Archive for the ‘elementary school music’ Tag

Lady Gaga on speed dial

My students think I know Lady Gaga.

As in, personally. In fact, they think I have her on speed dial.

In yesterday’s choir practice at Pelican Primary School, we started learning Born This Way. I gave them a bit of an interpretation of the song, along the lines of, “It’s about being happy with yourself, not trying to change yourself in order to be like someone else, not wishing you were different.”

“But Gillian, that’s the total opposite of Lady Gaga!” said one of the boys. “She is always changing her hair colour, and… stuff.”

“Yeah!” the others chorused indignantly. “Why does she do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging (I really didn’t want to get sidetracked down this line of questioning when I know so little about Lady Gaga). “Shall I ask her when she comes to our school?” They gave sudden squeals of surprise – was Lady Gaga coming to our school? When? “In fact,” I continued, amazed at what I seemed to be getting away with, “Why don’t I just call her now and ask her?” To an accompaniment of even more excited screams I took my mobile phone from my bag, pretended to press some numbers, and put it up to my ear. I motioned for the group to be quiet. At this point they were all staring at me, eyes very wide. A couple were smirking knowingly or rolling their eyes.

“Hello, Gaga?” I said brightly into the phone. “It’s Gillian! How are you going?” [pause while I listen to her response]. “Yeah, well I’m here with the choir at Pelican Primary School and they’ve just started learning one of your songs, Born this way. They think you’re really great, by the way.”

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At this point the choir began screaming – really screaming, with excitement – and calling out messages. One boy was saying determinedly, “Not me! I don’t like you at all. Not me!” but all the others were screaming messages of love and devotion, grade 3 style.

I gestured to them to be quiet. “Anyway Lady -” I’d realised I didn’t know what to call her – “the kids here have got some questions for you. Have you got time to answer a couple of questions?” Again, I paused and then nodded at the children who started waving their hands in the air.

“Do you know Justin Bieber?” was the first question. I relayed it to Lady Gaga, and reported back,

“She says no. She doesn’t know him.”

They all looked shocked. Clearly they’d done a song together or something. I added,

“That is, she doesn’t know him well. Just a bit. He’s a bit young for her, she says.” Next question:

“Ummm, why do you take your clothes off and show your body to the world?” asked one of the boys primly. I nodded and relayed the question into my phone. Lady Gaga’s response?

“It’s because she gets so hot when she’s dancing. She gets hot really easily.” Right.

There were a couple more questions, but the excitement was starting to get out of hand, so I pretended she’d just told me she had to go. We all sang out a jolly good-bye to her and I told her I’d see her on the weekend.

Clearly, as their music teacher there is nothing I can’t do. Choir was dismissed a minute or two before the end-of-school bell rang, and even in that short time the word had spread. “Gillian, did you know that Lady Gaga is coming to our school?” a child from another class asked me as we walked down the stairs.


Making pitch visible

In the previous post I’ve described some of different ways I’ve tried to make the pitch concept visual and physical for students at the English Language School. Here is some footage from one of these projects:

The music was from a Somali pop song that one of the students brought in on his mobile phone. We learned a number of different riffs and put them together into a performance piece. Watching it now, it seems an incredibly complex piece for 9-11 year old English Language Learners. The body percussion and hand-gesture work was designed to support their understanding of the pitch relationships between the notes, but it also supported their memorisation of the music. They really engaged with the idea of finding ways of practising their parts away from the instruments.

Playing by ear

Each term I devise a different collaborative music project for each class at Pelican Primary School, which we develop over a series of weeks. The grade 4/5 class has been working on the song Somebody I used to know by Gotye (a Melbourne artist, they were excited to learn). The song starts with a xylophone melody that follows the contour of Baa Baa Black Sheep and the class were familiar with the song when I first played it to them.

This project of learning to play the Gotye melody has developed into an exploration of pitch, and specifically, using an understanding of pitch to learn to play familiar melodies by ear. My ideas of how best to facilitate this developed over the term – we were working things out together.

Week 1

Initially, after getting the students to listen to the melodic introduction to the song and mark the contour in the air with their hands, I gave each child a tuned percussion instrument (xylophones and glockenspiels), and told them the first two notes of the melody. I asked them to see if they could work out any of the other pitches. We played the song’s introduction over and over and they tried to play along. This was much too difficult for them and many of them got frustrated and disheartened. I realised that they didn’t know how to approach the task, so did a rethink.

