Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Writing songs of home

This term at the Language School, we are focusing on the theme of ‘homes’. We explore this in different ways with each of the three classes, but the starting point is the same – I ask each child to draw a picture of their home in their country of origin, and interview them about what it shows. I use the words from these interviews to create song lyrics.

Sometimes the process throws up interesting challenges. For example, in Middle Primary, the students had been learning lots of ‘house/home’ vocabulary and had little pictures of various kinds of dwellings stuck to their desks. When they started on their drawing task I realised that many of them were copying these archetypal images (square plus triangle plus small rectangle equals ‘house’) rather than drawing a picture of their own home. Did they worry that their real home might be considered ‘wrong’? Or were they just keen to copy a picture? Also, some students had been in temporary housing and countries (refugee camps, second countries) for so long they had only vague memories of their home in their country of origin. For some, recalling these temporary shelters was unpleasant as life had been hard – even awful – there.

Lower Primary painted their pictures – large, brightly coloured images that filled the corners of the page, and the detail led to two verses – one about kinds of houses (lots of apartments, reached by going in the lift/elevator, and pressing a button to go up, up, up…), and one about the people and things they left behind and now miss (grandparents, toys, even a baby brother and an older sister).

Upper Primary had access to some excellent books showing different kinds of houses around the world – mudbrick homes, bluestone farmhouses, igloos, simple dwellings from cow-dung or bamboo, glass and steel mansions, even emergency shelters made from UNHCR-branded materials. Their song – slow to emerge but now progressing well – considers all the different things you can build a house from, and the fact that shelter is a basic human right for everyone around the world.

Middle Primary’s song has emerged from the interview-to-lyrics process (I typed up their words and they read from these sheets to select the lyrics), and a ‘cycle of 8’ graphic score process to create melodic material. In today’s class we sang three of these melodies and improvised with words from the typewritten sheets to come up with a chorus and three verses. I think this song is my favourite, which is interesting because it came about through the most chance-driven processes, rather than me getting things rolling with a chord progression or catchy riff.

Some sample ‘cycle of 8 ‘ scores – first we practised counting the cycle, then they colored in the boxes they wanted to clap, then they assigned pitches, then we learned to play them and decided which ones would work well as song melodies.

Coming up for air

I’m still in “that busy time of year”, despite thinking things were going to slow down once the rush of weekend projects that I had on throughout July and August were over. I was wrong! Here’s a bit of a summary of what I’ve been busy with since the detention centre workshops finished:

  • Two workshops for early years (babies to 5-year-olds – what a broad age range!) – experiential ‘jams’ focused on Beethoven’s 6th symphony
  • A big jam for over 100 participants of all ages, exploring the great ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (these projects were part of MSO’s Beethoven Festival)
  • A 4-day composition project with Albert Park College and students from the Australian National Academy of Music
  • A 90’ presentation (talk and video) on my experiences in East Timor for the University of Melbourne’s Arts Education Colloquium series
  • Two early-years workshops focused on ‘Pirates’, developed and led in collaboration with ANAM students as part of ANAM’s Community Open Day
  • Started teaching ‘Community Music’ to 3rd year B.Mus students at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE, pulling together the course from various resources as I go
  • Started Facilitator Training (as in, I am undertaking training) with Boston University, for the work I’m doing with them for the next couple of months
  • Performed with and facilitated a composition project with UK composer Fraser Trainer (which we started in July and completed in August)
  • Started teaching M.Teach pre-service teachers at University of Melbourne
  • Started pulling together plans for this year’s creative projects with the Australian Art Orchestra and Signal. This year, the program is badged as the KEY workshop program. I’m leading two creative projects and two skills-based workshops, alongside AAO musicians.
  • Began collaborative planning for Armidale NSW’s ‘AccessFest’ music projects for people with disabilities, which I’m directing in December this year.
  • Assessed proposals for Arts Victoria’s Arts Partnerships program
  • Got a new set of songwriting projects off the ground at the Language School
  • Established a seriously positive, motivated attitude with the choir at Pelican PS.

