Archive for the ‘Training teachers’ Category

Musical Futures

I attended David Price’s Musical Futures workshop at the University of Melbourne this week. Musical Futures is a UK program that brings non-formal and informal learning approaches into the more formal context of schools, and gets young people engaged in making the music that they like and choose, and are most engaged by.

The approach includes the kinds of creative workshops – social, spontaneous and creative musical experiences that develop aural and inventive skills – that I focus on in my practice as a music leader and educator, and taps into the worlds of popular, rock, classical and world music in its content. It embeds theory and notation into the act of music-making, so that those particular skills and techniques are developed in context, as required.

However, the characterising element of the Musical Futures approach is not one of content, but one of teaching and learning – the level of responsibility that the students are asked to take for their own learning is all-encompassing. The students direct many – probably the majority – of their choices of what to play, what to work on, what skills they need to develop, what help they need from the teacher. Extra-curricular options quickly become part of the program as the students’ interests and engagement expands beyond the confines of the timetable.

It seems to me that Musical Futures offers teachers a comprehensive, well-documented, backed-by-research approach to teaching and learning that gives them ‘permission’ to approach classroom music in a different, less formal way, or legitimises the creative, informal work they have already been doing. For those teachers already using many of these techniques and approaches, the support that a network of like-minded teachers and industry allies can offer them may be of particular benefit. Or, the suggestions in the resource materials (notes, content ideas, DVDs with video examples – all available online) may encourage them to develop their approach further, try some new ideas, hand even greater control over to students, make bolder choices about content. The references to the research into how popular musicians learn (by Professor Lucy Green) ground this approach in thoroughly documented outcomes, and so can support teachers to advocate for greater access to funds and resources in their school.

If you are not a familiar with Musical Futures, it’s a really interesting program, worth getting to know. The ten schools that have been part of the pilot programs in Australia have declared that it has transformed their teaching, and had greater impact than they’d ever have anticipated. Something is going on here that is pretty exciting, I’d say. – heaps of ideas, free downloads of publications, case studies, and more. – a safe music sharing community that schools can join for free. Students can upload and share their music (you don’t have to be a Musical Futures school to sign up with NUMU); the most-listened-to music ends up in the NUMU charts.


The nakedness of music-making

On Friday I taught a Professional Learning seminar on classroom composition to a small group of primary school teachers from around Victoria. One of the topics that came up was the fear that many people have in music-making.

It’s not necessarily a fear of the music-making itself, but the vulnerability that comes with it – that sense of revealing yourself, of not being good enough, of leaving yourself open to criticism.  Of being stripped bare, in some way. There is perhaps an inherent risk in music-making.

“Coming here today, I was worried I wouldn’t know enough,” one teacher confided. She added, “But it’s been good to find that wasn’t the case, and that there is lots I can do without having to be a music specialist first.”

Other teachers commented on the fear of the new – of having to step out of their comfort zones and be a beginner again in order to learn a new skill. “It’s a good reminder, though, of how our students must often feel,” one teacher suggested.

Music has a strange status in our culture – an artform that nearly everyone has a relationship with (in terms of favourite music and musicians to listen to, and in the way we build personal soundtracks to our lives) but that we are taught to distance ourselves from from an early age, as being something that is really only for the talented. Those that do get involved might be constantly challenging the little voices in their heads that compare them with others, tell them they don’t know enough, or chide them for trying to do this in the first place.

It’s a strange and uncomfortable thing, this insecurity. I wonder, does it ever truly end? I think about some of the professional musicians I’ve led training workshops with, and how so much of their discomfort about learning workshop skills and improvisation comes from a fear of ‘showing themselves up’, somehow (especially in front of their colleagues) – despite the tremendous expertise they have with their instruments, and musicianship in general.

Do other artforms engender as much fear? Do they feel as exposing? Do they bring forth the same kind of personal protective mechanisms? It is a reminder to those of us that teach and facilitate of the massive importance of the safety of the working space, by which I mean the way we establish an environment in which people feel able to let go of some of their personal protections in order to have some new musical experiences. And we need to ensure that every ‘event’ – every workshop, every class, every performance – brings with it a positive sense of success for the participants, some kind of feeling of exhilaration and wellness that will outweigh any fear they may have felt at the beginning or during the process, and bring them back again.

Music and Health

A couple of years ago I presented to a group of teaching artists from the Festival for Healthy Living program, discussing the inherent ‘healthy’ qualities of music-making, with particular regard for mental health. It was an interesting idea to work on, and a lovely group of very committed, engaged artists to present to and spend the day with. That presentation has now been turned into an article for the Creating for Wellbeing website, and I stumbled upon it recently. You can read the article here.

While visiting the site, you might also be interested to read some of the other artists’ reflections on art-making and wellbeing.There is a wealth of information and ideas within the site. Browse through the ‘Themes’ tab to get an idea of the range of topics.

I’m very focused on writing at the moment – articles and more articles about my East Timor residency, including descriptive writing for newsletters and magazines and more serious, scholarly papers for journals and conferences. On some days the words flow, and on others, they really struggle to get out!

