Archive for the ‘education’ Tag

Hang-out time

This post is about labels in the world of music work, and about the importance of hanging out in projects. It is inspired by some ‘hang-out time’ I got to enjoy with a new colleague last Friday evening. We had one of those marvellously unrestrained, freewheeling, fast-talking conversations that two like minds meeting for the first time can have.

'Hang out time' (G. Howell)

Lucy B is a music therapist, but more than that, she is a music worker. This was one of our topics of conversation – how the labels that get applied to different roles in a musical life that a leader or facilitator may play aren’t always the right fit. In Lucy’s musical world (and in her PhD research), her work fits into the Community Music Therapy category, but at the same time, she says, it’s not always a very useful term. She works with groups, building collaborations and getting music happening within groups and for individuals. It’s not necessarily therapy, even though there may be strong therapeutic outcomes. She likes the more encompassing term Music Worker (which I like because it fits with the name of my blog :-)), likening it to a case worker who might employ a wide range of approaches in their work with a client, with the needs of the client being the primary decider, rather than the therapeutic label that needs to be applied.

Labels can be frustrating to navigate, especially when your work sits on the boundaries between other more established disciplines. When I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the 1990s, I asked one of my tutors in the Performance and Communication Skills course how he described his work to other people. I loved his answer, and I’ve used it for myself ever since. He said,

I just call myself a musician. You know, musicians do a lot of different things – some days they will be playing and performing. Some days they will be teaching, passing on specific musical and technical knowledge to other learners. Some days they will writing and composing new material, and recording it. They will be collaborating and interacting with other musicians during all of these tasks. And that’s what I do, and some of my interactions are with young people, in schools and communities. But we are collaborating… composing… performing… It is the same set of tasks, just differentiated by degree. Other interactions will be with my musical peers. Other times again, I may be positioned as the learner. That’s what we musicians do, that’s what being engaged in the art of music everyday involves.

Back to my conversation with Lucy B. We talked about her PhD research, which I was interested in because it is partly set in a developing country, so some of the questions she is asking about music projects in that context are similar to the questions I am asking about music initiatives in post-conflict countries. Lucy’s primary interest is in collaboration, and in developing a clearer epistemology of what collaboration entails in some of the complex environments in which she is working. One of the ideas that has crystallised for her is the importance of what she calls ‘hang-out time’. This is the time that you spend just hanging out with a group, getting to know them, observing how they interact and what they respond to with each other, what they might need from a new person, before you go in and get started with your workshop or therapy program.

The idea of building ‘hang-out time’ into a project appeals to me immensely. But I wondered aloud, who (as in, which organisations or host organisations) would be prepared to pay for this? I am used to my employers wanting all the time they pay me for to be workshop time. The more days a project runs for, the more expensive it is, so there is a general enthusiasm for getting workshops started on the first day of contact. Lucy suggested that the idea of something like ‘hang-out time’ first needs to get established and understood as valuable. Having a name for this stage in a collaboration, and being able to assert its importance in meeting the aims of the project, is the first step. She said, “It’s like planning time. It’s not that long ago that no-one ever wanted to pay for planning time. Ditto with travel time. But now those things are accepted and understood to be necessary and important parts of the work. So let’s create the language, and then the understanding and acceptance will follow.”

Lucy’s at the writing-up stage of her PhD, submitting very soon. Hopefully there’ll soon be many opportunities to read more of her ideas in other publications. And here’s to more hang-out time for all of us (in projects and in life).

Advertisements

Reflecting on the Pavarotti Music Centre

This week I have been reading about arts initiatives in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, and about the work of the Pavarotti Music Centre [PMC] more specifically. I have a personal connection with the PMC, as I worked there as a volunteer music leader for most of 1998. Reading about Bosnia-Herzegovina in that post-war era is bringing back lots of memories for me and I find I am frequently going off into very vivid recollections of different events from the time that I was there. These recollections have also infiltrated my dreams. It is a surprisingly intense process at the moment.

PMC

It’s interesting that much that is written about the PMC focuses on the music therapy program. This was the strand of work that had funding for the longest time, and perhaps that is the reason it is (more) well-documented; however, my primary interest is in the strands of work that I was part of – the outreach work in local schools and refugee camps, and the workshops and classes that took place in the centre and were open to all local people.

