Archive for the ‘drumming’ Tag

The Paraiyers’ drums


Another part of the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is the ‘village level performance’ program. Village-level performances give village elders that are custodians of rare and endangered folk forms (music, dance and theatre) support to put on a performance of their traditional work. Support can include funds to purchase instruments, for artist rehearsal time, to prepare costumes and props, and travel costs. This year, one of the village-level performances was in the Eastern province near the city of Batticaloa, and involved musician elders from four different villages.

The model that was used this year was particularly interesting. The musicians were all performers of the Parai drum tradition, which has for a long time been regarded as the instrument of the low-caste Paraiyers (see here for an interesting history of the Paraiyers). Because of this, members of the Paraiyer caste often reject this musical tradition, seeing the drum and its rhythms as markers of lowly status, and indeed, a marker of membership of that caste. Yet the musicians involved in this year’s village-level festival are adamant that the traditions and instruments should be preserved, and they have continued to play for rituals (usually funerals) despite the dismissive and often hostile responses from others in their community.


Therefore, building up the status and importance of the parai drum, and recognizing the work of the elder musicians in preserving it was one objective of the village-level festival. The next objective was to increase knowledge of the drum and its rhythms among young students of Tamil music. The Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (SVIAS) at Eastern University was a co-presenter of the village-level festival, and arranged for the elder-musicians to rehearse at the university each day in the weeks leading up to the performance. Students and lecturers of Tamil drum and dance worked with them closely, studying the artform. They worked outdoors, under big trees with a circle of benches surrounding the rehearsal space.

Bringing it into the University was a new initiative for the Music Cooperation, but it served two purposes – of helping to preserve and celebrate the knowledge of the elder musicians by training the next generation of performers, and of sidestepping the hostility towards the Parai drum within the musicians’ own communities.

I was able to observe two days of rehearsals during my research trip to Batticaloa two weeks ago, and these photos are from that visit. I saw a fascinating level of exchange taking place between the elders, the students, and the lecturers. Sometimes it was hard to see who was the authority, or the director of the project. One of the students explained it to me this way:

The elders are the experts in how to play this drum. They know all the rhythms and techniques and forms, and the students are eager to learn this from them. However, they have only performed for village rituals up until now, and they are not experienced in creating a performance for the public. So the students and the lecturers are contributing those ideas.

It reminded me that finding the balance between support and instruction, agency and collaboration, the authority of knowledge and the authority of institutions, and when to be expert and when to step back and give space for the content to emerge and evolve, is complex, messy, and somewhat infinite and imperfect pursuit. This project was tackling these challenges in what seemed to me to be courageous and thoughtful ways. I’m sure they all learned a great deal, and for me, it was an intriguing and thought-provoking process to observe.


Making human connections through music – day 3 at the refugee centre

My third visit to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] was different yet again. When John and I arrived we were struck by how quiet the place seemed. “Yeah, it’s pretty dead around here,” the activities officer agreed, and went to see who he could round up. The MITA residents are nocturnal creatures – our music session starts at 2.30pm on a Saturday, which is around the time many of them are just getting up for the day. When you don’t get to bed before 6.30am, 2.30pm is an early start!

We started with a small group, and the numbers stayed small for the rest of the afternoon. First to arrive were Hussein, the Iranian singer from the previous two visits, his friend Ashraf who had written out all the Farsi lyrics in English spellings for me on my first visit, and another young man from Afghanistan that I hadn’t met before named Mohamad. Another Afghani man, Ali, a regular member of the group, also wandered over. The three of them grabbed drums and we started with ‘Soltane Ghalba’, the soulful, lyrical love song in 3/4 that I’d found on iTunes and downloaded for these sessions. John played along with the CD, learning the chords on the guitar, and I worked with our newest recruit, Mohamad, teaching him how to play the melody on the glockenspiel. It’s quite a long melody but as it is a sequence of four phrases, it’s not hard to memorise and is very satisfying to play.

As in previous weeks, we moved quickly from song to song, usually before each one had finished. The pace at the beginning was very much set by Hussein. Our second song was Saghi emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete. We sang this one through several times, stopping every now and then to remind our singer to keep an ear out for the accompaniment and not rush ahead. The structure of ‘chorus–instrumental–verse–chorus’ became more consistent. Ashraf and Hussein proved to be a strong drumming team. Ali, working with the side drum and tambour as a makeshift drumkit, maintained a steady pulse throughout, and seemed much more comfortable within the ensemble than he had in previous weeks. He smiled constantly – he was happy to play simple rhythms and just participate, varying mainly the volume and strength with which he hit the drums, rather than the rhythm.