Extending a game into a composition

So many music games and activities have more depth than we credit them with. If we bring our musicianship and musical imaginations into the mix, then they can take us off into directions that yield interesting and often complex compositional outcomes. This post describes the workshop I led on Monday with a group of MTeach music students, looking at three games that I’ve collected/learned from around the world, and the compositional possibilities of each.

Activity 1 – Stick-passing

The first game I taught was stick passing game that I learned as a stone-passing game from a South African musician. I’ve written in some detail about this game in the past, and the song, Bhombela, that I often teach with it. With the MTeach group, we experimented with passing the sticks in a duple time signature and singing a song in a triple time signature (Edelweiss) or a changing time signature (Dham Dham Dham – a children’s song from India). How could you build upon these starting ideas, I asked the group, in order to develop a more intricate, varied compositional outcome? One group took on this task, and developed some complex stick passing patterns that included tapping two sticks together, tapping one on the floor, and passing it around after a set number of taps in a 7/4 time signature, which they then varied into other time signatures by changing the number of floor taps. They also experimented with dividing into two groups and having unison sections contrasting with polyrhythmic sections (with each group working in a different time signature). They also explored hocketting melodies while passing sticks… at which point things start to get more complicated than the timeframe allowed! (More thoughts on hocketting here).

Activity 2 – Kecak

Next we learned the interlocking rhythms of the Balinese kecak (pronounced KECH-ahk). The Kecak isn’t really a game, but in the way that I teach it, it is learned quickly, and has playful properties in the characters it introduces. The three rhythms are essentially the same rhythm, but phased, so that each subsequent phrase is an eighth note out from the previous phrase. We learned them as three word-phrases, in order to lock the rhythms into our heads:

Rescue the princess.

We defeated him.

Give us Rawahna.

We discussed ways of extending these rhythmic ideas into a composition. Students suggested:

  • arranging the rhythms onto instruments
  • keeping the rhythms on body percussion and vocal sounds but indicating changes of section and instrumentation with a Gong sound (vocalised or using an instrument)
  • Developing new rhythmic phrases using new words
  • Creating new interlocking rhythms using the phasing technique.

The group that chose to explore this idea worked on the third suggestion, and invented three new rhythms/phrases (continuing the princess story), and played them on instruments in addition to vocalising. With more time available to explore, I’d be keen to encourage groups to work on the fourth suggestion, and explore first the idea of inventing a new rhythm (perhaps taking inspiration from the 2-2-1 grouping of the Kecak rhythms, and selecting different numbers of beats and maintaining an eighth-note rest in between each group), and then how to establish the phasing technique. These new rhythms could then be applied to instruments, and a composition developed that used only material from the original Kecak and the new rhythms, exploring different options for voicing and arranging the material.

Activity 3 – Work chant

Our last activity explored the rhythms of an East Timorese work chant. We discussed first the way that much of the traditional Timorese music that I learned about while living there evolved as an accompaniment to work, rather than as music for ritual, celebrations, or social gatherings. Work chants and songs eased the tedium of repetitive work, and also enabled workers to turn their work into a social interaction. I taught the MTeach group the Cele Cuku corn kerneling chant that I’ve used in a few workshops now. We learned the chant (I’d written the words up on the whiteboard so that people could read it and needn’t memorise it), and then explored the rhythmic properties of different verses by developing partnered clapping games/pieces to go with the words.

The partnered clapping patterns were great fun – by now people were being very inventive and playful, and their patterns included beats tapped on the floor, cross rhythms, and patterns that aligned particular sounds with particular words from the rhyme (creating yet more hocketting effects).

Ideas for extending the work chant idea into a larger composition included:  exploring ways of presenting the original chant and rhythms in canon; aligning particular pitches to particular words; and inviting students to write their own work chants, and build compositions from the rhythms of these chants. The latter is the idea that I explored in a jam in November last year with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Once you allow the possibility that the original game or activity is only a starting point for composition, and that the resulting new work might not necessarily include musical material from the starting point, then options really start to open up. I think it’s important to hand over that kind of ownership to participants quite early in the process, and it was interesting in the MTeach group that their interpretation of the task was (initially at least) one of needing to stay with the original musical material.

Rich tasks

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking a group of Master of Teaching students through some music games and tasks that I’ve collected from different parts of the world. The idea was to start with games and activities, but to then extend and develop the games into composition outcomes.

I think of the games that I use in workshops as ‘rich tasks’. That is, they have content that can be superficially fun and enjoyable, but when you look below the surface there is a whole lot of skill development and learning going on. They are also ‘rich’ because despite seeming easy and playful, they require you to keep on your toes and maintain your presence and focus. Break your focus, and you will start to falter.