(Another reason for this difference in documentation and analysis may be because music therapy is well-established as a research field, whereas the practitioners in the outreach and community programs came from a far more varied range of disciplines and academic experiences. Furthermore, scholarly writing about community music is a comparatively nascent field. These programs were in operation in the late 1990s, a time when practitioner-led writing about community music work was only just cranking into gear, and was still very localised to the UK. Let’s face it, the vast majority of community music practitioners were at that time, and still are, freelance artists, dependent on generating paid work to make a living. The time to sit down and write reflectively for scholarly publications was a luxury that most did not have).

There is criticism of the PMC that is emerging fairly quickly in my investigations. The Pavarotti Music Centre was a bold and ambitious operation, with a huge budget and a lot of very high-profile support. In 2001, news broke of a corruption and bribery scandal which forced one of the founders of War Child (the NGO behind the PMC development and programming) and another consultant to step down from their positions, and a new Board of Directors to be appointed.   This quote from Haskell’s (2011) dissertation, “Aiding harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo” reflects the very damaging state of affairs:

Millions of euros were donated, through the organization War Child, and then lost or stolen. The [Pavarotti Music] center’s inability to function after such large-scale investment remains a stain on Bosnia’s donor history and tarnishes future foreign investment into the cultural realm.”

Haskell’s writing on post-war Sarajevo is hugely illuminating, and I am devouring it as fast as I can. The corruption and misappropriation of funds at the Pavarotti Music Centre is definitely an important part of the story (as are the power issues at play that enabled it to happen, and are such a dominant part of cultural regeneration in post-conflict settings), but I believe there was also a huge amount of good work that the PMC did, that made a difference to the lives of those young people taking part. There is much to examine and this is why the Pavarotti Music Centre is a definite case study for me.

Reference mentioned in this post:
Haskell, E. N. (2011). Aiding Harmony? Culture as a tool in post-conflict Sarajevo. Unpublished PhD thesis. Brown University.

Desert Music in City Beats

In City Beats this week we created music about The Desert. Four groups from four schools came to ArtPlay over two days, and each group created four sections of music – a song, a melody, a soundscape and a rhythmic groove. At the end of the workshop we discussed how to structure and order the four sections of music, and finished with a recorded performance of the whole piece.

City Beats, ArtPlayThis was our first City Beats project for the year, so we will see the children and their teachers 3 more times across 2013. I see the first workshop as a time for all of us to get to know each other, and for the children and teachers to get a sense of what they will be doing each time they come to ArtPlay for City Beats.  We started the session with introductions, with the MSO musicians introducing ourselves and demonstrating our instruments. Then we did a quick rhythmic warm-up, including a name game in which everyone had to say their name in turn (thus demonstrating to the groups that their voices and contributions mattered), and a fast-clap-around-the-circle, which quickened the group’s responses and got them relaxed and laughing.

Then we brainstormed ideas about the desert (things you might see, hear or find there) and divided into smaller groups to start the composing process. I took charge on the songwriting groups.

Lyrics, Dandenong PS. City Beats 2013There were many memorable and special moments across the two days of workshops. I loved seeing the way the children I worked with took charge of things. In the first group, we made the mistake of setting the pitch of our song much too low for the children’s voices. I waited to see how they might solve the problem. One girl started to sing the song a fifth up – it sounded cool! – then said to me, “We need to change it because it doesn’t… feel -” she hesitated to find the words, so I said, “Because it’s too low? To  make it higher?” “Yes,” she said emphatically. “It needs to be higher.” I got her to sing it on her own, matched her chosen pitches on the clarinet, and we found we had a much more effective melody than the one we’d started with.

I asked a girl in one of my groups to hold my clarinet for me while I wrote lyrics on the whiteboard. “You just have to be careful of the very top of it,” I assured her. “That’s the only bit than can break easily.” She took it from me carefully. As I wrote I could hear the other children in the group whispering to her, “You’re so lucky you get to hold it!” “Can I have a turn?”  I imagined them leaning toward the clarinet to have a closer look. I wondered if the little girl would be warning them off, or examining it for herself. I didn’t turn around to look. When I’d finished writing, I turned to her and she passed the clarinet back to me, holding it at exactly the angle it had been at when I’d passed it to her. I felt truly touched at the care she’d taken. “Thank you for looking after my instrument so carefully and so beautifully,” I told her.

