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.