Lots to keep me busy! Funny to think that when I came back from Timor in February I had almost no work at all. I’m glad that didn’t continue. For now, the plan is to just keep the head down, keep workin’, one project at a time. It’s a full load, for sure, and doesn’t allow for much of a work-life balance, but it is all so very interesting! What would I turn down?

How the choir got its cred

I’ve been working hard to build a positive choir culture at Pelican PS, and so far, it’s paying off. There are a few things at play, to do with building up the status of the choir, being explicit about what they can expect to learn, and why they might choose to do it, but also to do with role models and inspiring them with a sense of what is possible.

First, some background: typically, the choir has been made up of children in younger years. However, when choir started in Term 2 this year, around 40 children from years 2-6 put up their hands to join. I accepted everyone, expecting we’d get a big drop in numbers the following week. That first week things were serious and stern and I drilled them in the expectations of the choir:

  • Choir is fun but it is also hard work
  • It’s like being in a sports team – everyone needs to work together and train together each week.
  • Choir is for anyone who likes to sing and wants to learn to sing well.
  • I can teach you how to sing well and sound good.
  • No-one has to be in it, but if you sign up and then stop coming, you can’t rejoin again until the following year.

Role models

I want the children to learn to sing with their head voice. They don’t do this naturally or easily. I imagine that most of them, until very recently, had never heard other children sing in any way other than shouting. Most of them come from big chaotic families, and they learn quickly to do everything they do in a rushed, excited way, as loudly as possible (otherwise, how would they ever get noticed?).

Head voice makes them feel strange, I suspect. Efforts I’ve made in the past to get them more familiar with how it feels, and how flexible it is, tend to make them get very silly and giggly, very quickly.

This year, however, I have two role models for them. The first was telling them to google ‘PS22 Chorus’ and watch their YouTube video of Firework. (YouTube isn’t allowed in our school, so they had to do this at home). I love the way the PS 22 children sing with such enthusiasm, passion, integrity and musicianship, and I knew my students would find them inspiring. Finding this video and watching it was their first week’s homework.

The second role model comes from within our school. Elliot, in grade five, is a boy I’ve known since he first arrived at the Language School as a refugee from East Africa, aged about 7. He is bright, and quick, and a natural leader. He’s got lots of musical ability and instinct, and last year I recommended he apply for the prestigious national children’s choir. In my recommendation letter, I explained that his head voice was completely under-developed, but that I felt he had a lot of potential and that they should hear him to assess that potential. I also explained that as a child from a non-English-speaking, refugee family, he’d only be able to take part with financial support, and that his class teacher had offered to liaise with the family for any organisational support.

Elliot was accepted by the choir on a scholarship and so far has taken part in two of their 2-week choir camps – one in Sydney and one in Tasmania. Imagine what an experience that is for him! We are all so proud of him.

The great news is that singing well now has considerable status among the students. Elliott talks about his experiences, and has sung solo in front of the school, demonstrating the songs he’s learned in the national choir. His head voice is now strong and clear and true. It’s a fantastic model for the other children to hear and imitate. He has no self-consciousness about his voice at all. He has given currency and credibility to having a great head voice!


I’m determined to find a way to get these children singing in parts. I’m still working out how to do this. I find that children in this cohort (majority East African, refugee backgrounds) respond to multiple lines of music in chaotic ways. I think it often unsettles and confuses them. I don’t really understand why this is. I introduce complementary parts in instrumental and rhythmic pieces with a great deal of care and deliberation. Things can get wild and unfocused very quickly if I don’t. (Read here about my earliest observations of this tendency).

I think that singing in harmony with others is one of the most exciting ensemble experiences you can have. My first tactic has been to introduce simple part songs – rounds, songs with ostinato, partner songs, echo songs – into every choir rehearsal, so that part-singing becomes more familiar.

