Archive for the ‘ELL’ Tag

Survival skills in music class

There are a number of common traits that I’ve observed among new-arrival and ESL students over the past years that I’ve been working in this field, particularly among those of refugee backgrounds, or whose parents are from refugee/war-torn backgrounds.

One is to do with gripping and grabbing – they often take such a firm and intense physical hold of instruments or mallets or bows that it is almost impossible to help them adjust their hold in order to successfully make a sound on the instrument.

Another is to do with listening – the children are often ready and accurate mimics, and they are quick to join in with a rhythm, song or melody once they have heard it. However, if I add another instrument or contrasting/complementary voice to the mix however, they get confused and falter on the initial line. A common response is to start playing louder and faster – effectively blocking the new sound(s) from earshot but making ensemble playing very difficult.

Then there is the ‘high-speed chase’ – the tendency to play things as fast as possible. The speed means that the child has less control over their hands, and a small number of sounds in relatively quick succession – two fast claps in a longer rhythm, for example – will become 4 or 5 very fast claps. A rhythmic pattern involving left and right hands ‘patsching’ the thighs in turn becomes a waggle of left then right hands, in quick succession, too fast to keep track of or monitor in order to stop in time.

(This determination to be speedy is not just in music – it tends to apply to all ‘transitions’ throughout the day – choosing equipment, putting things away, making lines, changing spaces, etc).

I know that many of these traits and tendencies are common across many cohorts, and are certainly not outside any mainstream music teachers’ experiences. However, in mainstream settings, the tendencies get balanced out across a class, and while there might a few ‘grippers’ in the class, they won’t be in the majority. The traits I’m describing are common to nearly all the refugee-background children I’ve taught who arrived Australia with very little prior schooling, and generally no literacy skills in their mother tongue.

I think there are strong parallels between many of these characteristic traits in music and the survival skills a child quickly learns in a volatile, unsafe environment like a refugee camp or conflict zone:

  • You learn to hold things with all your strength.
  • You learn to take what you want as quickly as you can, especially if you are in competition with others around you.
  • You learn to respond extremely quickly to new things going on around you, turning your head to look at all movement, or to follow all sounds. However, multiple sounds or movements create a sense of chaos, so you start to lock onto just one at this point, taking refuge in as small and predictable an environment as possible.
  • You learn to do things quickly because you might not get much time before someone grabs the toy or equipment from you. You don’t give too much attention to taking care for the same reason. You operate with a sense of urgency all the time.

From the music teacher’s point of view, here in the safer environment of a classroom where there is time for everyone to have a turn, and opportunities are not determined by survival of the fittest, which of these tendencies is it safe (in terms of the child’s sense of emotional safety) to challenge? And for the child, what does it feel like to experience music with the different set of sensations to those that are familiar? Continue reading

Journeys to Australia

When I started my residency at the English Language School (back in 2005) my first projects were focused on journeys, and the stories and music that the students had brought with them from their countries of origin. Their teachers and I wanted to encourage them to speak about their experiences, and recognise what they had in common with each other.

I’ve just uploaded some of these projects to my Soundcloud account – please have a listen and add your comments!

Some projects focused on vocabulary for transport and modes of travel…


some demonstrated the range of countries the children come from,


and all of them involved every child speaking on their own about their experiences and being recorded (a great oral language outcome). At the end of each project the children were given a CD recording of their stories and music – I liked to think that they would find this CD in a few years time, listen to it, and recognise how far they’d come in their transition journey.


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.


At the Language School, the Lower Primary class are showing a growing interest in conducting and leading sounds. It started last week, when they first met Ryan, a young musician and fledgling workshop leader I am mentoring this term. Ryan is a virtuosic recorder player, and we invited the Lower Primary students to “conduct” improvisations with him, showing with their hands and limbs what they’d like him to play. As you can see in the video, they started things in a fairly contained way, but ended up with some very flamboyant, whole body conducting!

