Archive for the ‘jamming’ Tag

Who were these Motolori boys?

I’ve written quite a lot about the ‘Motolori boys’ who were our main participants in Lospalos. In this post I want to try and assemble what it is that I know about them, and the kinds of impressions they made on me. Together, we went on quite a learning journey.

Motolori is a sub-sub-district – like a suburb – of Lospalos. The town is divided into these areas. Others have names like Bee Moris, Natura… Motolori (I’m not sure if I’m spelling it correctly, but this is how it sounds) is near the river, and seems to refer to the houses that line the main road leading into town. Thus it is close to the town.

The house I live in is solid and old, from Portuguese times. It’s on relatively high ground, and is surrounded by grass. When it rains, the land surrounding the house isn’t immediately reduced to mud. Most of the other houses in Motolori aren’t like this. Most of them are simple wooden structures, with dirt floors and walls made of palm leaf shingles and flat rooves. No ceilings. Most of the land is not grassy, but bare earth, so on rainy days there is a lot of muddy, or slippery brown earth.

Over the road from us, there is a long row of houses – I think of it as a kind of family compound. To reach the houses from the road, you have to cross a stream – perhaps more like a drain, in a deep ditch. There is a rather precarious looking crossing point a little further down the road (a bridge made from bits of scrap wood, it seems), but if you want to cross over immediately opposite the block that my house is on, you have to scramble down the ditch and jump across the stream. I think this is the way the kids usually do it, because who could be bothered going all the way down to the crossing point?

On either side of our house are other family compounds. One side has families that are the relatives of my landlords – the women often sit together with the youngest children in the shade of the trees that border the two properties, and it was on this neighbouring block of land that Tony and I bought our first long piece of bamboo. The houses in this group are a mix of Portuguese brick houses, and more recent wooden structures.

On the other side lives the family of mostly boys that my landlords didn’t seem to like much. We got to know this family one evening when Tony was offered a coconut from their tree and went around there to seek their help in opening it up with a machete. That evening they had a visiting family member, a young woman who’d only recently returned to Lospalos from working in England. She was pregnant, and as she and I chatted, I asked her about her plans. She explained that after the baby had reached six months her plan was to leave it with her family and that she would go back to England. Such is the scarcity of work in Lospalos and Timor, and the significance of what she could contribute to her family by continuing to work in England. My heart ached for her when I thought how difficult it would be to return to England without her baby, her first-born.

The first time children from our local area came to jam on the verandah with us, they were a big, noisy group. They were excited to play music, but they snatched and grabbed at instruments, and weren’t very good at listening. In those early jams, we did a lot of unison rhythms and call-and-response patterns. On the days when some older boys came too, we tried out some more structured ideas – these would only work if we had a critical mass of people who understood what we were trying to do.

I’d noticed way back in Dili in my first verandah jams that there was a marked difference between the children who had experience of school and those who hadn’t. In Dili, the difference tended to be revealed by the children’s ages – there, some of the group were too young to have started school. Here in Motolori, I started to get the sense that some of these boys (and they were nearly always all boys), no matter what their age, had had very little experience of schooling. They weren’t used to being organised as a group, and they didn’t know Tetun. It took me a while to figure this out. The lightbulb moment came when I realised the boy who was telling me the words for “it might break” in Fataluku wasn’t doing this for my benefit, but in order to translate what I was saying for the boys who didn’t understand Tetun.

I wasn’t always sure I liked these boys at the beginning. They were hard to read. They didn’t like making eye contact, and sometimes they were so rowdy and aggressive with the instruments it worried me, and made me want to pack everything up and send them away. They would hit things until they broke, if we let them (which by the way, I know to be a standard thing for some kids, the world over. It certainly happens at Pelican Primary where I teach in Melbourne). I also found their apparently short attention spans frustrating, and wondered if, with this group, we would ever be able to develop some more detailed musical ideas. Also, they were all boys. I’m particularly sensitive to how quickly music can become a very ‘gendered’ activity, with girls electing not to take part if it becomes dominated by boys. I had hoped to avoid this kind of all-boys scenario, and wanted to model female music participation for the local girls and young women who might be looking for ways to get involved but needing a female leader to guide them.

