Back in Melbourne, back to school

Ah… home from four months in East Timor. I’m back in my flat, and back at work, reconnecting with friends, family, colleagues and workplaces, and putting plans for the year in place.

The day after getting home I did two days of workshops at ArtPlay, as part of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble year-long program of activities. These workshops were focused on “express composing”, where a group of children creates a new piece of music in an hour, and performs it to their parents at the end of that hour.

We had so much fun! We asked each group to invent a story of some kind – a tale that had a beginning, a middle and an ending. We divided into three groups and everyone went away to create music for their assigned section. At the end of the hour we performed the music in order, from the beginning section, to the middle section, to the end section.

Some of the stories were wildly inventive:

Beginning: People are in a shopping mall, wandering around, doing their shopping. Suddenly an alarm sounds. Panic ensues. It is a cyclone warning.

Middle: People stampede the exits. The cyclone approaches [this story was written in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi in northern Australia]. Suddenly a gigantic platypus lands on the roof of the shopping mall. [Be truthful. None of us saw that offer coming, did we?]

Ending: It’s Bob, the Gargantuan Platypus, here to save the day. He picks himself up from the roof of the shopping mall and flings himself at the cyclone, squashing it completely.

The following week I started a new year at the Melbourne English Language School, my fifth year as an artist-in-residence there. The idea is to create music projects with each class that support their English language and literacy development in some way. (More info about this school here).

Planning with the class teachers is an essential part of this. First, I met with the three primary teachers, in order to discuss the kinds of themes and project work they had planned for their classes this term. We also talked about different students in their class – who has been there a few terms and is preparing to make the transition to mainstream school; who is new or recently arrived; what languages are spoken in the class; and how the class works together as a group.

All three primary classes have the broad theme of “food” this term. They will be talking about healthy eating, and doing some cooking in the classroom. In Lower Primary, I liked the teacher’s description of the categories of food they are learning – ‘every day’ food, ‘sometimes’ food and ‘never at school’ food. I can imagine building a simple, repetitive song out of these phrases, with different foods being promoted as belonging to one category or another.

The teacher of the Middle Primary class is keen for them to build up their oral language skills. I find a good way to do this is to develop rhythmic phrases from the syllables of words and sentences, and get the children to repeat these over and over, as a way of memorising and internalising the rhythms. We started with this idea in our first class and developed two lists of five food words each (pushing our rhythmic phrases into 5/4, which I love). We developed body percussion patterns for these phrases in our first lesson; in time, we will transfer the rhythms to instruments and develop melodic lines for them on tuned percussion.

In Upper Primary the students have also started their unit of work by discussing ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods. On the day that I was there, ‘pizza’ was under discussion. Is pizza healthy or unhealthy? I have a feeling that with this class, they will start to categorise their foods in more sophisticated ways, considering how the food is grown or prepared. I can imagine our composing work growing from these discussions. Perhaps we will develop different modes (in ‘dark’ or ‘light’ moods) for each category of food, and develop songs and instrumental music around these ideas?

Other projects that are in the planning pipeline are with Pelican Primary School (my pet name for a school I teach in regularly). Pelican’s school renovations have only just finished and it will be a few more weeks before instruments will be out of storage and the music room will be ready.

I’ll also be working with the Australian National Academy of Music again this year, and met this week with the senior artistic team to start fleshing out the kinds of projects we want to offer the students this year. After their much-talked-about participation in my work in East Timor in January, hopefully similar work in other challenging environments can be part of the 2011 program.

Meanwhile, my chikungunya virus is still kicking around in my system and giving me all sorts of joint stiffness and pain, so I’m also making the rounds of doctors and other health professionals. It’s a very exotic souvenir from Timor Leste to bring home with me, but on the bad days, it’s pretty painful and I hope to find if not a cure then a reliable way to manage it.

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2 comments so far

  1. victoria Ryle on

    Hi Gillian,
    I’m looking at this with Barbara Piscitelli and she says you should read Balanda – a book about arts centre in the NT. recently published. Check it out!
    Good to see you yesterday. xx

  2. […] kids” – one of my most popular posts), and about some of the stories from last year here. The Open Workshops double as a try-out for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, which brings 28 young […]


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