However, I was unsure how long the rest of us would be able to cope with the extreme volume coming from Hussein’s playing, which was particularly vigorous and intense that afternoon. There can be lots of reasons why people play excessively loudly – they may have hearing damage, for example (not uncommon among refugees or people who may have had ear infections remain untreated for long periods), but it can also be a kind of blocking mechanism that resists connections with other people. I wanted to see if we could introduce some dynamic variation.

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Language School projects, Term 3

I started back at the Language School this week. Every term, I try to invent a composition project with each class that relates to a topic that will be under investigation in their classroom work. It turns out that all three classes – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary – are all doing Transport this term. So… three projects inspired by transport? Here are my early thoughts:

Lower Primary

Once again, we have a very competent, functional class here, who have lots of ability, and good focus. I didn’t try to start any themed work with them; rather, I just took them through a number of ‘foundation’ activities, in order to get a better sense of how they are in music. I’ll keep you posted on how their transport theme will play out – probably a chant based on road safety, as I did last term at Pelican PS.

Middle Primary

We listed all the different ways the students travel to school – train, tram, bus, car, walking, even bicycle. Then we experimented with a vocal percussion piece of ‘train sounds’. I have quite a few new students in this class, including a lively, easily distracted boy – Volodya from Russia, who is very cool and keeps breaking out into break-dancing (and comments on everything, but EVERYTHING I say!) Hmmm…. will need to get all of that creative energy channeled in a positive direction, quick-smart. Also in the class is Oscar, the very bright Liberian boy who started midway through last term, who can drum and beatbox with gallons of style and skill, and who I suspect will get bored with the slowness of the others in the class very, very quickly. With these two students in mind in particular, I think we will put together a hip-hop, beatboxing chant/song/dance about public transport, maybe utilising train station names, street names, tram and bus numbers, and so on.

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Back in the (blogging) saddle

It’s been a long time since I posted – I’m sorry, dear readers, I have been thoroughly entrenched in thesis-land, writing up, then writing some more… I am making steady progress, but it is not finished yet. Not yet. I am still to set the date for the post-submission party.

Meanwhile, work continues. It’s been busy. Back in the April school holidays, I had four great days at ArtPlay. The first two were working with this year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, and the second two were with a group of primary school students who were coming to music for the first time. That was with a program called City Beats.

Here’s what we did:

The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble composed music inspired by Rachmaninov’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini. We looked at the idea of composing variations on a theme, likening variations to musical disguises. I was particularly happy with my warm-up sequence for this project, which introduced a number of composition techniques that Rach makes use of in the Rhapsodie, but which explored them in game form. It was also interesting for me to observe my own role as the project leader, particularly on the first day, when the children spend a lot of time working with their adult musician (from the MSO) in break-out groups. (I’m paying particular attention to my role and pedagogy in this year’s project, as part of the large funded research project happening at ArtPlay). In the break-out groups, when I move from group to group, keeping an eye on how things are progressing, I was also able to spend time with individuals, sometimes because they needed a bit of extra support or direct encouragement, and sometimes because they needed challenging, and could be taken aside for a short time to develop solos or more demanding material of their own.

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Playing in time

With our focus on jamming and improvisation this term, I’ve been looking for ways to help the children play more in time with each other. This is tricky enough to teach in English, let alone with students with a very minimal command of English!

Firstly, I want to state my own position: I believe that we all have an innate understanding of music, that gets built on everyday, when we listen to music (of our own choice, or as background music). I want to tap into this innate knowledge somehow, in building ensemble-playing skills. I think that one of the main things that gets in the way is trying, when we become so focused on effort and on getting it right, that we tense up and become more awkward (and less natural or easy) in our efforts. (This earlier post talks in more detail about the way I like to teach, for those who would like to know more).

Therefore, I don’t like to bring to much attention to the issue of ensemble when it arises, because I don’t want anyone to get tense or worry about it, or think of themselves as failing somehow. But I do want them to be aware, and to develop more sophisticated understanding of how to play together. There were a few things that happened this term at the Language School that seemed to work, so I’ll list them here.

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Improvising, composing and jamming

It’s end of term, so time for a bit of a wrap-up of where this term’s projects got to at the Language School.

I started the term with an interest in developing some improvisation skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students, and developing music on Identity, that would respond in part to music the students would teach to the class from their own countries and cultures.