In this week’s class, we wrote a song together, and as we sang it through at the conclusion of the lesson, one of the boys leapt and vigorously pointed to each word in the song, bouncing his finger along in time to the music, and indicating when we should sing. He then moved on to the other words I had written up from student suggestions that weren’t yet included in the song lyrics, indicating that I should sing them too. I improvised my way through another verse from these words, and he was delighted.

Next week we’ll explore conducting further, and give each child an instrument – perhaps a range of chime bars, different pitches – and invite one person to point to the instrument they want to hear. This could be random, or we could fix it. Today we played a warm-up game that involved the children rolling a ball from one person to the next, and remembering the order that it went from child to child. We could apply the same principle to a circle of instruments, with an individual conductor making the initial choice about who plays when, but the order would then become fixed.

This could also be a way of creating new melodic material.

Why is conducting so engaging for these children? I think they are intrigued by the power of it, the idea that they can create a series of sounds with their gestures. They also enjoy the physicality of shaping the sounds – as is evident in the last child conducting in the video above. When you are newly-arrived in a country and you can’t understand much of what is going on, you don’t have a lot of power or choice – at least, not if you are motivated to try and fit in. You spend a lot of time copying others and trying to get things right. The Lower Primary children quickly worked out that with this kind of improvisation, they didn’t need to worry about it being “right”. They instinctively understood the freedom that they had, and they revelled in it.

How to be a kind, helpful friend

A project that is underway in the Lower Primary classroom at the ‘Melbourne’ English Language School is focused on social skills – being a kind person, and a good friend. We are using drama as well as music to develop their oral language, and using real-life scenarios from the children’s own experiences in the school playground.

We’ve started with imitating happy and sad faces. The first week I demonstrated these, and in the second week I asked them to list some different emotions and reactions (sad, happy, surprised, scared, etc) and we drew faces matching these emotions on the whiteboard.

We then role-played some different scenarios that could happen in the playground during recess. Most of these ended up with me falling on the floor clutching my leg and crying noisily, with anxious children fluttering around me, trying to help me get up.

“What can you say?” their teacher and I asked them. “What do you say to your friend who is hurt?”

It took the class awhile to come up with responses. “What happened?” they asked. “Why are you crying?”

Then we brainstormed possible answers:

“People are being mean to me.”

“I have a sore tummy.”

“The big boys kicked me/bumped me/threw a ball at my head.” (The “big boys” were the most oft-cited offenders in these role-plays; these children share the playground with students all the way up to Year 12, so they are very aware of the “big boys” and how dangerous their games can be for little people).

The class began to throw themselves into this game with a great deal of melodrama, and took it in turns to be the victim and the friendly helper.

Things progressed this week, as we turned their “helping” sentences and words into lyrics for a song.

What do you do when somebody starts to cry, outside in the playground?

What do you do to be a good friend, outside in the playground?

I wrote the melody and the opening questions in order to give the children a very clear framework and scenario into which to put their suggestions. We came up with one verse today, after brainstorming all the things a good friend might say:

Are you okay? Are you fine?

Tell me why you are crying.

How can I help you? Let’s go to the teacher.

We can go together.

They are a very funny bunch in this class – there was lots of laughing as we tried to get the song happening. At first, as I attempted to elicit some “friend’s” responses, the children couldn’t understand what I meant.

Gillian – “What can they say, this kind friendly person who wants to help?”

Student – “Sorry.”

Gillian – “But you haven’t done anything to hurt them. You are the friend! You are helping!”

Student, insisting: “I’m sorry.”

At which point his teacher looked wryly at me and said, “He thinks that ‘sorry’ is always the right thing to say when someone is crying!”

Another moment in which we all collapsed laughing was an ambulatory moment when I role-played falling over and hurting my leg (I’m getting quite good at this role now). The children decided to pick me up by the arms and legs – sharing my weight between them – and carry me off. I don’t know where they were planning to take me – we hadn’t got to that part of the scenario yet. Ryan stood by, mildly suggesting, “I think you might be hurting her more”. Meanwhile, I wondered how long my clothes would bear the weight of my body.