Some children sought out possible rhymes for their lyrics. A good rhyme can make a song catchier and easier to remember, but a forced rhyme can feel very cumbersome and awkward, so I don’t tend to put too much emphasis on rhyming in a fast-paced songwriting session. However, these children initiated the idea. In one song, we had the lyrics:

Rattle, rattle, rattle, the rattlesnake goes

Swish, swish swish the wind blows the palm trees.

One of the group said suddenly, “Can we cross out these words?”, pointing to “the palm trees”. “Sure,” I said, but then realised why – it was so that the line would end with “blows”, in order for it to rhyme with “goes” in the previous line. I hadn’t noticed that possibility. Once we had the shorter line, we realised it needed an extra word to make it scan properly. It was easy to add an adjective at that point.

Lyrics, Dandenong North PS, City Beats 2013

I love the set-up of the verses of the song above – I think the idea of having a ‘sound’ word repeated three times as a way of introducing a feature of the desert is a very 10-year-old approach – and therefore highly appropriate – to lyric-writing! They tried some others – “walk walk walk, the camel goes”, but they weren’t as convincing. If they’d said ‘spit’ or ‘bump’ I may have been persuaded :-).

One of the groups came from an English Language School (an intensive English language-focused school for children who are newly-arrived in Australia; students can spend 6-12 months at language school before transitioning to mainstream school). Their desert song was the only one that featured Australian desert animals like dingos and kangaroos.

Lyrics, NPELS, City Beats

The City Beats ‘Desert’ workshop structure felt very effective and time-efficient – I think I may use it as a template for the remaining City Beats workshops. Dividing into 4 small groups gives us a range of musical responses that can be ordered and combined, and it means that over the course of the year, the children will gain skills and confidence in different group-composing approaches.

Barriers to arts participation

ArtPlay music workshop (Gillian Howell)This weekend I am leading a series of free workshops at ArtPlay on behalf of ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] for children aged 8-13. The workshops are held at the start of every school year and we always get a pretty strong showing of participants – with 5 workshops across the weekend fully booked, or close to full. Children come with their instruments and take part in a fast-paced 1-hour composing workshop. At the end of the hour we perform the newly composed pieces of music to an audience of their parents and siblings.

The workshops are a fun experience in themselves but they also function as a ‘taster’ session of what is on offer in the year-long MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, and we use them as a kind of audition, enabling us to identify which children most strongly responded to the open-ended, creative and collaborative way that we work. 25 of these children are then offered a place in the year-long program.

Fully-booked workshops means no obvious barriers to participation, presumably? Not necessarily. Every year, we approach this program strongly aware that simply by virtue of it being a music program, it is going to attract the attention of a certain demographic – those whose children are learning to play an instrument, and to a lesser extent, those who regularly participate in creative arts workshops in centers like ArtPlay and who prioritise those experiences, but who may not been involved in learning to play an instrument. In Australia, learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking, rarely offered at primary schools without passing the cost of the lessons and instruments on to the parents.

Every year therefore, I consider the projects I have led in disadvantaged schools and try and identify particular children that I know would thrive in a program like this – children who demonstrate musical talent and vibrant creative imaginations. There are a small number of scholarships (ie. fully-subsidised places in the year-long program) available for children who might not be able to accept an offered place due to financial constraints.

But there are many reasons children may not take part in programs like this and they are not all financial. Children of this age-group generally need a parent or adult to accompany them to the workshop venue and to pick them up, but in some households this is a huge barrier because parents are working, or caring for younger children, or don’t have transport options, or can’t afford public transport… or they may not assume that kind of involvement in their children’s lives and rarely take them anywhere. Similarly, they might make a plan for their child’s travel to and from the venue, but when the workshop day comes, decide they need that child to stay at home that day – there are other things that take priority over the workshop in their family.

There may also be psychological barriers about going to a new, unfamiliar place (for the child and the parent). The venues for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble are all in the city centre – but many families (especially those who are new to Australia, or from refugee backgrounds as are many of the children I work with) may find the idea of going into the city centre quite intimidating and even frightening, as it is unfamiliar, busy, and perhaps unpredictable. Similarly, buildings can be psychologically intimidating places to enter, even if they are ‘public’ spaces. People may instinctively sense that they are “not welcome”, or that this place is “not for their type”, and therefore reluctant to cross the threshold.