For Tony, it was a bit different. They loved calling out to “Maun Tony” in the street, and giving him high-fives. He was a bloke, he was twice the height of most men they’d seen before, and he had a pronounceable name. I used to grumble good-naturedly about Tony’s apparent charisma for the children but actually it was an important part of the relationship-building in the local community. I was just as friendly and approachable, and I was the person with the language skills, but I know that without Tony and his bloke-iness, we might never have built the in-roads we built.

Basically, our impression was that these kids were the ones with few opportunities. Only some of them went to school, when school resumed in January, and even then, they didn’t seem to go everyday. When I began to compile my list of complete names for the certificates, one of the boys came up to me to say that “those boys there can’t write their names, because they don’t go to school.” “Well, can you write their names for them?” I asked, and he was happy to do that. Another boy’s ‘complete name’ turned out to be just one word, one name. This seemed highly unlikely in Timor, where a typical ‘complete name’ will honour various Catholic saints and relatives and can have up to four names in it. But the boys writing the list said to me, “He doesn’t know it.”

Whenever all these boys turned up at our house to play, the landlord’s two children would quickly and quietly leave the group and head back to their house, behind mine. I asked their mother if everything was okay.

She told me, “They don’t really like playing with those other children.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Oh you know…. They are very dirty. My two don’t really like to play with children whose clothes are so dirty.” She looked at me and explained, “In Timor, if you go to someone else’s house to visit, you should put on your clean clothes. When these children come to your house in dirty clothes, you should tell them to go home and get changed.”

I laughed in surprise. ‘I couldn’t ask them to do that!” I said. “I’d feel embarrassed to say something like that. I don’t mind what clothes they are wearing.”

“No, you should tell them this. You don’t need to feel embarrassed, it’s your house. And that’s the way it works here.”

It started to seem like a division of class and advantage and I didn’t want any part of it. I thought about how there could be loads of reasons why these kids might not have clean clothes to wear very day. There might not be easy access to water in their homes, so water usage might be prioritised for washing food, drinking, and washing bodies, rather than clothes. They might be the children of a single mother, who was doing the best she could just to keep looking after all her children. And, given the way these children seemed to spend most of their time hanging around the street, just entertaining themselves without any adult input, I wondered how many of their parents even knew they were coming to our house each day. The kids weren’t likely to think of changing their clothes all on their own. Music on the verandah was just another activity in the day of play.

In time, I began to see how the group of boys who came to us most regularly were becoming the leaders of the jam ensembles. They were the ones most familiar with the instruments and with the cues Tony and I used. They could still get rowdy, but they knew how to quiet down when asked, and they were beginning to shush others who were less familiar. I saw how, as Forever Young became part of our repertoire, they took it in turns to play the chime bars, and would watch all the players before them very intently, memorising the progression of eight chords so that they had a good idea of what to play by the time it was their turn.

In fact, I’d say the Forever Young chords were a big motivator for the Motolori boys. It was something that initially seemed complicated and difficult, and that sounded very musically proficient, and yet, one by one, they saw how each of their peers was mastering this pattern. They took me by surprise too – I hadn’t imagined everyone learning how to play this pattern. In fact, I’d only taught it to two of the older boys and had expected they would be the only ones to play it. Instead, others began to pick it up, and would take over the mallets at every opportunity once they’d learned it.

At one jam early on in the last week, a melody appeared that I knew had been invented in the very first jam by a teenage girl named Linda who’d never returned to any subsequent jam sessions. Amongst ourselves we called it the Brown-Eyed Girl tune, as it reminded us of a riff in the Van Morrison song. One of the Motolori boys must have been there that at that first jam, had learned the melody, and was now rejuvenating it with a new group. As with the Forever Young chords, it was quickly learned, peer teaching peer, by others in the group and became part of the repertoire.

