Archive for the ‘oral language’ 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

Preparing to Culture Jam again

This Friday I return to Elsternwick Primary School for the second stage in our Culture Jamming project, part of this year’s Artists in Schools program. Culture Jamming is all about using music to develop skills in another language and to explore different cultures – at Elsternwick the language of choice is Mandarin. During the four-week first stage last term, we prepared a performance of a Chinese folk song that I’d learned in 2010 in Hangzhou (see video footage below of this lesson in singing the Love Song of Kangding), learned to use Audacity‘s recording features, and made a field trip to the ‘Melbourne English Language School’ (where I teach on a different day) to do a music workshop with the students there and record interviews and conversations with the Chinese students.

It felt like a rather rushed beginning as we had a number of challenges to contend with, but the 15 grade 4 students who are working with me are bright, fun, curious and thoughtful, and we’ll have more time this term to stretch out into our project.

Our overarching question is, how can music help us and other students improve our Mandarin language skills? We are going to use our field recordings (from the language school interviews and another planned field trip to a restaurant in China Town) in compositions. The plan is for each child to make at least 2 individual projects and for us to collaborate on a third project that will use classroom instruments rather than computers.The children have access to NetBooks and iPads at school, though some also own iPod Touches, iPhones and other technology at home.

Project 1: Introductions

Our first task this term is to go through all the Chinese interviews from the language school and make short clips of phrases like, “what is your name?”, “my name is…”, “how old are you?”, “I am ten years old”, etc. We’ll then create tracks (using loop-based software) that repeat one of these phrases, with as many different speakers as we have recordings of, setting the phrases to a beat. That’s one project – each child can make one (or more) Introduction pieces. Continue reading

‘Culture Jam’ – Music and Mandarin

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be starting my artist residency at Elsternwick Primary School (EPS), a state primary school in the inner southern suburbs of Melbourne. EPS has very well-established music program and a strong performance tradition; they also take languages very seriously and have a full-time teacher of Mandarin (the school has almost no students of non-English speaking backgrounds).

The aim of the residency is to explore ways that voice and speech can be embedded and integrated into music compositions. I’ll be working with just 15 grade 4 students across terms 2, 3 and 4 to create an original music outcome that has Mandarin language in it (in all sorts of ways) and that could be used as a tool to help other students in the school improve their Mandarin.

Our creative music efforts will be focused around a number of field trips and visits to Mandarin-speaking people. The first visit is to my other students at the English Language School – after playing some music games and ice-breakers together, the EPS children and the Language School children will engage in conversations about culture and knowledge from their countries of origin. The EPS children will speak in Mandarin for the conversations with the Chinese children (they’ll speak in English with the children from other countries), and record their conversations on small voice recorders.

Rules for harmonious living: Found near the entrance to a communal living area, Shanghai, 2010.

In Term 3, they will visit China Town in Melbourne CBD, where they will record themselves buying things from the shops in Chinese, ordering food in a dumpling restaurant, and talking with the Chinese people they meet (elderly people, working people, and quite possibly some university students), and recording all of these conversations too. Lastly, they will meet with a Chinese musician who lives very near the school – he will play his traditional instruments for the children and answer their questions. All this will be recorded too.

Meanwhile, we’ll be exploring different ways of using voice and speech in music compositions – anything from songs, to speech melody, to electronic music, to iPad apps (this means I have to buy an iPad – yes!) to compositions with a mix of live and recorded sounds… Excerpts from the field recordings will find their way into the children’s creations (or at least, that’s our intention at the outset). I’m gathering examples of music to listen to and discuss, and we’ll also do a lot of group-composing workshops to get the composition ideas flowing.

The project is called Culture Jamming, and I’ll be sharing its progress (and its challenges) with you over the coming months. What do you think of the project idea? What music would you play to your students to get them inspired with a project like this? Have you explored using recorded speech in any student composition work or music technology? Please share your ideas and experiences!

Journeys to Australia

When I started my residency at the English Language School (back in 2005) my first projects were focused on journeys, and the stories and music that the students had brought with them from their countries of origin. Their teachers and I wanted to encourage them to speak about their experiences, and recognise what they had in common with each other.

I’ve just uploaded some of these projects to my Soundcloud account – please have a listen and add your comments!

Some projects focused on vocabulary for transport and modes of travel…


some demonstrated the range of countries the children come from,


and all of them involved every child speaking on their own about their experiences and being recorded (a great oral language outcome). At the end of each project the children were given a CD recording of their stories and music – I liked to think that they would find this CD in a few years time, listen to it, and recognise how far they’d come in their transition journey.


What’s in a name?

When a child first arrives in a new school, one of the first questions they will be asked is, “What is your name?” If the child is a recently-arrived immigrant or refugee from a non-English-speaking background, that question is one they will quickly learn to recognise and answer.