Take my favourite warm up, for example. We start by passing a clap sound around the circle, one by one. Swiftly! I remind the group, and encourage them to make eye contact with the person they are passing the sound to. Then I ask them to change directions whenever they want, sending the sound either to the left or to the right. Then we change sounds – I love to use a ssshh sound, because this adds a further playful element, as people start to get into character, and offer very communicative, expressive sshhh-s. Around this time, as the sounds and directions change unpredictably, the group is beginning to improvise. They are responding to the sounds that have come before their own, and start to respond to the tension, release and arcs that are being formed.

Later you can add a sound that is sent across the circle, which requires steely eye contact, and invites a new, energised sound to be made (zap, zip, whoosh and ping are frequent suggestions). If someone makes a ‘wrong’ sound, sending it either across the circle to their left or right, this too is embraced, and becomes part of the ‘sound vocabulary’ of the game. Following this rule, you can have different sounds coming from every person in turn – the variety adds to the delight that the group feels then, when one of those new ‘sound offers’ is repeated by someone else.

Groups  that are working well together, where everyone is participating fully in the game, can continue with just these rules for quite extended periods of time, often developing some very interesting musical outcomes. However, I also like to add what I think of as powerful ‘whole ensemble unison’ moments into the texture. These work as question-and-answer moments. The person whose turn it is makes and agreed call and gesture (one I am fond of is a martial arts-inspired Hi-YAH!), to which the rest of the group responds with a stern and resonant Huh!, stamping one foot to the floor like a member of the All Blacks.

The sound-passing game is my first ‘rich task’, and I know lots of people know it already. It surprises me sometimes, when colleagues say things like, “Yeah, but I only do it with primary students”, as if it is inappropriate for older students, or “We were doing that back in the seventies!”, as if it is old hat. I find this game so effective precisely because it is such a stayer, and because there are so many ways to you can add to it and extend it.

Workshop at the kindergarten

On the last Thursday in Lospalos Tony and I did a creative workshop for the local kindergarten program at Esperanca Lorosa’e. We were accompanied by Kim, observing and photographing. The ANAM students and Holly had grabbed the opportunity to head to the beach with UNPOL.

We arrived there with the help of the Motolori boys. We’d borrowed a wheelbarrow to help us transport all the instruments from home into town, and as we stacked it high with chime bars, kakalos, drums and boxes of bottles, the local boys who weren’t at school jumped at the opportunity to wheel it into town.

This was the day after the burglary and its resolution, and our sense of being welcome and a part of the community continued that morning. The boys assigned one of their group to be the ‘driver’ (and indeed, the person they assigned the role was a skilled and steady driver); others carried the chime bar bags, others the buckets, and still others were happy just to walk with us and be part of the group.

There are lots of people out and about at 9am, and many people asked our little band, “Where are you going?” “To the kindergarten, to do music with the children,” came our reply. At which they would smile and wave.

As often happens when we arrive somewhere new, things were a bit chaotic at the beginning. We were there before the teachers, and before most of the children, so at first we were just waiting out the front, standing in the shade under a tree. Then one of the teachers arrived and she opened up the big room and invited us to put our things out. The room was the same one we’d used for the English language class project two days earlier. There was a large dark-blue, dusty tarpaulin on the floor at one end of the room, and the other end had some long tables lining the wall so we arranged our instruments there. Our team of helpers stayed in the room. Gradually other parents, children, and teachers began to arrive.

The teachers started the class. All the children assembled on the blue tarpaulin mat (old but not dusty, I discovered – just faded). The lead teacher, Tina, stood at the front and called them to attention. She asked a series of questions, building up their energy and motivation for their morning at school.

“Are you going to be good today or not?

“Good!” they chorused.

“Are you ready to learn or not?”


“Do you come to school to be educated or not?”


It sounds harsher than it was – I’ve noticed this kind of “or not” questioning pattern is a key part of teachers’ group leadership strategies in Timor, and it is often quite fun. If the response the children give isn’t loud or enthusiastic enough, the teacher will ask the same question again, bringing the volume or the tone of voice up a notch. I even started to use the pattern myself in some workshops!

Then they sang some songs with actions. She asked someone to nominate a song they’d like to sing. I already was familiar with the songs from this kinder, thanks to young Dona’s daily performance of them on my verandah back in my first weeks in Lospalos.

After the singing, she settled them down again, and explained that today they would have visitors. There were some very nice music teachers from overseas who were going to do some music with them. It would be fun, she told them. And, she reminded them, there is no need to be scared! These malae might be new people but they are very nice people, so there is no need to be shy. If one of them asks you your name, you can just tell them your name. You don’t need to get upset.

I was quite amused by this introduction and translated it for Tony as best I could, while listening out for the next gentle admonishment of fear she gave them.


We ventured over to the group, with just our instruments – me with the clarinet, Tony with his sax and flute. I asked the teacher if we could sit in a circle, and she quickly instructed the children to sit in a circle. The other two teachers helped, as did some of the many parents who were milling around, watching the whole class.

In fact, there wasn’t room for everyone in the circle. Some of edges had two rows of children, and Tony and I ended up positioning ourselves in the middle. We’d decided to start with just our instruments, as a way of introducing ourselves initially. We smiled at each other, and Tony started to play.