The changes in the group that I am writing about now are things I am becoming aware of only in hindsight. At the time, we were just responding to the groups day by day. They were always noisy, highly energetic and exhausting groups – the fact that there were small but significant changes taking place was not always immediately apparent in the jam itself. Only later, thinking back, would I realise that there was a level of musical independence and clarity emerging in the way the group worked together.

A key day for me started with a boy sitting on the bridge into town calling out to me, “Hey malae! One dollar!”. This kind of thing could happen in Dili but I’d never experienced it in Lospalos. I don’t like being called ‘malae’ in this way, and the ‘one dollar’ thing is not something any of us should encourage. Culturally, begging is something that is frowned upon in Timor and it’s unlikely any parents would approve f their children asking neighbours for money. I looked with annoyance over at the boy and saw that he was one of the boys coming regularly to my house. I gave him my usual joking response to that request (“One dollar? Why should I give you one dollar? Or do you mean you are giving me one dollar?”) but he could see that I was angry that someone like him, who knew me, would ask this and he ducked his head down quickly.

I was so cross! I imagined barring him from all future jams as I continued on my walk to town. But when I saw him again later, my irritation had subsided and I was walking chatting with Sarah and waving to the kids I knew. I waved to him, and he flashed me such a cheeky smile that Sarah commented on it. “Hmm, yes,” I said grimly. “He knows he was out of line with me. I think he’s relieved to see he’s forgiven.”

At the jam that afternoon, this little boy held my eye when he smiled at me. Others did too. I felt like a good, trust-based relationship was starting to build there too, finally.

I’ve already written about the day of the burglary  – Wednesday -and the good energy that seemed to flow on from that. That Wednesday evening was the  live radio performance and it is worth pointing out that all the participants in the community radio broadcast turned up in different clothes to the ones they wear for playing throughout the day. They were all clean and smartly dressed, well aware of the occasion.

The following day – Thursday – was the day of the kindergarten project, and a small team of local boys had very enthusiastically, proudly and professionally assisted us to bring the all the instruments to the kindergarten in the centre of town. The boys followed us into the kindergarten hall and helped us get all the instruments unpacked and set up on the table. Then they stayed in the room, milling around, their usual energy abundant and happy, but certainly not causing any problems for anyone. Lots of other parents and older siblings were hanging around in the room too.

The kinder children had started to assemble by around 9.20, I’d say. As it got time for the class to begin, the three kinder teachers very gently but firmly ushered excess parents, older siblings and our team of Motolori boys out of the room.

“That’s not fair,” Tony said to me indignantly. “Our boys should be allowed to stay. They are our assistants. Besides, we’ll need their help at the end, to get everything home!”

He was right, but I had a few tiny concerns that the boys might end up dominating the workshop if they stayed. I also felt insecure about stopping the teachers doing what they were doing. I didn’t want to tread on their toes. I also probably wanted to focus my language efforts on what we were about to do with these sixty or so very little children. But in hindsight, I should have had a quiet word with the teacher about letting these boys stay. The teachers didn’t know they were with us, and that we know and trust them, and appreciate their help. They were in fact much more disciplined and considerate (by this stage) than I was giving them credit for. This enforced departure at the beginning of the workshop frustrated Tony in its unfairness; also that he himself didn’t have the language skills to sort it out himself.

Later, he told me,

It annoyed me also because it seemed like such an assertion of class power. Our boys are the kids who haven’t been able to go to kinder, and now they don’t get to go to school. They weren’t all ushered out of the room gently – some were physically manhandled out of the room, one by his hair! It was like a support of the belief that ‘education is a privilege, not a right’. They start off with just as much potential as everyone else, but the environment and opportunity shapes who they will get to become, and what they will get to access… Still, if some boys off the street wandered into Scotch College, the same thing would probably happen. And those teachers didn’t know they were with us. But it made me angry at the time.

The last big event of my residency was the Toka Boot, on Saturday 22 January. In a way, I’d planned the music of the Toka Boot with the Motolori boys in mind. We imagined them being an important part of the event, taking on roles as section leaders, their skills and experience with us now being brought to the fore for all to be impressed. We were planning to incorporate their Brown-Eyed Girl riff (now renamed melodia Motolori) in the first big section of music.

