Archive for the ‘St Johns PS’ Category


At St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill, the grade 3/4s and I created a number of short pieces about the human body. In addition to a poppy little song and a hocket of “bodily function noises” (imagine, if you will), we created a body percussion dance routine and decided to perform it as a Flashmob at lunchtime on my last day.

The plan was: I would wander out into the playground about ten minutes before the bell rang. They would all be looking out for me. I’d raise my arm to wave to them (as you do), but really I’d be doing a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown with my fingers. This would be the cue for us to start our dance, a formation magically emerging from the hordes of playing children. The music teacher was on yard duty so would join in the performance with us.

Unfortunately, I can’t share the video of the event with you – it was too tricky to film it without showing any children’s faces (and we don’t have permission to publish such materials). But they loved it, loved the idea of making a flashmob, loved breaking into dance in the middle of the playground at lunchtime, wanted to do it many times over. A few others tried to join in too (an indicator of a good flashmob, we decided).

Thanks to all the teachers at St John’s Primary Clifton Hill for making me so welcome during my residency. Thanks to all the gorgeous children, and thanks especially to Mary-Anne who invited me to work with her students over these last three weeks.

Quick starters

In any workshop it is imperative, I think, that the participants have some kind of penny-dropping, “a-ha!” experience, in order to have something tangible to take away. In a short time-frame with an unfamiliar group, this can be particularly challenging to ensure, but I like the energy of jumping in with a new group, and creating something on the spot together. My current project at St John’s Primary Clifton Hill (as their visiting ‘Composer in the Classroom’ for Musica Viva) has asked me to develop a number of short, intensive and engaging composition workshops for early years students, pushing them in some way, but ensuring the experience is complete within the hour.

One of my ‘quick start’ workshops is to develop melodic and rhythmic material using a Cycle of 8 beats. The steps are pretty straight-forward:

  • Get everyone to count a cycle of 8 steady beats out loud, repeating them over and over in a loop
  • Get everyone to clap on 1.
  • Ask someone to nominate another number and another sound – at St John’s this week, a student nominated beat 5, and a finger-click.
  • Add a few more beats and sounds to the cycle. In a fast-paced workshop it could start to get pretty confusing for the children, but stay with it – this is the preparatory ground for melodic work.
  • Around this point I tend to write the 8 numbers up on the whiteboard and put squares around the numbers that we are sounding.
  • Decide what tonality you want (or not – you may like to leave it to chance), and ask someone to play the tonic note (or any note) on one of the numbers. At St John’s, I specified the note C on number 1 as I wanted as to have a strong anchoring point, and tonal centre.
  • I then invite students (one at a time) to propose pitches for the other numbers in the cycle that we have chosen to sound. By now, we’ll have a melody.
  • You can play it on tuned percussion or other instruments as a hocket, or gradually teach the group all the notes in order. I like to leave it up to them to add the other pitches to their starting note when they are ready. Eg. their starting note might be E on beat 4, so they should get that locked in first, but once they feel confident, they might also decide to play the C on beat 1.

At St John’s, a very perky riff in C major emerged. The music teacher and I accompanied it on guitars with a chord progression that moved from C to G, Am, F, and G. We finished the hour-long workshop with a structure – giving each section of instruments (glockenspiels, xylophones, boomwhackers, etc) four repeats of the riff (the number was dictated by the length of the chord progression), before a final section of everyone playing together.

It was hard work for all the students. Some didn’t manage to sort out the whole of the riff in the time we had available. However, they all had an understanding of how we had come to this point in the course of the hour and felt incredibly pleased with themselves and their work. I don’t think they’d played any phrases this long on the tuned percussion before. Also, the guitar accompaniment gave their riff a stronger context and sense of tension and release in the music.

The plan now is that the riff will form melodic material for a ‘school song’ that we will write with one of the older classes next week. The workshop was complete within itself, but the material that it generated will go on to have a longer life elsewhere in the school.

Wet and dry sounds

With the preps and grade 1s in my current ‘Composer in the Classroom’ project (for Musica Viva at St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill), we created a composition of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ sounds. I suggested that for me, a ‘wet’ sound was one that rang on for a long time after being struck (similar to the way a pebble dropped in a pond creates ripples that last a long time). A dry sound was shorter and more… well, dry.

The children selected percussion instruments, listened to each one by one and decided whether the sound was wet or dry.

“Wet!” chorused in response to the magical tones of a wind chime.

“Dry!” they all agreed after hearing the rasp of a guiro.

I explained that the label was a subjective one – they could have their own opinion about what was ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. Some instruments provoked interesting debate – the resonant tones of the djembe for example. They could hear that it had resonance, but not for as long as some of the metal instruments. And as a metal instrument, the cabasa was proof that ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ categories didn’t necessarily align with what the instrument was made of.

Next we played the instruments one by one around the circle, but this time, they needed to wait until the ring of the previous instrument had completely ended. This demanded careful listening and concentration – always a risky endeavour with this age group, but they were thoroughly engaged and intrigued by the range of sounds in their midst and were pedantic about waiting until the previous sound had entirely finished (and if they weren’t, one of their classmates would be sure to point it out).

We then moved onto graphic scores. I asked each child to draw a symbol to represent their sound. Some found this a challenging task, but others were impressively painstaking in their approach and their teacher and I marveled at all that they could hear in their instrument’s sound. One girl’s symbol for her glockenspiel note appeared like a huge blue jagged scribble; however, her teacher told me it was actually a very layered image. She’d started with a simple wave form, then added additional layers to it, representing all the complexity of her sound. A girl playing a pair of claves carefully placed a small green dot in the centre of her page (see the second image, bottom right).

We stuck the symbols on the wall in a line. The children sat on the floor facing the wall, their instruments in hand, and on my cue, performed their piece. They read their way across their score, each person playing when their symbol appeared, and engaged and focused from beginning to end.