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?

Today at the Language School, the Middle Primary children were working with glockenspiels – one each. We had composed (through vocal improvising) a melody for a short lyric, and were now learning to play it on the instruments. I sat beside Abdimajid as he worked his way through the melody.

I noticed that he was playing much faster than we’d been singing the melody. He was also playing some of the repeated notes many more times than he needed to. He could hear that it didn’t sound quite right. My suggestions were:

  • To play it slower, and to sing the words while he played so that he could keep track of where he was up to in the phrase;
  • To break it into smaller syllable groups and tackle it in sections;
  • To bring his mallet head closer to the glockenspiel bar so that he wasn’t hitting it so hard, and in such an uncontrolled way.

As he adjusted his mallet distance, his breathing changed. His shoulders dropped slightly. He took awhile to work out his grip (he kept wanting to hold the mallets lightly in his fingers – “like chopsticks!”, I suggested, and he laughed), but eventually settled on a “hammer” hold, with his fingers wrapped around the stick and the movement initiating in his wrist rather than the forearm. He began to master the melody. Later, he went over to another student and tried to teach him what he’d learned.

What did it feel like for Abdimajid to change his playing style in these ways? Was it a relief to let go of all that physical tension? Or did he feel exposed, floppy, less in control?

I try to introduce multiple sound sources to my classes in controlled and systematic ways in order to minimise ‘chaotic’ reactions (most typically this would mean getting hyperactive, giggly and distracted almost immediately) . We add new layers one at a time, over many weeks. We sing through each part, we write them on the board using notation (graphic, Western or text), and introduce rhythmically-similar parts before complementary patterns. I try to talk the children through what is going on, and let them know it is okay to feel confused when other instruments start playing. (I say I “try”, because this is a Language School and the levels of English aren’t usually up to the abstract language of music and sounds. I use a lot of metaphor, but this makes my sentences and explanations long – so harder to stick with). Today I said to one boy, who was learning to play his riff while accompanied by the drums,

“So Hassan, next week, your goal is to keep playing your riff when the drums start, and to not mind the drums!

This may or may not have made sense to him. But he agreed that he was able to play his part until the drums came in, and that the next challenge was being able to keep going. But I wonder now, as I write these words, will being able to keep his own part going when accompanied by the drums feel satisfying, joyful and connected? Or will it feel like a battle, requiring mental grit and brain-aching focus?

Some years ago, a young violinist used to come to the Language School workshops with me as a volunteer. The children loved working with Mel, especially because she often let them try her violin. However, the gripping and grabbing made it very difficult for them to get a sound out of the violin. (Sometimes, I used to panic that someone would crush it through the intense force of their grip. I’m so glad that never happened!) One day, quite by chance, we asked a child to stand on a blue line marked on the floor (left over from some earlier class). The moment he went and stood on the line, he relaxed. All that overt tension left his body. You can read the post here – this little story still gives me a small sense of wonder, as it suggests so much about the creative and safe solutions we can find for some of these traits of tension and survival.



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