Archive for the ‘choir’ Tag

With one voice

This year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival took the Big Jam concept (opening the festival with a large, outdoor, audience participation music event) in a new direction with ‘With One Voice’. ‘With One Voice’ invited singers from a range of music traditions, all of whom use improvisation in their work, to teach a sample of their tradition to the audience. The Festival invited me to lead and facilitate the event, and devise a musical finale that would draw the different artists’ music together.

With One Voice took place on 2 June and opened with Lamine Sonko.

Lamine is an amazing performer, a Senegalese culture-keeper who is now based in Melbourne. He got us all dancing, clapping, and singing in Wolof language.

Next came the SKIN choir, a Melbourne-based indigenous choir that sings of urban indigenous experience. Each of the choir members is a professional singer-songwriter in their own right.

They taught a song from the Torres Strait Islands; the audience kept one of the lines going while the choir broke into parts, then drew us back together again in the chorus. “They were the stars of the show,” an audience member said to me later.

I found it hard to choose the star of the show though! Next on was Katie Noonan (also MC for the event) who taught the audience to sing the South African protest song Senzenina. Katie then improvised over the top, then invited Lamine to improvise, and invited members of the audience onto the stage to sing alongside the SKIN choir.

Lisa Young took us into an entirely new world. Lisa is a specialist in South Indian vocal percussion, konakol. She deftly divided the crowd into 4 separate groups, taught a part to each group then cued us all in and out while she soloed over the top. The rhythms are spoken, but pitch (high, middle, low, bending, swooping, etc) is important and adds a lot of shape and expression to each line.

For the finale, Katie performed her song Breathe in now, a song about being in the moment, open and present. We layered in the SKIN choir chant from the Torres Strait, Lamine’s clapping movement, and Lisa’s konakol rhythms as an accompaniment to the song. The audience got to revisit everything they’d learned in the last hour and bring it all together in a new context. It was beautiful. The sun was shining, the crowd of 1000 or so was singing their hearts out, and all those different traditions were drawn together. Perhaps a favourite moment for me was hearing Lamine and Lisa trade their respective vocal rhythm traditions in rapid, virtuosic exchange as the music soared into the final chorus of Breathe in Now.

“Mud-brick… cow-dung…”

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.

Training my choir (and getting away with it)

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.

Children’s voice – choosing new instruments

When the Pelican Primary School Choir sang at the Mayor’s Christmas event last week, we received a performance fee of $400, to put towards new instruments. There are lots of instruments I wanted to buy, and to have in the music room – and with the current excellent Christmas sales on at the moment, it seemed a perfect time to stock up on djembes for the school.

However, I was inspired by the half-day conference that I attended last Friday on Children’s Rights, and decided to let the Choir members decide how the money should be spent. These are not children who engage well in discussion (they tend to get fairly boisterous, fairly quickly), but I decided to give it a go.

Initially, I’d hoped to get a representative from the music shop to visit the school during choir time, with a van full of instruments for them to inspect and choose from. I’d imagined how I would prepare a kind of Preference Sheet for them, with pictures of the instruments, and price per unit, so that they could mark the ones they liked best and see if they could make their choices add up to $400. It would have been a nice integrated class for them, draing aupon an authentic task.

However, it was too close to the end of the year to organise something like this.

Part of me just wanted to order five djembes and be done with it. I know they will get used, I know the kids will like them…. I really had to wrestle with this side of myself, as I knew it was driven partly by convenience and simplicity.

In the end, I concocted the following plan:

  • I drew a list of 6 instrument options on the board (all things that I knew we didn’t have and could make great use of), and placed alongside each picture the instrument cost.
  • I told them they had $400 to spend.
  • We talked about how the small djembes were half the price of the big djembes, that the big ones might sound better, but that the small ones were a good size for the younger students and still sounded pretty good;
  • We talked about how we could buy a new xylophone or metallaphone, but that this would use up all of our money on one instrument (but that this was a very popular instrument for all the students).
  • We tried out some combinations of instruments and costs on the board as examples.
  • Then I gave each child a piece of paper, and asked them to list their three favourite instruments, numbered 1-3. They could propose how many of each instrument they would like to buy too.
  • I then placed a mark beside each instrument that was voted for. We looked at the most popular choices and worked out some possible combinations of instruments and quantities. We voted on our favourite and emerged with a clear winner.

The adding up proved too hard for most of them. But that didn’t matter. I am also not sure how many of them understood that they were being asked to choose the instruments because they had sung in a special concert and been paid. (Having said that some of them understood. They kept asking why they couldn’t just have the money).

In the end, they chose:

  • three small djembes
  • a vibraslap
  • a large cabassa
  • a pair of juju shakers (made from seed pods).

I think they were very money-conscious in their choices – most made a point of choosing the less expensive instruments. However, they all liked the idea of a new metallaphone – they just didn’t understand that this would use up all their budget.

It was a great exercise and I’m glad I asked for their input. It’s the right way to make these choices, I’m sure. Here are some examples of their ballot papers:

Things the Pelican Primary School Choir learned at their concert

Last night the Pelican Primary School Choir gave their first public performance under my direction. They were invited to sing at a special Mayor’s Community Function, for the local city hall. They were the only child performers (no other schools were there), and they were the only performance item  – the other musical performers were roving jazz musicians.

