Archive for the ‘Refugees’ Category

Risking creativity

This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.

One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.

Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.

Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.

Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.

Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?

Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.

Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.

In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.

This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.

*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.

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Teaching music for well-being

I’ve given five presentations over the last couple of months and many of these have discussed my ideas about teaching music for well-being, rather than simply for excellence. A striving for excellence is in fact part of well-being, so rather than being alternative approaches, a focus on well-being is simply a broader, more inclusive understanding of education.

The first presentation I gave, right before I left Melbourne for five weeks in Singapore, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brisbane, was as guest speaker for the Scotch College Music Auxiliary Annual Luncheon. Scotch College is one of Melbourne’s most privileged private boys school, with a superb track record of training young musicians, and with some of the best resources and infrastructure (eg. a state-of-the-art, purpose-built music school) for music in the country. I was asked to speak about my music work with refugee children and in post-conflict countries – environments that are typically very poorly resourced in comparison to the Scotch College facilities!

These are the notes from that talk, with some of the videos I played to illustrate my ideas. I note here the huge influence that music therapy researcher Even Rudd’s ideas on qualities of well-being supported by music participation have had on my thinking. They have allowed me to condense what for me have been quite broad, detailed, and endless ideas of music’s beneficial impact under four neat headings.

Scotch College presentation notes

We are all here because we believe music is important. The reasons why we think music is important might be very varied across this group –because beliefs about what music is and why it matters are usually culturally-constructed, informed by the environments we have grown up in and our life experiences thus far.

I believe music is important because of what it can to contribute to human well-being. I see music as an important part of human flourishing, and that everyone has the right to engage in musical participation and development, and to express themselves freely in music. Music is an essential and universal part of being human. It’s not just for the talented!

My work as a music leader, educator, and facilitator is about drawing people together to make music, and I do this is all sorts of contexts using improvisation, composition and other creative approaches – with symphony orchestras, with arts centres and community centres and music academies that want to engage with communities in creative and participatory ways and build flexible musicianship among their professional musicians.

What I want to talk about today is the experiences I have had in working to bring people together through music who have been through some of the most extreme human experiences. I’m talking about children and young people who have been through experiences of war and conflict, and how music participation can support them to increase their sense of wellbeing in body and in mind.

I believe that music participation contributes to wellbeing in four key ways, and each of these four ways are in great deficit in conflict-affected communities:

Bonding and belonging – music brings people together in order to play, and the act of sharing music together can create experiences of social connection that can be very enduring. Music participation can therefore increase experiences of social connectedness, and create social networks.

Vitality and pleasure – music makes people feel happy and relaxed, in their bodies and their emotions. Playing music allows people to ‘lose themselves’ in a state of flow, where time passes without them really noticing. People forget their worries. Dopamine fires up, oxytocin is released, and the body is flooded with feel-good hormones.

Agency – this is to do with a sense of oneself as valuable, as having the capacity to contribute and develop, having a voice and being able influence others even in small ways. The idea of mastery and excellence is contained within this quality of agency – the sense of achievement and therefore pride that can come through developing new skills and learning to do something difficult that takes time, patience and focus. It also includes a sense of recognition and visibility – important when many of life’s choices have been taken away from you.

Meaning and hope – this quality refers to the sense of identity, empowerment and transcendence that can come through participating in music. The meaning of the music experience has resonance and relevance beyond the musical act itself. Committing oneself to learning new skills, and the investment of time and focus that learning an instrument or being in an ensemble requires is a hopeful act. The act of hoping is a health-promoting process in itself. In “Musicking” (1998) Christopher Small talks about the act of making music as a kind of ritual in which we enact a version of the world as we want it to be.

There are three main places I’m going to talking about – post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I worked in 1998 as a musician in a large community music therapy and education centre; in Melbourne with newly-arrived refugee children; and in rural Timor-Leste.

When I worked in schools and kindergartens in post-war Bosnia, children were extremely traumatised. They had experienced many deprivations and traumatic events, had trouble sleeping, maintaining concentration, with temper, and anxiety.

Music in such a fragile situation is a very secure, friendly, self-regulating activity. People participate if they choose and at the level that is comfortable for them. We learned to recognise all kinds of levels of participation – from heads down, eyes shut, to extremely hyperactive participation. Shared group music-making could bring those extremes together into safer, healthier expressions, through emotional entrainment, and energetic or rhythmic entrainment. Music helped children to feel a little safer, more relaxed, and less on alert.

