residency based on the things people have told me about the country, I start to imagine projects – big, small, new music, traditional music…

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Getting ready for Timor

I’ll soon be going away again. I’ve been awarded an Asialink Artist Residency for 2010, which is a program that places Australian artists in residence in different Asian countries. I nominated East Timor (Timor-Leste is its official name) as my preferred destination and I’ll be spending the months of October through to January there. The countdown to my departure has begun.

Asialink residencies focus on the opportunities for cultural exchange and lasting links that the residencies create, and the professional development of the artists. It’s a time to be present, and respond to the new environment and people around you, for uninterrupted, unlimited creativity. You are matched up with – or you nominate , which was my approach – a local host organisation whose work and aims hold some affinity with your own. Together you consider the possibilities that the residency might offer both parties, and make your plans that way. My host organisation is a young NGO, Many Hands International,  focused on community development through cultural activity who are based in the of Lospalos in the east of East Timor. Their current focus is on building a centre for traditional and contemporary arts and culture in Lospalos and my residency will form part of their work.

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New takes on teaching recorder

All of these ideas about reconnecting with oral traditions of music pedagogy are playing out at the moment at Pelican Primary School, where for the last term and a half I have been teaching the two Year 3/4 classes to play the recorder. It’s been interesting to see how, despite my preference for informal learning environments, self-discovery, creativity and experiences of success through connecting with innate musical understanding, I still leaned quite heavily in those first weeks towards the more formal approach for learning recorder – introducing students to the notes, introducing first rhythmic notation then pitch-notation, and working with a tutor book. The tutor book was fun and irreverent, and they play along with an accompanying CD which they love, but it was still quite a big step away from the way I’d approach a music project with this class using percussion instruments.

There are a couple of reasons why I started by going down this path.The main one was the sense I had that they wanted to learn the associated skills like reading music. They are intrigued by this. I think that a lot of the students at this school automatically assume they probably won’t be as successful in tasks like learning to read music as students in other (more ‘mainstream’) schools might be. I wanted to be able to say to them, “You can do this. And I can teach you.”

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The oral (aural) tradition

Another recurrent theme at ISME this year was about reconnecting with, and bringing back into the mainstream, the oral tradition of passing on musical knowledge. Bruno Nettl, one of our keynote speakers, pointed out that this is the established system of teaching and learning in the vast majority of musical cultures around the world. Yet in western art music, and its associated teaching traditions, the emphasis is more commonly on music literacy being one of decoding and encoding music notation, and that this comes before proficiency on the instrument.

For me, what is commonly called the oral tradition is just as aptly named the aural tradition because it focuses so heavily on the ears. I’ve learned some music skills this way – certainly all the skills I have as a percussionist have been learned through playing alongside others more skilled than myself. However, this has been coupled with the specialist music knowledge already embedded in my brain which allows me to link up concepts, map out ideas for myself in order to make sense of them, and memorise patterns by encoding them in my head using my music theory knowledge. This links back to Tony Lewis’ presentation at the CDIME [Cultural Diversity in Music Education] conference in Sydney, January 2010. Tony described three ways of learning, or three systems of knowledge – ontological, where you learn by doing, by being there and present and participating; epistemological, which is where you call upon your pre-existing knowledge and knowing in order to analyse, map, theorise and build concepts in the new discipline you are encounters; and dialogical, where these two approaches combine. (I’ve written more about Tony’s ideas in this earlier post).

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Teaching to suit the needs of learners

A theme that emerged in both the CMA and Main ISME conferences was that of the need to modify the way we teach, or the way teaching and learning processes and systems can be extended/adjusted to respond to the needs of particular student cohorts. It probably emerged as a theme for me because my two presentations fitted within this area – I’ve been researching the particular needs and perceptions of newly-arrived children (refugees and immigrants) in a transitional English Language-focus school, and the way that I’ve adjusted my teaching approach to better meet their needs.

The paper I presented at CMA looked at issues of understanding and meaning that can arise in creative work with young new arrivals when English language skills are minimal, or not present. There are lots of ways students can participate in music lessons, but we are engaging in creative (composition) work, inventing and suggesting ideas, I wanted to explore how much the students could make sense of the processes we were using. At the ISME main conference I focused on the specific ways I have changed my creative music pedagogy to allow for greater transfer of information through non-verbal, environmental scaffolds and means.

In Ireland, the Traveller community is a minority group with a strong musical culture of their own, and their music traditions played an important role in the oral music tradition of Ireland, sharing and preserving songs from all around the country over the centuries. The formal education system does not sufficiently support Traveller students (if their under-representation in middle and higher learning institutions is taken as evidence). Travellers could be described ‘non-traditional learners’. Julie Tiernan, a CMA delegate from Ireland, presented detailed description of an access course designed for Traveller students, using what she called a “blended learning” process at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. It utilised online learning and contact, phone and face to face contact, skype tutorials, immersion weekends, reflective journals and CD-Rom lectures. The delivery of the course content was flexible so that students could work at their own pace, however – equally importantly – there was ongoing support and encouragement for students from staff  who pushed them to stay on track and expect great results from themselves. It’s an inspired example of the level of detail universities and other formal learning institutions can go to if they are serious about addressing issues of access for minority groups or ‘non-traditional learners’.

