Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Songwriting in Timor

My current evening task is to edit footage from my Timor residency, in order to present some of the ‘themes’ and projects that emerged while I was there. It’s wonderful to watch all this footage with the bit of distance I have now – I’ve been back 2 months this week. I feel like I am only just starting to digest my experiences, and to put them into succinct story form so that when people ask me, “So, how was Timor?” I have coherent things to say!

This video is from Baucau, and shows the initial songwriting workshop I did with the women’s centre there.


And this video from Lospalos shows some of our instrument-making activities. I love the energy and activity that this footage shows.

Having a weekend

Today I was reminded how gradually children learn to use a new language. I was walking through the playground at Pelican Primary School, on my way to lunch, and one of the younger students – perhaps in Grade 1 – came up to me and asked me sweetly, “Gillian… are you having a weekend now?”

It’s Tuesday today. I smiled at him and told him, “I’m just going out to get some lunch.” “Oh,” he said, and skipped off to rejoin his friends.

Most of the children at this school speak another language at home. If they have been in Australia two years or less (I think), they are entitled to attend the Language School in order to have intensive English language tuition in a curriculum context. But for children who have been here longer than that, starting school may be the first time they have used English on a daily basis. They are often very articulate and confident speakers, but there are some turns of phrase that reveal the gaps in their understanding .

I have no idea quite what he meant by ‘having a weekend’. I assume he asked me this because he saw me heading for the gate, carrying my handbag. I wish I’d asked him what he meant. Maybe for him, ‘having a weekend’ is what happens when you leave the school grounds. ‘Having a weekend’ sounds like a nice thing to do on a Tuesday when your task is to clean the music room after months of renovations and storage cartons!

Finding the right blend

At the Language School, I aim to link the music composition work to whatever theme the teachers have selected to focus on for integrated studies that term. It means that I can reinforce new vocabulary that is being learned in other classes, and similarly, the teachers can support the children’s familiarity with music work as it develops by using phrases and sentences from the compositions in classroom work. For example, song lyrics might be used in cloze exercises or handwriting work.

This term the theme has been ‘food’ and I confess I have felt somewhat uninspired for new ways to develop musical material from this theme. I’ve used tried and trusted techniques. We’ve developed a song about the evils of additives and other dodgy ingredients in food (Upper Primary), and created instrumental pieces in 5/4 using the rhythms derived from the syllables of lists of fruit (Middle Primary), and written a song about good ‘everyday foods’ (Lower Primary).

This week however, I found the metaphor I’ve been looking for! I wanted to find a way to get the Lower Primary children to sing together, and sing with their best voices. They tend to rush through the rests in order to start the next phrase before everyone else, and try to sing louder than everyone else. I needed them to think about blending their voices.

I knew they’d been doing some cooking this term, and that scones were a recent project.

“How do you make scones?” I asked the class. Hands shot up, and they listed ingredients like flour, milk, butter…

“And when you have all these things in the bowl, what do you have to do? Is it all ready for cooking or do you do something else?” I asked.

“No! You have to mix it!” The children mimed mixing, holding an imaginary spoon in one hand and bowl in the other.

“Exactly!” I went on to explain to them that when we are cooking scones, we have to mix the ingredients until we can no longer see the flour, the milk, the butter…. We mix it until it is a smooth paste. “When we’re singing,” I said, “we can do this with our voices. We need to sing so that we can’t hear you by yourself – all the voices need to be mixed together.”

There is always a bit of a risk with visual metaphors creating confusion (by introducing a new topic – cooking – into a different context – music, eg. “Why is she talking about cooking in music?”) but on this occasion it worked very effectively. The Lower Primary children sang their song beautifully after this explanation, paying great attention to singing in unison, waiting for the phrase endings, and not shouting the lyrics.

I will have to remember this idea of ‘mixing’ and ‘blending’ in music for next time the Food topic is used in the primary classes. It’s a musical way of linking the theme with the composition work.

Boys and dancing

Last week at the Language School, one of the girls in Upper Primary was adamant that what our class composition really needed was dancing. She was enthusiastic, a couple of her girlfriends were enthusiastic, but others in the class were just as adamant in their refusal.

However, we needed to work in the room all together, and I knew that if I set the three girls dancing at one end of the room, and the rest of the class working with instruments or singing at the other end, it would be too distracting and no-one would get any work completed. “Let’s divide into two groups and we’ll all work on the dance together,” I suggested. There were four phrases of lyrics that the dance would accompany. Each group would devise moves for two of the lines, then we would combine.

What I discovered in this process was that, despite the initial reluctance that most of the boys had shown, several of them (two of the newest boys – from Iraq and Sudan, and two of the Chinese boys) were in fact very happy to be dancing. We devised a heel-thumping, air-punching, hand-clapping accompaniment and they were completely committed to each and every move.