(This video shows Professor Nigel Osborne and some of his team of musicians at work in Mostar in 1996)

When I returned to Australia, I began working as an artist-in-residence with English Language Schools in Melbourne, which have quite high intakes of refugees and humanitarian entrants. These are schools for new arrivals, and support them to learn English and prepare for classroom learning in mainstream schools.

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

Many of the children arriving in Australia from refugee backgrounds had had little or no access to schooling. They had finely honed survival skills but had very little experience in manage themselves in a classroom or group learning situation. Their experiences had taught them to be very self-focused, to be alert to opportunities, and to push others out of the way if necessary, in order to not miss out. Skills like taking turns, or making lines, or not fighting to solve problems, need to be learned, as do looking at the teacher, focusing attention for longer periods of time, and listening.

Music can help with all of these skills, as well as with establishing and reinforcing language and important vocabulary. The opportunity to play music created lots of excitement and happiness. No matter how little English a child knew, they could participate meaningfully in music, because it is not language-dependent. They can participate by looking and listening, and copying what they see others do. Children who struggled in academic subjects like developing literacy would often shine in music, often because they had been exposed to lots of music in their communities.

Playing music was the motivation for learning to work as a team. In music the children discovered the intense joy and satisfaction of making sounds in a simultaneous way. I would construct the composition work slowly over many weeks, using strategies that got children creating all their musical ideas and then weaving these into a larger structure. Hearing the music take shape in this structure was the motivation to take turns, or listen carefully. And without effort, they would find themselves concentrating for long periods of time.
Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 227
Most importantly, music made the children feel happy and relaxed. Class teachers often reported seeing a new student smile for the first time in the school when they were in a music session. Creative music workshops were also social experiences – I use lots of games and playful tasks to get the children to experiment and take creative risks, so there would be lots of laughing and interaction.

In 2010 and 2011 I had the opportunity to return to a post-conflict country to work as a musician – I was invited to spend four months as a visiting artist in a rural town in Timor-Leste. I developed a program of community music projects that evolved very organically, on the veranda of the house I was renting.

We made instruments out of local materials and according to traditional design, and over the weeks we learned how to play together and connect with each other through music.

This video shows one of the short projects that I led there, in the last week of my residency. These clips come from a series of consecutive days, and lead to a live performance on local radio. You can see the sense of agency, mastery, vitality, bonding, and personal meaning that is taking place here.

This year I’ve embarked on the next stage of my journey in exploring the relationships between children and music in conflict-affected society. I’ve started PhD research into post-conflict music interventions – schools like the one I worked with in Bosnia that were set up as part of post-conflict recovery. Next week I fly back to Bosnia to interview former participants of the music projects I worked on. They are young adults now. Next year I will similar research in Timor-Leste, and in Afghanistan, where an amazing institution of music has been inaugurated.

Finally, I urge everyone here to remember the importance of music to each of us – not just for a well-rounded education, or the mental discipline that may stand us in good stead for future challenges, but because it contributes so deeply to the wellbeing of all people, and can play a profound role in the journey back to wellness for people who’ve gone through major traumatic life experiences.

When the beat in the street makes you feel complete

City Beats 2013 workshops drew to a close last week. We finished off this year’s Landscapes theme by creating music inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the city – City Beats. (It was only after I’d planned the project that I realised this third workshop would have the same name as the whole program).

Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?

It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha

It’s the City Beat.

For this city-focused workshop, the whole-group composition consisted of a short rap linked to a vocal soundscape depicting all sorts of sounds of the city.  I asked the groups to think about words that rhyme – like ‘street’ and ‘beat’ and ‘feet’ – and that would fit well with our theme. The children brainstormed rhyming words, putting them into sentences, and these came together pretty quickly to form the rap. You can see some of their words in the images below.

We created the soundscape using a Grid Score, setting it up over a cycle of ten beats. Why ten? At first I thought I’d do twelve, but then thought that might be too long. So I thought about doing an eight-beat cycle – but eight seemed too square, too solid and grounded. Ten was the perfect cycle length – uneven enough to give the sounds a sense of never quite landing, and short enough to be achievable (and to fit across the width of the white board).

