Archive for the ‘literacy’ Category

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

Discovering the magic of books

Recently I put together what is probably my last Timor-Leste video – and my first iPad movie creation! It shows the book-making project that my friend Victoria Ryle (from Kidsown Publishing) led on the veranda of the Lospalos house in November 2010, with a group of local children.


Timor-Leste is a country with extremely low levels of literacy, particularly among the adult population (though there are now improved stats coming in for school-age children, which is very good news and testament to the hard work in building up the school education provision across the country in the last decade). There is not a strong book culture among the general population as far as I could tell – what books are available for sale are in Indonesian, and hardly any books are published in the national language of Tetun. The Alola Foundation has published/sells a small number of children’s books (3-4?, possibly a few more) in the national language of Tetun which I bought in Dili and took with me to Lospalos. Beautiful classic children’s books by wonderful authors like Mem Fox (you’ll see an image of one little girl pouring over a copy of Whoever You Are, as if she is trying climb into the pages). But the lack of books for children to look at means that children rarely get to see their national language in print, telling stories that are relevant to their own lives. A children’s book in their local language, Fataluku, is almost unheard of!

When Victoria and her husband Simon came to stay with me in Lospalos we decided to hold an impromptu book-making workshop. Children came along and were invited to draw pictures of things they liked, to paint and colour them, and to have their photograph taken. All of this visual material went back to Melbourne with Victoria, and less than 2 months later, two books had been created. You can see examples of the books on the Kidsown website here and here.

When the books arrived at the end of January, we held an impromptu Reading Club on my veranda. Children gathered together to read the new books, and the books I’d bought in Dili. Those who knew how to read, read to their younger peers. Children read aloud to patient, listening adults. The youngest children watched and listened, and many of them held books for the first time, learning to turn the pages when prompted.

The video shows photos of this book-making and book-discovery experience. The great news is that Kidsown Publishing has continued to work and run workshops in Timor-Leste, working in partnership with the Alola Foundation, Ministry of Education (Government of Timor-Leste), Many Hands International and World Vision. The books are part of a larger literacy and children’s literature initiative, and the flexibility of community publishing is giving the possibility of publishing books in local languages, supporting young children to develop literacy in their mother tongue first.

Dancing the Alphabet

I’ve been doing a lot of alphabet dancing lately, using a project model I first developed in 2001. The project revival has been instigated by a video project to film and record resource material for teachers and students to create their own Alphabet Dances. Then again, good projects never really get tired!

The Alphabet Dance is definitely one of my most enduring and popular projects. I first created an Alphabet Dance in 2001 as part of the Lingua Franca project at Western English Language School. I was inspired by the Leigh Warren Dancers (professional contemporary dance company from South Australia) and their show Quick Brown Fox, which was derived from an ‘alphabet’ of dance moves and sequences.  In my Alphabet Dance project, participants create 26 short dance moves (from any style of dance they like), one for each letter of the English alphabet, then use that alphabet of moves to spell words, sentences and phrases, and create dance sequences.

I wrote a detailed teaching resource on the Alphabet Dance for the Song Room in 2009, and ran a training session for artists at that time; and my blog posts (here is one) on the topic in 2007 were the recipients of my first-ever pingbacks!

This term, in order to have some children’s creations included in the video, I asked the Upper Primary students at CELS to create their own alphabet of moves. They did their film shoot at school yesterday morning. Here is my own quick grab of their work.

Writing songs of home

This term at the Language School, we are focusing on the theme of ‘homes’. We explore this in different ways with each of the three classes, but the starting point is the same – I ask each child to draw a picture of their home in their country of origin, and interview them about what it shows. I use the words from these interviews to create song lyrics.

Sometimes the process throws up interesting challenges. For example, in Middle Primary, the students had been learning lots of ‘house/home’ vocabulary and had little pictures of various kinds of dwellings stuck to their desks. When they started on their drawing task I realised that many of them were copying these archetypal images (square plus triangle plus small rectangle equals ‘house’) rather than drawing a picture of their own home. Did they worry that their real home might be considered ‘wrong’? Or were they just keen to copy a picture? Also, some students had been in temporary housing and countries (refugee camps, second countries) for so long they had only vague memories of their home in their country of origin. For some, recalling these temporary shelters was unpleasant as life had been hard – even awful – there.

Lower Primary painted their pictures – large, brightly coloured images that filled the corners of the page, and the detail led to two verses – one about kinds of houses (lots of apartments, reached by going in the lift/elevator, and pressing a button to go up, up, up…), and one about the people and things they left behind and now miss (grandparents, toys, even a baby brother and an older sister).