One girl almost immediately burst into loud racking panicked sobs. On reflection, perhaps it was all too overwhelming. This strange pale-skinned man, taller than anyone she’d ever seen before, making noises on a strange instrument she’d never seen before. It was a lot to take in. Other people just stared, open-eyed and tight-lipped.

I then played the clarinet. I decided to play a tune that I hoped was familiar, the song Ikan hotu nani iha bee that I’d learned from Dona months earlier. (Truth be told, I could never be 100% sure if I had the melody right. Dona’s preference is to sing all her songs at the absolute top of her voice, and the melodic contour only began to be revealed after a large number of listens – and even then, only an approximation of a contour. So perhaps my version wasn’t all that familiar after all!)

Tony unpacked the saxophone and joined in with me on this melody. At its conclusion, we put down the instruments and smiled at everyone. I introduced us, and asked everyone to try saying our names. They got ‘Tony’ fine (it’s a common nickname in Timor apparently) but they struggled with ‘Gillian’ and were very hesitant with ‘Gill’. Mine is a difficult name for people to get their heads – or tongues – around here.

Ram sam sam

I asked if they would like to sing a new song with us. “Do you want to or not?” I asked, echoing their teacher’s style of questioning.

“Want to!” they answered, uncertainly.

“Do you want to or not?” I asked again brightly.

“Want to!” they called back, this time with a bit more energy, and with reinforcements from the assembled watching parents.

So we learned Ram Sam Sam. I taught them the words on their own, the children repeating after me, with the actions. Then we added the melody, and sang the song through. They seemed to be engaging well at this point, with most people joining in with both the singing and the actions, or just one element. I decided to got further.

“This time,” I suggested, “When we sing the words ‘ram sam sam’, we all have to stand up. When we sing the other words, we have to stay down.” I squatted down so that I was balancing just on my toes, poised to spring up. “I’m going to sit like this, so that I can stand up quickly.” The teachers bustled around, encouraging the children to copy my position.

In this way we sang the song again, springing up on the words ‘Ram sam sam’ and squatting back done for ‘goolly goolly’ and ‘ah ravi’. After a few rounds of the song, they had the hang of it well. I started to get ambitious. We had so many children, and so many helpers – could we try the next stage?

We divided the group into two halves – half with me and the lead teacher, the other half with Tony and the other two teachers. Tony’s group would continue to stand up on ‘ram sam sam’, but my group would now stand up on ‘goolly goolly goolly’.

I could see everyone – the teachers and the children and Tony, who hadn’t yet been given a translation of what I’d said – looking a bit confused. “Tony and I will demonstrate,” I proposed, and gave the bewildered Tony a quick explanation of what to do. We sang the song facing each other, and he sprang up, as required, every time the words ‘ram sam sam’ were sung, followed by me springing up on all the ‘goolly goolly goollies’. We then tried it with the whole group, and sang it through two times, and ended with laughter – some relieved, some confused, and we all sat down on the floor again.


After a few moment of general dispelling of energy (chatter, movement) I pulled the group’s focus back to me again by clapping a rhythm. It’s a common tactic in classrooms in Australia, but I’m not sure how familiar it is in Timor. The great thing about this tactic is that you only need one confident person to know what to do – everyone else ends up following their lead.

On this occasion, my one confident person was Tony. The teachers and some of the parents saw what he was doing and followed suit, and gradually the children figured it out and joined in too. Thus, without words or explanation, we segued into some very satisfying ‘call-and-response’ rhythmic work.

This got us warmed up and ready for our body percussion rainstorm. I started by tapping two fingers into the palm of my hand, and gesturing for everyone to copy, and do it at the same time as me. Taking their cues from my changes, we moved from two-finger clapping into whole-hand clapping, then into patsching [hands hitting thighs], then chest beating, and then, after counting 1-2-3-4 out loud and with my fingers, everyone did a jump, creating the sound of thunder.

We cycled through these sounds a few times then returned to two-finger clapping. There was a lot of talking among the parent group that was making it difficult to get a real sense of the sound of rain being created by the finger claps.

“Everyone can do this,” I said, “all the mums, dads, grandparents, older brothers and sisters – everyone!” A few more people joined in.

“Listen now!” I said next, in a quiet, almost-whispering voice. “If I listen carefully – very, very carefully – I can hear the rain coming. Can you hear the rain?” I paused, and I could see I was starting to get their attention with this question. It wasn’t raining that day – it was fine and sunny. To make them connect with their imaginations this way I had to completely commit to the idea.

“Can you hear the rain?” I asked again. “Try, with no talking, and only this sound. Try to hear the rain.” The finger clapping continued and the talking got a little quieter. Smiles of complicity were starting to appear on some of adults’ faces.

Magic, and the magic of sound, is such an important element in early childhood music, and that’s what we were trying to create here. We paused the clapping for a moment so that I could leave the circle. I came back with the two boxes of thunder-makers.

“Now we can make a big rain [udan boot],” I told them. “Here I have something new, that will help us to make thunder.” I’d just checked this word quickly in the dictionary, and glanced at one of the teachers to check I’d said it right.