That early lack of enthusiasm was perhaps about keeping with the peer group – especially for the newest boys. They may not have understood my initial question about whether they’d like to  dance or not – maybe they knew it was about dancing, but thought I might be asking them to dance a solo, or something – but they would definitely have picked up on the way the majority Chinese boys in the class were laughing and pushing each other and hiding behind each other by way of demonstrating their reluctance.

Now that we have a dance in the middle of an instrumental piece and song, we have the challenge ahead of us of working out how on earth to stage it, so that they don’t all start falling over their instruments when the get up to dance. That is next week’s challenge!

Improvisation and ESL

I’ve written in the past about improvisation and newly-arrived ESL [English as a Second Language] students. I’m always looking for ways to encourage them to play freely, exploratively, spontaneously and responsively, rather than waiting to be told or shown exactly what to do. The challenge is that for new arrivals with only a beginning grasp of English, and only minimal confidence in their understanding of all that goes on in Australian classrooms, being shown what to do is the principal way that they set about learning, and making sense of their new environment. New arrivals are often careful and cautious about doing things that they haven’t seen someone else already doing. No-one likes to get things wrong, and it is difficult to explain in words that the whole point of improvising is to develop new ideas each time, and to try new things out every time you play.

Last week at the Language School we were developing melodic ideas for a riff we had invented. Every child had a glockenspiel to play. I wanted them to stick to a particular rhythm (which they had developed from words relating to their Integrated Studies topic for the term – food) but to play quite freely with the notes.

I set up a guitar accompaniment of C – Am – F – F – G (our starting riff is in 5/4), and initially asked them to play the rhythm on the note C, but to finish the riff on G. In other words, all the beats would be on C, apart from the last note, which would be G.

We started by playing all together. Several students gave a kind of start of surprise when they heard our good their C-G riffs sounded with the guitar accompaniment. They were inspired, and those that understood the task played with confidence, so that those with less English who needed a guide had someone to copy.

Next, I told them that they now could play whatever notes they chose, so long as they kept to the same rhythm, and that their first not was always C and their last note was always G. In this way, I knew that their ideas would continue to work well with the guitar accompaniment. And, I reminded them, anyone who would prefer to keep playing the C-G riff we have just been playing, can choose to do that any time they want.

Again we played all together. Now the students had choices to make. They could invent their own, or they could stick to the simple riff we had all learned. I find that in the ESL music context, too much choice can be overwhelming for some students, so I always ensure they know they can continue to play the music they already know, so that they feel safe and able to participate. Other students however, will thrive on the new possibilities that the choice offers them.

Our last stage in this improvisation task was to hear what each person was doing, one by one. We established a pattern where we would begin by playing all together, four times through the chord progression. Then, four people would play their improvisation or riff, one by one. Then we would play four repetitions together again, then hear the next four soloists, and continue on in this way until all in the group have played a solo. As expected, some chose to play the taught riff on C and G for their solo. Others improvised. All kept to the rule of starting on C and finishing on G, which meant that they all understood that instruction, or worked it out aurally by hearing what other people were doing.

Next week, we’ll do this task again. I plan to suggest they can now vary their start note between C, E or G, and we may then vary the pitches options for the final note too. Ultimately, I hope that we will generate 1-4 different melodies through this process. However, ‘one step at a time is a good rule for ESL students’ – they appreciate having time to consolidate and demonstrate what they know, rather than constantly having a new challenge to surmount.


Extending a game into a composition

So many music games and activities have more depth than we credit them with. If we bring our musicianship and musical imaginations into the mix, then they can take us off into directions that yield interesting and often complex compositional outcomes. This post describes the workshop I led on Monday with a group of MTeach music students, looking at three games that I’ve collected/learned from around the world, and the compositional possibilities of each.

Activity 1 – Stick-passing

The first game I taught was stick passing game that I learned as a stone-passing game from a South African musician. I’ve written in some detail about this game in the past, and the song, Bhombela, that I often teach with it. With the MTeach group, we experimented with passing the sticks in a duple time signature and singing a song in a triple time signature (Edelweiss) or a changing time signature (Dham Dham Dham – a children’s song from India). How could you build upon these starting ideas, I asked the group, in order to develop a more intricate, varied compositional outcome? One group took on this task, and developed some complex stick passing patterns that included tapping two sticks together, tapping one on the floor, and passing it around after a set number of taps in a 7/4 time signature, which they then varied into other time signatures by changing the number of floor taps. They also experimented with dividing into two groups and having unison sections contrasting with polyrhythmic sections (with each group working in a different time signature). They also explored hocketting melodies while passing sticks… at which point things start to get more complicated than the timeframe allowed! (More thoughts on hocketting here).

Activity 2 – Kecak

Next we learned the interlocking rhythms of the Balinese kecak (pronounced KECH-ahk). The Kecak isn’t really a game, but in the way that I teach it, it is learned quickly, and has playful properties in the characters it introduces. The three rhythms are essentially the same rhythm, but phased, so that each subsequent phrase is an eighth note out from the previous phrase. We learned them as three word-phrases, in order to lock the rhythms into our heads:

Rescue the princess.