Upper Primary had access to some excellent books showing different kinds of houses around the world – mudbrick homes, bluestone farmhouses, igloos, simple dwellings from cow-dung or bamboo, glass and steel mansions, even emergency shelters made from UNHCR-branded materials. Their song – slow to emerge but now progressing well – considers all the different things you can build a house from, and the fact that shelter is a basic human right for everyone around the world.

Middle Primary’s song has emerged from the interview-to-lyrics process (I typed up their words and they read from these sheets to select the lyrics), and a ‘cycle of 8’ graphic score process to create melodic material. In today’s class we sang three of these melodies and improvised with words from the typewritten sheets to come up with a chorus and three verses. I think this song is my favourite, which is interesting because it came about through the most chance-driven processes, rather than me getting things rolling with a chord progression or catchy riff.

Some sample ‘cycle of 8 ‘ scores – first we practised counting the cycle, then they colored in the boxes they wanted to clap, then they assigned pitches, then we learned to play them and decided which ones would work well as song melodies.

I’m really, really sorry…

The other day at Pelican PS there was a fight between two of the boys. They ended up being taken out of the class by their teacher, and to be honest, in the midst of lots of small-group instrumental playing, all I really registered was that there was some kind of problem going on that then seemed to stop.

Later in the day, one of the two boys came back to the music room with another class. “Ali has something for you,” the teacher told me dryly. And young Ali, looking slightly self-conscious, handed me a folded-up note.

I love the bouncing train of thought in this letter! So many things bursting out of him that he wants to ask me and say to me! This is a student I’ve known for many years, actually – I taught him when he first arrived in Australia and was enrolled at the Language School. He’s quite naughty – but perhaps because he is spoiled and a bit immature for his age, rather than because he is disengaged or angry.

What do you say in response to such a rambling stream of consciousness? I folded the note, and smiled at Ali. “That’s a lot of questions!” I said. “I’ll have to answer these later on. Thank you for your note,” I added, and put it in my pocket.

Experiencing success

At the Language School this week with the Middle Primary class, we were developing an instrumental introduction for our latest composition. I’d devised a xylophone melody and taught it to everyone in the class. We had three instruments available, so three people were chosen to take on this role in the composition.

One of the people I chose was an Ethiopian girl who often struggles. I’d noted that she’d picked up the little melody surprisingly well, and wanted to give her the chance to develop some confidence in this, so selected her alongside two other more consistent students, who I knew would provide a helpful aural guide for her.

(When I say she ‘often struggles’, it is in a way that is common to lots of the refugee students who arrive in Australia with almost no prior schooling, or severely interrupted prior schooling experiences. Some things just seem harder for them to process. Concepts of literacy, for example, need to be learned from scratch. Recognition of letters comes slowly, with a lot of concentration and focus. This girl is working hard, and she has reached a point where she is now aware that she struggles with some things that her peers learn far more easily, and this can make her very self-conscious according to her class teacher. Performing notes on a xylophone in a particular order is an example of an area where she compares herself unfavourably to others in the class. Tuned percussion instruments with removable bars help enormously in these circumstances as you can re-position the bars to make it easier for students to find the notes they need, so that they have the experience of playing the music along with the rest of the ensemble. For more thoughts on getting ESL students to develop their own melodic material, see this earlier post).

In this group of three, she played all the notes in the right order, but in a much slower rhythm than was required. She could hear that she was playing out of time with them, but didn’t understand why, because she was focused so hard on finding and playing the right letters on the xylophone. I could see her getting anxious.

The melody consisted of 2 bars – bar 1 with 4 crotchets on descending tones, and bar 2 with 4 quavers spelling out an arpeggio, followed by a crotchet and a crotchet rest. It was the arpeggio that was causing the problem – the task of reading the letter names was slowing her right down. We needed a musical solution, one that would not heighten her self-consciousness or feel like some kind of failure.

“I think we need a harmony with this part,” I said, and explained, “’Harmony’ is when we play the same rhythm but with different notes, to make a nice sound.” Instead of having her play the 4-quaver arpeggio, I suggested she play the 4 quavers on a single note, and the following crotchet on a note one step down. It created an appropriate harmony, worked within her strengths, and ensured the introduction to our piece maintained its rhythmic stability (important for the other two players).

She looked so pleased, and so relieved! Later that morning we gave an impromptu performance of our composition to the students from the secondary school classes. Sana (the student) was very nervous, I saw, and I sat right by her during the performance. But her nervousness before the performance made her success so much the sweeter. It felt like a significant success for her, one where she performed alongside her peers on equal terms.

Finding the right blend

At the Language School, I aim to link the music composition work to whatever theme the teachers have selected to focus on for integrated studies that term. It means that I can reinforce new vocabulary that is being learned in other classes, and similarly, the teachers can support the children’s familiarity with music work as it develops by using phrases and sentences from the compositions in classroom work. For example, song lyrics might be used in cloze exercises or handwriting work.