Rai-taratu,” he corrected, and I repeated it after him. I’d said rai-tatura.

I took the two thunder-makers out of their boxes and demonstrated how to make the sound, by letting the long spring spin around in small circles, without touching the floor.

“Who would like to make the thunder?” I asked. (I got the word wrong again – rai-taruta. “Rai-taratu!” one of the smiling mums called out to me. I just could not make that word stay in my head. That same mum corrected me each time I said it wrong. I loved her – she was completely entering into the fun of the whole session and thought it hilarious that I found so many ways to get this one word wrong).

The teachers were quick to identify two children to be the thunder-makers. The length of the spring meant that these little kids had to hold the thunder-maker way above their heads in order to create the sound. Ideally, we’d have had a couple of low chairs or ArtPlay-style boxes for them to stand on.

We were ready to create our rainstorm. I asked – with a hand cue – the thunder-makers to start their sounds. Then we began the two-fingered clapping. Following my cues we went through the cycle of sounds, climaxing with the 1-2-3-4 finger cue for the jump, at which point we went back to the two-fingered clapping and performed each of the sounds again. We ended the rainstorm quietly, with two-fingered clapping, ssshh wind sounds, and the gradual petering out of the thunder.

I could see that by now other children would be wanting to try the thunder-makers out, so we repeated the rainstorm with new performers. The children were completely engaged by this piece now (though some of the adults continued to have conversations – the culture of silence during music performances is a Western thing, I think).

Instrument jam

In the last part of our workshop we wanted to give every child the opportunity to play an instrument. With Kim’s help and that of the teachers, we brought all the instruments we had with us into the centre of the circle and began giving them out. It can be hard to distribute instruments. Many children – especially girls – shy away if you approach them. You have to watch for the tiniest little signals they give out that they are actually hoping to be offered one, but need you to make the first move. Sometimes it is a tiny hand gesture, sometimes it is just the way they meet your eye. We gave out everything, including each of the chime bars individually, and lots of pairs of bamboo clapping sticks, but we still didn’t have quite enough to go around. I figured we would do a swap midway through the activity. In any case, I knew that Timorese children are very good at initiating their own swaps.

We didn’t try to establish different groups or contrasting rhythms in this activity. We revisited the ‘call-and-response’ rhythms that we’d used earlier, and I also taught them the cues “1-2-3-4-STOP!” [1-2-3-4-PARA!] and 1-2-3-PLAY! [1-2-3-TOKA]. We tried to get a really clean stop to the sound and for a bunch of 3- and 4-year olds, holding instruments en masse for the first time, they did extremely well.

I sang the song Ah ya zahn and Tony and I taught them the rhythmic responses:

Ah ya zahn [ti-ti ta]

Ah ya zahn [ti-ti ta]

Ah ya zahn el abedin [ti-ti ta]

Ya whirr [ti-ti ta]

Ya whirr in fata, baya el basadin [ti-ti ta]

It’s not completely straightforward because they need to listen carefully to the song and the length of the melodic phrases to know when to play the [ti-ti ta] rhythm responses. It takes a few tries, and by now the group was showing some early signs of tiredness.

However, they got it. The song has quite a Middle Eastern, melismatic feel to the melody and I love singing it and playing up to that quality. It got the attention of the adults as well as the children as it is such a different musical sound to their own children’s songs (although has some relationship to Arabic-influenced Indonesian pop). Some of the adults started to join in with the song as they became more familiar with the words.

We interspersed the song with whole-ensemble playing, where the group just repeated the [ti-ti ta] rhythm over and over in unison, until I called the 1-2-3-4-PARA! cue. In this way, we established a sense of structure and the discipline of not playing instruments at the same time as singing. They also improved their ability to stop together on cue, and play together on cue. Midway through the activity we called for an instrument swap so that children could try some different things.

Finishing up

By the end of the instrument jam we were all tired. We asked the children to come forward with their instruments and place them in the middle of the mat, then I suggested to Tina that we could finish with a song that the children already knew, all together. “Could we sing ikan hotu nani iha bee?” I asked. There was a little confusion at first, where she told the children I would teach them the song, but this wasn’t my intention – they already knew it! I wanted us to do something familiar, all together, as a way of finishing. Tina and I had a quick conversation where I clarified this, and asked if she was happy to lead this singing. She was, and so together we all sang the song, complete with actions.

However, I still didn’t get to clarify the intended melody of the song! It still wasn’t clear.

At the end of the workshop all the children and parents went outside for their break. Timorese schools and kinders usually have a group of women, and sometimes children, who wait outside school from before classes start and until classes end, selling things like katupa rice packs, and other home-made and mass-produced snacks.