So we were a bit alarmed to meet a significant group of them – all our favourites, in fact – decked out in football kit heading into town at 2pm, an hour before the start of the Toka Boot.

“Where are you going?” we asked them.

“Football,” they told us.

“Oh…” we said in dismay. “Whereabouts do you play football? What time does it finish? Do you know about the Toka Boot at 3pm and 4pm? Can you come?”

“Football at 2pm,” they told us. “It’s near the Old Market, we can come afterwards.” They assured us they would be there.

So we weren’t able to follow through with our plan to have a mini-parade through the streets at 3pm, bringing all the instruments to the Old Market with the wheel barrows and Motolori kids, as we had hoped. Instead, we enlisted the help of the ANAM students and some of the local children – more girls this time – and walked in a very laden way to the market. We passed the football game on the way and saw lots of our kids. They were happy and interested to see us, but made no moves to leave the game at that stage.

In the end only a few Motolori boys came along to the Toka Boot. Lots of the football boys never made it. The rest of the neighbourhood gang (including lots more girls now – interestingly, ever since the burglary affair when everyone heard me scream, more local girls had been venturing over to our place to join the music) were waiting for us at our house when we came home at the end of the afternoon. Perhaps this also tells us something about the kinds of psychological and cultural barriers that might be present for kids taking part in something in another part of town. Perhaps venturing to a more public space felt quite threatening and risky for some of our kids, despite the level of comfort and familiarity they feel with Tony and me. Perhaps some people in Lospalos are more segregated or separated than we can really understand. Or perhaps an event like this – any new event – needs a few repeats before it can really get embraced by a large group. People don’t always like to participate in something that is new – they want others to participate first, and then tell them about it.

And ideally, an event like this wouldn’t clash with something as important as the first day of the local football program! No-one in Lospalos should find themselves torn between two nice things to do. However, you obviously need to be even more embedded within a community to find out about the soccer program – I’m not sure who we’d have asked to find out it was on, and obviously no-one knew or thought to tell us. Never mind. The Toka Boot was still a huge success, and it meant that our relationship with the Motolori kids remained close to home.


Most productive day of the residency so far!

Lospalos, day 94

Yesterday (Saturday) was probably the most productive day of the residency! Earlier in the week, some of the students we’d befriended in the English classes dropped by our house just to hang out and chat. We showed them the kakalo that our neighbour had made for us the previous weekend. “Oh yes, we know this instrument,” they told us. “Do you know how to make it?” Tony asked them. “Yes, we do,” they replied.

So we cooked up a plan for a Saturday Working Bee, focused on making instruments.

That morning, the three boys came to our house after they’d finished morning school. We went to visit our neighbour to tell him of our plan, and to see if he’d like to join us for any or part of the day. He was immediately interested. He came around to see the pieces of bamboo we’d been given from the nuns at ADM, and told us we still needed a much narrower piece if we wanted to make bamboo flutes. Then he went home and found a long piece with the right diameter for us, which we bought for $2 (it turned out it was his fishing rod, but he knew where he could get another rod-lengthed piece of bamboo so was happy to sell it to us). Before he left, he lent us some of his tools.

Tony and the boys got to work sawing the thick lengths of bamboo into shorter pieces for kakalos. I’d been called down the street to collect something from a friend. I was only gone 20 minutes, but by the time I’d returned there was a group of about 25 kids on the verandah. Some were working on the instrument making, but others were just hanging out, looking for things to play.

“Maybe go down on the grass,” Tony suggested to me. We took our set of three mats down to the recently-mown grass and got everyone to sit down. We had pieces of bamboo clapping sticks, plastic bottles pumped with air and turned into bells, upturned buckets to play as drums, chime bars (one per child) and short plastic bottles and storage containers filled with rice to use as shakers. More children kept arriving – at one point we had well over 40, many of whom I’d never seen before, and lots of girls. I taught them to sing Ah Ya Zahn, a song from Lebanon with a rhythmic response in the chorus. We spliced this with different rhythmic patterns, once for each group of instruments.