This term the theme has been ‘food’ and I confess I have felt somewhat uninspired for new ways to develop musical material from this theme. I’ve used tried and trusted techniques. We’ve developed a song about the evils of additives and other dodgy ingredients in food (Upper Primary), and created instrumental pieces in 5/4 using the rhythms derived from the syllables of lists of fruit (Middle Primary), and written a song about good ‘everyday foods’ (Lower Primary).

This week however, I found the metaphor I’ve been looking for! I wanted to find a way to get the Lower Primary children to sing together, and sing with their best voices. They tend to rush through the rests in order to start the next phrase before everyone else, and try to sing louder than everyone else. I needed them to think about blending their voices.

I knew they’d been doing some cooking this term, and that scones were a recent project.

“How do you make scones?” I asked the class. Hands shot up, and they listed ingredients like flour, milk, butter…

“And when you have all these things in the bowl, what do you have to do? Is it all ready for cooking or do you do something else?” I asked.

“No! You have to mix it!” The children mimed mixing, holding an imaginary spoon in one hand and bowl in the other.

“Exactly!” I went on to explain to them that when we are cooking scones, we have to mix the ingredients until we can no longer see the flour, the milk, the butter…. We mix it until it is a smooth paste. “When we’re singing,” I said, “we can do this with our voices. We need to sing so that we can’t hear you by yourself – all the voices need to be mixed together.”

There is always a bit of a risk with visual metaphors creating confusion (by introducing a new topic – cooking – into a different context – music, eg. “Why is she talking about cooking in music?”) but on this occasion it worked very effectively. The Lower Primary children sang their song beautifully after this explanation, paying great attention to singing in unison, waiting for the phrase endings, and not shouting the lyrics.

I will have to remember this idea of ‘mixing’ and ‘blending’ in music for next time the Food topic is used in the primary classes. It’s a musical way of linking the theme with the composition work.

Book-making on the verandah

Thursday, day 56

Last Friday, my visiting friends Victoria and Simon offered to lead a book-making project for local children on the verandah of my Lospalos house. Victoria is a community publishing specialist and works with communities to create books that reflect the makers back to them, in photographs, artwork and words. Lots of her work is with young children and their parents.

We asked Mana Er if she could gather a group of about 10 children. Of course she could, and at 8.30 on Friday morning, a group of 13 trooped up our driveway. Our driver Linu turned up to see what we were up to, and asked if he could bring along his nephew and niece to participate as well. So we were a group of 15 children and five adults all together, with the children ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old.

Book-making involves getting the children to make artwork, often on a particular theme. After some discussion, we decided on animals – each child drew a different animal.

While they were engaged with this, one by one Victoria photographed them against a plain green screen. She took several photos of each child, one with their name held above their heads, one as an action shot, and one with them holding up a specified number of fingers. All of these photos provide additional book themes – for example, the ‘numbers’ photographs could be used to make a counting book.

The oral (aural) tradition

Another recurrent theme at ISME this year was about reconnecting with, and bringing back into the mainstream, the oral tradition of passing on musical knowledge. Bruno Nettl, one of our keynote speakers, pointed out that this is the established system of teaching and learning in the vast majority of musical cultures around the world. Yet in western art music, and its associated teaching traditions, the emphasis is more commonly on music literacy being one of decoding and encoding music notation, and that this comes before proficiency on the instrument.

For me, what is commonly called the oral tradition is just as aptly named the aural tradition because it focuses so heavily on the ears. I’ve learned some music skills this way – certainly all the skills I have as a percussionist have been learned through playing alongside others more skilled than myself. However, this has been coupled with the specialist music knowledge already embedded in my brain which allows me to link up concepts, map out ideas for myself in order to make sense of them, and memorise patterns by encoding them in my head using my music theory knowledge. This links back to Tony Lewis’ presentation at the CDIME [Cultural Diversity in Music Education] conference in Sydney, January 2010. Tony described three ways of learning, or three systems of knowledge – ontological, where you learn by doing, by being there and present and participating; epistemological, which is where you call upon your pre-existing knowledge and knowing in order to analyse, map, theorise and build concepts in the new discipline you are encounters; and dialogical, where these two approaches combine. (I’ve written more about Tony’s ideas in this earlier post).

Continue reading

Thoughts about Refugee Week compositions

Every year I create work with students for performance during Refugee Week (20-26 June in Australia, with June 20 being World Refugee Day). We’ve created songs, instrumental pieces, music inspired by individual students’ stories of flight and sanctuary, recorded pieces, and live performances. Some of the songwriting has been particularly memorable and can still bring a choked-up feeling to my throat when I think of the sincerity and emotion the children perform them with.