They performed beautifully, and were incredibly chuffed with themselves. The entire experience was a positive one, in which lots was learned. I rely on these kinds of experiences to make sense of music learning for the children. They provide context for everything they do with me in class, and provide a strong motivation for working hard in music classes. Here are some of the things I think were learned or revealed last night.

1. This was an authentic performance experience.

They performed to an audience of adults. A sympathetic audience, yes, but not made up of parents or teachers or other members of the school community. These were strangers giving the Pelicans their full attention, who responded with delight to the performance. This was not something just for kids, playing at being a performance. This was a real, serious, important, formal event, at which they were the stars.

2. They have to place their trust in the conductor

Before we performed I gave them the little pep talk I give all the child performers I work with. “Once we are on the stage,” I told them, “I want you to give me your whole focus. Look at me. Other people might be taking photos, or smiling, and you might think it is polite to look at them. But I want you to look at me. After we have finished performing, there will be lots of time for smiling and photos. But while we are singing, I want you to only think about the songs, and to keep your eyes on me.”

I think children need to hear this. They need to be reminded that a performance space is a precious, ephemeral space, that they are in control of. They need permission to look away from the eagerly supportive parent who is urging them to smile for the camera.

They also need to trust me, that I will support them and help them give the best possible performance. I reassure them that if they get out there and feel strange or nervous or unsure, all they need to do is look at me, and I will be able to help them. I will be able to mouth the words, to show them where we are up to. I will be able to smile at them, and help them relax. I will not take my eyes away from them for a second.

3. They learned that I can cover any mistakes, so that this is not a burden or stress they need to carry

One girl had an additional role – she played the metalophone at the start of one of the songs. She was very nervous when the time came, and only looked at me for a second before looking down at her instrument. She started to play before I had counted her in, so I joined in with her. She got confused about the number of repetitions in the chord structure, so began to change chords at random.

I could tell she was confused. I accompanied her, following her irregular changes, but all the while, whenever she got back to the first chord in the progression, whispering the repetition numbers to her (as we had practised them) until she got back on track. Then we repeated the progression a few more times, so that she could hear it was indeed solid and steady and fine.

She also learned that she had to keep going, until she found her way through the confusion. I could help her with this, but she also found the confidence to keep going, rather than to falter and stop. That instrumental section returned three times throughout the piece, and every other time she performed it perfectly. At the end she gave me a tiny smile of relief and, I think, pride.

4. They learned the importance of presenting themselves with poise

We organised ourselves into a line to walk out in. We planned how the children playing instruments would leave their places in the formation, and how they would return to them at the end of the song. We talked about standing with two feet evenly on the ground, hands by sides, looking towards me. They did all of this so beautifully, I think the two teachers from the school who’d come with us were quite taken aback.

I think most people in the audience fell a little bit in love with my soloist on the night. This was a little Grade Two boy, with a bright and confident manner, who sang the opening verse to our final song before being joined by the rest of the choir. I asked him to stand in front of the choir when he sang his solo, and to step back into the line when his solo was finished. I never needed to remind him of this, he did it exactly as I had asked, each time. Very professional!

As he sang, he sang out. He sang in a confident voice. He smiled as he stepped back into line. Hearts melted (although I expect his parents’ hearts swelled with pride).

On reflection, he was the perfect choice as a soloist (and to be honest, I am still new enough in the school that I don’t always know how individuals will react when I pose a challenge for them). He took it seriously, and he never once doubted himself. He never giggled or got self-conscious. He never let himself get distracted by other children in rehearsals trying to distract him. And thus, he created the perfect template for the choir of what it means to do a solo, and what it requires of you.

And of course, when we present ourselves with poise and confidence, we enhance our feelings of confidence. Perhaps, even if only on a subtle level, the students also learned this.

5. They learned what they have to offer

This is a school where many students struggle. They may struggle with life skills, or academically, or socially, or because they are under-nourished, or because they don’t get much attention in their big chaotic families. Taking part in this concert, and being applauded, showed them that they have much to offer, especially when they work together. The music for this concert – four songs, all with actions or arrangements to be memorised – was worked on over many weeks. I fervently, strenuously hope that they might now recognise how all of those weeks was a progression towards this kind of outcome, and how great outcomes like this are completely within their reach, when they put in the work.

6. They learned that I have expectations of them…

… and that I won’t accept less. That this is what being in an ensemble means, and that we are only going to do it in an authentic, meaningful way. That the fun comes while you’re working hard. And that I am very proud of them.

They also will soon learn that these kinds of performances bring further rewards. The local council paid us a performance fee and we are going to put that towards some new instruments. Today I talked with one of the local music stores about bringing a selection of instruments up to the school during choir time so that the choir people can help select what we buy with that money. This way, they will get to enjoy the material contribution they have made to the school through their hard word too. I’m planning to put together a price check-list for them, and let them circle the instruments they think we should buy (up to the maximum money we have to spend). I’ll then make the final decision.