Archive for the ‘visual cues’ Category

Constructing sounds in the Music Construction Site 2013

The last workshop for 2013 was Music Construction Site at ArtPlay. The Music Construction Site starts with lots of free (and noisy) exploration of instruments…

I love this ten minute block. The instruments are arranged around the room, and children and parents can roam freely, trying out all the things they want. I encourage them to try everything that they are curious about, and I bring in some of my favourite things – like crotales, and a spiral cymbal, thumb pianos, dipping gongs, and wah-wah tubes – for them to try.

I watched one little girl sit down at the djembe, her mother observing her but leaving her to make her own discoveries. Her little face lit up with excitement as she tapped it the first couple of times. The djembe is quite heavy, so I helped her fasten the waist strap around her back, to make the drum more stable. She began to hit it more boldly. She and her mother exchanged many glances of delight, but mostly, this was her own magical, thrilling experience. It was like she had discovered a new side to herself, as well as a new possibility in the world. It was gorgeous to witness, and an important reminder of just how significant some of these workshop experiences can be for participants.

After everyone’s curiousity and exploratory spirit has been sated, we gather to discuss the qualities and characteristics of the sounds that the different instruments make and then everyone sets to work drawing their preferred sound. Not a picture of the instrument, mind, but an image of what you think that sound looks like. Interesting! You learn a lot about how people hear, and what they hear, when they start to draw their sounds.

Drawing sounds, Music Construction Site, Nov 13 (Gillian Howell)

These pictures become part of a giant graphic score – a series of images that depict what we are to play. I stick them up on the wall using blu-tack (in a fairly random, arbitrary order) along a big stretch of wall. Then we play through this first version of the score.

Constructing the score, Music Constructions Site, Nov 2013 (Gillian Howell)

Finally, we experiment with structure. We move the individual images around, making decisions about how to begin, how to end, and where to put a few surprises or unexpected moments. The children know about these kinds of musical conventions. They might not know how to name them, but they recognise what we are trying to do and offer all sorts of thoughtful and creative suggestions. The more I move the images around, and follow their instructions and suggestions, the greater ownership they feel over the piece.

At the end of the Construction process, we perform the piece from beginning to end, no stopping. This is a workshop for 5-8 year olds, which is not an age group often associated with sitting quietly, instrument in hand, waiting for the right time to play, for extended periods of time. But in this workshop, with the strong visual cues coming from the giant graphic score, they do. The piece usually lasts around 10-12 minutes – no small achievement for these very young players and their parents!

After we’d performed our piece and said our good-byes, children came up to me to say thank you, to share a particular experience of the workshop with me, and to collect their pictures from the wall. I love these moments of more personal interaction. I asked one child, “Would you like to take your picture home with you?” She considered this, then asked, “Can I take the blu-tack too?” “Of course you can!” I said, and chuckled a little at the excited expression on her face. We forget, as adults, don’t we? Blu-tack can be just as important as all the other discoveries in a workshop like this.



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.

Using Noteflight in creative music projects

Are you familiar with Noteflight? Noteflight is web-based notation software that lets you create scores and play them back on your computer and it has recently brought a whole new level of musical understanding and student ownership to some of my classroom composing projects.

One of the ways that I build a class composition is by asking each child in the class to create a short riff/ostinato (1, 2 or 4 bars, usually) within a given key signature or using a pentatonic scale or mode; we then decide together how to combine these to make one long piece. We might write a list of who is playing and when, and rely on each individual to remember their own part (rather than notating each child’s invention separately), or we might use a flexible paper score, putting each child’s name on a single sheet of paper or card, then moving the cards around until we find an order/combination that we like.

Noteflight brings an extra dimension to these projects. I am able to create a real score using standard notation to show how the children’s riffs have been ordered and combined. I can add their names above their line of music when it begins. Best of all, I can play the score for them on the interactive whiteboard or via a data projector so that they can see and hear their composition as it progresses. As the cursor line moves along the staves, the music plays. We can even play along with the computer. In other projects, gaining this understanding of the whole piece – and where each person’s riff or ostinato fits into the larger context – can take several music classes to really establish. Noteflight clarifies everything by making it visual, and the children can immediately experience the whole piece in one sitting.

The formal score also gives an additional authenticity and validity to their work. It formalises their creation and gives it status, in the same way that framing children’s artwork, or publishing their stories and drawing in real books gives the work status and endorsement. The first time I used a Noteflight score with a class, I observed how eagerly the children looked for their own name, and how focused they were as they watched the music progress, mallets poised and ready to play. They felt incredibly proud to think that their music work had resulted in something as impressive-looking as this score!

Image found at – a great story about weird and wonderful scores.

We use Noteflight as a practise tool. It encourages them to continue playing if they make a mistake. They hear how a small hesitation before they begin to play may mean they miss the downbeat – and they then learn how to manage this so that they can find their place in the piece. And, even though most of them don’t know how to read music, the Noteflight score helps them memorise the piece. Over a series of 2-3 lessons we become less reliant on Noteflight and spend more time practising away from it than with it, until it can be performed completely independently.

Unfortunately you can’t embed Noteflight scores on blogs. But if you follow the link below, it will take you to my most recent Noteflight score, a piece of music created by the Upper Primary class at the Language School. They will perform this work on Tuesday afternoon. It is a complex piece for a diverse group like this, many of whom are playing music in a group for the first time in their lives, but they have learned it, and memorised it. Hover the cursor/mouse over the top of the first bar so that a small orange ‘play’ triangle appears. Click on the triangle and enjoy our music!

A face for every minute

As a child I can remember an ad on TV that featured a woman whose facial expressions were particularly animated. My sisters and I used to call her The Expressions Lady, and she appeared on a number of different ads. We got used to looking out for her, and sniggering at her over-the-top expressions that seemed so out of proportion to the rest of the action.