Grid Score, City Beats G. Howell 2013

I brought along a few bells and whistles to get the soundscape started – we had a bicycle bell, a honky horn, a train whistle, and a strange siren-like whoopee whistle (I don’t know what it is called, it is the kind of thing that might accompany a clown act. The children loved it). We chose numbers in the cycle for these sounds to land on and practiced that first.

Bells and Whistles, City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, working in small groups, the children decided on other sounds that they would hear in the city that they could depict with their voices or body percussion, and decided where they should appear in the cycle of ten beats, and how many numbers they should cover. Once all the decisions had been made and the relevant squares on the grid had been filled with appropriate symbols (you can see below why I am a musician and not a visual artist), we rehearsed it until it was memorised and ready to record.

Grid score and Gillian, City Beats 2013 G. Howell

The choices of city sounds varied somewhat between the groups, but it was the children from the English Language School who really created something unique. Their city soundscape was influenced by the cities they knew well – like Quetta, and Kabul, and Bangkok. They included the sounds of goats and sheep bleating, of the loudspeakers on the minarets of city mosques calling the faithful to prayers, and a traditional song/chant that street sellers from Afghanistan sing. All the children from Afghanistan knew this chant (perhaps it embeds itself into the vernacular the way “Mind the Gap” does in London). The child who sang the ‘call to prayer’ sang it into a loudhailer, in imitation of the thin, slightly tinny sound that the minaret speakers can have. Yes indeed, the city soundscape from the Language School children was an evocative and energetic affair!

With the whole-group chorus finished, we divided into groups of 6, each accompanied by a musician from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to create additional sections of music. One group took xylophones and created melodic material based on the rhythms in our rap chorus. Another group extended the chorus with further verses and some drumming.

Drums City Beats ArtPlay 2013

The third group worked with a fabulous array of orchestral percussion and ‘found sounds’ – bass drum, pitched tom-toms, a tam-tam, a suspended cymbal and two suspended brake drums) – to create a rhythmic city groove, working with interlocking patterns, dynamics, and cues.

Brake Drums City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, in the last ten minutes of the workshop, we gathered together again, performed our music to each other, recorded the performances, and said good-bye.

City Beats days are probably some of my favourite days in the year! There is so much to love. The children come along to ArtPlay thinking they will get to learn a bit of music, and they leave at the end of each 2-hour workshop just buzzing with excitement and energy at all the music that they have created with us. Their teachers are constantly amazed at how much they achieve, and how quickly. And the MSO musicians, ArtPlay staff and I get to spend two glorious days a term hanging out with fabulously creative children, composing and playing original music. Everyone leaves at the end of each day with all sorts of infectious earworms buzzing in our heads.

The schools that take part in City Beats each year are ‘disadvantaged’ schools – schools without music specialist teachers, or that have student cohorts from less advantaged circumstances. They may have high numbers of families in receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or who are from refugee backgrounds, or who, because of financial circumstances, never get to take part in any ‘extras’. The program is fully-funded, including travel subsidies, thanks to the generousity of wonderfully supportive and visionary funders, who know that for young people to recognise their talents, they have to have the chance to explore and discover them first.

City Beats was part of the ArtPlay/University of Melbourne’s Mapping Engagement 4-year research project at ArtPlay. You can read/download a report of the City Beats program here.

Donkeys can’t fly on planes

I went to a book launch on Tuesday night for a beautiful book – Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes: Stories of survival from South Sudanese refugee children living in Australia.

Traralgon_DonkeysCantFly2

This is such a memorable book, filled with powerful, very moving stories written by children about their experiences. Some of the stories describe life before they come to Australia, living in villages with their families, or in large refugee camps like Kakuma, in Kenya. The stories offer us a child’s view of the world there, with snakes that follow you, scorpions that bite, and giraffes that push you over on to the hard ground (“because there is not much grass in Africa”), as well as the story of Steven, the kind and helpful donkey that was a much-loved and valued member of Sunday Garang’s family until they moved to Australia.

I loved the story of Nyawech Ruach. She describes herself as having been “an angry girl” who used to fight with other people a lot. She would hit and slap people until they cried, boys and girls alike. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with. One day her brother came to her with a knife in his hand. He wanted to remove her lower teeth (a custom for people from her tribe). But she kicked and screamed until he gave up. Then, when she came to Australia, she went to see the dentist, and the dentist was very happy that she had been such a tough, fierce-some little girl, because it meant she still had all her teeth!