In this group it was gratifying to see that those children who’d been coming to our house regularly for verandah jams (many of them “naughty boys”, as Oswalda tended to refer to them) were the ones who helped hold the ensemble together. They knew all about looking for cues, and stopping on the stop signal, being ready for sections to change, and sticking to the pulse rather than speeding up or slowing down. I was proud of them! They were the leaders among this group of new kids.

The group itself had a chaotic feeling – often, standing in front of it, it was hard to see who was actually listening to what I said! But they must all have been listening, because they learned the rhythmic response in the chorus (which is irregular so needs to be memorised) incredibly quickly, and similarly the Arabic words of the song.

Eventually some mothers arrived to take their children home to lunch (we realised they’d stopped at our place on their way home from school), so our group numbers reduced and we eventually stopped. Some boys continued to hang around (I don’t think they had lunch to go home to, on reflection), so we brought out some bananas, then told them we needed to have a rest, and that they could come back in the afternoon to play some more music.

By the end of that afternoon we had made 8 kakalos, with a set of neatly-smoothed bamboo sticks to play them with. Tony had also started experimenting with some bamboo flute designs, finding a way to bore holds into the bamboo tunes, and to create a more user-friendly mouthpiece.

Also that afternoon we began to sing through the Fataluku version of Forever Young, one of Timor’s current summer radio anthems, and a much-loved song among the teenage population of Lospalos. Valda invited some friends over, and the three working bee boys also stayed. We tested out the multi-syllabic Fataluku words, figuring out how to make them fit with the melody of the song.

The afternoon also included an excursion to a nearby pond system, where apparently many crocodiles lived. They weren’t revealing themselves that day though.

In the evening, we welcomed the ANAM students and the Many Hands directors to our house. Valda cooked up a storm for everyone, and then we jammed into the evening. Lina and Tony did some improvised flute duets, Doug played guitar, all of us played the kakalos, working with the cele cuku rhythms, and Lina taught everyone Macedonian folk dancing.

So it was a late night for Lospalos (hitting the beds by about 11pm), but definitely the most productive day of the residence. We were well due our rest by then.

Jam on the verandah

This afternoon we gathered a group of local youngsters n the verandah of the Lospalos house for a jam. We were lucky to have the help of Kamil (a recent visitor and commenter on this blog – in fact, that is how he tracked me down) who speaks Indonesian and was able to leave the verandah to go and invite those young people whose attention we had caught to come and join us. Having a common language is a wonderful gift in recruiting new participants!

We jammed on three different musical ideas (Yill lull by Joe Geia, a melody made up by one of the participants, and the Fataluku song that I learned from the women’s choir in Baucau), using the Optimum Percussion chime bars, the upturned buckets as drums, and some shakers made from plastic bottles and empty Pringles containers, with rice in them).

Jamming on The Rite of Spring

Yesterday I led two ‘Jams on The Rite of Spring’ for the MSO, working with five of the orchestra’s musicians and crowds of well over 100 participants. We had some of the tiniest violinists and cellists you’ve ever seen turn up! We also had a plethora of bright yellow egg shakers to include, thanks to a giveaway by local music retailer sponsor. Not quite the percussion sound I’d imagined, so we also distributed some other instruments – drums, tambourines, xylophones – for people to use in the workshop.

I prepared a page of music for each of the instrumentalists (trumpets, trombones, strings, woodwinds) which had three riffs from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. We used these to get us started improvising, and over the course of an hour we put together three sections of music all inspired by the Stravinsky originals. My favourite section was what we called ‘the 20s’. This was a shortened version of the very rhythmic opening to The Augurs of Spring movement in Stravinsky’s work – everyone counted to 20, twice in a row. The percussion section and the violins played quietly (on any notes from the A natural minor scale) on all the numbers. The rest of the instrumentalists played loudly on numbers 10, 12, and 18. If you know the piece you will know the section we were recreating.