At the ISME main conference, Sophia Aggelidou from Greece described the perceptions that Roma students in a remote encampment/town outside Thessaloniki have of music learning in school. She stated at the outset that Roma children are missing out in the Greek education system. At this particular school, 75% of the children are Roma, with the remaining 25% being a mixture of immigrants and local people. The town is not easy to access, and is known colloquially (and perhaps disparagingly as “the gypsy town”). The school is dilapidated and uncared-for. Different music teachers have taught there, but only ever for a year at a time before being moved on (at least on two occasions, the transfer to another school was against the teacher’s wishes). There was no music teacher there at the time of the research.

The research investigated the musical lives of the Roma children, and what their musical realities are. It revealed that they feel a strong connection to music in their lives, but that music in school leaves them cold. They enjoy pop, rock and hip-hop, but it is the artists from their own culture (heard in the home environment) that they identify with most strongly. They want to learn music, to learn to play an instrument. They are highly engaged by creative, alternative ways of learning, including hands-on tasks and collaborative processes. However, the more formal teaching and learning processes that are more common in this school do not engage them, and there is a high drop-out rate. In the family community there is little schooling or literacy among adults. However, Roma students consistently enrol in primary school – indicating that schooling and education is something that they do see as important and valuable. The speaker felt that their perceptions of music learning would correlate to their perceptions of school in general – they are ready to learn, but need processes and pedagogies that are tailored to their strengths and abilities.

I attended a workshop presented by a Norwegian delegate who has been working for many years in a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Professor Vegar Storsve presented a project that delivers music education among refugees, with the involvement of pre-service teachers and musicians. It’s a fantastic program (read more about it in this article) that offers cultural exchange between young adults, older adults, children, teenagers. Skills are taught and shared in all directions, with the Norwegians teaching music and instruments from their culture, and the Palestinian musicians returning the gesture in kind. I liked Professor Storsve’s description of the kind of musical score they have developed over the years for these projects. In Norwegian it is called a FLERBRUKSARRANGEMENT – meaning multi-function score, and it is the same kind of score that I develop for the Jams I lead for families at Federation Square throughout the year. It’s music that has many possible lines, adapted to suit the abilities of the project participants. One- or two-note parts, ostinato parts, chord progression parts, more complex lines, and opportunities for improvised solos. Everything is learned by ear, and everyone learns more than one part. All the learning takes place in one room – a wonderful (if challenging) cacophony of intensity and concentration.

As creative teachers, we know the importance of adjusting and adapting content within the flow of the lesson, in response to the way our students are engaging with the material. However, the many pressures that exist within the school system – to produce measurable results, the emphasis on standardised testing, the ever-crowded curriculum, the trends that see things like music and arts being squeezed out of the curriculum or forced to compromise their ideals in order to give everyone a turn – mean that there is not always the capacity to respond to the different needs in a single class, especially when there is a huge difference of need and learning style preference among the cohort.

Perhaps community musicians are better placed to respond to these needs and preferences, as they frequently work outside the mainstream, and frequently with people who are themselves somewhat on the fringes of mainstream society. The particular needs that were described in my papers about new arrivals, Julie’s work in Ireland with Travellers, and the Roma students in Greece would all perhaps be met by the “creative practitioners” described in Galton’s 2006 study into the pedagogies of creative practitioners in schools (a must-read). Are schools always the best place for engaged, committed learning by students?

Community Music – on masters and other matters

Readers, you would be forgiven for thinking that my recent time in China was just one big bout of tourist dallying. But no, the ISME conferences I attended (the Community Music Activity Commission Seminar in Hangzhou and the Main Conference in Beijing) were full days, filled with ideas and discussions, papers and note-taking, and the excitement of being in China took up what little spare time was left.

But I’ve been processing and digesting all those ideas.The next few posts will look at some of the things that particularly caught my imagination, in relation to my current work and the work I am about to undertake in Timor-Leste.

The ‘master’ in Community Music

I started off in Hangzhou at the Community Music Activity Commission’s seminar. On the first day, several presentations looked at the way the music knowledge is transferred in community music settings, including wind bands in Bahia, Brazil, and the learning models of Capoeira Angola. Both presentations referred to the word ‘master’ (as in ‘master teacher’ or ‘band master’ or to be synonymous with ‘expert’). This opened up some interesting discussion on words like ‘master’, in particular when they are used in a community music context that may otherwise be intending to reduce or sidestep traditional hierarchical walls. “How can we ‘reload’ this term?” Lee Higgins (Boston University) asked. When does a word or notion like ‘master’ support the intentions of the work, and when could it (knowingly or unknowingly) undermine them? It bestows power upon an individual and power can be misused, so it is important to frame the word or establish its meaning in context.

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The Great Wall – a photo diary of the day

You are Here

Chairlift up to the wall

Hovering mist (but nothing too threatening)

"Run, run, run!" said the chairlift attendants

The first tower

The glow of our plastic ponchos, purchased below

The last bit of sunshine

3 in green

Our picnic

Suddenly a cloud rolls in

View from the chairlifts going down

Damp but still jolly

Where: The Great Wall at Mutanyiu

It poured with rain but it was still a marvelous day. A note to future visitors: If it doesn’t rain then you will get to descend the wall on a long silver Slippery-Dip! Definitely worth a visit to Mutanyiu for this. But they close the slide when it is raining so we had to settle for the chairlift/cable-car.