Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Afghani songs (or maybe Iranian)

I’ve been hunting down songs this evening, following the titles, lyrics and artist names that the guys in the detention centre wrote down for me last week. Here are a couple that they sang to me, and wrote the lyrics down for:

Sound quality is a bit dodge, but the songs are great. And I love the nonchalant way the guy in the first film clip clicks his fingers during the instrumental breaks.

Music in immigration detention

Yesterday I led my first workshop with the young men at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation [MITA] – a secure facility for people being held in immigration detention. The Melbourne site is accommodating a large number of young men only, many of them unaccompanied minors. They are in their mid- to late teens, I would say.

I’ve been invited to lead a series of 4 workshops with them. For this first session, I kept things pretty open. I knew very little about the group, or about the space, so wanted to be able to respond as we went along, rather than have a firm and highly structured plan. I also didn’t know what to expect from the cohort. The little I have read about MITA describes a highly stressful place, with young men who are potentially depressed, highly anxious, disengaged, maybe angry…. so I was working with a lot of unknowns.

MITA is situated in an outer suburb – about 45 minutes drive from my home. It is in an Army Barracks – a huge site with lots of different buildings and lots of cyclone fencing. You can drive straight into the site, but need to park and sign in at reception when you get to the Immigration Accommodation centre. After signing in, I was directed to drive further into the site, so that I could unload all my instruments as close to the workshop venue as possible.

I brought a big range of instruments with me – a djembe, a darabukkah, a conga, a big tub of mixed percussion, a glockenspiel, an autoharp, some temple blocks – probably three trips to and from the car! We worked in the Recreation Room, a large, carpeted space with table–tennis tables at one end. Young guys were hanging around, and as we brought instruments in, one or two began to play, tapping randomly.

The Activities Program officer (who’d set up the music workshops) brought some chairs into the space and we arranged these in a semi-circle, facing the collection of instruments and with our backs to the table-tennis tables. About eight guys wandered over to take part.

At first I took my lead from them. They picked up different instruments, tried them out, swapped with another person, watched my demonstrations, pulled more instruments out of the tub, and generally explored. One guy picked up the guitar, and focused hard on his fingers on the strings, as if trying to remember patterns learned long ago.

From these very loose beginnings, some structure emerged. One guy began to play a rhythm and I played along with him, copying his rhythm. Others joined in, playing drums and other instruments, and we were jamming. I tried a few cues – “One, two, three, four, STOP!” – and we’d all stop, and then on the next cue – “One, two, three, GO” – we’d start up again. A Vietnamese man on the glockenspiel was picking out melodies, using the rhythm from the drums but creating sequences. During the next STOP I introduced the idea of a SOLO to them. When we stopped, I’d point to one person to play a solo. The glockenspiel player did the first of these solos, but many others took their moment in the spotlight too.

I noticed the guitarist picking out a meek little riff in A minor. “Play it again!” I urged him. I don’t think he understood what I was saying. “Repeat!” I tried. “Again!” “Yes!” “More!”. The other guys understood and soon the guitarist did too. I wanted to see if we could start to add some melodic riffs to our playing.

Then the man on maracas started to sing along with the guitar. I turned my attention to him. “A song! Sing! Is it a Vietnamese song?”

He laughed. “Yes, yes, Vietnamese song!” and began singing again. However, he only seemed to sing a fragment of a phrase, and then stopped.

I got my clarinet out. For me, the fastest way to learn a melody is to figure it out on the clarinet. They all watched as I took the instrument out. I found the starting pitch of the song. “Sing it again,” I urged him. He sang, and I followed, and then I realised why they were laughing. Vietnamese song indeed! This was Lambada!

“Okay, great!” I said. “Let’s jam on Lambada!” I played, and the drummers drummed, the man on the maracas sang and the man on the glockenspiel played the melody too. Lambada must surely count as a truly international song these days.

That was our first jam. Next, I led them in a rendition of This Old Hammer, a great bluesy song that can be sung as an echo song and has very few lyrics to learn. Again, my man on the glock had the melody almost immediately. Even when I changed the key so that the autoharp could accompany it.

