Archive for the ‘elementary school’ Tag

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

‘Culture Jam’ – Music and Mandarin

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be starting my artist residency at Elsternwick Primary School (EPS), a state primary school in the inner southern suburbs of Melbourne. EPS has very well-established music program and a strong performance tradition; they also take languages very seriously and have a full-time teacher of Mandarin (the school has almost no students of non-English speaking backgrounds).

The aim of the residency is to explore ways that voice and speech can be embedded and integrated into music compositions. I’ll be working with just 15 grade 4 students across terms 2, 3 and 4 to create an original music outcome that has Mandarin language in it (in all sorts of ways) and that could be used as a tool to help other students in the school improve their Mandarin.

Our creative music efforts will be focused around a number of field trips and visits to Mandarin-speaking people. The first visit is to my other students at the English Language School – after playing some music games and ice-breakers together, the EPS children and the Language School children will engage in conversations about culture and knowledge from their countries of origin. The EPS children will speak in Mandarin for the conversations with the Chinese children (they’ll speak in English with the children from other countries), and record their conversations on small voice recorders.

Rules for harmonious living: Found near the entrance to a communal living area, Shanghai, 2010.

In Term 3, they will visit China Town in Melbourne CBD, where they will record themselves buying things from the shops in Chinese, ordering food in a dumpling restaurant, and talking with the Chinese people they meet (elderly people, working people, and quite possibly some university students), and recording all of these conversations too. Lastly, they will meet with a Chinese musician who lives very near the school – he will play his traditional instruments for the children and answer their questions. All this will be recorded too.

Meanwhile, we’ll be exploring different ways of using voice and speech in music compositions – anything from songs, to speech melody, to electronic music, to iPad apps (this means I have to buy an iPad – yes!) to compositions with a mix of live and recorded sounds… Excerpts from the field recordings will find their way into the children’s creations (or at least, that’s our intention at the outset). I’m gathering examples of music to listen to and discuss, and we’ll also do a lot of group-composing workshops to get the composition ideas flowing.

The project is called Culture Jamming, and I’ll be sharing its progress (and its challenges) with you over the coming months. What do you think of the project idea? What music would you play to your students to get them inspired with a project like this? Have you explored using recorded speech in any student composition work or music technology? Please share your ideas and experiences!

Training my choir (and getting away with it)

Choir at Pelican Primary School is a hot-ticket item – I have more than half the children from the eligible classes taking part each week (about 40 students all together). They are noisy and rowdy, they take a long time to settle down when they first arrive and to maintain focus whenever we ‘transition’ from one activity or song to the next. Most weeks, 1 or 2 children are sent back to their classroom for distracting or unhelpful behaviour.

But they are improving slowly (they are a nice little choir already, but it is their willingness to learn that is improving), and this gives me hope! Last year, for example, we started singing songs in two parts. I divided them into two groups of sopranos and altos, and they have maintained those groups and quite proudly identify themselves with one or the other voice type.

Singing in two parts means that I need to give each group their starting pitches before we begin a song. Last year, I would give these pitches, and both groups would ‘over-sing’ them – getting louder, and whooping their pitches up and down to make each other laugh. “I hate it when you do that,” I told them once, grumpily slumping back in my chair, tired of such end-of-the-day silliness.

But me hating it meant that I also needed to explain to them the purpose of these starting pitches, how they should respond, and why it was counter-productive for them to move the pitches around. Every week, it was an effort to make this part of the pre-song preparation work, but we persevered.

At today’s rehearsal, I gave the pitches for our 2-part South African song, and away we went. I realised later, reflecting on the rehearsal, that they hadn’t done their usual routine. They had taken the pitches, echoed them quietly, and used them to get the song started strongly – the way I want them to. Success!

I used to approach all my teaching at Pelican as ‘teaching by stealth’ (my own term) – creating activities that create environments that mean knowledge and understanding gets absorbed. This works well for the slowest and lower-achieving students, but leaves those with more ability and motivation to learn with fewer challenges than they deserve, and with fewer opportunities to put labels on their knowledge. Now I tend to announce to the older classes, “Information! I’m about to give you information! This is important for your learning so listen!” The more able students need this. They thrive on it. They are dying to know things.