I’m also drawing repertoire from a wider range. Taking inspiration from Jackie Wiggins, and her reminder that children need to be able to place their music learning in context, and in a musical context, I now bring recordings into choir rehearsals that we listen to in order to learn melodies and parts, a core part of how we learn repertoire. This is a big change for me – in the past I’ve believed that the most effective way for them to learn songs is through listening to my voice. But the children love hearing the recordings. I think it makes them feel that they are learning real songs, songs that exist in the world outside of school, that this is authentic, real-world music.

We are singing some pop songs. So far we’ve spent the most time on La Isla Bonita. The choir’s relationship to the song Firework is a story of its own and something I will cover in a separate post. I’m not sure yet how we will tackle these in performance. Most of the time I try to ensure that we sing them in keys that I can play on guitar. I still can’t see myself letting them give a performance with a backing CD – that would be a big step for me to take!

But we are also singing some other numbers that I love to hear children’s voices sing, such as This Old Hammer (a big hit in Week 1 of choir – they all left the choir session singing it at the top of their voices) and Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.


I’ve printed out lots of copies of the words to each of the songs. This might seem an obvious thing, but in the past, because of the high levels of ESL [English as a Second Language] in the school and the fact that many of the children don’t read well (especially because the choir attracted so many young ones) it seemed more efficient and more inclusive to teach them the words as we went, and get them memorised from the start.

However, I’ve changed my mind. I see how they love to hold the pages in their hands and follow the words carefully. They are incredibly motivated to do this. I’ve realised that they love seeing the words of the songs written down – perhaps they sing along to lots of songs they know and like without being 100% sure of the words. I think it is also a good literacy outcome – the hungry way they devour the words, or read the sheet as best they can is a reading task that they take on willingly and with huge intrinsic motivation.

My fifth anniversary

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Music Work blog. I started writing it in 2007 as part of my Master of Education  – the blog served as a reflective practice journal where I could start to unpack all the complexities of music making in the school for recently-arrived immigrants and refugees where I was a visiting artist and that was the site for my research. Here’s a link to my first ever post:

Update on the language school project

I soon found that putting my thoughts and ideas into writing was somewhat addictive. I loved the great sense of satisfaction and calm I often felt after writing a post – as if I’d taken a messy, tangled set of thoughts and organised them into more orderly strands of ideas. Working out how to express my thoughts in writing – especially about my music-making process in the classroom which was something I’d developed through many years of experience, rather than learned directly from another – preoccupied me a lot in that first year.

These days, I love the way my blog has connected me with other writers, researchers, musicians and teachers around the world. It’s still a hugely satisfying outlet for ideas and reflections.

My most popular posts:

This one describing the stick-passing game, which includes some additional information contributed by my dear friend and colleague Eugene Skeef (who taught me the game in the first place)

This one, the “workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids” that I use to kick off the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program at the start of each year

This one, about the Australian tenor, Christopher Saunders (be sure to read through the comments – I am not the only person who has heard him sing and was blown away)

This post, showing some of my photos from Sarajevo in December 2007 always get regular visits. If I’d known how much interest it would attract, I’d have posted many more photos – it was hard to choose just a few! Sarajevo in winter is very photogenic.

Midway through my time with WordPress, they began offering the option to add tags to posts. Prior to that, the only way to add keywords to your posts was to create categories or link the post to existing categories. That’s the reason I have so many categories! However, the categories are still the easiest way to track back through the progress of different projects and ideas over the years.

Thanks to everyone who reads, and especially to those who subscribe and those who leave comments. Your interest and thoughtful responses inspire me to keep sharing these reflections. I’m very privileged to be able to earn a living doing work that I love, and feel lucky to be able to get input into it from other practitioners the world over. Here’s to the next five years!

Music in immigration detention, day 4

I’ve now given my fourth and final workshop at the immigration detention centre. John (guitarist and music volunteer) and I returned to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation on Saturday afternoon equipped with a range of  guitar, drums and other percussion, and together with the young men there we worked our way through our repertoire of music from Iran and Afghanistan, with some spontaneous improvisations along the way.

