Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Survival skills in music class

There are a number of common traits that I’ve observed among new-arrival and ESL students over the past years that I’ve been working in this field, particularly among those of refugee backgrounds, or whose parents are from refugee/war-torn backgrounds.

One is to do with gripping and grabbing – they often take such a firm and intense physical hold of instruments or mallets or bows that it is almost impossible to help them adjust their hold in order to successfully make a sound on the instrument.

Another is to do with listening – the children are often ready and accurate mimics, and they are quick to join in with a rhythm, song or melody once they have heard it. However, if I add another instrument or contrasting/complementary voice to the mix however, they get confused and falter on the initial line. A common response is to start playing louder and faster – effectively blocking the new sound(s) from earshot but making ensemble playing very difficult.

Then there is the ‘high-speed chase’ – the tendency to play things as fast as possible. The speed means that the child has less control over their hands, and a small number of sounds in relatively quick succession – two fast claps in a longer rhythm, for example – will become 4 or 5 very fast claps. A rhythmic pattern involving left and right hands ‘patsching’ the thighs in turn becomes a waggle of left then right hands, in quick succession, too fast to keep track of or monitor in order to stop in time.

(This determination to be speedy is not just in music – it tends to apply to all ‘transitions’ throughout the day – choosing equipment, putting things away, making lines, changing spaces, etc).

I know that many of these traits and tendencies are common across many cohorts, and are certainly not outside any mainstream music teachers’ experiences. However, in mainstream settings, the tendencies get balanced out across a class, and while there might a few ‘grippers’ in the class, they won’t be in the majority. The traits I’m describing are common to nearly all the refugee-background children I’ve taught who arrived Australia with very little prior schooling, and generally no literacy skills in their mother tongue.

I think there are strong parallels between many of these characteristic traits in music and the survival skills a child quickly learns in a volatile, unsafe environment like a refugee camp or conflict zone:

  • You learn to hold things with all your strength.
  • You learn to take what you want as quickly as you can, especially if you are in competition with others around you.
  • You learn to respond extremely quickly to new things going on around you, turning your head to look at all movement, or to follow all sounds. However, multiple sounds or movements create a sense of chaos, so you start to lock onto just one at this point, taking refuge in as small and predictable an environment as possible.
  • You learn to do things quickly because you might not get much time before someone grabs the toy or equipment from you. You don’t give too much attention to taking care for the same reason. You operate with a sense of urgency all the time.

From the music teacher’s point of view, here in the safer environment of a classroom where there is time for everyone to have a turn, and opportunities are not determined by survival of the fittest, which of these tendencies is it safe (in terms of the child’s sense of emotional safety) to challenge? And for the child, what does it feel like to experience music with the different set of sensations to those that are familiar? Continue reading

Lady Gaga on speed dial

My students think I know Lady Gaga.

As in, personally. In fact, they think I have her on speed dial.

In yesterday’s choir practice at Pelican Primary School, we started learning Born This Way. I gave them a bit of an interpretation of the song, along the lines of, “It’s about being happy with yourself, not trying to change yourself in order to be like someone else, not wishing you were different.”

“But Gillian, that’s the total opposite of Lady Gaga!” said one of the boys. “She is always changing her hair colour, and… stuff.”

“Yeah!” the others chorused indignantly. “Why does she do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging (I really didn’t want to get sidetracked down this line of questioning when I know so little about Lady Gaga). “Shall I ask her when she comes to our school?” They gave sudden squeals of surprise – was Lady Gaga coming to our school? When? “In fact,” I continued, amazed at what I seemed to be getting away with, “Why don’t I just call her now and ask her?” To an accompaniment of even more excited screams I took my mobile phone from my bag, pretended to press some numbers, and put it up to my ear. I motioned for the group to be quiet. At this point they were all staring at me, eyes very wide. A couple were smirking knowingly or rolling their eyes.

“Hello, Gaga?” I said brightly into the phone. “It’s Gillian! How are you going?” [pause while I listen to her response]. “Yeah, well I’m here with the choir at Pelican Primary School and they’ve just started learning one of your songs, Born this way. They think you’re really great, by the way.”

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At this point the choir began screaming – really screaming, with excitement – and calling out messages. One boy was saying determinedly, “Not me! I don’t like you at all. Not me!” but all the others were screaming messages of love and devotion, grade 3 style.

I gestured to them to be quiet. “Anyway Lady -” I’d realised I didn’t know what to call her – “the kids here have got some questions for you. Have you got time to answer a couple of questions?” Again, I paused and then nodded at the children who started waving their hands in the air.

“Do you know Justin Bieber?” was the first question. I relayed it to Lady Gaga, and reported back,

“She says no. She doesn’t know him.”

They all looked shocked. Clearly they’d done a song together or something. I added,

“That is, she doesn’t know him well. Just a bit. He’s a bit young for her, she says.” Next question:

“Ummm, why do you take your clothes off and show your body to the world?” asked one of the boys primly. I nodded and relayed the question into my phone. Lady Gaga’s response?

“It’s because she gets so hot when she’s dancing. She gets hot really easily.” Right.

There were a couple more questions, but the excitement was starting to get out of hand, so I pretended she’d just told me she had to go. We all sang out a jolly good-bye to her and I told her I’d see her on the weekend.

Clearly, as their music teacher there is nothing I can’t do. Choir was dismissed a minute or two before the end-of-school bell rang, and even in that short time the word had spread. “Gillian, did you know that Lady Gaga is coming to our school?” a child from another class asked me as we walked down the stairs.