Workshop at the kindergarten

On the last Thursday in Lospalos Tony and I did a creative workshop for the local kindergarten program at Esperanca Lorosa’e. We were accompanied by Kim, observing and photographing. The ANAM students and Holly had grabbed the opportunity to head to the beach with UNPOL.

We arrived there with the help of the Motolori boys. We’d borrowed a wheelbarrow to help us transport all the instruments from home into town, and as we stacked it high with chime bars, kakalos, drums and boxes of bottles, the local boys who weren’t at school jumped at the opportunity to wheel it into town.

This was the day after the burglary and its resolution, and our sense of being welcome and a part of the community continued that morning. The boys assigned one of their group to be the ‘driver’ (and indeed, the person they assigned the role was a skilled and steady driver); others carried the chime bar bags, others the buckets, and still others were happy just to walk with us and be part of the group.

There are lots of people out and about at 9am, and many people asked our little band, “Where are you going?” “To the kindergarten, to do music with the children,” came our reply. At which they would smile and wave.

As often happens when we arrive somewhere new, things were a bit chaotic at the beginning. We were there before the teachers, and before most of the children, so at first we were just waiting out the front, standing in the shade under a tree. Then one of the teachers arrived and she opened up the big room and invited us to put our things out. The room was the same one we’d used for the English language class project two days earlier. There was a large dark-blue, dusty tarpaulin on the floor at one end of the room, and the other end had some long tables lining the wall so we arranged our instruments there. Our team of helpers stayed in the room. Gradually other parents, children, and teachers began to arrive.

The teachers started the class. All the children assembled on the blue tarpaulin mat (old but not dusty, I discovered – just faded). The lead teacher, Tina, stood at the front and called them to attention. She asked a series of questions, building up their energy and motivation for their morning at school.

“Are you going to be good today or not?

“Good!” they chorused.

“Are you ready to learn or not?”


“Do you come to school to be educated or not?”


It sounds harsher than it was – I’ve noticed this kind of “or not” questioning pattern is a key part of teachers’ group leadership strategies in Timor, and it is often quite fun. If the response the children give isn’t loud or enthusiastic enough, the teacher will ask the same question again, bringing the volume or the tone of voice up a notch. I even started to use the pattern myself in some workshops!

Then they sang some songs with actions. She asked someone to nominate a song they’d like to sing. I already was familiar with the songs from this kinder, thanks to young Dona’s daily performance of them on my verandah back in my first weeks in Lospalos.

After the singing, she settled them down again, and explained that today they would have visitors. There were some very nice music teachers from overseas who were going to do some music with them. It would be fun, she told them. And, she reminded them, there is no need to be scared! These malae might be new people but they are very nice people, so there is no need to be shy. If one of them asks you your name, you can just tell them your name. You don’t need to get upset.

I was quite amused by this introduction and translated it for Tony as best I could, while listening out for the next gentle admonishment of fear she gave them.


We ventured over to the group, with just our instruments – me with the clarinet, Tony with his sax and flute. I asked the teacher if we could sit in a circle, and she quickly instructed the children to sit in a circle. The other two teachers helped, as did some of the many parents who were milling around, watching the whole class.

In fact, there wasn’t room for everyone in the circle. Some of edges had two rows of children, and Tony and I ended up positioning ourselves in the middle. We’d decided to start with just our instruments, as a way of introducing ourselves initially. We smiled at each other, and Tony started to play.

One girl almost immediately burst into loud racking panicked sobs. On reflection, perhaps it was all too overwhelming. This strange pale-skinned man, taller than anyone she’d ever seen before, making noises on a strange instrument she’d never seen before. It was a lot to take in. Other people just stared, open-eyed and tight-lipped.

I then played the clarinet. I decided to play a tune that I hoped was familiar, the song Ikan hotu nani iha bee that I’d learned from Dona months earlier. (Truth be told, I could never be 100% sure if I had the melody right. Dona’s preference is to sing all her songs at the absolute top of her voice, and the melodic contour only began to be revealed after a large number of listens – and even then, only an approximation of a contour. So perhaps my version wasn’t all that familiar after all!)

Tony unpacked the saxophone and joined in with me on this melody. At its conclusion, we put down the instruments and smiled at everyone. I introduced us, and asked everyone to try saying our names. They got ‘Tony’ fine (it’s a common nickname in Timor apparently) but they struggled with ‘Gillian’ and were very hesitant with ‘Gill’. Mine is a difficult name for people to get their heads – or tongues – around here.

Ram sam sam

I asked if they would like to sing a new song with us. “Do you want to or not?” I asked, echoing their teacher’s style of questioning.

“Want to!” they answered, uncertainly.

“Do you want to or not?” I asked again brightly.

“Want to!” they called back, this time with a bit more energy, and with reinforcements from the assembled watching parents.