Once again, the workshop set its own pace in a very organic way. It had a sense of ease and familiarity to it, I felt, perhaps as a result of the warm relationships that we’ve been building over these last few weeks. We were greeted by Hussein, the singer, and Arun, the young man who’d started learning some guitar chords in the previous workshop. For the first time, no-one moved to take the drums, or pull percussion out of the crates. Today, the mood was more reflective, and when the music began in its usual emergent, un-led way, it was with everyone playing guitar. We showed Hussein the two chords (E minor and A sus 2) that we’d worked with the previous week, and the four of us strummed in rhythm together, getting a rich full sound from the guitars.

A new person wandered in – Mustafa, another young man from Afghanistan. He left again almost immediately but returned minutes later with his own guitar. It had a broken string but John found a way to fix that, and then got him started on the chords.

I think it was Hussein breaking into song that might have moved us away from the chords and onto some percussion. I think he might have started with a song that we didn’t already know but that invited some energetic drumming. From that first casual improvisation we began to move through the material we already knew from previous weeks.

Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete

Soltane Ghalbhe?” I suggested to Hussein. He looked back at me, and countered with “Saghe”.

Soltane,” I said again, thinking that perhaps my pronunciation was wrong and he hadn’t understood me. “Saghe,” he repeated, with a persuasive smile and perhaps some steely determination. Who was I to argue with such enthusiasm? So we launched into Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete.

We needed to change the key this week – we’d been playing it in the same key as the CD but it was too high for Hussein. Easy for John on guitar to adjust of course! But it moved it into an awkward key signature for me and when we got to the instrumental break I realised that I hadn’t quite assimilated the new key properly. I broke off and Hussein looked at me in bemusement. “What, what?” he asked, gesturing at me and at his friends in mock dismay.

This halt in proceedings meant another song got started, and I worried we wouldn’t get to do Saghe with everyone (I confess, it is a favourite of mine as it took quite a bit of learning). Still, this new song sounded fun. When I sat back down again I asked Hussein, “Can we sing the new song again?”, hoping I could learn it.  He gave me the quizzical look that I now know he always gives me when I suggest doing something again. “What would we want to do that for?” it seems to ask. Every now and then he humours me with these strange requests but that day wasn’t one of those times. Never mind. I tried out the clarinet solo for Saghe in the new key, the new song got discarded, and we were ready to get going.

John started the song with a short rhythmic intro, and then Hussein began singing, with the clarinet also playing the tune. The rest of the guys (including John) joined in on the chorus ‘response’ and we sounded pretty good, pretty tight! It still moves at a fantastic pace and it’s tricky to keep the 6/8 feeling going, but overall we were a much more aware ensemble this week.

Soltane Galbhe

From there, we moved to Soltane Ghalbhe (King of Hearts).

I didn’t really like this song when I first hunted it down on YouTube. On my first couple of listens it sounded like one of the overblown, full-orchestra, grandiose versions of folk songs that were so popular in Bosnia at the time I worked there. However, since we started singing it each week at MITA, I’ve developed a great fondness for it. The melody has a sense of yearning or heartache in its phrases, and it feels like it has a powerful emotional resonance for the guys, who always sing it in full voice. John played the guitar, Arun provided an additional E minor chord drone, and I played the melody on the glockenspiel, accompanying the singers.

There was a point where I think the singers felt the song had ended, but I kept it going on the clarinet, playing the melody once more. As I experienced in my first week at MITA, in very expressive, emotion-filled musical moments such as this, the clarinet has a way of pulling the focus of the group inwards in quite an intense way. The room becomes stiller, and they give their attention to the instrument and the sound.

Soltane Ghalbha has a verse (played 2 times) followed by a chorus, higher in pitch and with a sense of emotion and yearning. The singers joined in again when I reached this point and together we played/sang through to the end of the song. I caught Hussein’s eye at one point, his face was serious as he sang, and it was clear to me that this song, at this moment, had a huge sense of poignancy for them. There was silence after it ended, and then they all breathed out, or slightly nodded or shook their heads, making connection with each other in response to the song, no words exchanged.