I love the Jams. We get a whole crowd of people who don’t know each other, and most of whom are total beginners on their instrument, playing together and sounding good. I think one of the secrets of the model is that we focus a lot on rhythmic ensemble. I accept/expect that many people who come along may not have full command of the notes yet. However, even the smallest, youngest person can be encouraged and motivated to play at exactly the right time (and to stop at exactly the right time too), so I pay a lot of attention to the rhythmic ensemble and getting it as strong as it can be. It means that everyone there will have an intense and satisfying musical ensemble experience – even if they are only playing on open strings. They’ll have the experience of connecting with other people through sound.

There are always moments of great delight for me, where I see that an experience has taken place that could be of great significance for the person. One little girl brought her violin along to the 10am Jam. Her parents sat in the seating bank watching and her older brother played in the guitar section. Both kids were total beginners, and the little girl had only had a few lessons on the violin before coming along. At the end of it, I spoke to her mum and dad and learned that she had found the whole thing a little overwhelming.  “You haven’t ever played with other people before,” her mum reminded her reassuringly. “You’ve only played in your lessons. It’s different when you play with other people, isn’t it?”

I crouched down so I could talk to her, and she looked at me with a very woebegone face. “I didn’t know the notes,” she told me.

“Oh, but that’s okay,” I answered, smiling. “The most important thing is playing with the group and knowing when to play, and when to stop.” I went on, “I looked at you during the Jam and every time I looked I could see that you were listening very carefully, and looking and concentrating hard. So you did very well at that.”

“It’s hard when it’s the first time too. It’s hard for everyone! But the next time you come, you’ll feel much better. If you come again at 2 o’clock” – I looked up at her parents – “then you’ll definitely know everything, because we’ll be playing the same music again! You’ll know all the tunes this time because you’ve already tried them before.” She didn’t look convinced.

But the family did come back at 2pm, and she bounced over to the violin section, where there was a whole crowd of children gathering. Her parents went off to play in the percussion section and I got her father to play the tam-tam (a key role).

At the end of the Jam I went over to her parents as they were getting ready to leave. “How was it this time?” I asked. “Oh, much better!” they started to answer, and then the little girl appeared out from behind their legs and came over to me and gave me a great big squeeze-y hug. Which was very sweet, and very gratifying. She’d obviously had a much better time the second time around, and realised that she did in fact know all she needed to know, and felt much more confident and sure of herself. I felt so pleased they’d been able to come back for the second jam.

My friend Louise is a cellist and she came along to the morning jam with her cello, to check out just what it is that I do in these workshops. It was great to have her there as we didn’t have a lower string representative from the MSO, so it meant that Louise would be able to help out any beginner players who turned up.

One of the cellists who came along was a boy of about 12, with a very open, intelligent face and and a great willingness to get stuck into the workshop. His confidence and readiness to play gave me the impression he was quite an experienced player, but Louise told me later he really only knew the basics. He played a little bit of piano and had only just started on the cello. Around the middle of the workshop a very small boy arrived (with his own small chair as well!) and so they were a section of 3.

At the end of the workshop Louise sent me a text message:

The bigger cellist said, “that must be what it’s like to play in an orchestra!”. His mate [who was playing the bass drum] said “That was awesome”. What a great experience for kids!

Then there was the girl who arrived quite early for the afternoon jam. I saw her hovering at the edge of the space, not sure where to go. “Are you going to play some music with us this afternoon?” I asked her. “I don’t know!” she said. “I haven’t played music before.”

“Well, how about you play the bass xylophone today?” I suggested. She looked doubtful. “It’s pretty nice to play,” I went on. “And if you know your alphabet letters, and if you can hammer a nail” – I looked at her enquiringly and she laughed and nodded – “then you’ll be fine!” She went over to the instrument and after a few minutes I went to see how she was going. We adjusted her mallet hold a little and I showed her one of the riffs that the xylophones would be playing.

At the end of the Jam I saw her talking with some of the girls from the violin section. It turned out they were all friends and had come along together, but, as her friend explained, this girl “hasn’t ever played music before, but she wants to, and now she thinks she’s going to play the flute…”

“Or the clarinet,” added the girl quickly, and her face was lit up with the fun and possibility of it all.

