Archive for the ‘Culture Jam’ Category

How do we know what children have learned?

Back in August I blogged about a forum for artists, educators, and arts organisations that took place in Melbourne with Arnie Aprill from the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education. One of the discussion topics was documentation and the importance of using the video documentation to record what is being learned by students when they engage in open-ended, contemporary arts collaborations.

“How do we know what children have learned in an arts project? We ask them!” Arnie declared, and as soon as he said it, we all realised it was true. Simple, true and brilliant. “And,” he went on, “We film them talking about it, and use this footage to document the growth and development of their thinking and understanding, and to demonstrate to others the value of the projects in terms of student learning.”

Studentswriting in reflective journals (Gillian Howell, Culture Jam)Therefore, throughout the Culture Jam project (my artist-in-residence project at Elsternwick Primary School in 2012) I included interviews with students as part of the ongoing project reflections, and filmed these interviews. I also gave them questions to consider and respond to in the reflective journals they wrote each week. These inclusions gave useful insights to me and the coordinating teacher throughout the project, but they also served as a form of student assessment.

I’ve now finished editing that footage and you can watch it in the clip below. Head to my Youtube channel to see footage of the other compositions – their work in progress and their performances.

To learn more from the vast experiences, expertise and wisdom of Arnie Aprill, you can pay a visit to his blog here, or via the Music Work blogroll.

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!

Culture jamming to the end

One project that ended in November was the Culture Jam residency at Elsternwick Primary School. Last time I wrote about this project, I was filled with ideas, and things were bumping along nicely enough… a few headaches, but no major derailments. However, not long after writing that post, things had changed quite dramatically.

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

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

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

Using 'Audacity' on the Netbooks

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


Glock Music

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

Noteflight score 1:

Noteflight score 2:

Here is how it sounded in performance:

The Girl with Six Spare Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance Day

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

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

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

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

Composing and jamming with netbooks, iPads and Mandarin speakers

I am about halfway through the ‘Culture Jam’ language and music project at Elsternwick Primary School. We are making progress, slowly, with several new developments since my last post.We’ve made a field trip to China Town, where we visited the Chinese Museum and ate lunch in a restaurant, and we’ve had a performance by 2 Chinese musicians playing traditional instruments. We’ve also progressed our composition projects. Without a doubt we are ‘jamming’ (exploring, and making it up as we go along) with culture, with language and with music. Here is a rundown on where we are up to:

Project 1: Chinese vocabulary recordings

Project 1 was focused on using the Chinese language conversations recorded at the Language School field trip in Term 2. We planned to make short recorded pieces on the school netbooks using Audacity (free recording software), that highlighted short repeated phrases in Chinese (with English translation) set to groovy beats and music. 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!