Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Best purchase of the year

These are my new favourite things:

They are polyspot markers – about 10cm in diameter, and they have been my most useful tool in these last few weeks of getting groups of children ready for performances.

I’m sure I’m not the only teacher working with children who grits teeth and steels themself whenever they have to organise a group into rows or some other kind of formation. The children I teach have a very poor sense of themselves in a space, in relation to others. They don’t process directional instructions terribly well (as in, “stand here/move slightly left/etc”) mainly because they don’t listen when people are talking, and because the excitement and buzzy energy in the room distracts them from remembering to listen to what they are asked to do.

The markers have saved my sanity! Now I just set them out on the floor before the class enters the room or performance space, then say to individuals:

“Go and stand on a white spot.”

“Go and stand on a red spot.”

Several years ago, I began observing the importance of floor markings and other visual cues for ESL children. The children relax and tune in far more quickly when they are able to follow a very clear unambiguous instruction.

My only complaint about the polyspot markers I have is that they are smaller than I’d like – I want something about the size of a dinner plate. Also, they are not quite robust enough, given the way children love to pick things up and twist them, pull them and generally test them, if they have the opportunity. One has already ripped. I got these from the Music In Motion online store; I’m on the look-out for a bigger set. A friend has a set of spots that she says is a portable Twister game! Now that sounds like the sort of thing I’m after!

‘Tis the season for… performances

I’ve just today come to the end of a six-week period of “creative project” performance outcomes, which was a pretty intense experience, but one that got me thinking about performances, projects and children – why we perform, who it is for, and what this tells us about the project.

Firstly, this was the period in which the year-long City Beats percussion composition projects drew to a close. A team of myself plus two musicians travelled to each of the schools, and the children performed the music they’d composed with us to an audience made up of their fellow students, their teachers, and on some occasions, their parents.

The performance outcomes for City Beats were an addition to the original program, and it changed the project focus. It meant that the children’s fourth and final visit to ArtPlay was spent revisiting all the music they’d composed – relearning and re-memorising it, essentially. For one group, made up of children from grades 3-6, their workshop was on a hot Thursday afternoon. They arrived at ArtPlay already quite hot and tired (some had already been swimming in the morning), and while they were all geared up to play some music, the last thing some of them felt like doing was applying themselves to the task of relearning and memorising music that was over and done with, in their minds.

“Is this the right thing to be doing?” I wondered to myself as I determinedly kept us on task, working our way through the music, and repeating sections until they were understood. “What they really want to be doing today is just hanging out and jamming.”

This group is already very free creatively – perhaps for them, jamming and making things up as they go along is already a strength and a preferred way of learning and working. Perhaps the discipline of working on one piece until it is “performance ready” is one that they resist. Repeating things feels counter-intuitive… the capacity to ‘delay gratification’ is one that doesn’t come easily.

Were there other reasons for the City Beats performances, other than celebrating the children’s achievements over the year and sharing them with their own school community? For the children from the bushfire-affected community, there were additional important benefits that the teachers shared with us over a post-performance cup of tea.

“For our children, the fires are their most recent big memory. They don’t remember much of their lives from before the day of the fires – it’s painful to do so. One of the things we are very focused on doing for the children at our school is helping them create new, good memories. This project, and this performance in particular, is one of these. They will remember the music, they’ll remember working with you and all the musicians, and they’ll remember this day when you came to their school and performed their music with them.”

Another project that took place recently was AccessFest, a festival of music performed by people with disabilities and professional musicians, held in Armidale New South Wales. AccessFest was a series of creative music workshops that culminated in a performance. Again, I felt concerned at times that the performance outcome could put undue pressure on the participants, and worked hard to ensure a playful and spontaneous approach in the workshops, allowing for unexpected things to take place within the workshop flow. This carried over into the performance as well.

The AccessFest performance was a chance for the participants to be in the limelight, to be applauded and have their work appreciated. But it was also a chance for their carers and families – whose lives are often very stressful, dealing with the challenges that disabilities can bring – to observe their loved one in a new environment, where different strengths would shine through, or aspects of their personalities or quirks or obsessions become integral parts of the performance. All the performers dressed up in their smartest, most colourful clothes for the performance. There was jewellery, make-up, and flash outfits – this was an event! There would have been many special memories for people to savour at the end of this performance.

Every project needs an outcome of some kind, a way to put a line under the work and declare that point in the process complete. It needn’t be a performance outcome (recorded outcomes in projects or informal ‘sharings’ are also effective). It’s a way of bringing all the creative energy together, channelling and focusing it into one ‘event’ that allows you to draw the project to a close.