We chatted with the three teachers for a while. They thanked us for coming, and said how much they and the children had enjoyed it. I thanked them too, reminding them that I’d only approached them the day before about doing this workshop, and how wonderful it was that they were able to make space for us so quickly and make us feel so welcome. Later, in a more detailed conversation with Kim, they told her that this had been their first experience of this kind of creative music activity for young children and they wished they could have time to work with me again. This is a very professional and serious group of teachers – they take part in professional development courses with the Mary MacKillop organisation (who do a lot of work in the area of early childhood development) and they are quietly ambitious, I would say, about the potential for the program they are running, and the possibilities they are able to offer the young children they teach. It’s a shame that my time in Lospalos has for the most part coincided with the kindergarten school holidays.

Getting home again

We were relieved to find that one of our Motolori boys was still hanging around, and he offered to drive the loaded-up wheelbarrow home for us. Of course, one of us could have done it, but I think the Timorese youngsters take pride in helping out and doing these jobs for the adults they like or have a relationship with. This boy found it heavy-going and stopped several times to have a rest. Kim bought some bread rolls and snacks on the way home so that we could thank him with some food.

As we crossed the bridge and neared our house all the other neighbouring boys appeared and took over the wheelbarrow steering. Their presence and keen-ness led to another mini-jam on the verandah because there was no way they would be happy to unload all the instruments and not get to play them. Anyway, we were truly appreciative of their help, and by now were starting to see how seriously they took on responsibility of caring for the instruments as they unpacked them, played them, and packed them up again at the end.

Trust, comfort zones and challenges

The day after the Sound Safari workshop, I was up in Armidale NSW, working with the Sydney Wind Collective – this year’s AYO Wind Quintet, who were in residence at the New England Conservatorium of Music. We worked with 15 young woodwind players – a group of musicians aged 10 to 19, playing flutes clarinets, saxophones, and even three French Horns – a wonderful palette of colours! We composed music inspired by Ross Edwards’ wind quintet Incantations.

I had an interesting experience on this project that led me to reflect on how much project facilitators should push or challenge individual participants. When you are working with young people that you are meeting for the first time in the project, you need to assess this on the spot.

In this project, we had a young flautist who was studying music as a second-year at the local university. A pretty serious player. In the same group, we had some fairly inexperienced musicians. “We need to ensure that we offer these more experienced players suitable challenges,” I reminded the AYO players who were leading that particular group of participants.

Later that day, I was observing where they were up to with their piece. “I think it needs a solo,” I suggested to the group. “Annabel” – I turned to the flautist from the university – “would you like to do a solo in this section?”

Annabel agreed – not with any particular enthusiasm or delight, it must be said. But she is a quiet girl, and not easy to read. Was she happy to be asked and offered this role but reacting in a reluctant way because she was not the type to push herself forward? Or was she horrified by the suggestion and hiding her reaction out of politeness?

Annabel’s solo became a focus for the group in that next working session. It was an opportunity to model to the AYO players as well as the other participants in the group some ways that you can set about inventing your own melody. However, Annabel found it a truly challenging experience, I think. It was an experience she did not withdraw from exactly, but perhaps it highlighted lots of insecurities she had about her own musical ideas, or about her ability to work away from the printed notes that someone else had written for her.

“I just hate improvising,” she told us at one point, half-smiling in a slightly self-deprecating way as she said it. We had discussed that this was improvising in order to help us – her – come up with a unique solo to include in her group’s piece. She wouldn’t be improvising in the concert, we assured her. But despite her reluctance, whenever I, or one of the AYO players, suggested another possible tactic or inventing strategy, she went along with it. Again I wondered, was this out of politeness, or a deeply-felt hope that we would stick with her while she crossed a big emotional hurdle?

Improvising and inventing can feel an enormous emotional hurdle to many young classically-trained musicians. You spend you whole playing life learning to play the notes right, to accurate reproduce the music that is printed on the page. You read, and you memorise, but you rarely get asked to create your own part. Your musical success (and therefore confidence) is nearly always tied up in your ability to play the right notes.

It was a slow process, inventing melodic ideas that could take Annabel from bar 1 to 16, following the shape of the accompanying harmonic progression and keeping a given rhythmic figure as her central anchoring idea. We included a repeating figure that she’d experimented with in an earlier improvisation and some tension-building long notes, and after quite an intense, focused, but also somewhat cajoled process we created a very satisfying solo melody together.

I couldn’t really tell how she felt about the work we had just done. It wasn’t clear to me if she was unhappy, excruciated, relieved, or even secretly pleased with herself. She’d told us she hated improvising, but I’d kept her at it regardless, as it was only through trying out some ideas that she would be able to invent a melody of her own to play. I hoped she felt it was worth it.

This all happened at the end of the first day. That evening, I wrote Annabel’s solo out for her on manuscript paper. I gave it to her the next morning, and hoped that it clarified for her the process we had been through – improvising yes, but as a means to an end.

She was genuinely pleased the next day when she saw her solo written out in notation. It made her ideas concrete, I think, and substantial. It took the pressure off her to remember everything she’d come up with, and she played it beautifully. At first she started it with it on a music stand, but later moved it to the floor. By that stage she was only glancing at it occasionally – I think she had almost memorised it by the time of the performance in the afternoon of the second day.