(A funny postscript to this story is that on the night of the launch, her teacher revealed that Nyawech is actually an incredibly quiet, shy girl, and everyone was completely amazed when they read her story, struggling to believe it could be the same girl).

There are heartbreaking descriptions of hunger and starvation (“I could not cry because I did not have the energy to make the crying sound or to squeeze tears from my eyes”), and of feeling sad and empty when there was no food. But one child also writes about a day when there was a big feast, and the girls got to eat before the boys (“I remember that day well because there was plenty of food for everyone”).

Traralgon_DonkeysCantFly14Other children write about the journey to Australia, including travelling first by horse, before finally getting to the aeroplane. One boy describes how he didn’t want to go to Australia, so he climbed a big tree and refused to come down. He didn’t want to leave his home, his friends and family, the place where he was born where he knows the language and the ways. Someone had to climb the tree in order to get him down.

Some of the children write about danger. They write about terrible things they witnessed or experienced in very matter-of-fact ways. Sometimes, the danger in the story comes completely out of the blue – much as it would have done in the child’s life. One day, life was normal… and then all of a sudden it was very, very dangerous and people had to flee as fast as possible.

This is a book of stories that need to be told, as the publisher, Victoria Ryle from Kids Own Publishing, said in her welcoming speech. In a political climate that hides the human desperation, loss, trauma, grief and hope of the refugee experience behind numbers, fear-mongering, “business models”, and slogans, the stories offer an alternative image. They also demonstrate just how much refugees can contribute to the communities that welcome them, and how filled with potential they are. A perfect example is given at the end of the book, when we learn that proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards building a school in the village of Bor. The Bor Orphanage and Community Education Project has been started by two amazing young men. They are former Lost Boys of Sudan and child soldiers who were fortunate enough to be resettled in Australia. Now they want to give back to their community, and have initiated the BOCEP organisation and school/orphanage project in response to the huge number of orphans in their home village of Bor who have no adults to look after them and who are fending for themselves, older children trying to teach the younger children.

This is a book for everyone, of all ages. If you are a teacher, please consider buying Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes for your students to read. There are many possible activities that could be drawn from this book of stories. I haven’t mentioned the artwork yet – but the collages that illustrate the stories are also very captivating and will inspire other children to create artworks using similar techniques. You can order your copies directly from BOCEP, http://bocep.org.au/.

Lastly, I bought an extra copy of Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes to give to one of my blog readers. If you would like me to send it to you, please post a comment below this blog post, telling me how you will share the stories with others. I will then contact you directly to get your mailing address, and it will be yours!

And lastly, reading this book brought back many memories of my own work with newly-arrived refugee children in Language Schools in Melbourne. I could hear the children’s voices very clearly as I read the book, and could imagine the gentle line of questioning from the teacher that would have helped these stories come out. I created many songs and music pieces with children about their journeys to Australia. Here is just one:

Drawing a bit of space into music workshops

Music workshops can be very leader-focused, even when the creative content is child-generated, and the process is child-centred. There is a practical reason for this – music-making is noisy, and to facilitate group music-making you need the group to be working together for much of the time. It would be lovely to be able to give everyone time to do their own free explorations – as can happen in a visual arts workshop or lesson – but realistically, this requires lots of separate work spaces, or distance between each of the individuals. Otherwise, everyone would soon find themselves exhausted by the effort of blocking out other people’s sounds in order to focus on their own. And that kind of exhaustion makes people cranky. Or wired. Or both.

Quiet time to explore (One Arm Point, G. Howell)

We all know that taking a bit of quiet, self-focused time is a beautiful way to retreat from the demands of the world and recharge energy. When I worked as a music workshop artist at the English Language School I saw how the children were often at their most contented and peaceful during drawing and construction activities. Being able to focus on their own creative efforts meant they could retreat into their own thoughts – in their own language! Keeping up with a whole day of lessons in English could be very exhausting for the students, especially the most recently-arrived children, and the refugee children who had had limited prior schooling. Teachers also reported that art activities were the times that some students  would quietly disclose troubling thoughts or worries. Children felt safe and acknowledged during the art activities, and responded to the opportunity to process their thoughts while giving their outward attention to the tactile, personal experience of creating marks and visual gestures.