Names can help enormously in the settling-in process for a recently-arrived child. In Language School, I do a lot of games and warm-up activities using names. It’s a way for me to establish that in this environment, each person is important, each person is noticed, each person has something to contribute. Frequently, new students take their time to use their voice in the strange new environment they find themselves in at Language School. But names are words they know how to say, especially when motivated by the fun of taking part in a game (it’s also a way for new students to learn and practice saying the names of other students in the class). In this way, the name games become a way to build up new children’s oral language confidence. Continue reading

Is this the best name game ever?

The following warm-up game is one that I have been using since I first started training in musical leadership at the Guildhall, oh-so-many years ago. It is a simple name game, but its simplicity belies the depth of its messages I suspect! I call it Names in the Space.

Names in the Space establishes all sorts of skills and values:

  • taking turns,
  • the importance of contributing as an individual,
  • the importance of responding as a group and working in unison,
  • a call-and-response structure
  • the skill of maintaining a pulse and a rhythm,
  • the skill of timing your voice to land at a certain point in the rhythm.

But more importantly perhaps, it is a demonstration that every voice here is important. Everyone has a chance to speak. Everyone’s contributions will be affirmed by the group. It also establishes a group focus and settles the group.

'Names in the Space' being played at the recent Music Construction Site workshop.

Continue reading

How to be a kind, helpful friend

A project that is underway in the Lower Primary classroom at the ‘Melbourne’ English Language School is focused on social skills – being a kind person, and a good friend. We are using drama as well as music to develop their oral language, and using real-life scenarios from the children’s own experiences in the school playground.

We’ve started with imitating happy and sad faces. The first week I demonstrated these, and in the second week I asked them to list some different emotions and reactions (sad, happy, surprised, scared, etc) and we drew faces matching these emotions on the whiteboard.

We then role-played some different scenarios that could happen in the playground during recess. Most of these ended up with me falling on the floor clutching my leg and crying noisily, with anxious children fluttering around me, trying to help me get up.

“What can you say?” their teacher and I asked them. “What do you say to your friend who is hurt?”

It took the class awhile to come up with responses. “What happened?” they asked. “Why are you crying?”

Then we brainstormed possible answers:

“People are being mean to me.”

“I have a sore tummy.”

“The big boys kicked me/bumped me/threw a ball at my head.” (The “big boys” were the most oft-cited offenders in these role-plays; these children share the playground with students all the way up to Year 12, so they are very aware of the “big boys” and how dangerous their games can be for little people).

The class began to throw themselves into this game with a great deal of melodrama, and took it in turns to be the victim and the friendly helper.

Things progressed this week, as we turned their “helping” sentences and words into lyrics for a song.

What do you do when somebody starts to cry, outside in the playground?

What do you do to be a good friend, outside in the playground?

I wrote the melody and the opening questions in order to give the children a very clear framework and scenario into which to put their suggestions. We came up with one verse today, after brainstorming all the things a good friend might say:

Are you okay? Are you fine?

Tell me why you are crying.

How can I help you? Let’s go to the teacher.

We can go together.

They are a very funny bunch in this class – there was lots of laughing as we tried to get the song happening. At first, as I attempted to elicit some “friend’s” responses, the children couldn’t understand what I meant.

Gillian – “What can they say, this kind friendly person who wants to help?”

Student – “Sorry.”

Gillian – “But you haven’t done anything to hurt them. You are the friend! You are helping!”

Student, insisting: “I’m sorry.”

At which point his teacher looked wryly at me and said, “He thinks that ‘sorry’ is always the right thing to say when someone is crying!”

Another moment in which we all collapsed laughing was an ambulatory moment when I role-played falling over and hurting my leg (I’m getting quite good at this role now). The children decided to pick me up by the arms and legs – sharing my weight between them – and carry me off. I don’t know where they were planning to take me – we hadn’t got to that part of the scenario yet. Ryan stood by, mildly suggesting, “I think you might be hurting her more”. Meanwhile, I wondered how long my clothes would bear the weight of my body.

A great moment in oral language terms was when one of the children offered the line, “Let’s go to the teacher”. Everyone cheered, and his teacher high-fived him. Clearly, telling the teacher on duty when there is a problem is a concept they’ve been putting a bit of work into.

There is much that is empowering for the children in this work. After all, they can only speak to each other in English as few of them share a language. This project is not only acknowledging some of the things that can happen at school that upset or frighten them, but is giving them tools to respond, in particular the words and responses that one friend can offer another.

Words about friends

With the Middle Primary children at Language School this term, we are creating music about friendship. Today, after getting the feel-good vibes working with a rendition of Bob Marley’s One Love, and discussing the general characteristics of friends and friendships, I asked the students to draw a picture of themselves and their friend, or friends. It could show their friendships here in Australia, or depict a friendship from their country of origin.

When they finished their drawing I engaged each child in conversation, asking about their picture and about their friends. I wrote down all their words – their phrases and sentences will go on to form the core lyrics for our class composition.

Their descriptions were vivid, and often poignant:

This is me in Honduras, at the beach that I like the most. I am with my brother and sisters and lots of friends. One is my best friend. We share things, we give things to each other, we play together, we sleep in each other’s houses. We read books, we like almost the same things. I don’t have a friend like this in Australia. Not yet.