As an artist or arts worker in participatory projects like workshops, these barriers can be very tricky to overcome. With the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, we have tried a number of ways to encourage a more diverse group of participants into the program. One year, I identified a talented young Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in Australia, as someone who would benefit from and contribute lots to the Ensemble. She lived quite far from the city so we arranged for her to travel in a taxi to and from the workshop venue each day, in addition to offering the fully-subsidised place. Sometimes an older cousin travelled with her, and by about the 3rd workshop in the year, they had decided that May would travel home on the train by herself. Her cousin had shown her how to get to the station. She also asked me if I could accompany May to the station at the end of the workshop, but I had a meeting with the orchestral management team immediately after the workshop, so they decided that May could go by herself rather than wait.

About 40 minutes into my meeting that afternoon, the receptionist came to find me, to ask me to go to the front desk. May was there, sobbing and sobbing, in quite a state. She had tried to go to the station but had got lost. She’d come back to the workshop venue to find me (the only person she knew) but I couldn’t be located by the security staff because I was in this meeting. May felt overwhelmed by the entire situation (and perhaps by the effort of trying to make herself understood in English) and began to cry. Of course at that point I stayed with her, and travelled home with her, but after that day, she didn’t return to the program. I spoke to her cousin on the phone who told me she didn’t want to come back.

This year, I approached the mother of two very bright children I had been working with at Pelican Primary School. They were siblings, both sang in the choir, and had very natural, instinctive skills on the marimba and other percussion instruments in the school. I described the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program to their mother, who I have chatted to before and know to be very friendly, warm, approachable and keen to support her children in different learning opportunities. The family comes from a refugee background, but has been in Australia for some time and seem pretty well-settled, organised and functional :-). She was very excited to hear about the program and scholarship opportunity and said several times, “Yes, I would support them to do this.”

That was at the end of last year, December 2012. I no longer teach at that school, and so when the school term resumed this week, I got in touch with the school to see if I could get a message to the family to remind them about the workshops this weekend. I had given the mother my phone number and all the information about the program the previous year, but I hoped to give an additional reminder. The school is not legally allowed to give me the family’s contact details, but they first mentioned the music opportunity to the children’s father one day and suggested he or his wife should contact me. He apparently looked at the message-giver rather blankly! So the next day, the principal approached the older of the two children with a note for their mum, asking her to call me about the music opportunity and giving her my number. That was on Thursday. She didn’t call.

My other idea had been to try and get to the school at either drop-off or pick-up time to see if I could catch up with the mum there, but my work schedule didn’t allow that on Friday. In any case, I began to wonder if I was pushing something at them that they didn’t want to do. I thought about all the barriers that that might be stopping mum from calling me (such as no phone credit, or feeling unconfident speaking to me on the phone in English, or not wanting to say ‘No’ outright to me). But I also thought about how I would love for those two children to have the experience of going into ArtPlay, being greeted so warmly by the staff there, meeting the MSO musicians, playing music with me in this different context, feeling the thrill of being in such a beautiful space, purpose-built for art-making and young imaginations… and then after the workshop playing in the playground and feeling excited by what they had achieved and experienced.

Who knows, perhaps she has already registered the children for the workshops this weekend! I’ll find out when I get there I suppose. And if not this year, maybe I will be able to encourage them to come along next year. And if not them, someone else.

How do we know what children have learned?

Back in August I blogged about a forum for artists, educators, and arts organisations that took place in Melbourne with Arnie Aprill from the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education. One of the discussion topics was documentation and the importance of using the video documentation to record what is being learned by students when they engage in open-ended, contemporary arts collaborations.

“How do we know what children have learned in an arts project? We ask them!” Arnie declared, and as soon as he said it, we all realised it was true. Simple, true and brilliant. “And,” he went on, “We film them talking about it, and use this footage to document the growth and development of their thinking and understanding, and to demonstrate to others the value of the projects in terms of student learning.”