A great moment in oral language terms was when one of the children offered the line, “Let’s go to the teacher”. Everyone cheered, and his teacher high-fived him. Clearly, telling the teacher on duty when there is a problem is a concept they’ve been putting a bit of work into.

There is much that is empowering for the children in this work. After all, they can only speak to each other in English as few of them share a language. This project is not only acknowledging some of the things that can happen at school that upset or frighten them, but is giving them tools to respond, in particular the words and responses that one friend can offer another.

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.

Having a weekend

Today I was reminded how gradually children learn to use a new language. I was walking through the playground at Pelican Primary School, on my way to lunch, and one of the younger students – perhaps in Grade 1 – came up to me and asked me sweetly, “Gillian… are you having a weekend now?”

It’s Tuesday today. I smiled at him and told him, “I’m just going out to get some lunch.” “Oh,” he said, and skipped off to rejoin his friends.

Most of the children at this school speak another language at home. If they have been in Australia two years or less (I think), they are entitled to attend the Language School in order to have intensive English language tuition in a curriculum context. But for children who have been here longer than that, starting school may be the first time they have used English on a daily basis. They are often very articulate and confident speakers, but there are some turns of phrase that reveal the gaps in their understanding .

I have no idea quite what he meant by ‘having a weekend’. I assume he asked me this because he saw me heading for the gate, carrying my handbag. I wish I’d asked him what he meant. Maybe for him, ‘having a weekend’ is what happens when you leave the school grounds. ‘Having a weekend’ sounds like a nice thing to do on a Tuesday when your task is to clean the music room after months of renovations and storage cartons!

Boys and dancing

Last week at the Language School, one of the girls in Upper Primary was adamant that what our class composition really needed was dancing. She was enthusiastic, a couple of her girlfriends were enthusiastic, but others in the class were just as adamant in their refusal.

However, we needed to work in the room all together, and I knew that if I set the three girls dancing at one end of the room, and the rest of the class working with instruments or singing at the other end, it would be too distracting and no-one would get any work completed. “Let’s divide into two groups and we’ll all work on the dance together,” I suggested. There were four phrases of lyrics that the dance would accompany. Each group would devise moves for two of the lines, then we would combine.

What I discovered in this process was that, despite the initial reluctance that most of the boys had shown, several of them (two of the newest boys – from Iraq and Sudan, and two of the Chinese boys) were in fact very happy to be dancing. We devised a heel-thumping, air-punching, hand-clapping accompaniment and they were completely committed to each and every move.

That early lack of enthusiasm was perhaps about keeping with the peer group – especially for the newest boys. They may not have understood my initial question about whether they’d like to  dance or not – maybe they knew it was about dancing, but thought I might be asking them to dance a solo, or something – but they would definitely have picked up on the way the majority Chinese boys in the class were laughing and pushing each other and hiding behind each other by way of demonstrating their reluctance.

Now that we have a dance in the middle of an instrumental piece and song, we have the challenge ahead of us of working out how on earth to stage it, so that they don’t all start falling over their instruments when the get up to dance. That is next week’s challenge!

Improvisation and ESL

I’ve written in the past about improvisation and newly-arrived ESL [English as a Second Language] students. I’m always looking for ways to encourage them to play freely, exploratively, spontaneously and responsively, rather than waiting to be told or shown exactly what to do. The challenge is that for new arrivals with only a beginning grasp of English, and only minimal confidence in their understanding of all that goes on in Australian classrooms, being shown what to do is the principal way that they set about learning, and making sense of their new environment. New arrivals are often careful and cautious about doing things that they haven’t seen someone else already doing. No-one likes to get things wrong, and it is difficult to explain in words that the whole point of improvising is to develop new ideas each time, and to try new things out every time you play.

Last week at the Language School we were developing melodic ideas for a riff we had invented. Every child had a glockenspiel to play. I wanted them to stick to a particular rhythm (which they had developed from words relating to their Integrated Studies topic for the term – food) but to play quite freely with the notes.

