Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Journeys to Australia

When I started my residency at the English Language School (back in 2005) my first projects were focused on journeys, and the stories and music that the students had brought with them from their countries of origin. Their teachers and I wanted to encourage them to speak about their experiences, and recognise what they had in common with each other.

I’ve just uploaded some of these projects to my Soundcloud account – please have a listen and add your comments!

Some projects focused on vocabulary for transport and modes of travel…

 

some demonstrated the range of countries the children come from,

 

and all of them involved every child speaking on their own about their experiences and being recorded (a great oral language outcome). At the end of each project the children were given a CD recording of their stories and music – I liked to think that they would find this CD in a few years time, listen to it, and recognise how far they’d come in their transition journey.

 

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Update on pitch work

Back at Pelican Primary School for Term 2, and the year 4/5 class are continuing to develop their arrangement of Gotye’s Somebody I used to know. This first week back, we revised what they remembered of the opening melody, and started to develop an accompaniment figure.

There were a couple of interesting developments this week. One occurred when we were revising the melody. We did this as a group, away from instruments, with me at the whiteboard asking questions like, “What note does the melody start on? What note is next – does it go up or down in pitch?”

Whenever the group hesitated or seemed unsure, we sang the melody together. We used the words from Baa Baa Black Sheep:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, I’ve got some. [Gliss!] (We invented this last line to match the fourth phrase of the introductory melody)

I stopped the singing on the word/syllable immediately before the pitch we were trying to identify. There was an exciting moment when I realised they were all hearing the missing note in their heads and starting to visualise or ‘map’ its direction. It was suggested in the way a large number of them all called out the right answer at the same time, after a moment of silence that was as long as the missing note would have been. I was so thrilled by this development!

For the accompaniment, I’ve created a marimba line:

D – AD – C – G (ta ti-ti ta ta)

I decided to teach it using the body-pitching approach I’ve used in the body. I taught it to the group, rather than asking them to figure a version out for themselves. They sang the note-names while patting each body part in turn:

D (knees – left hand) G (head – right hand) D (knees – left hand) C (floor – left hand) G (shoulders – right hand)

I knew that the challenge on the marimbas would be to go from the note D to C with the left hand – I anticipated that they would instinctively continue a left-right-left-right mallet pattern and would thus struggle to find the C. Therefore, I told them to use their left hands to touch D and C, and the right hand for A and G, and got them to practise this in a focused way on their bodies.

We practised the gestures together as a group. Then I set up the xylophones and marimbas and a small number of students got try out the accompaniment pattern.

This time around though, I added an explicit instruction:

“Your aim now is to transfer the information about notes and hands, up and down, from your bodies to the instruments. Keep the same hand pattern, and same pattern of up-and-down gestures, as you have on your bodies.”

I think this proved to be a helpful step. In any case, with this kind of group task, we only need one person to figure it out – they can then model it for the others, they will learn by watching, the watching will also help create a visual memory for them, and hopefully the body-contour work will help create a physical memory. We’ll see!

This class is such an interesting group. They always come in scowling, sneering, and with a lot of bravado towards me, my co-teachers, and especially towards each other. But they do take their learning quite seriously. Enough of them are motivated to create something of a critical mass, so we make progress, most weeks. My plan is for this Gotye piece to be ready to perform in 3 lessons time.

What’s in a name?

When a child first arrives in a new school, one of the first questions they will be asked is, “What is your name?” If the child is a recently-arrived immigrant or refugee from a non-English-speaking background, that question is one they will quickly learn to recognise and answer.

Names can help enormously in the settling-in process for a recently-arrived child. In Language School, I do a lot of games and warm-up activities using names. It’s a way for me to establish that in this environment, each person is important, each person is noticed, each person has something to contribute. Frequently, new students take their time to use their voice in the strange new environment they find themselves in at Language School. But names are words they know how to say, especially when motivated by the fun of taking part in a game (it’s also a way for new students to learn and practice saying the names of other students in the class). In this way, the name games become a way to build up new children’s oral language confidence. Continue reading

Is this the best name game ever?

The following warm-up game is one that I have been using since I first started training in musical leadership at the Guildhall, oh-so-many years ago. It is a simple name game, but its simplicity belies the depth of its messages I suspect! I call it Names in the Space.

Names in the Space establishes all sorts of skills and values:

  • taking turns,
  • the importance of contributing as an individual,
  • the importance of responding as a group and working in unison,
  • a call-and-response structure
  • the skill of maintaining a pulse and a rhythm,
  • the skill of timing your voice to land at a certain point in the rhythm.

But more importantly perhaps, it is a demonstration that every voice here is important. Everyone has a chance to speak. Everyone’s contributions will be affirmed by the group. It also establishes a group focus and settles the group.

'Names in the Space' being played at the recent Music Construction Site workshop.

Continue reading

Music Construction Site

During the first week of the school holidays, I led the first workshops of my 2012 project series at ArtPlay. We set up the Music Construction Site – a busy place of work and activity where the tools of the trade were percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes (as well as any instruments the construction workers chose to bring along with them), and the construction took the form of a large graphic score, made up of images and symbols denoting the children’s sounds and musical inventions.