We defeated him.

Give us Rawahna.

We discussed ways of extending these rhythmic ideas into a composition. Students suggested:

  • arranging the rhythms onto instruments
  • keeping the rhythms on body percussion and vocal sounds but indicating changes of section and instrumentation with a Gong sound (vocalised or using an instrument)
  • Developing new rhythmic phrases using new words
  • Creating new interlocking rhythms using the phasing technique.

The group that chose to explore this idea worked on the third suggestion, and invented three new rhythms/phrases (continuing the princess story), and played them on instruments in addition to vocalising. With more time available to explore, I’d be keen to encourage groups to work on the fourth suggestion, and explore first the idea of inventing a new rhythm (perhaps taking inspiration from the 2-2-1 grouping of the Kecak rhythms, and selecting different numbers of beats and maintaining an eighth-note rest in between each group), and then how to establish the phasing technique. These new rhythms could then be applied to instruments, and a composition developed that used only material from the original Kecak and the new rhythms, exploring different options for voicing and arranging the material.

Activity 3 – Work chant

Our last activity explored the rhythms of an East Timorese work chant. We discussed first the way that much of the traditional Timorese music that I learned about while living there evolved as an accompaniment to work, rather than as music for ritual, celebrations, or social gatherings. Work chants and songs eased the tedium of repetitive work, and also enabled workers to turn their work into a social interaction. I taught the MTeach group the Cele Cuku corn kerneling chant that I’ve used in a few workshops now. We learned the chant (I’d written the words up on the whiteboard so that people could read it and needn’t memorise it), and then explored the rhythmic properties of different verses by developing partnered clapping games/pieces to go with the words.

The partnered clapping patterns were great fun – by now people were being very inventive and playful, and their patterns included beats tapped on the floor, cross rhythms, and patterns that aligned particular sounds with particular words from the rhyme (creating yet more hocketting effects).

Ideas for extending the work chant idea into a larger composition included:  exploring ways of presenting the original chant and rhythms in canon; aligning particular pitches to particular words; and inviting students to write their own work chants, and build compositions from the rhythms of these chants. The latter is the idea that I explored in a jam in November last year with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Once you allow the possibility that the original game or activity is only a starting point for composition, and that the resulting new work might not necessarily include musical material from the starting point, then options really start to open up. I think it’s important to hand over that kind of ownership to participants quite early in the process, and it was interesting in the MTeach group that their interpretation of the task was (initially at least) one of needing to stay with the original musical material.

Rich tasks

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking a group of Master of Teaching students through some music games and tasks that I’ve collected from different parts of the world. The idea was to start with games and activities, but to then extend and develop the games into composition outcomes.

I think of the games that I use in workshops as ‘rich tasks’. That is, they have content that can be superficially fun and enjoyable, but when you look below the surface there is a whole lot of skill development and learning going on. They are also ‘rich’ because despite seeming easy and playful, they require you to keep on your toes and maintain your presence and focus. Break your focus, and you will start to falter.

Take my favourite warm up, for example. We start by passing a clap sound around the circle, one by one. Swiftly! I remind the group, and encourage them to make eye contact with the person they are passing the sound to. Then I ask them to change directions whenever they want, sending the sound either to the left or to the right. Then we change sounds – I love to use a ssshh sound, because this adds a further playful element, as people start to get into character, and offer very communicative, expressive sshhh-s. Around this time, as the sounds and directions change unpredictably, the group is beginning to improvise. They are responding to the sounds that have come before their own, and start to respond to the tension, release and arcs that are being formed.

Later you can add a sound that is sent across the circle, which requires steely eye contact, and invites a new, energised sound to be made (zap, zip, whoosh and ping are frequent suggestions). If someone makes a ‘wrong’ sound, sending it either across the circle to their left or right, this too is embraced, and becomes part of the ‘sound vocabulary’ of the game. Following this rule, you can have different sounds coming from every person in turn – the variety adds to the delight that the group feels then, when one of those new ‘sound offers’ is repeated by someone else.

Groups  that are working well together, where everyone is participating fully in the game, can continue with just these rules for quite extended periods of time, often developing some very interesting musical outcomes. However, I also like to add what I think of as powerful ‘whole ensemble unison’ moments into the texture. These work as question-and-answer moments. The person whose turn it is makes and agreed call and gesture (one I am fond of is a martial arts-inspired Hi-YAH!), to which the rest of the group responds with a stern and resonant Huh!, stamping one foot to the floor like a member of the All Blacks.

The sound-passing game is my first ‘rich task’, and I know lots of people know it already. It surprises me sometimes, when colleagues say things like, “Yeah, but I only do it with primary students”, as if it is inappropriate for older students, or “We were doing that back in the seventies!”, as if it is old hat. I find this game so effective precisely because it is such a stayer, and because there are so many ways to you can add to it and extend it.