Archive for the ‘classroom music’ Tag

Last week’s concert project

I posted earlier last week about the schools concert project that I have been working on with the Academy musicians. The project was completed last week and was a great success. We tried to create an experience for the young people that would be memorable and highly engaging, and that invited them to participate in some way in the concert event. But equally importantly, I wanted this to be a project that the Academy musicians would benefit from, that they would find inspiring and enjoyable, and not a burden that felt far removed from their usual performance work at the Academy.

Here are some of the things that we got right, that I feel are significant. If we were to put together a template for successful children’s concerts, these would be included:

1. The Academy students felt a strong sense of ownership over the concert.

The whole idea for this concert was developed in consultation with three elected student body representatives, with decisions about repertoire and programming themes involving all the participating musicians. We considered how the timeframe for the project would best work (keeping it all in one week, and allowing individual practice time on each of the days where there would be project contact time required); preferred audience size; and ways of creating strong engagement with the music. They were involved in selecting repertoire, and were responsible for choosing the extracts of the pieces that they would perform in the concert. We had a meeting/rehearsal prior to undertaking the classroom visits to all the students attending the concert, and after discussing some general ideas, the students divided into teams of 2 or 3 and developed their own plans of what they’d like to include in their visits to the classrooms.

As part of their overall brief, I asked them to include points of reference about what the children could expect in the concert – what they would be invited to do as part of their participation. The Academy students included this in their plans, and through their descriptions also enhanced their own commitment to these ideals and the format we had devised.

2. The children attending all had a personal relationship with many of the musicians performing in the concert.

They knew their names, and had learned about the different instruments. They had had the opportunity to ask questions, and learn unusual bits of information from the Academy musicians. As different performers appeared in the performance space you could hear the children whispering their names to each other: “It’s Anna! It’s Chris!” and smiling at them in recognition.

3. The concert reflected the performance values that are characteristic of all ANAM’s concerts.

We configured the space in innovative ways that kept the children intrigued by where the music might come from next. The music we presented was diverse and often challenging, ranging from Haydn and Brahms, to contemporary works by Mary Finsterer and Andrew Ford. This was not a typical concert program for young children, but then, I am certain that children can be engaged by far more unflinching repertoire than is often offered to them. We had faith in this in the concert program we developed. Lastly, we invited the children to experience something of the life at ANAM, ushering them through working spaces on their way into and out of the concert venue, and drawing them into this world.

4. The children were active participants

In between the different numbers, the children were led by one of the musicians to make soundscapes using body percussion and other sounds. These were chosen to create a musical link to the next piece of repertoire. Some were particular effective, such as getting all the children to make incredibly quiet whistle sounds, over which the solo flute piece (Ether by Mary Finsterer, which starts with whistle tones on amplified flute) – and flautist – gradually emerged.

Here are some photos from the classroom visits, that give an idea of the different ways the Academy musicians built engagement and rapport with their young audience.

Establishing a dialogue

Classroom performance

One of the players invited a child from the class to assemble her clarinet. The volunteer assembler approached it with great care and thought, as though it were a kind of jigsaw puzzle.

Changing dynamics according to the height of the clarinet

What to do when you make a mistake

I think one of the hardest – but most important – things to learn when playing in an ensemble is what to do when you make a mistake. The natural response tends to be that you correct the mistake on the spot, which gets you out of time with the others in the group. Teaching people to keep going, to listen to where the others are up to, and drop back into the music is essential, but the confusion that a lot of young people feel about what it is you’re asking for, and how to do it, can bog them down with anxiousness. Trying to establish this concept at the Language School, where verbal explanations aren’t always helpful, is even more challenging.

Today one of my students had just taken on a new xylophone ostinato. It was quite a complicated riff but he was mastering it well. However, once we added it to the other ostinati being played, his focus sometimes wavered and he would miss a beat, or hesitate over a note for a moment, before playing on. I wanted to find a way to demonstrate to him, or explain to him, that he needed to forget about the note that he’d missed, and keep going with the music.

Inner hearing. Continuous pulse. These are concepts that are hard to explain in just a few words, especially when you don’t have notation to act as a visual aid. But I’ve been thinking about what took place in the class and think I have some ideas about what I could have done better.

Firstly, this riff only ever needs to be played four times in a row, but I was getting him to loop it many more times than that (as a way of locking into it). He tended to get the first four (even more) repetitions out fine, without any problems. So keep it to this. Why complicate matters?

Secondly, I tried to explain to him what I wanted him to do. This wasn’t the best solution because he probably couldn’t understand what I wanted him to do anyway, and was feeling stressed, and because my efforts were also making me feel anxious  (because I sensed how awkward and clumsy they were). It was the afternoon and no one was at their freshest for dealing with a whole lotta words.

I know that my students at this school learn musical concepts most effectively in context, through an implicit environment. How can I create this implicit learning environment? By keeping the number of repetitions of ostinati down to an amount that the students can manage successfully, they will build confidence and security in their own part first, and after that they will start to absorb what is going on in other parts, and instinctively start to anchor themselves to certain points in these. There are always one or two students in the class who understand and do this already. The others just need more time.

Explanations make me tense, as well as the children, because I become so aware of the limitations of them. We are all much happier, and much more relaxed – and therefore more likely to play to our best – when we let the music be our focus, and put our energy into playing, rather than talking.

Slow progress in songwriting (1)

I’m going to write a series of posts (starting here) that follow the songwriting process at Pelican Primary School, and compare it to a similar project at the Language School. I was at Pelican today, and felt very aware of the baby steps we take each week as the songwriting progresses. Things feel faster at the Language School with the same age group (Lower Primary) so I thought I’d keep a log of what takes place, just to see what is really going on.

First, a couple of important differences between the two schools:

  • At the Language School there is a maximum of 13 students, and the teacher is actively involved. We have music for around 45 mins each week, but can stretch that to 60 mins if the students are engaged. The children are all new arrivals, so have minimal English language skills
  • At Pelican, there are around 17 students in the class. It is a Grade 1/2 composite class. We have music each week for 45 mins, and their teacher is in the room with us, but doesn’t play an active role, remaining on the sidelines and monitoring what is going on. Lots of the children in the class are from Language Backgrounds Other Than English (ESL, therefore).

At Pelican, the class topic for the term is on simple machines. I liked the idea of some of the verbs that could be used (hammering, cutting, twisting, pushing, etc), and the idea of a machine that is made up of many simple components, so that was our initial starting point.

Lesson 1

I asked the students to list all the different simple machines they could think of. The list included hammers, saws, levers, springs, and so on.

Then we began to organise these into lists and phrases, chanting,

It’s got… 5 wheels, and

Two axles, and

Ten cranks and

One lever!

A tune began to emerge from the children (I let them chant it, and listen for any pitches that emerge through the repetition – it’s quite an effective way of finding a melody with this age group, as there are always one or two who naturally and unselfconsciously move towards singing from chanting). Later, I realised it was possibly channelling a Shania Twain song. Don’t know the name of it, but I think it is Shania. From ages ago. I’ve no idea how that happened.

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