So we learned Ram Sam Sam. I taught them the words on their own, the children repeating after me, with the actions. Then we added the melody, and sang the song through. They seemed to be engaging well at this point, with most people joining in with both the singing and the actions, or just one element. I decided to got further.

“This time,” I suggested, “When we sing the words ‘ram sam sam’, we all have to stand up. When we sing the other words, we have to stay down.” I squatted down so that I was balancing just on my toes, poised to spring up. “I’m going to sit like this, so that I can stand up quickly.” The teachers bustled around, encouraging the children to copy my position.

In this way we sang the song again, springing up on the words ‘Ram sam sam’ and squatting back done for ‘goolly goolly’ and ‘ah ravi’. After a few rounds of the song, they had the hang of it well. I started to get ambitious. We had so many children, and so many helpers – could we try the next stage?

We divided the group into two halves – half with me and the lead teacher, the other half with Tony and the other two teachers. Tony’s group would continue to stand up on ‘ram sam sam’, but my group would now stand up on ‘goolly goolly goolly’.

I could see everyone – the teachers and the children and Tony, who hadn’t yet been given a translation of what I’d said – looking a bit confused. “Tony and I will demonstrate,” I proposed, and gave the bewildered Tony a quick explanation of what to do. We sang the song facing each other, and he sprang up, as required, every time the words ‘ram sam sam’ were sung, followed by me springing up on all the ‘goolly goolly goollies’. We then tried it with the whole group, and sang it through two times, and ended with laughter – some relieved, some confused, and we all sat down on the floor again.


After a few moment of general dispelling of energy (chatter, movement) I pulled the group’s focus back to me again by clapping a rhythm. It’s a common tactic in classrooms in Australia, but I’m not sure how familiar it is in Timor. The great thing about this tactic is that you only need one confident person to know what to do – everyone else ends up following their lead.

On this occasion, my one confident person was Tony. The teachers and some of the parents saw what he was doing and followed suit, and gradually the children figured it out and joined in too. Thus, without words or explanation, we segued into some very satisfying ‘call-and-response’ rhythmic work.

This got us warmed up and ready for our body percussion rainstorm. I started by tapping two fingers into the palm of my hand, and gesturing for everyone to copy, and do it at the same time as me. Taking their cues from my changes, we moved from two-finger clapping into whole-hand clapping, then into patsching [hands hitting thighs], then chest beating, and then, after counting 1-2-3-4 out loud and with my fingers, everyone did a jump, creating the sound of thunder.

We cycled through these sounds a few times then returned to two-finger clapping. There was a lot of talking among the parent group that was making it difficult to get a real sense of the sound of rain being created by the finger claps.

“Everyone can do this,” I said, “all the mums, dads, grandparents, older brothers and sisters – everyone!” A few more people joined in.

“Listen now!” I said next, in a quiet, almost-whispering voice. “If I listen carefully – very, very carefully – I can hear the rain coming. Can you hear the rain?” I paused, and I could see I was starting to get their attention with this question. It wasn’t raining that day – it was fine and sunny. To make them connect with their imaginations this way I had to completely commit to the idea.

“Can you hear the rain?” I asked again. “Try, with no talking, and only this sound. Try to hear the rain.” The finger clapping continued and the talking got a little quieter. Smiles of complicity were starting to appear on some of adults’ faces.

Magic, and the magic of sound, is such an important element in early childhood music, and that’s what we were trying to create here. We paused the clapping for a moment so that I could leave the circle. I came back with the two boxes of thunder-makers.

“Now we can make a big rain [udan boot],” I told them. “Here I have something new, that will help us to make thunder.” I’d just checked this word quickly in the dictionary, and glanced at one of the teachers to check I’d said it right.

Rai-taratu,” he corrected, and I repeated it after him. I’d said rai-tatura.

I took the two thunder-makers out of their boxes and demonstrated how to make the sound, by letting the long spring spin around in small circles, without touching the floor.

“Who would like to make the thunder?” I asked. (I got the word wrong again – rai-taruta. “Rai-taratu!” one of the smiling mums called out to me. I just could not make that word stay in my head. That same mum corrected me each time I said it wrong. I loved her – she was completely entering into the fun of the whole session and thought it hilarious that I found so many ways to get this one word wrong).

The teachers were quick to identify two children to be the thunder-makers. The length of the spring meant that these little kids had to hold the thunder-maker way above their heads in order to create the sound. Ideally, we’d have had a couple of low chairs or ArtPlay-style boxes for them to stand on.

We were ready to create our rainstorm. I asked – with a hand cue – the thunder-makers to start their sounds. Then we began the two-fingered clapping. Following my cues we went through the cycle of sounds, climaxing with the 1-2-3-4 finger cue for the jump, at which point we went back to the two-fingered clapping and performed each of the sounds again. We ended the rainstorm quietly, with two-fingered clapping, ssshh wind sounds, and the gradual petering out of the thunder.

