Archive for the ‘early years’ Tag

Nests – all about the interactions

Children with lanterns wait to enter the Nests forest (Gillian Howell)“Adults, just to let you know, everything in here is okay for the little ones.” Quite a few parents gave smiles of recognition and perhaps relief at that point. They were being reassured not to feel anxious about trying to control their child’s (possibly wrong) choices. Rebecca continued, “Okay to explore and touch and –“

Feel?”  asked (or prompted) one little girl, which made me smile.

“Yes, feel too”, Rebecca agreed. “So parents, we’ll let your little people lead the way with the explorations.”

With that, we picked up our lanterns and entered the magical musical forest at ArtPlay. There were many beautiful, child-led interactions that took place across the weekend. Here are just a few:

One very confident little man sat down next to Rebecca at the frog bog, and picking one of the stones there, told her emphatically, “Rocks are my absolute favourite thing!” He had a bit of a gleam in his eye, Rebecca said, but she suspected he must have picked up some telepathic messages from his parents, hovering nearby, because he didn’t express his love of rocks in any particularly alarming way.

child with rocks (Nests 2013, Howell, Russell, Evans)

A little girl came up to me with the instrument she had chosen to play – a pair of blue and green resonant blocks, made of a very durable, robust plastic. She banged them together and looked at me expectantly. I matched the pitch on my clarinet and repeated her rhythm back to her. She smiled in delight, and played again. We jammed awhile, sometimes taking turns and sometimes playing at the same time. We got faster, then slower, we tried sudden stops to see if our playing partner would be able to stop in time. Then she wandered away, and so did I.

Musical interactions, Nests 2013 (Russell, Evans, Howell)

One child delighted in the large autumn leaves we’d scattered throughout the installation. She approached each of us in turn – me, Rebecca, Tony, Eelin our photographer – to present us solemnly with a leaf. She didn’t speak, so nor did we. I tried to fix mine in my hair. I spotted Eelin walking around with a leaf balanced on top of her head. Later, the little girl placed the frogs in the frog bog on leaves, creating a special place for them – like lily pads.

Nests installation (Evans, Howell, Russell 2013)A little boy stood at the edge of a nest, gazing at all the activity in the room. He looked entranced, a smile on his face and his eyes wide. He whispered to his mother every now and then, their faces very close to each other. He had a juju shaker in his hands. His mother was beside him, crouching down, taking it all in with him. Sometimes they played instruments, but they also spent a lot of time just watching everything together. This was a very intimate, imaginative immersion into another world that they could share together.

One of our Nests is filled with instruments made from very organic, natural materials – an African log drum, juju shakers made from large resonant seeds, caxixi made from woven grasses. Tony described later a ‘free jazz improv’ he engaged in with the children in that nest. Again, the patterns of turn-taking and unison changes in volume and tempi emerged, but also, he said, some truly innovative rhythmic licks. These weren’t just random batterings, but expressive utterances and gestures, offered in response to the sonic environment the children found themselves in.

Free jazz improv, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We designed Nests to encourage exactly these kinds of musical interactions, and to immerse children in a visual and aural environment that would encourage them to listen, notice, and respond. This was an un-facilitated experience where the children created their own pathways and directed their own explorations, but there were key elements in place – in the recorded soundscape and the way we’d set up the space to allow for elements of surprise and timely ‘reveals’- that guided the children’s activities and attention. Thus, in the narrative arc of the installation, the children went from individual, self-focused explorations into some truly intense and powerful whole-ensemble experiences.

As they exited the installation, the ArtPlay staff asked children and parents for their impressions. The frogs were consistently cited as the most memorable part of the workshop.

Frog Bog, Nests 2013 (Howell, Evans, Russell)

Many children also talked about the excitement of the big drum that we gathered around, making the sounds of rain and thunder as one big group.

The gathering drum, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We learned that several people were coming to Nests for the second time (impressive, because it sells out very quickly. They must be very organised bookers!) “We haven’t stopped talking about it,” one mum confided. “And this will be all they talk about for ages now. They just love it!”