Therefore, I often used drawing tasks as a way of starting creative projects at the Language School. Children would draw as a way of exploring a particular topic and sharing their knowledge and experiences in a non-verbal way. Drawing seemed like a meditation for many of the children.

In my recent composition workshops at the remote community schools on Dampier Peninsula we began by inviting the children to draw ‘maps of the heart’. These maps showed the things in the children’s lives that were most important to them. They also established some other principles – the importance of each person’s contributions, the importance of having time to develop your thoughts, and the importance sharing only what you want to share. We did this drawing activity towards the end of the first workshop day, having spent the morning drumming, singing, and working with rhythms and counting. It served two functions – providing possible content for the development of musical content, and giving the individuals a bit of ‘time out’ from the noise and intense group focus of music-making.

At One Arm Point Community School, we also turned to drawing at the end of the second-last workshop day. We’d been working hard and everyone was ready for a break. And we wanted to spread the word about our concert the next day among people in the town who might not hear about it through the school. So we gathered up some paper and textas and made some posters.

People sat with their friends. Two of the older girls sang quietly away to themselves while they drew. Other children gathered around Tony and me, checking spelling and getting our input on things to include on their posters (some included sponsor messages!), or ways of drawing particular instruments. One or two were less engaged by the drawing task, and they wandered around the room, playing instruments occasionally, but also organising things (putting things away, tidying the space), and enjoying the quiet time.

Sometimes in a creative music workshop, we can feel so time-poor that we give all the available time over to the music. This is important, but I urge people never to overlook the importance of a little bit of space for individuals to retreat into their own heads for a while. Drawing is a way of doing this, while still developing project content and maintaining a sense of group ownership over the work.

Poster in the Community Shop, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

Barriers to arts participation

ArtPlay music workshop (Gillian Howell)This weekend I am leading a series of free workshops at ArtPlay on behalf of ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] for children aged 8-13. The workshops are held at the start of every school year and we always get a pretty strong showing of participants – with 5 workshops across the weekend fully booked, or close to full. Children come with their instruments and take part in a fast-paced 1-hour composing workshop. At the end of the hour we perform the newly composed pieces of music to an audience of their parents and siblings.

The workshops are a fun experience in themselves but they also function as a ‘taster’ session of what is on offer in the year-long MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, and we use them as a kind of audition, enabling us to identify which children most strongly responded to the open-ended, creative and collaborative way that we work. 25 of these children are then offered a place in the year-long program.

Fully-booked workshops means no obvious barriers to participation, presumably? Not necessarily. Every year, we approach this program strongly aware that simply by virtue of it being a music program, it is going to attract the attention of a certain demographic – those whose children are learning to play an instrument, and to a lesser extent, those who regularly participate in creative arts workshops in centers like ArtPlay and who prioritise those experiences, but who may not been involved in learning to play an instrument. In Australia, learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking, rarely offered at primary schools without passing the cost of the lessons and instruments on to the parents.

Every year therefore, I consider the projects I have led in disadvantaged schools and try and identify particular children that I know would thrive in a program like this – children who demonstrate musical talent and vibrant creative imaginations. There are a small number of scholarships (ie. fully-subsidised places in the year-long program) available for children who might not be able to accept an offered place due to financial constraints.

But there are many reasons children may not take part in programs like this and they are not all financial. Children of this age-group generally need a parent or adult to accompany them to the workshop venue and to pick them up, but in some households this is a huge barrier because parents are working, or caring for younger children, or don’t have transport options, or can’t afford public transport… or they may not assume that kind of involvement in their children’s lives and rarely take them anywhere. Similarly, they might make a plan for their child’s travel to and from the venue, but when the workshop day comes, decide they need that child to stay at home that day – there are other things that take priority over the workshop in their family.

There may also be psychological barriers about going to a new, unfamiliar place (for the child and the parent). The venues for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble are all in the city centre – but many families (especially those who are new to Australia, or from refugee backgrounds as are many of the children I work with) may find the idea of going into the city centre quite intimidating and even frightening, as it is unfamiliar, busy, and perhaps unpredictable. Similarly, buildings can be psychologically intimidating places to enter, even if they are ‘public’ spaces. People may instinctively sense that they are “not welcome”, or that this place is “not for their type”, and therefore reluctant to cross the threshold.