I set up a guitar accompaniment of C – Am – F – F – G (our starting riff is in 5/4), and initially asked them to play the rhythm on the note C, but to finish the riff on G. In other words, all the beats would be on C, apart from the last note, which would be G.

We started by playing all together. Several students gave a kind of start of surprise when they heard our good their C-G riffs sounded with the guitar accompaniment. They were inspired, and those that understood the task played with confidence, so that those with less English who needed a guide had someone to copy.

Next, I told them that they now could play whatever notes they chose, so long as they kept to the same rhythm, and that their first not was always C and their last note was always G. In this way, I knew that their ideas would continue to work well with the guitar accompaniment. And, I reminded them, anyone who would prefer to keep playing the C-G riff we have just been playing, can choose to do that any time they want.

Again we played all together. Now the students had choices to make. They could invent their own, or they could stick to the simple riff we had all learned. I find that in the ESL music context, too much choice can be overwhelming for some students, so I always ensure they know they can continue to play the music they already know, so that they feel safe and able to participate. Other students however, will thrive on the new possibilities that the choice offers them.

Our last stage in this improvisation task was to hear what each person was doing, one by one. We established a pattern where we would begin by playing all together, four times through the chord progression. Then, four people would play their improvisation or riff, one by one. Then we would play four repetitions together again, then hear the next four soloists, and continue on in this way until all in the group have played a solo. As expected, some chose to play the taught riff on C and G for their solo. Others improvised. All kept to the rule of starting on C and finishing on G, which meant that they all understood that instruction, or worked it out aurally by hearing what other people were doing.

Next week, we’ll do this task again. I plan to suggest they can now vary their start note between C, E or G, and we may then vary the pitches options for the final note too. Ultimately, I hope that we will generate 1-4 different melodies through this process. However, ‘one step at a time is a good rule for ESL students’ – they appreciate having time to consolidate and demonstrate what they know, rather than constantly having a new challenge to surmount.


What to do when you make a mistake

I think one of the hardest – but most important – things to learn when playing in an ensemble is what to do when you make a mistake. The natural response tends to be that you correct the mistake on the spot, which gets you out of time with the others in the group. Teaching people to keep going, to listen to where the others are up to, and drop back into the music is essential, but the confusion that a lot of young people feel about what it is you’re asking for, and how to do it, can bog them down with anxiousness. Trying to establish this concept at the Language School, where verbal explanations aren’t always helpful, is even more challenging.

Today one of my students had just taken on a new xylophone ostinato. It was quite a complicated riff but he was mastering it well. However, once we added it to the other ostinati being played, his focus sometimes wavered and he would miss a beat, or hesitate over a note for a moment, before playing on. I wanted to find a way to demonstrate to him, or explain to him, that he needed to forget about the note that he’d missed, and keep going with the music.

Inner hearing. Continuous pulse. These are concepts that are hard to explain in just a few words, especially when you don’t have notation to act as a visual aid. But I’ve been thinking about what took place in the class and think I have some ideas about what I could have done better.

Firstly, this riff only ever needs to be played four times in a row, but I was getting him to loop it many more times than that (as a way of locking into it). He tended to get the first four (even more) repetitions out fine, without any problems. So keep it to this. Why complicate matters?

Secondly, I tried to explain to him what I wanted him to do. This wasn’t the best solution because he probably couldn’t understand what I wanted him to do anyway, and was feeling stressed, and because my efforts were also making me feel anxious  (because I sensed how awkward and clumsy they were). It was the afternoon and no one was at their freshest for dealing with a whole lotta words.

I know that my students at this school learn musical concepts most effectively in context, through an implicit environment. How can I create this implicit learning environment? By keeping the number of repetitions of ostinati down to an amount that the students can manage successfully, they will build confidence and security in their own part first, and after that they will start to absorb what is going on in other parts, and instinctively start to anchor themselves to certain points in these. There are always one or two students in the class who understand and do this already. The others just need more time.

Explanations make me tense, as well as the children, because I become so aware of the limitations of them. We are all much happier, and much more relaxed – and therefore more likely to play to our best – when we let the music be our focus, and put our energy into playing, rather than talking.