Lower Primary on the other hand were so crazy and unsettled that the focus was to get them to be able to play together, to follow some simple conducting signals so that they might experience the pleasure of playing in an ensemble. I’ll write about them in a separate post.


This proved tricky to introduce in some ways, and some of this was to do with language, some of it was cultural, and some of it was to do with the way that student learning develops in Language School (ie. the systems that support the students to learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we were doing began to settle, musically.

In the end, what improvisation do we have? In the Upper Primary piece, we have a drum part (played by seven drummers, so pretty loud! They are sh0wing considerable restraint, I have to say) which came from the young Sudanese girl at the start of November. I am guessing that this was a rhythm she knew from somewhere else. She has left the school now, by the way.

We have 3 xylophone parts, and here the origins of the parts are more varied. One part came from me – I taught it, and the student plays it exactly the way I showed her, and she seems to love it. Her friend, playing next to her, is envious, and has tried through various sneaky means to swap parts (to no avail). The friend, May, has an improvised part to play. I originally asked her to invent her own melodies, always ending on either C or G. The first week, she did this well. She was reluctant, but with a lot of encouragement, she gave it a go, and executed the task well. The following week however, she mutineed. She wouldn’t say a word (not in English, not in Chinese), and I wondered if perhaps she needed to withdraw from the piece altogether, so pained she seemed. This week, I spontaneously came up with a new strategy.

“May,” I said, “I think that today we should choose music for you to play, that you can remember. We will all help you make this. I think that will be easier for you than always making something up.”

May looked a little unconvinced at first (something of her usual facial expression in music, it has to be said), but a couple of other students surprised me by saying, “Yes, it is easier, I think. It is better.” So May agreed.

I asked her to play me (improvise – though I didn’t use that word) one of her melodies. “Start on G,” I suggested. She played a string of notes, I asked if she liked them, I sang them back to her, she thought they sounded okay, and I wrote them down on the blackboard. We did the same with a second melody. Of course, she referred back to ideas she had already worked with in the previous weeks when she was improvising. And her third melody was her most ambitious, with jumps and triads and a definite ‘hook’.It seemed like she was gaining confidence in the process, and her own contributions.

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More improvisation ideas

In my last post on my new explorations into developing the improvisaiton skills and understanding of the Middle and Upper primary students, I described how I had been getting them to start and finish on particular notes, keep track of a ten-count time length, and play a series of notes in-between.

I have been wondering what the next step should be.

Two weeks ago we tried out a kind of ‘jam session’ with the Upper Primary students. I asked different students for rhythmic ideas, and asked them teach me and other students. For many, as I have found frequently in the past, they may know a rhythm or phrase to play, but they can’t repeat it consistently, nor with a sense of regularity, so it is hard to use in a group jam session.

However, in that session, one of the Sudanese girls came up with something that she was able to repeat consistently, over and over again, upon which we built up a number of other layers.

The students’ first response, when all have an instrument and they are to play together without a great deal of explicit instruction, is to play as loudly as possible, speeding up as if it is a contest or a race. They get a big buzz out of doing this, usually laughing a lot and generally acting like it is just a mad game. That week, however, after letting them do this, I asked them what was going on. What was important in this kind of music? They were to be playing the same rhythm as the Sudanese girl on the lead drum (who was a lot quieter than them). How could they make sure they stayed together?

This was a really interesting discussion. Of course they worked out that they could listen to her, but that they could also watch her, and let her be the leader. The ensemble improved enormously, immediately, and everyone began playing with greater awareness and sensitivity.

Therefore, the following week (last week) I decided to work on this skill a bit further. I brought out my trusty metronome (which I have written about in most glowing terms in the past on this blog).

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Class progress at Language School

“You look tired,” said one of my students when I walked into the room today. They were all waiting for me, (I hadn’t realised that we’d be starting earlier today), smiling warmly. I have so much tension at the moment, so many thoughts driving around in my head, but I felt myself start to ease off, and dropped myself into the day’s activities.

It was a pretty satisfying day at Language School, overall. Lower Primary were a little tricky – they have become progressively more tricky this term, not less. It is very, very hard to keep them focused. I have picked up the pace of all my activities, I am talking as little as possible, I am reinforcing the music room rules (‘good listening, good looking, good waiting’) at every opportunity, but still trying to see through the composition project I had planned for them. It is uphill work!