Studentswriting in reflective journals (Gillian Howell, Culture Jam)Therefore, throughout the Culture Jam project (my artist-in-residence project at Elsternwick Primary School in 2012) I included interviews with students as part of the ongoing project reflections, and filmed these interviews. I also gave them questions to consider and respond to in the reflective journals they wrote each week. These inclusions gave useful insights to me and the coordinating teacher throughout the project, but they also served as a form of student assessment.

I’ve now finished editing that footage and you can watch it in the clip below. Head to my Youtube channel to see footage of the other compositions – their work in progress and their performances.

To learn more from the vast experiences, expertise and wisdom of Arnie Aprill, you can pay a visit to his blog here, or via the Music Work blogroll.

Dance me to the end of term

Dancing Waka Waka (Gillian Howell)

Term 4 2012 finished with flash mobs and slick moves at two of my schools last December. Searching for some straightforward choreography to teach some year 1 & 2 students I came across this dance video, uploaded as a tutorial for a flash mob in Milan in 2010. It was perfect – a song the students would already know and like (‘Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira), lots of repetition, simple steps, and a few more challenging moves that would keep them on their toes (excuse the pun) and give them goals to last across the 10-week term.

For weeks before the end of term, you would hear strange chants and incantations echoing down the corridor from the music room:

“Up, up, helicopter! Down, down washing machine!”

“Clap, clap shimmy back”

I didn’t start with the intention of giving each of the dance moves a label. It was a spontaneous addition one week at the Language School to help the children differentiate between two different moves, but the labels proved so effective I soon included them in the lessons with the grade 1&2s at Pelican Primary School. I’d call the labels out in turn if we were running through the whole dance, or we would work on specific dance moves one at a time, identifying them by the given label. Check out “pick the fruit” at 0’31”,   “up, up helicopter, down, down washing machine” at 01’15”, “clap clap shimmy back” at 1’07’’ in the video above!

For these 6-8 year olds learning a choreographed routine for the first time, there were  many reasons why labelling the dance moves was such an effective strategy:

  • They contained visual information (eg. the word ‘helicopter’ indicated two arms overhead making circles) which helped the students recollect the move)
  • The labels were quite silly and light-hearted, which made the students and the teachers laugh and not take it all too seriously – and this kept them motivated if they were finding the dance steps challenging
  • The labels also gave some of the more hip-swivelling moves an innocence and childishness. Thus, a twisting turn straight out of belly-dancing became more focused in the overhead arm movement, and was given the visual label of “lasso the cow!”, introduced via a description of cowboys catching cows by lassoing their horns,  (see the move at 02’31’’).

We worked a lot with the video tutorial. English language learners (especially some of those from refugee backgrounds) can spend so much of their time being only in the present moment, responding to the most immediate stimuli (or responding to the present while holding anxious thoughts about what might happen in the unpredictable future, or the past), and sometimes they struggle to retain sequences of information in their memories alone. Any kind of visual reinforcement is beneficial, and in the past I’ve used diagrams, stick figure pictures, grid scores and charts to map out how the individual components of a project that they have developed will fit together. Having a video is another way of doing this.

While having students glued to video materials might not at first seem like the most appropriate way to engage them in a dance project (“shouldn’t we be getting them away from video?”), there were a number of reasons why I think this was a big part of the project’s success:

  • It allowed the students to see the whole dance in its entirety. Right from Day One, they could see what they were aiming for.
  • The video included both men and women – demonstrating that this was an activity for both genders (important when many of the students come from backgrounds where men’s and women’s activities are more delineated) and giving so everyone in the class a role model to choose and copy.
  • It reduced self-consciousness and the potential for criticism of each other. They were so busy watching the screen and keeping up with the moves they didn’t have time to think about (a) what they looked like or (b) what anyone else looked like.
  • It also gave the children a visual representation of how to stand slightly apart from each other in rows, or neat formation. Lots of children in Language School find the many variations of standing in lines (e.g. sometimes behind each other, sometimes beside each other, sometimes squashed close together, sometimes spaced apart, etc) quite confusing.

Here is a back-of-heads view of the children at the Language School (all the primary school children) dancing to Waka Waka with me on my last day at the school for the year.

If you’d like the full list of labels I used for this dance leave me a comment below and I’ll send it to you.