As an artist or arts worker in participatory projects like workshops, these barriers can be very tricky to overcome. With the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, we have tried a number of ways to encourage a more diverse group of participants into the program. One year, I identified a talented young Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in Australia, as someone who would benefit from and contribute lots to the Ensemble. She lived quite far from the city so we arranged for her to travel in a taxi to and from the workshop venue each day, in addition to offering the fully-subsidised place. Sometimes an older cousin travelled with her, and by about the 3rd workshop in the year, they had decided that May would travel home on the train by herself. Her cousin had shown her how to get to the station. She also asked me if I could accompany May to the station at the end of the workshop, but I had a meeting with the orchestral management team immediately after the workshop, so they decided that May could go by herself rather than wait.

About 40 minutes into my meeting that afternoon, the receptionist came to find me, to ask me to go to the front desk. May was there, sobbing and sobbing, in quite a state. She had tried to go to the station but had got lost. She’d come back to the workshop venue to find me (the only person she knew) but I couldn’t be located by the security staff because I was in this meeting. May felt overwhelmed by the entire situation (and perhaps by the effort of trying to make herself understood in English) and began to cry. Of course at that point I stayed with her, and travelled home with her, but after that day, she didn’t return to the program. I spoke to her cousin on the phone who told me she didn’t want to come back.

This year, I approached the mother of two very bright children I had been working with at Pelican Primary School. They were siblings, both sang in the choir, and had very natural, instinctive skills on the marimba and other percussion instruments in the school. I described the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program to their mother, who I have chatted to before and know to be very friendly, warm, approachable and keen to support her children in different learning opportunities. The family comes from a refugee background, but has been in Australia for some time and seem pretty well-settled, organised and functional :-). She was very excited to hear about the program and scholarship opportunity and said several times, “Yes, I would support them to do this.”

That was at the end of last year, December 2012. I no longer teach at that school, and so when the school term resumed this week, I got in touch with the school to see if I could get a message to the family to remind them about the workshops this weekend. I had given the mother my phone number and all the information about the program the previous year, but I hoped to give an additional reminder. The school is not legally allowed to give me the family’s contact details, but they first mentioned the music opportunity to the children’s father one day and suggested he or his wife should contact me. He apparently looked at the message-giver rather blankly! So the next day, the principal approached the older of the two children with a note for their mum, asking her to call me about the music opportunity and giving her my number. That was on Thursday. She didn’t call.

My other idea had been to try and get to the school at either drop-off or pick-up time to see if I could catch up with the mum there, but my work schedule didn’t allow that on Friday. In any case, I began to wonder if I was pushing something at them that they didn’t want to do. I thought about all the barriers that that might be stopping mum from calling me (such as no phone credit, or feeling unconfident speaking to me on the phone in English, or not wanting to say ‘No’ outright to me). But I also thought about how I would love for those two children to have the experience of going into ArtPlay, being greeted so warmly by the staff there, meeting the MSO musicians, playing music with me in this different context, feeling the thrill of being in such a beautiful space, purpose-built for art-making and young imaginations… and then after the workshop playing in the playground and feeling excited by what they had achieved and experienced.

Who knows, perhaps she has already registered the children for the workshops this weekend! I’ll find out when I get there I suppose. And if not this year, maybe I will be able to encourage them to come along next year. And if not them, someone else.

Dance me to the end of term

Dancing Waka Waka (Gillian Howell)

Term 4 2012 finished with flash mobs and slick moves at two of my schools last December. Searching for some straightforward choreography to teach some year 1 & 2 students I came across this dance video, uploaded as a tutorial for a flash mob in Milan in 2010. It was perfect – a song the students would already know and like (‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira), lots of repetition, simple steps, and a few more challenging moves that would keep them on their toes (excuse the pun) and give them goals to last across the 10-week term.

For weeks before the end of term, you would hear strange chants and incantations echoing down the corridor from the music room:

“Up, up, helicopter! Down, down washing machine!”

“Clap, clap shimmy back”

I didn’t start with the intention of giving each of the dance moves a label. It was a spontaneous addition one week at the Language School to help the children differentiate between two different moves, but the labels proved so effective I soon included them in the lessons with the grade 1&2s at Pelican Primary School. I’d call the labels out in turn if we were running through the whole dance, or we would work on specific dance moves one at a time, identifying them by the given label. Check out “pick the fruit” at 0’31”,   “up, up helicopter, down, down washing machine” at 01’15”, “clap clap shimmy back” at 1’07’’ in the video above!