As time progressed, different people wandered away from the group, and others wandered up to join us. The demographic changed from majority Vietnamese to majority Afghani and Iranian (speaking Farsi). A new guy picked up the guitar and began to play each of the open strings one by one, very slowly. I went to show him a chord but he brushed me away, content to continue as he was.

There was a poignancy to the notes as he played them. I joined in on the clarinet, matching each of the pitches but holding the notes longer, and tapering the sound away at the end of each. I felt the energy in the room drop, as people began to stop what they were doing and listen to our improvised duet. Sometimes I matched the guitarist’s notes, other times I harmonised them. All the while, it remained a quiet, spacious, intimate improvisation. Watching the guitarist, I couldn’t tell if he had registered my involvement or not. He didn’t look up at me, or respond in any particular way to what I was doing, but he continued to play, up until the moment that he looked up, smiled and laughed at nothing in particular, moved onto something else and released his music (and listeners) into the air.

These guys knew each other’s language and knew many of the same songs. They sang in full voices, sometimes playing random accompaniments on the different instruments, but often content to just sing. I also played for them. “Your instrument is a sad instrument,” one solemn-faced young man told me. “It gives us a sad feeling.” I thought I knew what he meant. “I think the clarinet has a sound of remembering,” I told him. It was my way of saying nostalgic. He nodded. “Yes, it reminds us.” I played them Krunk, the song from Armenia about a bird being sent out into the world to call all the Armenians of the diaspora to return to their homeland. It’s a song about the pain of displacement. They fell quiet as they listened.

At the end of the song, the solemn-faced boy said, “It is like a song we have, a song from Iran.” He began to sing in an expressive, soulful voice, and the melodic phrases did indeed bear many similarities to Krunk.

I asked them to teach me some of the songs. One man was appointed scribe and wrote the words out, using English letters but Farsi sounds. I proposed an idea for the following week:

“Let’s choose 2 or 3 songs to work on – maybe songs from your country, songs from Australia” (“Yes, yes, songs from Australia,” they all agreed), “and we can present them to people in the Visitor Centre on my last day, in 4 weeks time.”

They liked this idea very much, so we now have a plan. I will bring my portable recorder next week (I’ll need to get special authorisation for this, but hopefully that will be granted) and record them singing their songs. Then I can learn them properly at home. (They tend to interrupt themselves and each other too frequently for me to be able to learn the songs properly during the workshops). My scribe also wrote down the names and artists of two songs, so that I can try and find them on the internet. I haven’t done this yet – it is a task for this week.

As for the Australian song, “Something about the Aboriginal people,” was the request from the group. I’ll have a think about what that could be during the week too.

It was a lovely afternoon. It followed a very organic pattern of playing, then chatting, then playing or singing some more. At one point, around 4pm, I asked if they were tired. “No!” they said, but one added, “Are you tired?”

“A little bit,” I admitted. So he made me a cup of tea, taking care to ask what kind of tea I would like, and if I wanted milk or sugar. So I felt welcomed in many ways that afternoon, and hope that the opportunity to play music together and sing was something that gave them lots of pleasure and comfort too. Music lets us connect to the whole parts of ourselves – not the outsider, not the refugee, not person waiting to find out his fate, not the teacher, not the student… just to whoever it is we are at our core. When life is filled with uncertainty, stress and fear, this is an important connection to maintain.


I’m really, really sorry…

The other day at Pelican PS there was a fight between two of the boys. They ended up being taken out of the class by their teacher, and to be honest, in the midst of lots of small-group instrumental playing, all I really registered was that there was some kind of problem going on that then seemed to stop.

Later in the day, one of the two boys came back to the music room with another class. “Ali has something for you,” the teacher told me dryly. And young Ali, looking slightly self-conscious, handed me a folded-up note.

