Culture jamming to the end

One 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 no major derailments. However, not long after writing that post, things had changed quite dramatically.

At the Chinese MuseumIt was a reminder of the importance of not feeling locked into your original plans – sometimes, the original plans are just not going to happen, and you need to let them go and follow the natural strengths of the project. In Culture Jam, we had planned to compose music around Chinese language. We were going to explore music technology and create recordings of compositions with Chinese language phrases embedded in them. We had an overall goal of the Grade 4 children and I developing audio resources that the school’s Mandarin teacher could use with students throughout the school.

By mid-September, however, I needed to accept that we simply did not have the resources (human or technological) to continue along this path. Firstly, and most significantly, the school’s Mandarin teacher had been off sick for most of Term 2 and Term 3 – apart from the excursion to the Language School at the end of Term 2, we hadn’t worked together at all. Without their Mandarin teacher alongside them, the 15 Grade 4s were adamant they didn’t really know any Chinese.We listened to some examples of language-learning audio resources that used music to create ‘ear-worms’ for phrases and grammar, but it was fascinating to see how the children’s ideas for themes and topics often involved quite complex language, words that would be unlikely to turn up in a primary curriculum for foreign language learning. Without their teacher, things got complicated very quickly.

Meanwhile, the technology was proving slow and awkward to use. The Netbooks were slow, with hysterical track pads that bounced the cursor across the screen in random and unpredictable ways and made scrolling a task of enormous concentration and effort. Imagine this while trying to edit audio! We had a very small office space to work in, which meant I could only work with a couple of kids at a time. I prepared an instruction sheet for them to follow, but they preferred to have me explain everything (fair enough – I would too). If we’d been able to access a technology lab or ICT space with a big screen where I could give the children the instructions as a group, one step at a time, that would perhaps have been more productive, and more children could have taken part at a time – but there wasn’t such a space available. It all made for very slow going, and very little momentum.

Using 'Audacity' on the Netbooks

Towards the end of Term 3, I suggested to the music teacher that we should drop the Chinese language component of the project. I’d been working with the students in the last lesson block of each Friday in the music room and we’d created a rock band, with original compositions and utilising school instruments like the drum kit, keyboards, and electric guitar. The children looked forward to these sessions more than anything else. “Are we having band practice today?” they would ask me each time they saw me. I decided to shift our focus to music-making and composing using all the instruments we had available to us that could travel from the music room to other parts of the school. We ended up creating 4 original pieces of music. The Rock Band music was the first of these creations and our signature number:


Glock Music

Rehearsing the glockenspiel musicWe found a supply of glockenspiels in the music room cupboard. Each child made up a short (2-bar or 4-bar) phrase in D minor. I arranged these into a piece and created scores in Noteflight, adding their names to the score above the bars that they had composed. We set up a big screen so that we all could watch the Noteflight score as it played, and learned first to play along with the computer sounds, and then to play along on our own. We created two Glock Music pieces in this way- have a listen on the following links:

Noteflight score 1:

Noteflight score 2:

Here is how it sounded in performance:

The Girl with Six Spare Hands

The Girl with Six Spare Hands was a rap created by the children and me. The notion of someone having six spare hands came from one of the children, helping me carry a pile of instruments back to the music room at the end of a session. “Sure, I can help,” she said, when I asked her to give me a hand. “I’ve got a spare hand – in fact, I’ve got six spare hands!” No idea where that came from as an expression, but I loved the image that it gave me and suggested to the group that they write a series of rhyming couplets on this theme. We then ordered the couplets so that we had a vague narrative shape, I added a couple more lines to fill in some narrative gaps, and we had a rap!

This song also featured some cool syncopated rhythms which evolved in the workshops in a similarly serendipitous way. One day, during a warm-up task of call-and-response rhythms, we got sidetracked into discussing how the different rhythms we were clapping could be notated. “How would you notate this rhythm?” one boy, Lenny, asked, and proceeded to clap a more complicated rhythm than any of those we’d done so far. I went to the board and wrote:

1 ee & ah 2 ee & ah 3 ee & ah 4 ee & ah

I explained that they could sub-divide each beat in the bar into 4, and that the “one-ee-and-ah” way of counting could help them keep track of the subdivision. They chanted this sub-division together, liking it a lot. I then underlined some of the numbers/words, to show how Lenny’s rhythm fitted across the bar:

1 ee & ah 2 ee & ah 3 ee & ah 4 ee & ah

They chanted this rhythm too. The bell rang at that moment and they ran out to play, yelling the sub-divisions of the rhythm at the top of their voices. I saw their teacher at recess. “Don’t know what you’ve just been doing with them but they are SO excited!” she told me. Syncopated rhythms will do that to you, I think.

Later, the combination of Lenny’s rhythm, another cool rhythm volunteered by our drum kit player, and the full “one-ee-and-ah” subdivision became the djembe accompaniment to our rap.

There once was a girl with 6 spare hands, she was always lending a helping hand

She had her own one-man-band and quadruple the amount of wrist bands.

Performance Day

We rehearsed each piece, adding greater detail each week. The group of 15 children really impressed me with how much they learned about working together as an ensemble, and with the way they could articulate this. “I’ve learned how you have to listen all the time,” said one, “and how important it is to leave space in your music for other people.”

On the last day of the residency, the fifteen Grade 4s gave three performances. We opened the sliding glass doors of the music room and set out chairs and mats on the grass outside the room for our audiences. It turned the music room into a kind of small stadium, we thought, or amphitheatre. The children prepared spoken introductions for each of the pieces, explaining how we had composed them. It was even interactive – two boys taught the body percussion patterns we had used to learn our syncopated djembe rhythms to the kids in the audience and invited them to join in when we performed The Girl with Six Spare Hands.

Culture Jam audience feedbackSo, despite such a dramatic change of project focus, Culture Jamming finished up a resounding success in terms of student creation, student ownership, and student learning. Every child in that group learned a huge amount about how to play music with other people, how to invent and improvise, and how to polish something for performance. They learned to focus, and learned (for some, through misjudging and getting sent back to the classroom temporarily :-() about how to keep having fun but still get the work done. For me, it was just such a delight to work with these fifteen bright, articulate, quick-witted, funny ten-year-olds. Their excitement and enthusiasm for playing music was so palpable, and their peers were clearly impressed with their music. The audience shared their feedback via a whiteboard – they wrote up messages for the performers at the end of each concert,shown in the above image.

Culture Jam ensembleI still think the language-focused composition idea has legs as a creative project for primary school students, but next time, I’d have a much better idea of what you need to work on a technology project with children of this age. Congratulations to all the Culture Jam students and big thanks to the teachers – Naomi, Michele and Beck – for all their support, enthusiasm and organisational brilliance!


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