At the end of the performance Annabel came and thanked me, and said how much she’d enjoyed the project. She seemed genuinely happy and appreciative. It seemed to me that despite (or because of) the challenges I had put her through, she trusted me. I felt that she should feel particularly proud of herself and told her so. It’s not easy to step into new things in music where you are completely out of your comfort zone, I told her. I know it! So she had been courageous, and that makes her success in performance even sweeter.

But I’m telling this story because, despite her success, I’m not sure I’d play it the same way next time. I wouldn’t want such a situation to end up as some kind of power struggle, with me suggesting ideas and the young person just blocking and refusing them (I don’t think I’d let that happen… but it’s important to consider it as an unintended possible consequence). It’s true that as an outsider, a visitor to a group, you have to work with your instincts and trust in the responses you have to the environment and people. Instincts in workshops are informed by all your past experiences and the way you have processed and reflected on these. But is it the role of an outsider to offer these kinds of challenges when they are not going to be able to sustain their support and interest, simply because they won’t be around for long? It may be that the visitor is the ideal person to assert these kinds of challenges. Fresh ideas, a different energy, a special context for the ideas – visiting artists can invite new responses from participants than they normally feel able to give, and can inspire freedom from habitual response patterns. It’s an intense responsibility at times!


Two Fridays ago I co-led an all-day professional learning workshop for teachers on composing in the classroom for Musica Viva. Called Sound Safari, the course takes teachers through a range of possible musical starting points for interesting composition work.

We had a box of instruments to help us explore some of the tasks, and for the first time, I found myself enjoying boomwhackers and the possibilities they offer. If you aren’t familiar with boomwhackers, they are tubes of plastic cut to particular lengths so that when you bang them on the floor/your hand/your knee/your shoe etc, a specific pitch is sounded.

I’m not a big fan of them because – like any set of instruments that comes in different sizes, the students are completely focused on getting the biggest one. I don’t find the sound they make particularly inspiring. Young students also aren’t often immediately drawn to the sound, only to the size and the action of hitting it on something.

In our workshop, however, we explored using them in pairs. We were doing a composing task with words that use the letters of the musical alphabet (A-G). One of the teachers and I decided to play out the words CAGE and FEED.

We sat facing each other. We had 3 boomwhackers each – I had C, G and D, she had A, E and F.

We played the words as straight crotchets. We held one boomwhacker in each hand, and had the third pitch on the floor in front of us. After playing CAGE we had to put one boomwhacker down and pick up our third – once we got the hang of the coordination it was quite a good spectacle, I think!

I played (using ‘|’ to indicate a crotchet rest):

C | G |

| | | D

And swapped the G for the D after I’d played it. My partner played:

| A | E

F E E |

And swapped the A for the F after she’d played it.

It took us sometime to work out the best way to coordinate the boomwhacker swap. This kind of work in pairs has heaps of possibilities for extension in classrooms. After students have worked out how to coordinate the notes of two words between them, can they add a third word? Can they at some stage in their performance swap letters so that they reverse their roles (like jugglers?) Could they start to incorporate more interesting rhythms than just straight crotchets? Could they add some body percussion, claps or patsching? Can they go on to harmonise their words?

I wouldn’t say I’m converted completely to the boomwhacker cult, and I don’t know if the Pelican students would have the patience to figure out a routine like this without a great deal of adult support… but I can see that they offer some very engaging creative outcomes, and have quite a unique timbre that definitely has a place. Worth experimenting with!

The oral (aural) tradition

Another recurrent theme at ISME this year was about reconnecting with, and bringing back into the mainstream, the oral tradition of passing on musical knowledge. Bruno Nettl, one of our keynote speakers, pointed out that this is the established system of teaching and learning in the vast majority of musical cultures around the world. Yet in western art music, and its associated teaching traditions, the emphasis is more commonly on music literacy being one of decoding and encoding music notation, and that this comes before proficiency on the instrument.

For me, what is commonly called the oral tradition is just as aptly named the aural tradition because it focuses so heavily on the ears. I’ve learned some music skills this way – certainly all the skills I have as a percussionist have been learned through playing alongside others more skilled than myself. However, this has been coupled with the specialist music knowledge already embedded in my brain which allows me to link up concepts, map out ideas for myself in order to make sense of them, and memorise patterns by encoding them in my head using my music theory knowledge. This links back to Tony Lewis’ presentation at the CDIME [Cultural Diversity in Music Education] conference in Sydney, January 2010. Tony described three ways of learning, or three systems of knowledge – ontological, where you learn by doing, by being there and present and participating; epistemological, which is where you call upon your pre-existing knowledge and knowing in order to analyse, map, theorise and build concepts in the new discipline you are encounters; and dialogical, where these two approaches combine. (I’ve written more about Tony’s ideas in this earlier post).