There were two workshops – one for 5-8 year olds and their parents, and the other for 9-12 year olds. Here are some images from the day:

We started the 5-8 year olds with a bit of free exploration of the different instruments, letting them get a feel for the tools:

Once everyone had invented a sound or musical fragment, they needed to create its blueprint (graphic score):

We used symbols and images to make decisions about the best way to order and structure all our sounds. Here, I’m talking about the role of “the element of surprise” in a piece of music:

ArtPlay is situated in Birrarung Marr. If the weather is fine we can send some groups to work outside.

At the end of the workshop, we put all the sounds in order and play through the score.

The next workshops at ArtPlay will be on Sunday 17th June. This time, we’ll be boarding the New Music Express – transforming stories into music!

One down, three more to go

First it was the end of term one, now suddenly it is the end of the Easter break and the start of Term 2. Life has been busy for this freelance musician, workshop leader and teaching artist – it’s time for a quick ‘stock take’. This term, in addition to my regular school teaching, I’ve:

  • led a big jam (participatory music event) at the Myer Music Bowl for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO),
  • spent a weekend at ArtPlay leading 6 x 1-hour free composing workshops for children,
  • got the City Beats project off the ground for 2012,
  • written and presented two different professional development sessions for teaching artists,
  • recorded a one-hour radio interview (to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM soon!),
  • got some preliminary planning underway for two of 2012’s big creative projects – the Music & Mandarin composer residency, and the ‘Reef Residency’ community project for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and
  • scripted and shot 2 videos (me in front of camera, not behind)!

The latter project was a new departure – the videos are short teaching resources, one for students, one for teachers – on the Alphabet Dance. I had to memorise my scripts. I am pretty comfortable speaking off the cuff in my various presentations, so memorising brought me a new challenge. I don’t think I’ve had to memorise this many words since I had a lead role in the primary school drama production in Grade 4!

The jam at the Myer Bowl for the MSO was also a new project model (you can read a description from my planning for the event here), especially as we knew that the great majority of people who would be gathered near the jam performance site would be older (elderly?) die-hard, classical music fans, ready with their picnics and not necessarily looking to join in a participatory activity. But it seemed to go down pretty well, and quite a few of the oldies joined in with the singing and ‘picnic percussion’. It was a jam on a Mexican theme, so it was important to dress the part (ole!):

Dancing the Alphabet

I’ve been doing a lot of alphabet dancing lately, using a project model I first developed in 2001. The project revival has been instigated by a video project to film and record resource material for teachers and students to create their own Alphabet Dances. Then again, good projects never really get tired!

The Alphabet Dance is definitely one of my most enduring and popular projects. I first created an Alphabet Dance in 2001 as part of the Lingua Franca project at Western English Language School. I was inspired by the Leigh Warren Dancers (professional contemporary dance company from South Australia) and their show Quick Brown Fox, which was derived from an ‘alphabet’ of dance moves and sequences.  In my Alphabet Dance project, participants create 26 short dance moves (from any style of dance they like), one for each letter of the English alphabet, then use that alphabet of moves to spell words, sentences and phrases, and create dance sequences.

I wrote a detailed teaching resource on the Alphabet Dance for the Song Room in 2009, and ran a training session for artists at that time; and my blog posts (here is one) on the topic in 2007 were the recipients of my first-ever pingbacks!

This term, in order to have some children’s creations included in the video, I asked the Upper Primary students at CELS to create their own alphabet of moves. They did their film shoot at school yesterday morning. Here is my own quick grab of their work.

Making pitch visible

In the previous post I’ve described some of different ways I’ve tried to make the pitch concept visual and physical for students at the English Language School. Here is some footage from one of these projects:

The music was from a Somali pop song that one of the students brought in on his mobile phone. We learned a number of different riffs and put them together into a performance piece. Watching it now, it seems an incredibly complex piece for 9-11 year old English Language Learners. The body percussion and hand-gesture work was designed to support their understanding of the pitch relationships between the notes, but it also supported their memorisation of the music. They really engaged with the idea of finding ways of practising their parts away from the instruments.

More thoughts on teaching the ‘pitch’ concept

I find that for many of my students, pitch is the most intangible, hard-to-grasp concept of all the musical elements. I’ve experimented a lot with different ways to help children make sense of it and to get greater satisfaction from working with pitched instruments. Rhythmically the students are usually very strong, but I think that multiple pitches (indeed, multiple sounds) are often very chaotic for them.

Last week, leading workshops for the City Beats program, I worked with students from four different schools. I found it interesting that students from 3 of the 4 schools used the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ to talk about the difference between different string instruments (eg. violin is smaller than double bass and therefore makes a higher sound). The much more culturally-diverse group of the 4th school were more hesitant and unsure about the language to describe those same differences, instead using ‘loud’ or ‘big’ and ‘soft’ or ‘small’. Work I’ve done previously with musical contour has not transferred across to understanding how to find the higher and lower notes on tuned percussion. It’s as if the concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ don’t translate into musical concepts in some cultures and languages. That’s my suspicion; it is based on my own observations. Continue reading