For these 6-8 year olds learning a choreographed routine for the first time, there were  many reasons why labelling the dance moves was such an effective strategy:

  • They contained visual information (eg. the word ‘helicopter’ indicated two arms overhead making circles) which helped the students recollect the move)
  • The labels were quite silly and light-hearted, which made the students and the teachers laugh and not take it all too seriously – and this kept them motivated if they were finding the dance steps challenging
  • The labels also gave some of the more hip-swivelling moves an innocence and childishness. Thus, a twisting turn straight out of belly-dancing became more focused in the overhead arm movement, and was given the visual label of “lasso the cow!”, introduced via a description of cowboys catching cows by lassoing their horns,  (see the move at 02’31’’).

We worked a lot with the video tutorial. English language learners (especially some of those from refugee backgrounds) can spend so much of their time being only in the present moment, responding to the most immediate stimuli (or responding to the present while holding anxious thoughts about what might happen in the unpredictable future, or the past), and sometimes they struggle to retain sequences of information in their memories alone. Any kind of visual reinforcement is beneficial, and in the past I’ve used diagrams, stick figure pictures, grid scores and charts to map out how the individual components of a project that they have developed will fit together. Having a video is another way of doing this.

While having students glued to video materials might not at first seem like the most appropriate way to engage them in a dance project (“shouldn’t we be getting them away from video?”), there were a number of reasons why I think this was a big part of the project’s success:

  • It allowed the students to see the whole dance in its entirety. Right from Day One, they could see what they were aiming for.
  • The video included both men and women – demonstrating that this was an activity for both genders (important when many of the students come from backgrounds where men’s and women’s activities are more delineated) and giving so everyone in the class a role model to choose and copy.
  • It reduced self-consciousness and the potential for criticism of each other. They were so busy watching the screen and keeping up with the moves they didn’t have time to think about (a) what they looked like or (b) what anyone else looked like.
  • It also gave the children a visual representation of how to stand slightly apart from each other in rows, or neat formation. Lots of children in Language School find the many variations of standing in lines (e.g. sometimes behind each other, sometimes beside each other, sometimes squashed close together, sometimes spaced apart, etc) quite confusing.

Here is a back-of-heads view of the children at the Language School (all the primary school children) dancing to Waka Waka with me on my last day at the school for the year.

If you’d like the full list of labels I used for this dance leave me a comment below and I’ll send it to you.

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

Survival skills in music class

There are a number of common traits that I’ve observed among new-arrival and ESL students over the past years that I’ve been working in this field, particularly among those of refugee backgrounds, or whose parents are from refugee/war-torn backgrounds.

One is to do with gripping and grabbing – they often take such a firm and intense physical hold of instruments or mallets or bows that it is almost impossible to help them adjust their hold in order to successfully make a sound on the instrument.

Another is to do with listening – the children are often ready and accurate mimics, and they are quick to join in with a rhythm, song or melody once they have heard it. However, if I add another instrument or contrasting/complementary voice to the mix however, they get confused and falter on the initial line. A common response is to start playing louder and faster – effectively blocking the new sound(s) from earshot but making ensemble playing very difficult.

Then there is the ‘high-speed chase’ – the tendency to play things as fast as possible. The speed means that the child has less control over their hands, and a small number of sounds in relatively quick succession – two fast claps in a longer rhythm, for example – will become 4 or 5 very fast claps. A rhythmic pattern involving left and right hands ‘patsching’ the thighs in turn becomes a waggle of left then right hands, in quick succession, too fast to keep track of or monitor in order to stop in time.

(This determination to be speedy is not just in music – it tends to apply to all ‘transitions’ throughout the day – choosing equipment, putting things away, making lines, changing spaces, etc).

I know that many of these traits and tendencies are common across many cohorts, and are certainly not outside any mainstream music teachers’ experiences. However, in mainstream settings, the tendencies get balanced out across a class, and while there might a few ‘grippers’ in the class, they won’t be in the majority. The traits I’m describing are common to nearly all the refugee-background children I’ve taught who arrived Australia with very little prior schooling, and generally no literacy skills in their mother tongue.