Week 2

I introduced the idea of pitches or notes being the different letters on the instrument and we established that these can go up (higher, to the shorter bars) and down (lower, to the longer bars). I taught them about pitches “moving by step” (moving to the next adjacent note rather than to a note further away), and  that we weren’t going to be thinking about them “by skipping” (as they call it) at this stage. Again, everyone had an instrument, and I asked them to locate D. I played a short phrase, always starting on D, and only moving by step (up or down one step). They listened carefully, and we played a series of phrases (unrelated to the Gotye song) in call-and-response – me by myself, and all of them playing it back to me.

The group was highly engaged during this activity. They understood it, and were challenged by it, but it was achievable for most. Two or three didn’t seem to be responding so positively, and appeared to be hitting any notes randomly (albeit in rhythm with the phrase they were to copy) and laughing across to each other. I asked them to repeat my phrase one by one. Immediately they were more engaged, and repeated the pitches and rhythm accurately. I think they found the task frustrating because they couldn’t hear their own efforts when playing at the same time as everyone else. I find that this cohort (who I’ve written about many times in this blog), generally has a low tolerance of situations where they can’t get immediate feedback (which in music is the opportunity to clearly hear their own instrument in the mix) in music class. This creates disillusionment and frustration, they stop trying, and start distracting others. They wouldn’t be able to develop the skills if they were feeling annoyed by the task (or be able to develop the confidence to approach it) so I tackled this issue of being able to hear oneself the following week.

Week 3

We started a musical version of Chinese Whispers. I set up a line of 8 instruments. Player 1 invented a short phrase, starting on D and only moving by step between D, C and B. Players 2-8 had to try and play it back, taking it in turns so that they were all playing alone. Each child got at least one turn on an instrument. While they weren’t playing they were sitting as audience, listening and (hopefully) mentally figuring out the pitches for themselves.

Everyone – those who were sitting at an instrument and those who were in the audience – could hear when an echoing phrase was different to the original, or the same. A lot of excellent self-correcting started to happen.

Week 4

We discussed phrases in music. I explained that the phrase end was where there was a natural pause in the music – maybe not a long one, but a point where the musical line came to some kind of rest. We sang through Dynamite as an example (a favourite song of the class), and they raised their hands every time we came to the end of a phrase. Everyone did this with confidence. “You see?” I said, “You already know this about music. All I’m doing is putting a name to something that you already know and understand.”

Next, I gave out a chart of the Gotye introduction, written only in rhythmic notation. Each of the four phrases was colour-coded – red for phrase 1 and 3 (because these phrases are exactly the same rhythmically and in pitch), black for phrase 2 and blue for phrase 4. (Colour-coded information is a very helpful visual cue for a lot of my students, it helps them orient themselves around new information and not feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar symbols).

For this session, I asked them to focus only on phrases 2 and 4. Phrase 1, I explained, would be tackled later. Phrases 2 and 4 are slower (crotchets rather than quavers) and move only by step.

There was quite a buzz in the air in this class. The preliminary work we’d done on pitches moving by step had given the students tools for tackling the Phrase 2 & 4 challenge, and most of the class was able to play along with the recording by the end of the lesson. Some were already starting to figure out how to play phrase 1 – something that had been frustratingly difficult in the first week.

Next steps…

We will finish figuring out the notes for Phrase 1, and write the pitch names (according to what they have figured out) under the rhythmic notation on the chart. After that, we’ll creating a class arrangement, adding a bass line and other accompanying riffs, and create a drum/untuned percussion accompaniment by ear. I’m hoping they will be able to perform the piece for a school assembly in the next few weeks.

The oral (aural) tradition

Another recurrent theme at ISME this year was about reconnecting with, and bringing back into the mainstream, the oral tradition of passing on musical knowledge. Bruno Nettl, one of our keynote speakers, pointed out that this is the established system of teaching and learning in the vast majority of musical cultures around the world. Yet in western art music, and its associated teaching traditions, the emphasis is more commonly on music literacy being one of decoding and encoding music notation, and that this comes before proficiency on the instrument.