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Teaching to suit the needs of learners

A theme that emerged in both the CMA and Main ISME conferences was that of the need to modify the way we teach, or the way teaching and learning processes and systems can be extended/adjusted to respond to the needs of particular student cohorts. It probably emerged as a theme for me because my two presentations fitted within this area – I’ve been researching the particular needs and perceptions of newly-arrived children (refugees and immigrants) in a transitional English Language-focus school, and the way that I’ve adjusted my teaching approach to better meet their needs.

The paper I presented at CMA looked at issues of understanding and meaning that can arise in creative work with young new arrivals when English language skills are minimal, or not present. There are lots of ways students can participate in music lessons, but we are engaging in creative (composition) work, inventing and suggesting ideas, I wanted to explore how much the students could make sense of the processes we were using. At the ISME main conference I focused on the specific ways I have changed my creative music pedagogy to allow for greater transfer of information through non-verbal, environmental scaffolds and means.

In Ireland, the Traveller community is a minority group with a strong musical culture of their own, and their music traditions played an important role in the oral music tradition of Ireland, sharing and preserving songs from all around the country over the centuries. The formal education system does not sufficiently support Traveller students (if their under-representation in middle and higher learning institutions is taken as evidence). Travellers could be described ‘non-traditional learners’. Julie Tiernan, a CMA delegate from Ireland, presented detailed description of an access course designed for Traveller students, using what she called a “blended learning” process at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. It utilised online learning and contact, phone and face to face contact, skype tutorials, immersion weekends, reflective journals and CD-Rom lectures. The delivery of the course content was flexible so that students could work at their own pace, however – equally importantly – there was ongoing support and encouragement for students from staff  who pushed them to stay on track and expect great results from themselves. It’s an inspired example of the level of detail universities and other formal learning institutions can go to if they are serious about addressing issues of access for minority groups or ‘non-traditional learners’.

At the ISME main conference, Sophia Aggelidou from Greece described the perceptions that Roma students in a remote encampment/town outside Thessaloniki have of music learning in school. She stated at the outset that Roma children are missing out in the Greek education system. At this particular school, 75% of the children are Roma, with the remaining 25% being a mixture of immigrants and local people. The town is not easy to access, and is known colloquially (and perhaps disparagingly as “the gypsy town”). The school is dilapidated and uncared-for. Different music teachers have taught there, but only ever for a year at a time before being moved on (at least on two occasions, the transfer to another school was against the teacher’s wishes). There was no music teacher there at the time of the research.

The research investigated the musical lives of the Roma children, and what their musical realities are. It revealed that they feel a strong connection to music in their lives, but that music in school leaves them cold. They enjoy pop, rock and hip-hop, but it is the artists from their own culture (heard in the home environment) that they identify with most strongly. They want to learn music, to learn to play an instrument. They are highly engaged by creative, alternative ways of learning, including hands-on tasks and collaborative processes. However, the more formal teaching and learning processes that are more common in this school do not engage them, and there is a high drop-out rate. In the family community there is little schooling or literacy among adults. However, Roma students consistently enrol in primary school – indicating that schooling and education is something that they do see as important and valuable. The speaker felt that their perceptions of music learning would correlate to their perceptions of school in general – they are ready to learn, but need processes and pedagogies that are tailored to their strengths and abilities.

I attended a workshop presented by a Norwegian delegate who has been working for many years in a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Professor Vegar Storsve presented a project that delivers music education among refugees, with the involvement of pre-service teachers and musicians. It’s a fantastic program (read more about it in this article) that offers cultural exchange between young adults, older adults, children, teenagers. Skills are taught and shared in all directions, with the Norwegians teaching music and instruments from their culture, and the Palestinian musicians returning the gesture in kind. I liked Professor Storsve’s description of the kind of musical score they have developed over the years for these projects. In Norwegian it is called a FLERBRUKSARRANGEMENT – meaning multi-function score, and it is the same kind of score that I develop for the Jams I lead for families at Federation Square throughout the year. It’s music that has many possible lines, adapted to suit the abilities of the project participants. One- or two-note parts, ostinato parts, chord progression parts, more complex lines, and opportunities for improvised solos. Everything is learned by ear, and everyone learns more than one part. All the learning takes place in one room – a wonderful (if challenging) cacophony of intensity and concentration.

As creative teachers, we know the importance of adjusting and adapting content within the flow of the lesson, in response to the way our students are engaging with the material. However, the many pressures that exist within the school system – to produce measurable results, the emphasis on standardised testing, the ever-crowded curriculum, the trends that see things like music and arts being squeezed out of the curriculum or forced to compromise their ideals in order to give everyone a turn – mean that there is not always the capacity to respond to the different needs in a single class, especially when there is a huge difference of need and learning style preference among the cohort.

Perhaps community musicians are better placed to respond to these needs and preferences, as they frequently work outside the mainstream, and frequently with people who are themselves somewhat on the fringes of mainstream society. The particular needs that were described in my papers about new arrivals, Julie’s work in Ireland with Travellers, and the Roma students in Greece would all perhaps be met by the “creative practitioners” described in Galton’s 2006 study into the pedagogies of creative practitioners in schools (a must-read). Are schools always the best place for engaged, committed learning by students?