There were lots of shining eyes and excited children. Many looked like they were holding the joy of the experience tightly inside them, not necessarily wanting to talk about it yet. I don’t think they would know exactly why they had enjoyed the last half-hour so much. It is more than just the chance to play lots of different instruments. These 3-5 year olds were having a significant early experience of the tremendous sense of well-being and pleasure that playing music with other people can bring. It is a sense of being heard, of having a voice, of being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s the reason I play music, and lead music-making with other people, and it is a big motivation for continuing to seek out group music-making experiences in your life. I’m very pleased to think we may have instilled some of that motivation into these little people and their parents.

This was the third and final stage of our creative development of Nests, and we are grateful for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab funding for supporting this idea and enabling us to realise it and present it in the beautiful ArtPlay space. The next installation of Nests will be in July at Chapel off Chapel, as part of the City of Stonnington’s children’s arts festival Roola Boola.

Nests by Gillian Howell, Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans, 2013

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Wet and dry sounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sound Journey – ‘the Camel Caravan’

On Friday morning my colleague Jen and I presented the first two workshops in this series of four. The Sound Journey is a project I’ve been working with one of the directors of Pocketfool Productions, who create beautiful, detailed arts experiences for children aged 2-5 years. Jen invited me to develop a music project with her that would focus on young children making very deliberate decisions about when and what they would play. So often for this age group, Jen lamented, it is just about giving the children instruments and having a bit of a playing free-for-all. The intention with this project was to encourage the children to listen, and to play with care, deliberation, and new ears.

We designed it as a journey, with the open space and natural light of ArtPlay in mind, and suggested to the children that they would be travelling as a group of camels, joined by a long length of bells (the traditional kini-kini, or bana bells that I bought in East Timor). Holding these bells, the children moved through a range of different landscapes, including a market place where they could buy sounds of all sizes and impressions (icy sounds, shiny sounds, big sounds, bony sounds), and a sea journey where they placed their hands on the rim of the ocean drum and moved its tiny silver balls en masse around the drum’s interior, making circles and waves. The journey culminated with a little village of three cardboard houses, large enough for the children to enter, and each with an instrument inside. The children took it in turns to enter a house, and play the instrument inside, while the other children and their parents listened. This point in the journey captivated the children, and encouraged very attentive listening to the range of sounds, and excellent turn-taking.

It was gorgeous! Lots of beautiful music-making, and experiences of how this age group works best that are giving me lots of ideas for the other early-years workshops I have taking place later this year. We have two more of these workshops in a fortnight’s time.

Visual cues (3)

I have written about visual cues for ESL students in the past – using a metronome to encourage a sense of pulse and ensemble, and floor markings giving student reference points for organising themselves in the space. Floor markings also seem to assist students in letting go of physical anticipation/tension, and assume a more passive stance, which made a big difference when they were having a try of the violin for the first time.

Today I have been working with SY, a wonderful early years educator and drama guru, who specialises in story-making. We are leading a 2-day Professional Development Seminar for primary classroom teachers. Today was Day One.

SY taught a warm-up game that involves each person having their own little mat to carry and/or place on the floor. The mats are about 25x25cm, made of felt, and in bright colours. She uses the mats to organise a class, and keep control of their movement, all the while giving the children lots of choice and possibility. She starts almost every lesson with these mats, and they teach the children an important kinaesthetic and spoken vocabulary for movement and working in open spaces.

We tried:

  • Placing our mat on the floor and standing on it, ensuring we each had our own ‘personal space’ (measured by swinging our arms around our bodies like a helicopter, and checking we didn’t touch anyone else). SY: My students know exactly what is meant by ‘personal space’ and how to find it because we do this task so frequently.
  • Walking away from our mat, but on a given cue (a drum beat) we had to run back to our own mat.
  • Walking around the space carrying the mat – on heads/elbows/toes/noses, etc – and observing how this changed the way people used their bodies, and the beautiful, unusual shapes they created in the space.
  • Placing our mats on the floor and had to assume different poses, within a given instruction from SY. A pose with your hands touching the floor; bottoms on the floor, but feet off; one hand and one foot only, touching the floor.

Many of these are similar to theatre warm-ups used widely, but the addition of the mats offers ESL teachers a lovely way of organising students within a space without depending on detailed verbal instructions. The mats can help build a vocabulary with the students – both spoken and physical – for working with their bodies in open spaces.