I think there are strong parallels between many of these characteristic traits in music and the survival skills a child quickly learns in a volatile, unsafe environment like a refugee camp or conflict zone:

  • You learn to hold things with all your strength.
  • You learn to take what you want as quickly as you can, especially if you are in competition with others around you.
  • You learn to respond extremely quickly to new things going on around you, turning your head to look at all movement, or to follow all sounds. However, multiple sounds or movements create a sense of chaos, so you start to lock onto just one at this point, taking refuge in as small and predictable an environment as possible.
  • You learn to do things quickly because you might not get much time before someone grabs the toy or equipment from you. You don’t give too much attention to taking care for the same reason. You operate with a sense of urgency all the time.

From the music teacher’s point of view, here in the safer environment of a classroom where there is time for everyone to have a turn, and opportunities are not determined by survival of the fittest, which of these tendencies is it safe (in terms of the child’s sense of emotional safety) to challenge? And for the child, what does it feel like to experience music with the different set of sensations to those that are familiar? Continue reading

“Mud-brick… cow-dung…”

What: Fits of the giggles among the sopranos

Where: Choir rehearsal at Pelican Primary School

When: Thursday afternoon, last 30 minutes of the day

I look up with irritation. “What, Hafsa?? What is so funny?”

Hafsa looks a bit embarrassed to be singled out, but says in a small voice, “It’s because of cow-dung!” and she and all her friends all start giggling again.

We’re at Pelican Primary School and singing a song called Shelter that I wrote with students from the English Language School at the end of last year. It’s a very upbeat, catchy, danceable song and it’s become part of the Pelican Choir’s repertoire in 2012. The song is all about the right to housing, and at one point lists all the different things a house can be made from – in the experience of the Language School students who come from all parts of the world. At the time that we wrote the song, one boy from Ethiopia spoke with great excitement and confidence about houses made from cow-dung in his country and so that phrase made its way into the song – have a listen:

Brick. Plant. Rock. Concrete. Glass. Cow-dung. Mud-brick. Bamboo… Tarpaulin. Steel and wood.

Normally at Pelican Primary School’s choir practices, we keep strictly to task. At that time of day, too many transitions or moments of ‘down’ time can mean the end of any concentration, so I keep the teacher-talk to a minimum. But on this day, the question of cow-dung gave us the opportunity to have a really interesting conversation.

“Why do you think all these words are in the song?” I asked the children. “What are they referring to?”

A few people offered their thoughts, and one identified the common theme – these are all things you can build a house with.

“A house from cow-dung? That’s disgusting!” they all chorused in delight and disgust.

“Well,” I said, ever the practical one, “It’s probably really sensible if you live somewhere where there aren’t enough trees to chop down for wood for your house, because everyone needs some kind of shelter. In lots of countries, people build their homes from whatever is available nearby.”

I described some of the houses I’d seen in Timor-Leste, where all the different parts of the bamboo plant were used – the sturdy trunks would be used for the frame, thinner trunks or branches sliced longways would be tied tightly side-by-side to make the walls, and the long stringy leaves would be intricately woven and thatched to make a strong water-proof roof. They were fascinated by this description and sat quietly, picturing these houses.

“But Gillian, how could you make the bamboo house strong enough to stop people getting in?” one boy asked me. I thought about this, and explained that the doors could close, and they could probably be locked with a padlock but that if someone really wanted to break in, they probably could. The boy looked worried at the thought of this, but I went on,

“But the people live in small communities, where they know everyone. They all work together and help each other, and so they trust each other. The moment someone new arrives in the village, they would all know about it, and be watching carefully. Knowing each other well like this helps to keep their houses safe,” I explained.

One boy at the back of the altos then shared a story about helping to build his family’s mud-brick house when he was living “in Africa” (he’s lived in Burundi and Kenya as a refugee and maybe some other African countries as well).

“And best of all,” I said, in closing, “That cow of yours is going to keep doing droppings every single day! This means that you could build your cow-dung house for free! It might take you a long time – I’d be getting my kids to make the bricks everyday when they came home from school, as part of their chores – but it wouldn’t cost you a lot of money!”

By now, they were all completely sold on the idea of a cow-dung house and they sang their hearts out for the last few minutes of the day. I think this was my favourite choir practice of the year so far.