I love the bouncing train of thought in this letter! So many things bursting out of him that he wants to ask me and say to me! This is a student I’ve known for many years, actually – I taught him when he first arrived in Australia and was enrolled at the Language School. He’s quite naughty – but perhaps because he is spoiled and a bit immature for his age, rather than because he is disengaged or angry.

What do you say in response to such a rambling stream of consciousness? I folded the note, and smiled at Ali. “That’s a lot of questions!” I said. “I’ll have to answer these later on. Thank you for your note,” I added, and put it in my pocket.

Experiment 3 – reading the grid scores

Translating the grids into a melody played on the glockenspiel was another story entirely! They all (but one) found this way too difficult. It showed me that there are some fundamental ideas about mapping out sounds that we can explore as a group first – such as the idea of reading from left to right (rather than down and up, as some of them were doing), the idea of different notes being represented by each subsequent horizontal line, the way that the grid note names (written out) will correspond with the notes on the glockenspiel in order. It was frustrating for them to go from the puzzle task, which they’d completed so well, to a translating task which left them confused and disengaged, but it was in fact incredibly useful for me and has given me lots to think about in how we might develop their skills in representing and reading musical sounds in different creative ways.

The second time I tried the ‘reading and interpreting’ step, I gave the group an introduction into how to read the grid score. I suggested that they try to figure out each note in relation to the previous note – is it a step up? A step down? A jump/leap up? Down? Those that solved the reading task used this system and again, they were proud of their achievement.

At the end of the 2/3 class lesson, I commended them on their teamwork, working in pairs. “It’s not always easy to decide whose turn it is,” I told them, “so you did well. Did any of you find that it was your partner who helped you figure out what to play?” And one person in each of the successful pairs raised their hands. “That’s great,” I said. “Sometimes your friend is the best teacher.”

These are 2 of the ‘pianola scores’ (I got the idea from Teaching For Musical Understanding, by Jackie Wiggins) for the folk song Zum Gali Gali:

Experiment 2 in collaborative learning

The following week, I wanted the students to start figuring out how to play the melody of the chorus of Fireflies on glockenspiels. First, I had written out the four phrases of the chorus as ‘pianola scores’ – pitches and rhythm indicated with coloured-in boxes on a grid. “These four grids represent the four phrases of the chorus,” I explained. “Your task is to figure out what order they should be in. Which one is for the first phrase, which one for the second, and so on.” Again we divided into groups, and each group had one copy of each of the four grid-scores.

I wandered from group to group and gave clues. The main clue was to ask them why they thought some squares were coloured in and others weren’t, and why some were wide rectangles, and others just squares.  Why did they think this was?

Most of them were quick to suggest that long shapes might depict long sounds. So then I got them to sing the chorus, and notice which phrases had “words held for a long time”. Which phrase had lots of long-held words? Does one of these grids have more long shapes than the other one?

Once they grasped this, they moved quickly to ‘testing’ the grid pages by singing the words of the chorus and pointing to the squares and rectangles on the page in turn (one per syllable), to see if they matched up. Once they’d done this it was easy to move the grid-scores into the right order.

When I planned this task, I wasn’t sure if it would be too difficult for them to do. But all of the groups had solved it within 10-15 minutes, and they were really pleased with themselves too. Both the 3/4 class and the 2/3 class were able to solve it and enjoyed figuring it out.

Experiments in collaborative learning

At Pelican Primary School I’ve been exploring different ways to develop collaborative learning models in music – situations where students can work in groups to solve a problem together, and where they can help each other make progress. In general, they are not very good at this kind of work at Pelican – it causes quite a lot of stress.

Music lessons are only 40 minutes long, so I have to be very organised and have clear systems in place for how things are going to proceed.

Experiment 1

My first successful lesson along these lines involved teaching a 2-bar xylophone line to a class of grade 3&4 students. The 2-bar riff followed the chord structure of the pop song we are using as our ‘doorway in’ this term – Fireflies by Owl City. I’d invented the riff, and wrote the letter-names up on the board in order.

