Archive for the ‘immigrant students’ 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

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.

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.