Bia ke borem ba Mazar

The remainder of the workshop was focused on Bia ke borem ba Mazar, that I now know is about a well-known pilgrimage city in Afghanistan, home to a very beautiful mosque.You can see it in this video:

With four guitars at our disposal (two of John’s, one of mine, and one belonging to Mustafa) we decided to teach the guys how to play the chords for this song.

We taught the chords one at a time, and labelled each as ‘chord 1’, ‘chord 2’, ‘chord 3, and ‘chord 4’. Arun was a quick learner, as was Hussein. They got used to watching our fingers to check the chord shape, and then checking in on each other’s fingers in order to stay together. They picked up on the way I was numbering the strings of the guitar as a way of explaining each of the chords (eg. A minor, our ‘chord 1’, uses strings 2, 4 and 3) and began to repeat these strings of numbers to themselves as a way of remembering the different fingerings. One of the MITA staff members lent us a marker and we drew up some big chord diagrams and labelled these too.

Meanwhile, Mustafa was keen to learn the glockenspiel part. We worked through the first three phrases (which are a melodic sequence) slowly. Once he’d got these memorised we added the fourth phrase. This took more than an hour of work on his part, I’d say, and it was extraordinary to see how focused he was. He gave himself barely a break, and played it over and over again, phrase by phrase.

Once the guitarists had the four chords ready, we started to put the two lines together. We would pause on the penultimate note of each phrase to give the guitarists time to change to the next chord, and gradually these pauses became shorter until the chord changes were happening more or less in time.

I played the clarinet along with Mustafa, providing a guide. By now too, we’d been joined by a number of other guys (the ones we usually see towards the end of the session – I think of them as the ‘late-risers’), and they were happy to sing along. Our group garnered quite a bit of attention from people wandering through the building, including interpreters and other MITA staff – I think we sounded pretty impressive by that stage.

Numbers began to dwindle in the last half-hour. Hussein and Arun stood up, shook our hands and wandered off – they had computer time booked, I think, and didn’t want to lose it. Some more guys came to join us.

One was the authoritative young man who’d informed us of the price of keyboards in Pakistani marketplaces, back in week 2. He is an interesting person, with such a hunger for intellectual stimulation, I think. He picked up the descant recorder that I’d brought along (hoping to see Javid, the recorder player from the previous week) and began to play. He clearly had experience with wind instruments as he played with a strong tone, and moved his fingers in intricate repetitive patterns, sliding his fingers to create quarter-tones and fluttering them on and off the holes to create a kind of vibrato effect. I improvised along with him for a while, mimicking his phrases, and adding echo-lines.

After a while, he stopped, took the recorder from his mouth and said sadly, “But, this instrument is no good. It’s not a good sound.” I agreed with him – this was a plastic recorder, and definitely had its limitations! Still, he did more with it than many. I could imagine him playing a wooden instrument.

Later he went to the kitchen to make tea – “Pakistani-style tea!” he told me proudly. I watched as he filled two cups 2/3 full of milk, and put it in the microwave to boil, then put three tea-bags in a third cup, filled it with boiling water in the urn and added this to the microwave too. When everything was boiled and brewing, he poured the tea into the cups of milk, which was now frothy and thoroughly boiled, added sugar, gave one to me and carried the second one out to give to John.

Our session ended on time today, because everyone left! As I said, it had its own organic shape to it, from start to finish. We never suggested doing the concert in the Visitor Centre. There was no activity officer working with us today to facilitate it, but in any case, it didn’t feel necessary. I loved the focused, studious learning energy that we tapped into in this session. The frantic, almost competitive noise and energy of earlier sessions was transformed into something calmer, more focused and collaborative.

This was the last of my booked workshops at MITA. Hopefully they will decide to continue them – it feels to me like it is too early to stop. The guys are only just getting used to the fact that we come along every Saturday afternoon, and what they can expect from, and ask of, the workshops. Maybe in time, the range of what we do will broaden, to include more improvisation, perhaps some songwriting, as well as the performances of music from their countries. I think it has been a good experience for everyone so far. It certainly has been for me and John.