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.

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