Getting ready to leave

We are at the end of term, and at the Language School where I lead music workshops each week, students are preparing to leave. Some will return again in Term 4, but others will be moving on to new schools, scattered across all parts of Melbourne.

You see, the Language School is a transitional school – students enrol for between 6 months and a year (generally children from refugee backgrounds are eligible to stay for a year) before moving on to mainstream school. For some children, Language School is the only school they have ever known, and they thrive in this environment that is geared towards bringing out the best in them. For many, it represents a place of kindness, encouragement and stability when the rest of their world is in a state of flux and stress. In addition to teaching English, Language Schools in Victoria are also helping students learn how school in Australia works, and aim to give them a positive and successful experience of school-based learning.

It’s a time of mixed emotions. There is much to celebrate in their achievements – these students have learned so much and have made great headway during their months at this school. They are ready to move on. However, it is a sad or anxious time for some of the students, reluctant to leave a place where they have been happy and have thrived.

I can see this playing out in some of my students at the moment. Two girls in Middle Primary have, in the last few weeks, regressed. They need more assistance and reassurance, and sometimes get things wrong that we know they know very well.

“They don’t want to leave,” their class teacher told me. “So they are starting to do some things badly, or to make mistakes, as a way to prove they need to stay.”

Years ago, in my first project in a Language School, I remember a student in secondary school explaining her anxiety this way:

“Here, I have friends, I am confident, I am a leader. But when I go to the new school I won’t know anyone, and I will feel shy and scared again. I’m going to lose everything all over again, and be right back at the bottom of the pile.”

Our songs this term are about houses and homes. The children are singing about their previous homes, and their lives there, and also about their new homes in Australia. Resettlement is an enormous, stressful undertaking for a child, in which they get very little say. They spend years in this state of transition.

“You are wonderful,” I tell the students in music class each week. “You’ve done so well. You’ve worked so hard and learned so much, and you are strong and brave. It’s hard to change schools again, but I know you’re going to be okay.”

And they look down at their laps, or away, and consider this.

Finding the right blend

At the Language School, I aim to link the music composition work to whatever theme the teachers have selected to focus on for integrated studies that term. It means that I can reinforce new vocabulary that is being learned in other classes, and similarly, the teachers can support the children’s familiarity with music work as it develops by using phrases and sentences from the compositions in classroom work. For example, song lyrics might be used in cloze exercises or handwriting work.

This term the theme has been ‘food’ and I confess I have felt somewhat uninspired for new ways to develop musical material from this theme. I’ve used tried and trusted techniques. We’ve developed a song about the evils of additives and other dodgy ingredients in food (Upper Primary), and created instrumental pieces in 5/4 using the rhythms derived from the syllables of lists of fruit (Middle Primary), and written a song about good ‘everyday foods’ (Lower Primary).

This week however, I found the metaphor I’ve been looking for! I wanted to find a way to get the Lower Primary children to sing together, and sing with their best voices. They tend to rush through the rests in order to start the next phrase before everyone else, and try to sing louder than everyone else. I needed them to think about blending their voices.

I knew they’d been doing some cooking this term, and that scones were a recent project.

“How do you make scones?” I asked the class. Hands shot up, and they listed ingredients like flour, milk, butter…

“And when you have all these things in the bowl, what do you have to do? Is it all ready for cooking or do you do something else?” I asked.

“No! You have to mix it!” The children mimed mixing, holding an imaginary spoon in one hand and bowl in the other.

“Exactly!” I went on to explain to them that when we are cooking scones, we have to mix the ingredients until we can no longer see the flour, the milk, the butter…. We mix it until it is a smooth paste. “When we’re singing,” I said, “we can do this with our voices. We need to sing so that we can’t hear you by yourself – all the voices need to be mixed together.”