  1. Everyone learned the rhythm for the riff as a group, using call-and-response format. I clapped it, they clapped it, and we repeated this until it was performed accurately and confidently by the group.
  2. The students divided into groups of 4-5 on friendship lines. I directed their attention to the letter names on the board. Memorise these letters in order, using the rhythm you’ve just learned, I told them. You all need to have it memorised. When you’ve completed this you can move onto the next stage.
  3. Once memorised, the group was given a xylophone and pair of mallets. One at a time, try playing the riff, I told them. Help each other by singing the letter-names aloud. Each person tries it four times then passes the instrument to the next person.
  4. Once learned, one person from each group played the riff four times in a row, with accompaniment from me on the guitar and a selected student keeping the pulse going on the congas. Each person got to do this.
  5. We finished the lesson by singing along to Fireflies, alternating between the lyrics, and the notes names and rhythm of the xylophone riff.

This was a really successful lesson. They were very motivated to learn the riff – perhaps because it related to the song they like, perhaps because they had to wait their turn to use the instrument and the groups were small enough that the wait wasn’t too long. Perhaps the initial step of memorising the letter names had given them additional confidence that they’d be able to achieve this, they understood that there were stages they needed to progress through, and that as soon as they were ready they’d be able to move on (rather than have to wait for the whole class).

Songlines at The Patch

Another project I’ve been working on this term is Songlines, a creative songwriting and composition project at The Patch Primary School, devised by their music teacher Nicole Alexander (who is co-leader of Musica Viva’s Sound Safari workshops with me in Victoria).

The Patch is a pretty special place. It is a small suburb in the Dandenong Ranges. You drive through to the other side of Belgrave and start to head up the mountain and into the thick of the forest – a national park. You come to a fork in the road and head toward Kallista. After just a short time, the forest starts to thin and you are in a leafy, green suburb – just two sides of road with a steep climb up the mountain on one side, and steep descent down the mountain on the other. The Patch Primary School is on the downward side of the road.

‘Songlines’ takes its inspiration from the indigenous people’s tradition of singing the landscape, and of the songs being a kind of map of the landscape. The project invites the children of The Patch to create music that evokes and depicts their sense of belonging to the places that are most sacred to them.

The school has a strong environmental ethos and curriculum theme. Every Thursday afternoon, the grades 5&6s (I think) spend time in a personally-chosen natural site (it could be a particular tree, the nearby waterfall, the nearby dark creek site – the children described many such sites to me). All these sites are connected by a Tree Trail. It was clear that these sites have a powerful resonance for the children – they’ve chosen them themselves, and take their responsibilities and custodianship towards the sites very seriously. “They are asked to choose a place to which they feel a particular connection,” Nicole explained to me. “That’s the main reason for their choice.”

I’ve led two full-day workshops as part of Songlines. The first was with the school’s Marimba Club players, a very bright, energetic and able group of students who clearly love what they do in music. They long to be allowed to stay in the music room during recess and lunchtime (“I have to be careful,” Nicole laughed, “or I’d never get to have a break!”), and know a huge amount of repertoire by heart.

We wanted to create a piece of music that could depict the school’s Tree Trail. We decided on a Pictures at an Exhibition form, and to compose travelling music, that could later intersperse discreet songs and instrumental pieces about different children’s chosen environmental sites.

I introduced the group to some different 5 note modes. Rather than just propose one to them, I told them which notes to remove from their marimbas, and got them to improvise little riffs and see which 5-note mode they preferred the colour of.

They are a perceptive group: “This one sounds kind of mysterious,” they suggested about one of the modes. “Kind of like a swamp, or a dark forest, or a scary feeling.” Other modes were also described in terms of what atmosphere or environment they might depict.

In the end, the mode they chose was one that reminds me of an Indian morning raga (made by removing A and E from the instruments). They loved the optimism and energy of this mode.