End-of-year at Pelican Primary School

My final two performances for the year were with the children from Pelican Primary School. First, the choir performed at Federation Square, which was a wonderful chance for them to put their work in context with other primary school choirs from around Melbourne (I think they felt they fared pretty well in the comparison!). Then we held the end-of-year concert, in which every class performed.

I’ve really enjoyed my year at Pelican. I feel, after two years working there, I’ve now found an approach with these children that works well. Inspired by my reading of Lucy Green’s research, and the Musical Futures ideas that I learned about in the April workshop, I’ve been using a lot of popular music as the vehicles for developing musical understanding among the students. It’s resulted in huge student engagement, a real love for music classes and participation, and lots of creative ideas, being generated by the students themselves.

Some highlights:

Parents Rock! Band

This year I put together a small band of parents to accompany all the concert items. I had a guitarist, a violinist/pianist and a percussionist. I roped in Tony to play bass guitar. We got together a week before the concert to rehearse each of the songs. The Parents Rock! Band (as I called them) was a hit. I want this idea to grow. Hopefully we can draw more parents into it, particularly from the African communities that are so strong in our community.

Grade 2 pianist

Year 2/3 performed a version of K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag. One of the students learns piano and I’d given him a simple chart with the melody and harmonic accompaniment for the 2 sections of the song. This little boy is normally very quiet and reluctant to participate in his class’ music lessons (I suspect it all gets too noisy for him). I’ve never seen him smile so broadly, and look as proud as he did in the whole-school dress rehearsal the day of the concert, when he performed with his class and with the Parents Rock! Band.

Singing their hearts out again

The year 4/5, who earlier had had a hit with their rendition of California Dreamin’, sang Rolling in the Deep. Again, we sang in two parts, and had a number of soloists. In the staff room on the day of the concert, teachers raved about the different solo singers, expressing their delight in hearing how good the voices were – qualities they often hadn’t realised were there.

Taking ownership

The grade 5/6 students developed a dance routine for Party Rock Anthem. This was the concert finale. I found some choreography on Youtube, and we worked with that for 4 weeks, watching the video in class on the interactive whiteboard.

Lots of them watched it outside of school hours too. It became a real project – something that was challenging to learn but possible. “This is not just about learning to dance,” I told them. “It’s a chance to learn how you learn, how you can teach yourself new things by working on them consistently.” They were hugely motivated – the most motivated I’ve seen them all year – and took tremendous ownership of their concert item. They requested an edited version of the song (some of the sections needed to be doubled in length to fit their choreography), listened carefully when I explained the song’s structure, and developed a some good ensemble choreography.

Equally significant was the difference in their interpersonal relationships. This is a class that is often hard on each other – they are quick to laugh and jeer when one of the group makes a mistake in class – it’s quite alarming to witness sometimes. This meanness started to lessen during the dance project. When individuals moved into the centre of the space to perform short solos, the rest of the group whooped, cheered and clapped, supporting them on. We told them to do this initially, but again, they took it on and made it their own. There was so much pride and confidence spilling out of that class by the night of the concert – they were so excited to performed their dance!

The building of esteem in the school choir

The choir gave their best performance of the year at the end-of-year concert. We sang three songs – Vuma vuma ( a 2-part Zulu song that I learned from one of my students at NMIT), which we sang with dance actions; La Isla Bonita, taking our 2-part harmonies directly from the Madonna recording; and Firework, taking inspiration from the version performed by PS22 Chorus.

This has been such a successful year for the choir. I’ve had 34 consistent members throughout the year – that’s nearly 3 times the usual number. I’ve had equal numbers of boys and girls, and strong participation from students in older classes. I started the year by finding them tangible examples (‘models’) for them to look to in developing their voices and building ambition about what they could achieve in the choir. I developed a more formal structure for rehearsals to which they responded particularly well. With all of these initiatives, I wanted to help them put their work in context – to see their work as being authentic, with real-world value. The choice of popular songs helps with this, but we also sang several more traditional or varied songs, such as Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, one of our main concert songs this year. Choir now has cachet in the school, I think.

Creative inspiration

All this performance work adds an additional element to the children’s imaginative lives. Children approach me in the yard to share the latest song they’ve just written, such as this little gem:

There’s a boy and girl, they really like each other

They’re holding hands, oh yeah

They really love each other, oh yeah

And now, they’re gonna get ma-a-a-a-arried

Or the latest dance routine they’ve made up. The lunchtime immediately after the younger years saw the year 5/6 shuffle dance, there were huddles of prep, grade 1 & 2 shufflers scattered all across the playground.

The students teach their siblings the songs they are learning in class. Something I loved about the whole-school dress rehearsal on the day of the concert was the way the children sang along with each others’ songs.