Archive for the ‘Pelican PS’ Category
2012 was a big year for me. I had more freelance projects booked in than ever before, a fairly full load of regular teaching gigs, and three overseas conference presentations . If you take a look at my Project Diary page you can scroll down and see what was on in 2012 – and this list doesn’t include teaching full days in 2 schools and 2 universities (I taught one of the university courses online and in the evenings, as my students were in the USA and Canada). It was a very satisfying year professionally, with a number of new ventures, including the opportunity to work in north-western Australia with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and running my own series of workshops at ArtPlay. But it was a tricky year in terms of finding balance. I felt like I never stopped working!
I am looking forward to a different pace and focus in 2013. The big change is that I am starting my PhD this year. Next week I will be heading up to Brisbane to meet with my supervisors and will officially be a student again. To make space for full-time study, I resigned from my two primary schools at the end of 2012. In some ways it was sad to say good-bye – I’d been at the Language School since 2005, and even though students were constantly arriving and leaving (it is a transitional school), I’d developed longterm relationships with the teachers, and built a really lovely, hand-picked collection of instruments. I’d been teaching at Pelican Primary School since 2009 for 2 days a week, and the children who’d been in the younger years when I started were now heading into the senior classes in the school. It is a wonderful thing to observe a cohort of children growing like this. I’d built relationships with parents as well as with teachers, and it was sad to let those go.
At the same time, I was feeling restless. I’d started the year feeling that I’d “done lots of this before”. I found it more and more difficult to feel patient with the kind of frustrating timetabling issues that arise in primary schools everywhere that can really impact specialist programs. I loved the children, and loved playing music with them, but no longer felt as energised by the teaching work. Moving on at the end of the year therefore felt quite liberating.
There is a great momentum that comes with being at the beginning of something. I’m excited about my PhD topic (looking at music education and participation in post-conflict countries around the world), and about starting a new research project, which I find stimulating and inspiring in similar ways to creative project development (I’ve blogged about the commonalities here). And even though all of those who have already been through the PhD journey or know someone who has, shake their heads and say things like, “I hope you survive, it’s a lot of work!”, I feel undeterred. In fact, I feel relieved to think that no matter how much work it is, it will at least be just one big project, rather than the many multiples of projects I had in my head in 2012, all unrelated to each other, each needing their own amount of space and time. Having one thing to focus on for the next 3-4 years seems like a really straightforward proposition at this point. (Though perhaps I should revisit the optimism of this notion in 6 months time!).
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.
Last Thursday night was Pelican Primary School’s first ever Art Show. An artwork by every child in the school was framed and on display. It was a huge effort by the staff team to get all the framing done in time. The year 5 and 6 students were in charge of hospitality, and walked around with platters of finger food for everyone to try, some made by the students in the Kitchen Garden classes, some made and donated by local restaurants.
These events are important for many reasons – they display the talents and visual expression of the children and show the range of interests and ideas, and they bring the parent community into the school. It can be difficult to draw refugee and immigrant families to the school on a regular, ‘helping-out-in-the-classroom’, ‘running-the-sausage-sizzle-on-election-day’ kind of way, because for many of them, school is about their children and expectations of their children. Building stronger community links and parent involvement can be a big challenge. Events like the art show encourage the parents to participate, make them feel welcome, and hopefully make them feel proud of their children, and connected to the school community.
There are some true artistic souls in the school, children who have a way of expressing the complexities of their feelings and sense of identity. I loved the two artworks pictured below, both by girls in grade 4/5. The upper picture is incredibly detailed and my snapshot will not do it justice. Notice the items she is holding – pencils, a book, dolls. And notice her hair is in fact strands of tape measure. And the look in her eyes – I see a desire for challenges and extension and opportunities, and at the same time an anxiety about the future. The lower picture has a wonderful insouciant energy – I love the sense of defiance and sense of lightness and possibility she conjures up with her choice and positioning of images.
Parents had the first option to buy their children’s work ($5 each). The parents of the child who did the painting above weren’t present. A bidding war started up among the other adults present – it was a very popular work! In the end it was bought for $50 by the parent of one of the girl’s friends. But she took the young artist aside to tell her, “Do you want this picture? I bought it for you – you can take it home with you.” But the child decided she wanted it to go home with her friend’s mum.
I fell in love with a picture by one of the Prep children – a child I don’t teach. His parents weren’t present so I got to buy it at the end of the evening. It is leaning against the wall in my study, a pastel blend of rich orange and yellow, merging into a lower strip of blue (mixed with glimmers of yellow), with an angular pink shape in the middle of the yellow, and the child’s name – YUSUF – written down the right hand side of the page. “I asked them to do a picture of something lying on the sand at the beach,” the art teacher told me. “The pink thing is a shell.” I love it.
My students think I know Lady Gaga.