We constructed a piece by inventing riffs and layering them one upon each other. We discussed the importance of responding to each other’s riffs, noticing where there were ‘gaps’ in the aural space that could be filled by the next riff. They were so responsive to these kinds of suggestions – it was a lovely moment that reminded me how nice it is to simply teach – to be able to impart a key piece of information, and for it to be listened to, absorbed, questioned, explored, and move people along in their discoveries. (This doesn’t really happen at the other schools I teach at – no-one listens for that long! You have to teach by stealth at Pelican PS and Darling Secondary College, and with minimal language at the Language School!)

The music we wrote differed significantly from a lot of their other repertoire in that each of them played their own independent part, rather than working in unison, or with just 2-3 layers of music. In this new composition, they needed to maintain their own parts consistently, and understand how they fitted in with the others in order to stay together.

Nicole emailed me the other day – “Drum beat goes viral” was the subject heading. Apparently the drumbeat pattern I’d taught one of the boys (a combination of mallet on the drum, hand on the drum, and mallet on the drum while the hand is on the drum) to the words Play marimba, I like marimba has been spreading across the school like wildfire! It’s that kind of school – so much creative energy is being nurtured there, that they can’t help but take new ideas and make them their own, in all sorts of inventive and collaborative ways. I think this way of learning is natural to children anyway – the challenge is in creating the energetic environment, perhaps.

Screams around the space

On Saturday I led the MSO ArtPlay ensemble (27 children aged 8-13 and 7 MSO musicians) in a remount of their composition response to Brett Dean’s Beggars and Angels. Remounts can be enormous undertakings, especially when the music you are remounting was created (and memorised as we went along, not written down) over an intensive 2-day period, over 2 months ago! Lots of transcribing from the audio and video recording on my part… However, remounts are also an opportunity to develop the music further and to present it to a wider audience, and in this case, we also got to perform it in a much larger venue (Melbourne Town Hall) as part of MSO’s Education Week.

We did good. No, we did great! It was a long day, but well worth the effort, because our composition developed significantly from its original performance, and all the Ensemble members developed as a result.

In one section, the music required members of the ensemble to give sudden screams, shouts, and maniacal bursts of laughter. The performance in the Town Hall (a very broad and resonant space) I had the opportunity to play with spatial effects. I positioned 7 players behind the audience for this ‘screams section’ (mysterioso, the children called it), spread across the back of the hall.

When we got to this part of the performance I could see the Ensemble members really getting into it. A huge amount of energy was being generated by these screams – it was palpable, and I stretched the section out to spread that energy throughout the hall.

After the performance, as we walked back to the Green room along the backstage corridor, the children were buzzing with excitement.

“Gillian, there was the lady, and when we screamed she jumped!” one player told me excitedly. “And there was this baby, and when I screamed the first time, it just stared and stared at me, the whole time, until the music stopped! I just had to stare straight ahead…”

Parents and friends later told us that they hadn’t even seen the players leave their places on the stage, so engrossed had they been in the music (and so discretely had the musicians moved to their positions – nice work, 10-12 year-olds!) I think the scream section was most people’s favourite part of the piece. People from the orchestra who had heard the original performance back in April thought the screams were something we’d added for the remount – but no, they were there all along. It was the use of space that enhanced them and brought them to the fore.

Even though remounts create lots of challenges in re-memorising a piece, it also gives the children a chance to revisit and improve upon their composition work and to understand it better, with the benefit of a little distance. Our performance on Saturday was richer and far more polished than the one we gave in April at the end of our two-day project. We’d had an extra day with the same material. It makes an enormous difference to the children’s processing of the musical ideas. Two days will feel very short when we start our Bartok project in July.

Experiencing success

At the Language School this week with the Middle Primary class, we were developing an instrumental introduction for our latest composition. I’d devised a xylophone melody and taught it to everyone in the class. We had three instruments available, so three people were chosen to take on this role in the composition.

One of the people I chose was an Ethiopian girl who often struggles. I’d noted that she’d picked up the little melody surprisingly well, and wanted to give her the chance to develop some confidence in this, so selected her alongside two other more consistent students, who I knew would provide a helpful aural guide for her.