Culture jamming to the end

One project that ended in November was the Culture Jam residency at Elsternwick Primary School. Last time I wrote about this project, I was filled with ideas, and things were bumping along nicely enough… a few headaches, but no major derailments. However, not long after writing that post, things had changed quite dramatically.

At the Chinese MuseumIt was a reminder of the importance of not feeling locked into your original plans – sometimes, the original plans are just not going to happen, and you need to let them go and follow the natural strengths of the project. In Culture Jam, we had planned to compose music around Chinese language. We were going to explore music technology and create recordings of compositions with Chinese language phrases embedded in them. We had an overall goal of the Grade 4 children and I developing audio resources that the school’s Mandarin teacher could use with students throughout the school.

By mid-September, however, I needed to accept that we simply did not have the resources (human or technological) to continue along this path. Firstly, and most significantly, the school’s Mandarin teacher had been off sick for most of Term 2 and Term 3 – apart from the excursion to the Language School at the end of Term 2, we hadn’t worked together at all. Without their Mandarin teacher alongside them, the 15 Grade 4s were adamant they didn’t really know any Chinese.We listened to some examples of language-learning audio resources that used music to create ‘ear-worms’ for phrases and grammar, but it was fascinating to see how the children’s ideas for themes and topics often involved quite complex language, words that would be unlikely to turn up in a primary curriculum for foreign language learning. Without their teacher, things got complicated very quickly.

Meanwhile, the technology was proving slow and awkward to use. The Netbooks were slow, with hysterical track pads that bounced the cursor across the screen in random and unpredictable ways and made scrolling a task of enormous concentration and effort. Imagine this while trying to edit audio! We had a very small office space to work in, which meant I could only work with a couple of kids at a time. I prepared an instruction sheet for them to follow, but they preferred to have me explain everything (fair enough – I would too). If we’d been able to access a technology lab or ICT space with a big screen where I could give the children the instructions as a group, one step at a time, that would perhaps have been more productive, and more children could have taken part at a time – but there wasn’t such a space available. It all made for very slow going, and very little momentum.

Using 'Audacity' on the Netbooks

Towards the end of Term 3, I suggested to the music teacher that we should drop the Chinese language component of the project. I’d been working with the students in the last lesson block of each Friday in the music room and we’d created a rock band, with original compositions and utilising school instruments like the drum kit, keyboards, and electric guitar. The children looked forward to these sessions more than anything else. “Are we having band practice today?” they would ask me each time they saw me. I decided to shift our focus to music-making and composing using all the instruments we had available to us that could travel from the music room to other parts of the school. We ended up creating 4 original pieces of music. The Rock Band music was the first of these creations and our signature number:

 

Glock Music

Rehearsing the glockenspiel musicWe found a supply of glockenspiels in the music room cupboard. Each child made up a short (2-bar or 4-bar) phrase in D minor. I arranged these into a piece and created scores in Noteflight, adding their names to the score above the bars that they had composed. We set up a big screen so that we all could watch the Noteflight score as it played, and learned first to play along with the computer sounds, and then to play along on our own. We created two Glock Music pieces in this way- have a listen on the following links:

Noteflight score 1: http://www.noteflight.com/scores/view/2488fc16d58f234a96bcd09ca359479738abcd11

Noteflight score 2: http://www.noteflight.com/scores/view/86fb1225c43c296f667572990dba740198bea031

Here is how it sounded in performance:

The Girl with Six Spare Hands

The Girl with Six Spare Hands was a rap created by the children and me. The notion of someone having six spare hands came from one of the children, helping me carry a pile of instruments back to the music room at the end of a session. “Sure, I can help,” she said, when I asked her to give me a hand. “I’ve got a spare hand – in fact, I’ve got six spare hands!” No idea where that came from as an expression, but I loved the image that it gave me and suggested to the group that they write a series of rhyming couplets on this theme. We then ordered the couplets so that we had a vague narrative shape, I added a couple more lines to fill in some narrative gaps, and we had a rap!