Looking at some of the photos of me from the New Music Express project at ArtPlay 2 weeks ago, I think I may be turning into The Expressions Lady.

In my early days as a project leader, no-one ever seemed to capture me in poses like these. Nowadays, they are the norm. Do I mind? Nah! They make me smile. They remind me of how involved I get in these projects, the stories I tell, the images I try and conjure, and the fun I’m having.

Here are some other images from the project:

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

Update on pitch work

Back at Pelican Primary School for Term 2, and the year 4/5 class are continuing to develop their arrangement of Gotye’s Somebody I used to know. This first week back, we revised what they remembered of the opening melody, and started to develop an accompaniment figure.

There were a couple of interesting developments this week. One occurred when we were revising the melody. We did this as a group, away from instruments, with me at the whiteboard asking questions like, “What note does the melody start on? What note is next – does it go up or down in pitch?”

Whenever the group hesitated or seemed unsure, we sang the melody together. We used the words from Baa Baa Black Sheep:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?

Yes sir, I’ve got some. [Gliss!] (We invented this last line to match the fourth phrase of the introductory melody)

I stopped the singing on the word/syllable immediately before the pitch we were trying to identify. There was an exciting moment when I realised they were all hearing the missing note in their heads and starting to visualise or ‘map’ its direction. It was suggested in the way a large number of them all called out the right answer at the same time, after a moment of silence that was as long as the missing note would have been. I was so thrilled by this development!

For the accompaniment, I’ve created a marimba line:

D – AD – C – G (ta ti-ti ta ta)

I decided to teach it using the body-pitching approach I’ve used in the body. I taught it to the group, rather than asking them to figure a version out for themselves. They sang the note-names while patting each body part in turn:

D (knees – left hand) G (head – right hand) D (knees – left hand) C (floor – left hand) G (shoulders – right hand)

I knew that the challenge on the marimbas would be to go from the note D to C with the left hand – I anticipated that they would instinctively continue a left-right-left-right mallet pattern and would thus struggle to find the C. Therefore, I told them to use their left hands to touch D and C, and the right hand for A and G, and got them to practise this in a focused way on their bodies.

We practised the gestures together as a group. Then I set up the xylophones and marimbas and a small number of students got try out the accompaniment pattern.

This time around though, I added an explicit instruction:

“Your aim now is to transfer the information about notes and hands, up and down, from your bodies to the instruments. Keep the same hand pattern, and same pattern of up-and-down gestures, as you have on your bodies.”

I think this proved to be a helpful step. In any case, with this kind of group task, we only need one person to figure it out – they can then model it for the others, they will learn by watching, the watching will also help create a visual memory for them, and hopefully the body-contour work will help create a physical memory. We’ll see!

This class is such an interesting group. They always come in scowling, sneering, and with a lot of bravado towards me, my co-teachers, and especially towards each other. But they do take their learning quite seriously. Enough of them are motivated to create something of a critical mass, so we make progress, most weeks. My plan is for this Gotye piece to be ready to perform in 3 lessons time.

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

Music Construction Site

During the first week of the school holidays, I led the first workshops of my 2012 project series at ArtPlay. We set up the Music Construction Site – a busy place of work and activity where the tools of the trade were percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes (as well as any instruments the construction workers chose to bring along with them), and the construction took the form of a large graphic score, made up of images and symbols denoting the children’s sounds and musical inventions.

There were two workshops – one for 5-8 year olds and their parents, and the other for 9-12 year olds. Here are some images from the day:

We started the 5-8 year olds with a bit of free exploration of the different instruments, letting them get a feel for the tools:

Once everyone had invented a sound or musical fragment, they needed to create its blueprint (graphic score):

We used symbols and images to make decisions about the best way to order and structure all our sounds. Here, I’m talking about the role of “the element of surprise” in a piece of music:

ArtPlay is situated in Birrarung Marr. If the weather is fine we can send some groups to work outside.

At the end of the workshop, we put all the sounds in order and play through the score.

The next workshops at ArtPlay will be on Sunday 17th June. This time, we’ll be boarding the New Music Express – transforming stories into music!

Making pitch visible

In the previous post I’ve described some of different ways I’ve tried to make the pitch concept visual and physical for students at the English Language School. Here is some footage from one of these projects:

The music was from a Somali pop song that one of the students brought in on his mobile phone. We learned a number of different riffs and put them together into a performance piece. Watching it now, it seems an incredibly complex piece for 9-11 year old English Language Learners. The body percussion and hand-gesture work was designed to support their understanding of the pitch relationships between the notes, but it also supported their memorisation of the music. They really engaged with the idea of finding ways of practising their parts away from the instruments.

More thoughts on teaching the ‘pitch’ concept

I find that for many of my students, pitch is the most intangible, hard-to-grasp concept of all the musical elements. I’ve experimented a lot with different ways to help children make sense of it and to get greater satisfaction from working with pitched instruments. Rhythmically the students are usually very strong, but I think that multiple pitches (indeed, multiple sounds) are often very chaotic for them.

Last week, leading workshops for the City Beats program, I worked with students from four different schools. I found it interesting that students from 3 of the 4 schools used the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ to talk about the difference between different string instruments (eg. violin is smaller than double bass and therefore makes a higher sound). The much more culturally-diverse group of the 4th school were more hesitant and unsure about the language to describe those same differences, instead using ‘loud’ or ‘big’ and ‘soft’ or ‘small’. Work I’ve done previously with musical contour has not transferred across to understanding how to find the higher and lower notes on tuned percussion. It’s as if the concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ don’t translate into musical concepts in some cultures and languages. That’s my suspicion; it is based on my own observations. Continue reading