For me, what is commonly called the oral tradition is just as aptly named the aural tradition because it focuses so heavily on the ears. I’ve learned some music skills this way – certainly all the skills I have as a percussionist have been learned through playing alongside others more skilled than myself. However, this has been coupled with the specialist music knowledge already embedded in my brain which allows me to link up concepts, map out ideas for myself in order to make sense of them, and memorise patterns by encoding them in my head using my music theory knowledge. This links back to Tony Lewis’ presentation at the CDIME [Cultural Diversity in Music Education] conference in Sydney, January 2010. Tony described three ways of learning, or three systems of knowledge – ontological, where you learn by doing, by being there and present and participating; epistemological, which is where you call upon your pre-existing knowledge and knowing in order to analyse, map, theorise and build concepts in the new discipline you are encounters; and dialogical, where these two approaches combine. (I’ve written more about Tony’s ideas in this earlier post).

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The wonderful clarity of western-style notation

I’ve found myself in the middle of a really interesting project with the Middle Primary students at the Language School. A focus this term on pulse has taken us into working with simple rhythmic notation (using crotchets, quavers and rests – or quarters, eighths, and rests, as you prefer). I hadn’t planned to introduce western-style notation this term – in fact, I’m not sure it has ever featured in my work at the Language School – but now that I’m in the middle of it, I’m not sure why it hasn’t been a feature.

For one thing, it’s visual. And it can be ‘read aloud’ by the students using simple, logical sounds (ta, titi, and sah). It makes sense to them.

We started with whole notes/semibreves. This was not a good place to start, as they hadn’t yet started internalising pulse. Ditto for minims/half-notes. Things really cranked up when we got on to the crotchets and quavers. We began to invent different rhythms. We said them, clapped them, then put them onto untuned percussion instruments. We divided into two, then three groups, and so were playing three different rhythms concurrently.

And here is the joy of it all – it all hung together! Beautifully. “Well, of course!” I can hear all the music teachers chorus,with a slight air of impatience. These tools have been around a long time, because they work. But what is exciting for me is to see just how quickly and effectively they work without much verbal explanation. They are supported by the musically-consistent environment of the music classes (we have strong attention to musical detail); they also enable the children from China and Thailand, some of whom have had music instruction prior to arrival in Australia, to tap into their knowledge and learning from their country of origin.

For the newest arrivals, and those from refugee backgrounds, who tend to be sruggling with literacy and who have had incredibly disrupted schooling, if any schooling at all, it also seemed to make sense. There are five children in the class who fit this description (Horn of Africa, and Middle Eastern nationalities); only one child was clearly still guessing what was going on, the others seemed to have made sense of the task and were gradually piecing things together.

Today, we progressed things further, writing a rhythm, and then adding pitches to it to make a melody. I gave them a 5-note pentatonic scale to work with, and asked them to suggest which pitches should go where. As we progressed through the rhythm, I played them what they had invented so far. We came up with a funky little tune, and learnt it. Applying pitches to a known rhythm was a good challenge even for the most competent students. They had to figure out how to glance quickly at the board, and then back down to their instrument. We did a lot of echoing, so that they could establish a strong aural memory of the tune.

So, now in week four, we have a 3-part rhythm played on a range of instruments, and a melody, which I have started accompanying on the guitar. What’s more, it all hangs together, with very little direction or correction from me. I think the visual representation of what they are playing helps them put the different parts in context with each other, perhaps.

I think it is going to become a song. The school has been asked to perform in a local Refugee Week community celebration at the end of term – I think this Middle Primary song might end up linking to that event.

Attention spans of the Pelicans

Pelican Primary School is a very multicultural, inner-city school, with probably well over twenty different language and cultural groups represented. English is a second language for many of the students. In fact, quite a number of the students in the school first attended the Language School where I also teach (and have been teaching since 2005), so it has been lovely to be able to reconnect with them, and admire how fluent their English is now, how tall they have grown, etc.

This diversity of language at Pelican PS suggested to me that many of the pedagogical strategies I have developed at the Language School would also be effective here. In fact, I saw a tremendous opportunity to be able to refine and further develop my ideas, and ensure they are applicable to a mainstream school environment, as well as to the specialised Language School classes.

However, there are some big differences between teaching at the Language School, and teaching at Pelican Primary School. One of these is in the way the students engage with teaching and learning, which can perhaps be considered in terms of the length of time that students can concentrate for, or how easily they get distracted.

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