We finished today’s lesson by recording their glockenspiel playing, then I showed them a short DVD clip of my nephew (aged 2 and 1/2) playing home-made drumkit, while wearing a nappy. He (my nephew) has all the rock star moves. His drumstick work is pretty impressive too. The Lower Primary children really enjoyed watching this, so I should dig out some more clips for them to watch of other children playing instruments.

My happiest lesson today was with Upper Primary. We composed the last part of our Aranea music. They were so focused through the whole lesson, offering words, developing melodies, and repeating the song as it progressed.

I am happy with it. It has a catchy chorus, it has a chanted section, and has a bridge that adds tension and build-up, and it has body percussion. I think they will perform it well. The process? We brainstormed words, describing the spider’s situation after the storm (tiredness, remembering the terrible experience, finally going outside, finding a new place to live, rebuilding her home), then we organised these ideas into a chorus, a verse, and a bridge. I had already planned a simple chord progression to work with (Dm, Dm, Gm, A) – we set this up as an accompaniment and experimented with melodies.

Here is our song, composed in about an hour:


She goes outside, She finds her leaf, and remembers what happened.

She is so tired, but when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm.


Now she makes her web. Now she catches food. Everything is better now.


She has a new life, safe and happy, She has a new life, safe and happy.

The storm is gone, the sun is coming out,

And she will live in her leaf in the tree.

The last line is quite a tongue-twister for the students – lots of ‘Ls’.

Despite being in a minor key, the song has a lot of energy and uplifting feeling to it. This is music that we will perform as part of a Refugee Week concert, in a few week’s time. I am hoping to project images from the book at the back of the stage while the children perform, as well as images that they have drawn depicting their own journeys to Australia.

A good day’s work. Maybe I’ll take the night off. I’d like to indulge in some retail therapy, but it is not a good idea. Life is so expensive these days. My trip to Bologna (to the International Society of Music Educators conference) is going to cost me a lot (even with the airfare paid for), and is not something I had budgeted for. Maybe instead I will watch a DVD. I have an Italian postwar realist film out from the library at the moment. Might settle in with that on my computer.

It’s only Monday….

…but my brain already feels a bit mushy. Today and tomorrow I am at the Orchestra. No projects to lead this week so time to be in the office and catch up on administrative tasks – designing content and structure for forthcoming projects.

K (the magnificent new Education Manager) and I feel a bit like we are capsizing in white water – strong swimmers both, doing our best to keep our heads above water, but struggling against the strength of the currents that are pulling us in all directions. What would the Taoists say? Go with the flow of the current, don’t fight it, let it take you where it will. I am not sure how this wisdom applies to our overworked environment just now…!

We certainly have some interesting work coming up. Soon we will start workshops for our residency project, at a primary school in the Western suburbs. This is a pilot project for the State Government’s arts funding body, and there is a focus on improved education and school outcomes, rather than just on making the arts happen in the school.

We had a meeting there today. I have identified five strands of work that aim to respond to the information we are getting about the school, its community, and its current priorities:

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Prison workshop #2

I approached the second session in the prison with a certain amount of nervousness. The first one had gone so well – would we be received with more skepticism on this second visit? I wanted to push the guys a bit more, challenge them further musically – would they resist this? Did they want it? Maybe these sessions are more of an opportunity for them to chill out, than to build skills. Music can be a fairly hardcore discipline when you start to develop skills. It takes focus. I didn’t want to set up things that would give anyone a negative experience, or sense of failure.

Here is what I was aiming for:

  • Work with rhythm and pitch separately to start with – try to encourage more detailed listening from the group, awareness of other parts, working in sections, adding more complex layers.
  • See if we can stimulate some deeper expressive/emotional responses musically – in particular responding to R’s idea (R is our cellist) to use an extract from the Dvorak cello concerto as a stimulus for reflections on separation from home and loved ones.
  • Try to build on the quiet ensemble singing that came spontaneously in the first workshop, during Y’s improvisation on Just the Two of us.

Getting through security takes time. We have to sign in, have our irises scanned (one by one – we are already on the system of iris recognition so this is faster than it was on the first day); we put our personal items that we don’t need for the workshop (wallets, mobile phones, keys, ID tags for the orchestra office) in a locker; we transfer the small items we need for the workshop into see-through plastic bags, and put these through the x-ray, along with our instruments. Then we walk through a walk-in X-ray machine, kind of like a cone-of-silence pod, one person at a time. After this we get scanned with the hand-held metal detector one by one (arms outstretched, back then front), collect our instruments and other x-rayed items, then go three at a time into first a sound-lock room, in which we do the iris scan again, and then out into the corridor and into the large light room where we do the workshop.

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