Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

Three strategies for songwriting

Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song –  – that I have used in some recent projects. Continue reading

Composing and jamming with netbooks, iPads and Mandarin speakers

I am about halfway through the ‘Culture Jam’ language and music project at Elsternwick Primary School. We are making progress, slowly, with several new developments since my last post.We’ve made a field trip to China Town, where we visited the Chinese Museum and ate lunch in a restaurant, and we’ve had a performance by 2 Chinese musicians playing traditional instruments. We’ve also progressed our composition projects. Without a doubt we are ‘jamming’ (exploring, and making it up as we go along) with culture, with language and with music. Here is a rundown on where we are up to:

Project 1: Chinese vocabulary recordings

Project 1 was focused on using the Chinese language conversations recorded at the Language School field trip in Term 2. We planned to make short recorded pieces on the school netbooks using Audacity (free recording software), that highlighted short repeated phrases in Chinese (with English translation) set to groovy beats and music. Continue reading

Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.

Footage from ‘The Reef’ project with the Australian Chamber Orchestra

Back in May I wrote about The Reef education project that I led for the Australian Chamber Orchestra as part of the larger ‘Reef’ collaboration and tour.

The project was documented by Chris Duczynski from Malibu Media and the following film made as an inflight movie for Qantas. Watching this video brings back lots of memories of what a great 3-day project it was! I was working with 35 highly enthusiastic and engaged young people, fabulously supportive teachers, wonderful ACO musicians and the added extraordinary versatility and talents of composer Iain Grandage and didg player and guitarist Mark Atkins – it doesn’t get much better than that.



Children’s art on display

Last Thursday night was Pelican Primary School’s first ever Art Show. An artwork by every child in the school was framed and on display. It was a huge effort by the staff team to get all the framing done in time. The year 5 and 6 students were in charge of hospitality, and walked around with platters of finger food for everyone to try, some made by the students in the Kitchen Garden classes, some made and donated by local restaurants.

These events are important for many reasons – they display the talents and visual expression of the children and show the range of interests and ideas, and they bring the parent community into the school. It can be difficult to draw refugee and immigrant families to the school on a regular, ‘helping-out-in-the-classroom’, ‘running-the-sausage-sizzle-on-election-day’ kind of way, because for many of them, school is about their children and expectations of their children. Building stronger community links and parent involvement can be a big challenge. Events like the art show encourage the parents to participate, make them feel welcome, and hopefully make them feel proud of their children, and connected to the school community.

There are some true artistic souls in the school, children who have a way of expressing the complexities of their feelings and sense of identity. I loved the two artworks pictured below, both by girls in grade 4/5. The upper picture is incredibly detailed and my snapshot will not do it justice. Notice the items she is holding – pencils, a book, dolls. And notice her hair is in fact strands of tape measure. And the look in her eyes – I see a desire for challenges and extension and opportunities, and at the same time an anxiety about the future. The lower picture has a wonderful insouciant energy – I love the sense of defiance and sense of lightness and possibility she conjures up with her choice and positioning of images.

Parents had the first option to buy their children’s work ($5 each). The parents of the child who did the painting above weren’t present. A bidding war started up among the other adults present – it was a very popular work! In the end it was bought for $50 by the parent of one of the girl’s friends. But she took the young artist aside to tell her, “Do you want this picture? I bought it for you – you can take it home with you.” But the child decided she wanted it to go home with her friend’s mum.

I fell in love with a picture by one of the Prep children – a child I don’t teach. His parents weren’t present so I got to buy it at the end of the evening. It is leaning against the wall in my study, a pastel blend of rich orange and yellow, merging into a lower strip of blue (mixed with glimmers of yellow), with an angular pink shape in the middle of the yellow, and the child’s name – YUSUF – written down the right hand side of the page. “I asked them to do a picture of something lying on the sand at the beach,” the art teacher told me. “The pink thing is a shell.” I love it.