Some of the students I teach have been through unimaginably awful experiences. At the Language School they are learning alongside other newly-arrived students, who may be immigrants or in Australia on temporary visas, relocated here due to their parents’ work. Not everyone is a refugee, but everyone has come from somewhere else and shares the experience of being in a new country, and of leaving another home behind.

One of my first Refugee Week projects was Lingua Franca, in 2001. The range of prior experiences that the students had was summarised beautifully by one Chilean girl, who wrote:

Some people leave their homes and it’s as if it is just light rain. Some other people though, HAVE to leave! As if it is a big and terrible storm.

This poetic comparison, using the weather as a metaphor for human experiences, became a song, Some People:

Some people leave their home in light rain.

Some people leave in a storm

Some people choose when to come or to go.

And some people have no choice at all.

One year, the class teachers and I decided to focus on people’s homes in their countries of origin. First we asked all the students to draw pictures of their homes. This yielded some very vivid images – from skyscrapers and technological advancement (China) to planes dropping bombs on houses and people (Afghanistan). Then we interviewed them about their picture, pointing to different details and asking what they represented. We wrote down every word the students said, and used these words and sentences to create songs.

One five-year-old boy from Sudan drew a picture of a lion and described the way a lion tried to come inside their hut one day! His classmate, a young girl from Denmark, drew a picture of a house with a large love-heart taking up most of the ground floor, and flowers in pots on the window sill. These images, and others from the class, became the following song:

There’s a heart inside my house, with a ribbon that I lost.

There are flowers in the window at the top.

There’s a swing on a branch on a tree,

And good friends live next door.

Lions want to come inside, but the heart will protect me.

This is a song that still brings a lump to my throat – the last line in particular, with “the heart” a metaphor for the protection that adults and family provide for children.

Maps of the heart

In this year’s project, I started by brainstorming “the most important things” with students. I asked them to draw a “map of their heart”, showing all the things they cared about, and giving greater portions of the heart to the most important things, and correspondingly less space to less important things.  I introduced the idea that hearts sometimes get broken, or cracked. If you have lost something important you might have a hole or a gap in your heart, a piece that you have left somewhere else, or with somewhere else. The students (all upper primary students) found this a compelling thing to think about representing.

I found that their responses could be divided into categories about friends, family, small cracks and holes, and the future. Many of them included future plans, hopes and dreams in their hearts. In response to what these “heart maps” revealed, we’ve developed three pieces of music – one about cracks in the heart (the pain of leaving a country, and saying good-bye to people you care about), the importance of your family and friends when you change countries, and the future – all the things they hope to be and become.

Risk and fragility

But this focus on what for many may be quite raw and traumatic experiences is risky. I don’t know what it will reveal, and I need to move the projects forward very gently, and very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if I am too careful, and if my efforts to avoid too much examination of danger and terrifying experiences is ignoring a reality for some students. For example, our song about friends and family is in the relatively peaceful key of G-mixolydian (G major with a flattened 7th), and declares:

I miss my country, it’s far away from here.

But I’m lucky, because my family’s with me,

And I have good friends.

Friends and family

Taking care of me.

We wrote it in one lesson, using the words that had come up in their brainstorm in response to their heart-maps. As we sang it through at the end of the class, one of the Somali students said to his class teacher (who was sitting beside him),

“But I don’t miss my country. It was a bad place, very danger, very sad…” and he mimed shooting a machine gun across the heads of the other children in the class.

“That’s true,” said his teacher immediately. “The things that happened there were very bad, and you don’t miss them. Maybe though, you can think about the place, and the things that happened there, as different. The place itself was not bad, but many bad things happened and you couldn’t stay.”

At this point I asked them what they were talking about, and we discussed this issue with the whole class. Not many students contributed – perhaps because they didn’t have the language, perhaps because we were at the end of the lesson. I wanted to find a way to include that student’s comments and concerns in our song. We wondered if he could perhaps speak at the end of the song (prior to the next piece in the cycle – this project had become a 3-part song cycle). But he didn’t really respond to the suggestion. He was happy to play the instruments in the song, and perhaps didn’t want further scrutiny over his prior experiences. Or perhaps he did. It’s difficult for me to know for sure, and I only see the students once a week.

Ultimately, I believe these creative process are important for the students on several levels. The ownership they feel when they help to create music that they later perform to others is incredibly important to them, and they feel very proud of their efforts. Every step in the composition process takes place in class, so they know exactly how each piece came into being. It is also significant that through writing songs, they get to tell their stories to a larger audience. The challenge for me is making sure the stories we tell are indeed their stories, including the uncomfortable ones… or not.