(When I say she ‘often struggles’, it is in a way that is common to lots of the refugee students who arrive in Australia with almost no prior schooling, or severely interrupted prior schooling experiences. Some things just seem harder for them to process. Concepts of literacy, for example, need to be learned from scratch. Recognition of letters comes slowly, with a lot of concentration and focus. This girl is working hard, and she has reached a point where she is now aware that she struggles with some things that her peers learn far more easily, and this can make her very self-conscious according to her class teacher. Performing notes on a xylophone in a particular order is an example of an area where she compares herself unfavourably to others in the class. Tuned percussion instruments with removable bars help enormously in these circumstances as you can re-position the bars to make it easier for students to find the notes they need, so that they have the experience of playing the music along with the rest of the ensemble. For more thoughts on getting ESL students to develop their own melodic material, see this earlier post).

In this group of three, she played all the notes in the right order, but in a much slower rhythm than was required. She could hear that she was playing out of time with them, but didn’t understand why, because she was focused so hard on finding and playing the right letters on the xylophone. I could see her getting anxious.

The melody consisted of 2 bars – bar 1 with 4 crotchets on descending tones, and bar 2 with 4 quavers spelling out an arpeggio, followed by a crotchet and a crotchet rest. It was the arpeggio that was causing the problem – the task of reading the letter names was slowing her right down. We needed a musical solution, one that would not heighten her self-consciousness or feel like some kind of failure.

“I think we need a harmony with this part,” I said, and explained, “’Harmony’ is when we play the same rhythm but with different notes, to make a nice sound.” Instead of having her play the 4-quaver arpeggio, I suggested she play the 4 quavers on a single note, and the following crotchet on a note one step down. It created an appropriate harmony, worked within her strengths, and ensured the introduction to our piece maintained its rhythmic stability (important for the other two players).

She looked so pleased, and so relieved! Later that morning we gave an impromptu performance of our composition to the students from the secondary school classes. Sana (the student) was very nervous, I saw, and I sat right by her during the performance. But her nervousness before the performance made her success so much the sweeter. It felt like a significant success for her, one where she performed alongside her peers on equal terms.

The Big Jam 2011

Another fun project I’ve been working on lately is The Big Jam, the opening event for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, which was held on Saturday on the outdoor stage in Federation Square. This is the second year that it’s run, and the second year that I’ve been involved as co-presenter and co-writer. This year I was joined by two extremely talented and funny performers – Mal Webb, who is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and vocal contortionist, and Rusty Rich, a fantastic musician and comedian who for a long time has performed with a group called the Scared Weird Little Guys. These two also looked superb, Mal in his orange suit (cut in a David Byrne style) and Rusty in rich purple. I completed the trio in red-and-white-stripes, and a beret – going for a decent jazz cliché while keeping myself warm – despite the winter afternoon sun, there was still a bit of a chill factor out there.

This is me warming up the crowd. I look like I’m trying to ride an imaginary motorbike, don’t I? Actually I was conducting them in a tuning note.

We had the talents and effortless coolness of the Australian Art Orchestra accompanying the crowd in all their efforts. I think there were probably around 1000-1500 people there all together (certainly Fed Square was pretty full), and lots had brought instruments along with them – including a double bass, a number of saxophones, kazoos, a ukelele, clarinets, flutes… and lots of percussion.

The Big Jam started with on the note G, and got the crowd playing layers of short riffs before moving into a jazzed-up version of Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree (re-named Kool-Kaburra for this gig). We then moved into a far less tonal, more experimental, free-jazz world, introducing the art of F.I.G.J.A.M (Free Interpretive Grandiose Jazz Artistic Movement – at least, that was our version of the acronym), in which the Art Orchestra and the crowd improvised wildly in response to the dance movements and dramatic gestures of Rusty and Mal.

We later got everyone groovin’ with a fine blues, including numerous solos from musicians in the crowd, and finished with a massed performance of Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, with the music notation projected onto the big screen above our heads so that everyone could play along.

There’s a nice photo and promo story about The Big Jam here (courtesy of the Herald Sun). I’ve also got some fun filmed footage which I’ll edit up sometime in the coming weeks.