I could see that by now other children would be wanting to try the thunder-makers out, so we repeated the rainstorm with new performers. The children were completely engaged by this piece now (though some of the adults continued to have conversations – the culture of silence during music performances is a Western thing, I think).

Instrument jam

In the last part of our workshop we wanted to give every child the opportunity to play an instrument. With Kim’s help and that of the teachers, we brought all the instruments we had with us into the centre of the circle and began giving them out. It can be hard to distribute instruments. Many children – especially girls – shy away if you approach them. You have to watch for the tiniest little signals they give out that they are actually hoping to be offered one, but need you to make the first move. Sometimes it is a tiny hand gesture, sometimes it is just the way they meet your eye. We gave out everything, including each of the chime bars individually, and lots of pairs of bamboo clapping sticks, but we still didn’t have quite enough to go around. I figured we would do a swap midway through the activity. In any case, I knew that Timorese children are very good at initiating their own swaps.

We didn’t try to establish different groups or contrasting rhythms in this activity. We revisited the ‘call-and-response’ rhythms that we’d used earlier, and I also taught them the cues “1-2-3-4-STOP!” [1-2-3-4-PARA!] and 1-2-3-PLAY! [1-2-3-TOKA]. We tried to get a really clean stop to the sound and for a bunch of 3- and 4-year olds, holding instruments en masse for the first time, they did extremely well.

I sang the song Ah ya zahn and Tony and I taught them the rhythmic responses:

Ah ya zahn [ti-ti ta]

Ah ya zahn [ti-ti ta]

Ah ya zahn el abedin [ti-ti ta]

Ya whirr [ti-ti ta]

Ya whirr in fata, baya el basadin [ti-ti ta]

It’s not completely straightforward because they need to listen carefully to the song and the length of the melodic phrases to know when to play the [ti-ti ta] rhythm responses. It takes a few tries, and by now the group was showing some early signs of tiredness.

However, they got it. The song has quite a Middle Eastern, melismatic feel to the melody and I love singing it and playing up to that quality. It got the attention of the adults as well as the children as it is such a different musical sound to their own children’s songs (although has some relationship to Arabic-influenced Indonesian pop). Some of the adults started to join in with the song as they became more familiar with the words.

We interspersed the song with whole-ensemble playing, where the group just repeated the [ti-ti ta] rhythm over and over in unison, until I called the 1-2-3-4-PARA! cue. In this way, we established a sense of structure and the discipline of not playing instruments at the same time as singing. They also improved their ability to stop together on cue, and play together on cue. Midway through the activity we called for an instrument swap so that children could try some different things.

Finishing up

By the end of the instrument jam we were all tired. We asked the children to come forward with their instruments and place them in the middle of the mat, then I suggested to Tina that we could finish with a song that the children already knew, all together. “Could we sing ikan hotu nani iha bee?” I asked. There was a little confusion at first, where she told the children I would teach them the song, but this wasn’t my intention – they already knew it! I wanted us to do something familiar, all together, as a way of finishing. Tina and I had a quick conversation where I clarified this, and asked if she was happy to lead this singing. She was, and so together we all sang the song, complete with actions.

However, I still didn’t get to clarify the intended melody of the song! It still wasn’t clear.

At the end of the workshop all the children and parents went outside for their break. Timorese schools and kinders usually have a group of women, and sometimes children, who wait outside school from before classes start and until classes end, selling things like katupa rice packs, and other home-made and mass-produced snacks.

We chatted with the three teachers for a while. They thanked us for coming, and said how much they and the children had enjoyed it. I thanked them too, reminding them that I’d only approached them the day before about doing this workshop, and how wonderful it was that they were able to make space for us so quickly and make us feel so welcome. Later, in a more detailed conversation with Kim, they told her that this had been their first experience of this kind of creative music activity for young children and they wished they could have time to work with me again. This is a very professional and serious group of teachers – they take part in professional development courses with the Mary MacKillop organisation (who do a lot of work in the area of early childhood development) and they are quietly ambitious, I would say, about the potential for the program they are running, and the possibilities they are able to offer the young children they teach. It’s a shame that my time in Lospalos has for the most part coincided with the kindergarten school holidays.

Getting home again

We were relieved to find that one of our Motolori boys was still hanging around, and he offered to drive the loaded-up wheelbarrow home for us. Of course, one of us could have done it, but I think the Timorese youngsters take pride in helping out and doing these jobs for the adults they like or have a relationship with. This boy found it heavy-going and stopped several times to have a rest. Kim bought some bread rolls and snacks on the way home so that we could thank him with some food.

As we crossed the bridge and neared our house all the other neighbouring boys appeared and took over the wheelbarrow steering. Their presence and keen-ness led to another mini-jam on the verandah because there was no way they would be happy to unload all the instruments and not get to play them. Anyway, we were truly appreciative of their help, and by now were starting to see how seriously they took on responsibility of caring for the instruments as they unpacked them, played them, and packed them up again at the end.

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