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.

The first problem arose at the start of Term 3 when I learned that all of the children who’d interviewed Chinese speakers at the Language School had recorded the interviews onto their personal iPhones or iPods and hadn’t been able to forward the recordings on to me, and hadn’t them to the school’s shared drive.

Therefore, I reworked this project so that the children choose a Chinese vocabulary topic they would like to create a learning tool for (eg. numbers, greetings, members of the family); write a short script and record it with the one native Mandarin speaker in the school; isolate the words and phrases they want to use as short samples (.wav files) and then organise them into a structure in Audacity using a click-track. That is the first Big Step. The second Big Step is to export their Audacity recording into ACID Xpress (another free software download), add cool beats and riffs from the built-in sound samples in Audacity and make their finished pieces. However, there have been technical problems with ACID Xpress that have thrown things a bit off-course.

The children are very engaged by this project, but it is extremely slow-going! They have lots of questions and there is only one of me to answer all of them. It looks like we will be able to use ACID Xpress in tomorrow’s workshop and I’m looking forward to seeing how that adds excitement about their pieces and what they can make. But I do worry about us getting these projects finished in time. Music Technology with large groups of grade 4 children is a new undertaking for me, and I’ve found that my predictions of how long things will take are not very accurate!

Project 2: Mad Pads

Mad Pad is a low-cost iPad app that lets you record up to 12 short sounds into a sampler interface, and then play the sampler by hitting the 12 squares. There are some very cool examples of Mad Pad compositions on Youtube.

However, due to a number of complicating and frustrating factors beyond anyone’s control, we haven’t been able to use the iPads. I’d hoped to take them on our field trip to China Town last week but they weren’t available. The idea was to record question-and-answer phrases with native speakers in 2 of the squares, then lots of percussive sounds of the street in the remaining 10 squares, and create sampler sets to play with.

I think that at this stage, with no more field trips planned, we might put the Mad Pad project to the side.

Project 3 – Composing and performing music together

Our first week back in Term 3 (about 4 weeks ago), I gathered all 15 students in the Music Room, and got them jamming together. They had to make up riffs and rhythms using the note D (or D minor for guitars), and layer these together, then switch to a ‘Head’ tune on cue.

They LOVED this! In fact, we all did. It was great just to play, and they were so pleased with how good they sounded. The plan is to build on these riffs and ‘head’ each week, develop our ensemble skills, and develop melodies in a minor pentatonic that could be played in unison by the whole group.

The main frustration I have with this project is that it can only happen in the Music Room (because we are using lots of big instruments like drum kit and keyboards), and the Music Room is only available on Friday afternoons, which often gets disrupted by other plans. The week after our first band rehearsal, we had a wonderful performance by some Chinese musicians scheduled for Friday afternoon. The following week we did our field trip to China Town. Tomorrow will be our first time back in the band since that first exhilarating time! But then next Friday is the last day of school, and the school day finishes at lunchtime. So, no band practice 😦

Our intended project outcome is a mix between exhibition and performance. We’ve talked about having a room full of laptops set up with headphones, where parents can come and listen in turn to the different recorded compositions. Then, at a specified time, we’d perform our composed band piece. We are on track… kind of.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] project that ended in November was the Culture Jam residency at Elsternwick Primary School. Last time I wrote about this project, I was filled with ideas, and things were bumping along nicely enough… a few headaches, but […]


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