As in, personally. In fact, they think I have her on speed dial.
In yesterday’s choir practice at Pelican Primary School, we started learning Born This Way. I gave them a bit of an interpretation of the song, along the lines of, “It’s about being happy with yourself, not trying to change yourself in order to be like someone else, not wishing you were different.”
“But Gillian, that’s the total opposite of Lady Gaga!” said one of the boys. “She is always changing her hair colour, and… stuff.”
“Yeah!” the others chorused indignantly. “Why does she do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging (I really didn’t want to get sidetracked down this line of questioning when I know so little about Lady Gaga). “Shall I ask her when she comes to our school?” They gave sudden squeals of surprise – was Lady Gaga coming to our school? When? “In fact,” I continued, amazed at what I seemed to be getting away with, “Why don’t I just call her now and ask her?” To an accompaniment of even more excited screams I took my mobile phone from my bag, pretended to press some numbers, and put it up to my ear. I motioned for the group to be quiet. At this point they were all staring at me, eyes very wide. A couple were smirking knowingly or rolling their eyes.
“Hello, Gaga?” I said brightly into the phone. “It’s Gillian! How are you going?” [pause while I listen to her response]. “Yeah, well I’m here with the choir at Pelican Primary School and they’ve just started learning one of your songs, Born this way. They think you’re really great, by the way.”http://www.nitrolicious.com/blog/2010/03/12/lady-gaga-featuring-beyonce-telephone-official-video/)
At this point the choir began screaming – really screaming, with excitement – and calling out messages. One boy was saying determinedly, “Not me! I don’t like you at all. Not me!” but all the others were screaming messages of love and devotion, grade 3 style.
I gestured to them to be quiet. “Anyway Lady -” I’d realised I didn’t know what to call her – “the kids here have got some questions for you. Have you got time to answer a couple of questions?” Again, I paused and then nodded at the children who started waving their hands in the air.
“Do you know Justin Bieber?” was the first question. I relayed it to Lady Gaga, and reported back,
“She says no. She doesn’t know him.”
They all looked shocked. Clearly they’d done a song together or something. I added,
“That is, she doesn’t know him well. Just a bit. He’s a bit young for her, she says.” Next question:
“Ummm, why do you take your clothes off and show your body to the world?” asked one of the boys primly. I nodded and relayed the question into my phone. Lady Gaga’s response?
“It’s because she gets so hot when she’s dancing. She gets hot really easily.” Right.
There were a couple more questions, but the excitement was starting to get out of hand, so I pretended she’d just told me she had to go. We all sang out a jolly good-bye to her and I told her I’d see her on the weekend.
Clearly, as their music teacher there is nothing I can’t do. Choir was dismissed a minute or two before the end-of-school bell rang, and even in that short time the word had spread. “Gillian, did you know that Lady Gaga is coming to our school?” a child from another class asked me as we walked down the stairs.
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.
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.
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
Choir at Pelican Primary School is a hot-ticket item – I have more than half the children from the eligible classes taking part each week (about 40 students all together). They are noisy and rowdy, they take a long time to settle down when they first arrive and to maintain focus whenever we ‘transition’ from one activity or song to the next. Most weeks, 1 or 2 children are sent back to their classroom for distracting or unhelpful behaviour.
But they are improving slowly (they are a nice little choir already, but it is their willingness to learn that is improving), and this gives me hope! Last year, for example, we started singing songs in two parts. I divided them into two groups of sopranos and altos, and they have maintained those groups and quite proudly identify themselves with one or the other voice type.
Singing in two parts means that I need to give each group their starting pitches before we begin a song. Last year, I would give these pitches, and both groups would ‘over-sing’ them – getting louder, and whooping their pitches up and down to make each other laugh. “I hate it when you do that,” I told them once, grumpily slumping back in my chair, tired of such end-of-the-day silliness.
But me hating it meant that I also needed to explain to them the purpose of these starting pitches, how they should respond, and why it was counter-productive for them to move the pitches around. Every week, it was an effort to make this part of the pre-song preparation work, but we persevered.
At today’s rehearsal, I gave the pitches for our 2-part South African song, and away we went. I realised later, reflecting on the rehearsal, that they hadn’t done their usual routine. They had taken the pitches, echoed them quietly, and used them to get the song started strongly – the way I want them to. Success!
I used to approach all my teaching at Pelican as ‘teaching by stealth’ (my own term) – creating activities that create environments that mean knowledge and understanding gets absorbed. This works well for the slowest and lower-achieving students, but leaves those with more ability and motivation to learn with fewer challenges than they deserve, and with fewer opportunities to put labels on their knowledge. Now I tend to announce to the older classes, “Information! I’m about to give you information! This is important for your learning so listen!” The more able students need this. They thrive on it. They are dying to know things.