Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

City Beats, part three

Last week saw the third instalment of the MSO/ArtPlay ‘City Beats’ program – two days of workshops with students from four different schools. Working with them over the course of the year is giving us lovely insights into the way they are getting comfortable with the musical processes we’re using, and with the MSO musicians (me in particular, as I am the common link between each of their visits to ArtPlay).

In their first visit, we created three-part stories and devised three musical narratives (movements) to depict these stories. In their second visit, we expanded one of the movements into a whole-ensemble piece.

In this third visit, we needed to create whole-ensemble arrangements for the other two movements they’d created back in April. Our first group arrived on Tuesday morning, bounding into the light-filled ArtPlay space. Several came up and hugged me to say hello (in fact, I got hugs from people in each group across the two days – nice!).

With each of the groups we started with a brief warm-up and then watched video footage from the first workshops, focusing on the musical material we needed to arrange that day. I reminded them of the stories they’d created. Then we arranged our chairs in a circle and got started.

These were very directed workshops – the musical material had already been composed, and so our focus was on arranging and perhaps embellishing. This direction notwithstanding, we still came up with some unexpected new material.

For example, these song lyrics (from the group whose story was about going into the city and getting caught in a terrible storm):

Happy to be together

After the storm

Everyone’s safe, let’s celebrate

Good grief it’s excellent! (Ow!)

The ‘Ow’ is Michael Jackson-style. ‘Good Grief’ was an unexpected offer – I don’t think I’ve ever written a song with that expression in it before!

I loved seeing how much the group from the bushfire-affected school has blossomed over the year. They were careful and thoughtful in their first couple of visits, but this time there was a delightful sense of confidence and playfulness in their approach to the workshop. Also a sense of the possibility of mastery – one boy, for example, asked if he could play the thumb piano (kalimba) again, and added, “Last time, one of the others had a different one that had a card that told you what all the notes were.”

“That’s right – I think we’ve got that one here,” I said, and found it for him. He sat down with the xylophone group and was from then on completely absorbed by his new instrument, working out all the melodies note by note, and finding substitutes for the pitches that were missing on his instrument.

One of the groups comes from the outer western suburbs, and each time they come along, I am struck by two things – how tall they all are(!) and how naturally they groove together. There is a lot of innate musicality in this group – the music tends to sit together really well, without a great deal of ‘containing’ from me. We created two new sections of music with them. I particularly enjoyed our musical depiction of the words Flat. Gravel. Slower travel, with lots of dry, scratching, scraping sounds from a range of percussion instruments.

Our fourth group comes from the outer southern suburbs, and created the story about the Beatbusters. For this visit, they brought along three guitars, and we created a delightful little piece to open the narrative with, that placed one simple riff on the xylophones and accompanied it with a progression of four chords on the guitars. It was one of the charmed pieces of music – so simple, and yet so poignant and effective. Could’ve played it all day. Ah!

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Constructive criticism, healthy dialogue

How does a musician learn to be a strong music workshop leader? One of the things I remember (and sometimes miss) most about my times at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where I did my training, is the considerable amount of time my fellow students and I spend discussing and critiquing our own and each other’s workshop efforts. These conversations could go into amazing detail – not just about workshop content but about the words we’d used to describe tasks, or the way we’d phrased a question, and alternative wordings or gestures that might have generated different results. It was rich, painstaking constructive criticism and we all learned a lot from it.

When I took on the teaching of Community Music at NMIT this semester, I thought a lot about how I could engender a constructive culture of criticism and feedback in the class, getting all the students to engage deeply with the skills I’d be teaching them. One of their assessment tasks is to lead a short workshop in class, for their peers. I wanted these to be workshops that everyone contributed to – first by taking part, and then by sharing and analysing their experiences with the leader.

I decided to this using a peer-assessment model. Inspired by this blog post on The Teaching Tom-Tom, I worked with the students to develop a suitable rubric for use in class with the workshops, so that they would all be assessing each other’s work.

First we brainstormed a list of all the things a good workshop includes. The list of characteristics was later condensed down into six criteria on their assessment rubric.

Next we discussed context-relevant gradations. The students nominated a range of 5 grading categories –

  • Uninspired and uninspiring (harsh words, I felt, but the students were unanimous that this was a reasonable thing to label a workshop, and would be a good incentive to people to ensure that no-one would have a reason to tick this box)
  • Embryonic
  • Developing
  • Dress rehearsal
  • Gig-worthy

Then they divided into groups to devise the text that would go under each grade heading, for each of the 6 criteria. I wrote all the ‘Gig-worthy’ text so that they had something to work backwards from. I then took their contributions away, tweaked things slightly to ensure consistency across the gradations, and typed up a draft version of the rubric for their comments, and later approval.

“Make sure you are happy to have these grades and criteria applied to your own work,” I reminded them, “and that you are happy to use them to assess someone else’s.”

Has it worked? At this stage, halfway through our season of student-led workshops, I’d say it has been a successful strategy. The rubric gives focus to the discussions after each workshop. In general, I feel that the scores they give each other are a suitable reflection of the work that was done (although I do think they deem things ‘gig-worthy’ more readily than I do!). Most importantly, there seems to be a strong sense of ownership of the process and descriptions, and a willingness to consider the ways that strong work differs from weak or less convincing work, taking this into account when they plan and lead their own workshops.

Getting ready to leave

We are at the end of term, and at the Language School where I lead music workshops each week, students are preparing to leave. Some will return again in Term 4, but others will be moving on to new schools, scattered across all parts of Melbourne.

You see, the Language School is a transitional school – students enrol for between 6 months and a year (generally children from refugee backgrounds are eligible to stay for a year) before moving on to mainstream school. For some children, Language School is the only school they have ever known, and they thrive in this environment that is geared towards bringing out the best in them. For many, it represents a place of kindness, encouragement and stability when the rest of their world is in a state of flux and stress. In addition to teaching English, Language Schools in Victoria are also helping students learn how school in Australia works, and aim to give them a positive and successful experience of school-based learning.

It’s a time of mixed emotions. There is much to celebrate in their achievements – these students have learned so much and have made great headway during their months at this school. They are ready to move on. However, it is a sad or anxious time for some of the students, reluctant to leave a place where they have been happy and have thrived.

I can see this playing out in some of my students at the moment. Two girls in Middle Primary have, in the last few weeks, regressed. They need more assistance and reassurance, and sometimes get things wrong that we know they know very well.

“They don’t want to leave,” their class teacher told me. “So they are starting to do some things badly, or to make mistakes, as a way to prove they need to stay.”

Years ago, in my first project in a Language School, I remember a student in secondary school explaining her anxiety this way:

“Here, I have friends, I am confident, I am a leader. But when I go to the new school I won’t know anyone, and I will feel shy and scared again. I’m going to lose everything all over again, and be right back at the bottom of the pile.”

Our songs this term are about houses and homes. The children are singing about their previous homes, and their lives there, and also about their new homes in Australia. Resettlement is an enormous, stressful undertaking for a child, in which they get very little say. They spend years in this state of transition.

“You are wonderful,” I tell the students in music class each week. “You’ve done so well. You’ve worked so hard and learned so much, and you are strong and brave. It’s hard to change schools again, but I know you’re going to be okay.”

And they look down at their laps, or away, and consider this.