This is me and my friend in Ethiopia. She comes to my house to play. Then in school-time, she gives me a flower, and I give to her a flower – a flower from Ethiopia.

In Australia, all in the school are my friends, but my sister is my good friend. The school here gives us good friends, and I’m not speaking my language, they are not speaking their language. We all talk in English.

This is my friend – he is Australian but he knows Vietnamese language. He gives me a hug when I am sad and sitting under a tree. Sometimes I give him a flower. Now some leaves in the tree are falling down but the sun is shining.

In Australia and in Ethiopia, my sister is my best friend. We go to school together, we [are] eating together, playing together, going everywhere together. She is my two times friend – she is my sister and my friend!

In Syria we can only go to school. No places to play. In school we can just sit and talk. Or play in the street hide and seek. I miss my friends in Syria. I have best friend, Yusef. He taught me to read Arabic, and now I know how to read and write.

Friends who share things, help each other, and – quite frequently – give each other flowers as an expression of friendship. Four of the eleven children I spoke to mentioned giving a flower to their friend, including one boy. There is a sweet innocence about this that I find very touching indeed.

Big fish, small fish

I’ve discovered a new workshop warm-up game recently, a circle game called Big Fish, Small Fish. It’s very quick, and quite silly, but I’ve found that it lightens everyone’s moods and at the same time creates a good focus among the group.

To teach it, get everyone to copy these two moves – they can say “Big Fish!” and hold their two hands together very close (about 10cm apart), or “Small Fish!” and hold their hands wide apart (about 60cm). Each person says one of these two (with the correct gesture) one by one around the circle. If someone makes a mistake (eg. says “Big Fish!” and holds their hands wide apart), they need to perform some kind of forfeit. The last few groups have suggested doing push-ups or star jumps in the centre of the circle.

Big Fish, Small Fish appears simple enough, but it’s a little more complex than it seems. It usually takes the first person after me a couple of attempts to get it right.

But it also produces lots of smiles and relaxed faces. I played it with all three classes at the Language School today. With Lower Primary, where there are quite a few new students, I wondered if it was a bit too tricky – did these children even know what the words ‘big’ and ‘small’ meant? Was I confusing them for the next few weeks? I am not sure how exactly they made sense of the game; however, judging from the cheeky smiles of delight on their faces when they pronounced the words and held their hands in the opposite shape, I think they may well have understood the joke.

Songwriting with the English learners

Lospalos, Tuesday, day 96

For the last couple of weeks, Tony, Sarah and I have been making fairly regular visits to the local English language classes that are on everyday after school. I suggested to the teacher that we could come in one day as a group and do a songwriting project with everyone. That’s what we did today.

We were a group of 6 – Tony, Sarah and I, and the three ANAM students. About 30 students took part in the workshop. We started with a name song which goes around the circle with each person singing their name, and it being repeated in unison by the rest of the group.

Then, as a rhythmic warm-up, we created word-strings, and clapped these. First I asked each person in the circle to volunteer one English word that they liked. Then as a group we invented three strings of four or more words each. We said these out loud, exaggerating the rhythm of the syllables, and then clapping the rhythms in unison, and then in three separate groups. I conducted groups in and out of the texture to create some variations in the layers, and then cued a tight stop.

Now that we were warmed-up (we taught them the word ‘warm-up), we discussed ideas for a song. Each group discussed their preferences, then we shared these and looked for common threads between the three groups. There were several themes that emerged:

  • A sad song, expressing sad feelings
  • A happy song, thinking about things that make you happy
  • A love song

From here, we chose a narrative arc for the song, with verse one describing a broken-hearted, lost love situation. The chorus needed to emphasise a determination to move on in life. The second verse continued the story into one of new happiness, with the narrator finding a new love and all being well again.

I am sad, but I’m not broken

I am strong

I’m okay with you

Broken heart – no way

Broken heart – away

Tony and Lina worked with the chorus group and once their words were locked in, I sent them outside with the guitar to develop a way to sing their chorus with a good hook or catchy melody. They delivered with a very funky chorus. Meanwhile, the other two groups were developing the narrative focus of the verses.

I love someone but they love another

I cry all day and can’t sleep at night

I try to forget but when I close my eyes

I always see your face.

With the harmony for the chorus, it didn’t take long to find the melody for the verses. A bit of tempo adjustment was needed as initially the lyrics suggested quite a different feel.

I’m happy again because I’ve found another love

We met at the market, buying some bananas

My new love is smart, and has a good heart.

The love of my life!

Excellent lyrics for English language students who have only been learning English (in a remote part of East Timor) for three or six months, don’t you think? We set ourselves up to do a full performance of the song and record it. The performance was great! But in all the excitement we forgot to press ‘Record’ on the recording machine, so have no record of our great song, other than in our memories.

Still, we hope to revise it for this Saturday’s TOKA BOOT so we may be able to get a recording of it there.