There is always a bit of a risk with visual metaphors creating confusion (by introducing a new topic – cooking – into a different context – music, eg. “Why is she talking about cooking in music?”) but on this occasion it worked very effectively. The Lower Primary children sang their song beautifully after this explanation, paying great attention to singing in unison, waiting for the phrase endings, and not shouting the lyrics.

I will have to remember this idea of ‘mixing’ and ‘blending’ in music for next time the Food topic is used in the primary classes. It’s a musical way of linking the theme with the composition work.

Another Academy community project

My, I have a had a busy couple of weeks! The week before I went to Armidale, I led a composition project for a small group of Academy musicians with the orchestra at Elwood Primary School, one of the primary schools that is in the Academy’s local area, and a school with a very interesting instrumental music program. The school orchestra includes drum kit, electric bass and saxophones, recorders, flutes, clarinets, and some truly gun trumpeters. Quite an eclectic mix of instruments for a primary school. Lots of the initial comments among the Academy students was, “what a fantastic music program they have here! What cool stuff they are getting to do!” Etc.

One of the pieces the primary students already knew was Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, so I proposed to the Academy students that we use this piece as our compositional starting, and as a ‘way in’ to establish some playing alongside the kids.

We had 1 and a half days at the school. First we jammed on Chameleon, and got the kids working in sections and inventing new riffs to add to their arrangement. Then we split off into small groups, mixing all the instruments, and each group created a short piece that included a ‘chameleon-like transformation’ of some kind in the music. This was a deliberately ambiguous task. I choose these in order to set a task that is as open-ended as possible, so that we reduce the likelihood of students trying to ‘get it right’ and come up with the ‘right’ or ‘desired’ musical response. What does a chameleon-like transformation in a piece of music sound like? There are loads of possible answers.

Towards the end of the first day all the small groups came back together and played their pieces to each other. As we listened, we found various points in the pieces where we could include other instruments and players from other small groups. We developed each small-group piece in this way, and created a structure so that we could segue from one piece to the next without a gap, and arranged the pieces so that the whole ensemble played at critical points in each piece, adding tension, drama or complexity.

On our second morning, we focused again on Hancock’s Chameleon. We used my ‘paper-score’ method to arrange all the ideas we had explored in our jamming the previous day, and created a unique arrangement of the piece that included Hancock ideas, the music teacher’s ideas from his classroom arrangement, and the students’ riffs that they had invented the previous day. We laid the paper score out on the floor in front of the players and they read from this for the performance.

I only got one photo from the event as my camera ran out of battery. But if you look closely you can see pages from the paper score at my feet.

Happy Elwood students, happy Academy students. Lots of comments from the musicians I travelled with about the benefits to young players that come from inventing their own music and getting to participate in such a creative, open process.

Pelican songs

At Pelican Primary School we are gearing up for a special music assembly on the last day of school (Friday next week). The school’s much-loved, bright, energetic, warm, funny principal of twenty+ years is leaving (retiring – much deserved) and it is a beautiful opportunity to give the classes who are ready a chance to share their work with an audience, and at the same time offer the principal a farewell gift of music.

The songs we have written make me smile. Sometimes they make me laugh. I have to remember how funny and sweet these children are (it is sometimes easier to remember how challenging they are). We write these songs together, with me writing their suggestions on the board and prompting with gentle ‘steers’ to encourage them to follow narratives through, and keep their lyrics concise. I would never come up with most of these ideas on my own. It’s magic, what they come up with. Here are some examples:

Year 3/4 – The Very Scary Song

We were listening to some music

Our parents watched a movie downstairs

When we heard a noise at the window.

We didn’t know our world would turn UPSIDE DOWN!

Red eyes staring, a green hand stretching,

Black hairy legs were sliding through the crack.

“I’m going to kill you at midnight,” (it said)

We were scared but we knew we had to SAVE THE DAY!

We ran, broke a vase, and stabbed it in the heart.

It turned into a million ghosts.

So we turned on the vaccuum, sucked up all the pieces,

And our parents asked us, “WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?”

The whole song is sung very quietly, except for the words in upper case, which are sung as a scary, dramatic surprise. There are instrumental sections between each verse, using the music we composed last term. What a story to come up with! I especially liked the solution of sucking up the million ghosts with a vaccuum cleaner. Very resourceful.