This song also featured some cool syncopated rhythms which evolved in the workshops in a similarly serendipitous way. One day, during a warm-up task of call-and-response rhythms, we got sidetracked into discussing how the different rhythms we were clapping could be notated. “How would you notate this rhythm?” one boy, Lenny, asked, and proceeded to clap a more complicated rhythm than any of those we’d done so far. I went to the board and wrote:

1 ee & ah 2 ee & ah 3 ee & ah 4 ee & ah

I explained that they could sub-divide each beat in the bar into 4, and that the “one-ee-and-ah” way of counting could help them keep track of the subdivision. They chanted this sub-division together, liking it a lot. I then underlined some of the numbers/words, to show how Lenny’s rhythm fitted across the bar:

1 ee & ah 2 ee & ah 3 ee & ah 4 ee & ah

They chanted this rhythm too. The bell rang at that moment and they ran out to play, yelling the sub-divisions of the rhythm at the top of their voices. I saw their teacher at recess. “Don’t know what you’ve just been doing with them but they are SO excited!” she told me. Syncopated rhythms will do that to you, I think.

Later, the combination of Lenny’s rhythm, another cool rhythm volunteered by our drum kit player, and the full “one-ee-and-ah” subdivision became the djembe accompaniment to our rap.

There once was a girl with 6 spare hands, she was always lending a helping hand

She had her own one-man-band and quadruple the amount of wrist bands.

Performance Day

We rehearsed each piece, adding greater detail each week. The group of 15 children really impressed me with how much they learned about working together as an ensemble, and with the way they could articulate this. “I’ve learned how you have to listen all the time,” said one, “and how important it is to leave space in your music for other people.”

On the last day of the residency, the fifteen Grade 4s gave three performances. We opened the sliding glass doors of the music room and set out chairs and mats on the grass outside the room for our audiences. It turned the music room into a kind of small stadium, we thought, or amphitheatre. The children prepared spoken introductions for each of the pieces, explaining how we had composed them. It was even interactive – two boys taught the body percussion patterns we had used to learn our syncopated djembe rhythms to the kids in the audience and invited them to join in when we performed The Girl with Six Spare Hands.

Culture Jam audience feedbackSo, despite such a dramatic change of project focus, Culture Jamming finished up a resounding success in terms of student creation, student ownership, and student learning. Every child in that group learned a huge amount about how to play music with other people, how to invent and improvise, and how to polish something for performance. They learned to focus, and learned (for some, through misjudging and getting sent back to the classroom temporarily :-() about how to keep having fun but still get the work done. For me, it was just such a delight to work with these fifteen bright, articulate, quick-witted, funny ten-year-olds. Their excitement and enthusiasm for playing music was so palpable, and their peers were clearly impressed with their music. The audience shared their feedback via a whiteboard – they wrote up messages for the performers at the end of each concert,shown in the above image.

Culture Jam ensembleI still think the language-focused composition idea has legs as a creative project for primary school students, but next time, I’d have a much better idea of what you need to work on a technology project with children of this age. Congratulations to all the Culture Jam students and big thanks to the teachers – Naomi, Michele and Beck – for all their support, enthusiasm and organisational brilliance!

Composing and jamming with netbooks, iPads and Mandarin speakers

I am about halfway through the ‘Culture Jam’ language and music project at Elsternwick Primary School. We are making progress, slowly, with several new developments since my last post.We’ve made a field trip to China Town, where we visited the Chinese Museum and ate lunch in a restaurant, and we’ve had a performance by 2 Chinese musicians playing traditional instruments. We’ve also progressed our composition projects. Without a doubt we are ‘jamming’ (exploring, and making it up as we go along) with culture, with language and with music. Here is a rundown on where we are up to:

Project 1: Chinese vocabulary recordings

Project 1 was focused on using the Chinese language conversations recorded at the Language School field trip in Term 2. We planned to make short recorded pieces on the school netbooks using Audacity (free recording software), that highlighted short repeated phrases in Chinese (with English translation) set to groovy beats and music. Continue reading

Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.

Footage from ‘The Reef’ project with the Australian Chamber Orchestra

Back in May I wrote about The Reef education project that I led for the Australian Chamber Orchestra as part of the larger ‘Reef’ collaboration and tour.

The project was documented by Chris Duczynski from Malibu Media and the following film made as an inflight movie for Qantas. Watching this video brings back lots of memories of what a great 3-day project it was! I was working with 35 highly enthusiastic and engaged young people, fabulously supportive teachers, wonderful ACO musicians and the added extraordinary versatility and talents of composer Iain Grandage and didg player and guitarist Mark Atkins – it doesn’t get much better than that.