Year 2/3 – Work Things Out

There’s these kids in a school and they usually have fun

But some times, the dark clouds come

(I introduced the idea to them that the weather, or different kinds of weather, can be used in creative writing as a metaphor for feelings. Hence the second line of the song).

Maybe they can work things out.

Let’s hope they don’t scream or shout.

(Chorus) Work, work, work things out

Think about everyone and please don’t pout.

Work, work, work things out

Shake your friend’s hand and let it go… OUT.

(By which I think they mean, let the bad feelings go out, as opposed to, shake your friend’s hand so vigorously that you dislocate it.)

Sit down, calm your anger.

Count to twenty, your anger will go.

Look for the rules because they keep us safe.

You know what to do.

(Repeat Chorus)

They are very proud of this song. They sing it with great gusto. Today we worked on adding instrumental parts between each verse, after each chorus. It’s coming together. One more rehearsal. I think we are in good shape for the concert next Friday, and I think the principal will be very moved by these musical gifts.

Dragon Teacher

In the Middle Primary classroom there are quite a few new students. I mentioned one of them in my post last week – Volodya, from Russia – and I am still trying to figure out how to channel his creative energy. Meanwhile, I feel I am turning into Dragon Teacher.

Volodya has something of a hard set to his jaw, although with keenly observant eyes, and lots of energy. The moment he enters the room he rushes up to me, asking if we will play his game today (a warm-up game that is similar to one we played last week). I smile at him and say, yes, we will be playing some games, but I don’t know if it is his one, and as he wanders off to sit down, I suggest to him that he can also play his games outside of music class. (Sometimes I feel protective over my time – we only have an hour and twnety minutes a week – a long time for music lessons, but I always have lots that I want to do).

Continue reading

Composing as an alien concept

Here is an interesting discussion I had last week with a colleague from South Australia. We were talking about my research at the Language School, and about the question the students’ understanding of composing, and whether they think of what we do as ‘composing’ or not.

My colleague made the point that ‘composing’ – the idea of creating new music, original ideas and sounds, and structuring them into compositions that go on to exist in their own right, is not a universal concept. That, in many other musical cultures, the notion is quite an alien one. Sure, improvisation is a feature of many musical cultures, but musical invention often stops at that point.

I am not a specialist in world music, or on the characteristics of different musical cultures, but, drawing on the little knowledge I have, this seemed to make sense.

  • In Indian classical music, improvisation is a strong feature. But the musical structures and scales within which this occurs are ancient, and while they may evolve and change under the hands of different masters, this is different to new works being created from nothing.
  • In traditional African music, similarly, the forms and structures are traditional, and while they may be interpreted by different performers, and while improvisation is a key part, the idea of composing something would be quite strange, perhaps even inappropriate or disrespectful.
  • In gamelan music, I am not sure. Certainly there are many traditional and ancient forms; however, new music also evolves. For example, the kecak monkey chanting and dance (that becomes part of the storytelling of the great Ramayana saga) was developed in the 1930s for tourist audiences in Bali. I know that the gamelan group I work with through Musica Viva, Byar, is constantly developing new versions of their music. Perhaps, however, this is yet again an example of revising ancient forms, rather than composing completely new material.

What of the musical traditions of the indigenous peoples of Australia? I’m not sure here. Again, I think the music performed is traditional, and passed down orally through the generations, rather than composed from scratch by contemporary performers.

In this context, when I ask the question, do the students know they are composing?, I am assuming familiarity with what may in fact be quite an alien concept to these students from all around the world. I have always believed that to some extent, the confusion or inhibition that some students display when we undertake some of the more free creative tasks, was due to cultural differences, and their unfamiliarity with an education approach that invites and encourages student input (as opposed to the ‘transmission’ style of teaching). But I think now I should consider the possibility that the notion of ‘composing’ is one that has no real parallels in their cultures, and so must be learned and understood as an entirely new concept.

Comments on the role of composition in other musical cultures are warmly invited.