Project stocktake

I’ve been out of town, leading the glamorous life of the freelance project leader… a couple of weeks ago Tony said, “But you’re always busy. What’s making you so much more stressed this time?” I pointed out that at that point I had (and proceeded to count on my fingers) seven different creative projects in my head that I was writing plans for, or thinking through. And that they would take place over the course of the next nine days. It felt a bit like lifting weights with my brain at times. Here’s the rundown of how things went:

AYO string quartet and Picton Junior Strings

Three days in NSW, about two hours south of Sydney. This project focused on Elena Kats-Chernin’s Charleston Noir for string quartet, and the Picton Junior Strings composed their own pieces (with the help of the AYO quartet) utilising the typical Charleston syncopated rhythm, inventing their own new rhythms (also syncopated), and building up some new playing techniques under the guidance of the older players. It was fun. Great group of young players, loads of ideas and enthusiasm. Just a total pleasure. And hopefully the quartet got lots out of the experience too.

Schools tour for MSO

I got back from NSW late on Sunday night. Spent Monday teaching the Alphabet Dance workshop to Bachelor of Education students at Melbourne Uni, then packed my bags, and walked into the city to collected the hired Tarago that would take me a a small team of MSO musicians to Geelong for four days of music projects in four different schools.

Four very different schools. At one, we were asked to focus on coaching members of the school’s orchestra and concert band. At another, we came in with a (fairly complex) riff in 7/8 (with 5 bars of 3/8 in the middle of it), which we taught them and helped them arrange parts for. Lots of enthusiasm, but also lots of challenges, for us and for the students. I remember the shining eyes and bright engaged faces of some of the quieter students, especially those who stayed with us the full day and came up to each of us at the end to thank us for coming to their school. This did not seem an easy school environment to work in or to learn in. I wonder how some survive.

At the next school we worked with a group of students from Years 10 and 11, many of whom came from refugee backgrounds. Here we wrote songs and composed pieces, on topics and themes that emerged through a drawing task I gave them at the start of the day: “Draw me a map of your heart. How much of your heart is for the people you love? How much is for the things you love to do? Is your heart whole? Has it been broken? Are there cracks? Gaps? scars or holes?” The students engaged very strongly with this task and it revealed four key themes that clearly resonated for all of them, which then generated the songs and music. Here’s an extract from a song I wrote with one tall young Sudanese man, clearly very proud, and very determined.

My path is clear. Tomorrow is a new day to me.

Hold my head high. Gonna look straight to the god I believe in.

Yesterday I was at war, today I’ve got a second chance.

It had a strong chorus that everyone sang:

Let the rain wash it away.
Until it’s all gone, and your path is clear.

At the fourth school we visited, we worked with a very bright group of musicians, including a bass player, keyboardist, guitarist, and mix of other instruments. Again, a very engaged group, and we created three pieces, two of which were combined as movements of a single, larger piece.

The whole tour was very successful, but also demanding in terms of our energy and creative ideas. I don’t really like to repeat projects in close succession, so I’d planned different projects for each day. Admittedly, this can put a different kind of strain on me and the musicians, particularly when you add four unfamiliar schools into the mix. But still. It was an excellent week. Lots of great outcomes, connections with talented students, shining eyes and happy, engaged, motivated faces. And being away on tour also creates a kind of space, in which you are limited in how many things from home you can access or worry about. I think we all enjoyed that. After a week in the sunshine, staying by the sea on Geelong’s waterfront, we drove back to Melbourne through the rain, and I rushed to get the hire car back to the drop-off point in the middle of city peak hour, and suddenly we were back into that other, non-tour world of competing demands.

Family Jams at Federation Square

Saturday, and the same team from Geelong assembled again in the city at Federation Square, along with a further three MSO players, to lead two jams for families. I’d finished the scores for these on Thursday night while in Geelong (probably part of the reason I was so tired in the school on Friday!); when I started the first Jam my brain still felt slightly woolly and I wondered where my capacity to make a decision about anything had gone to… but in that wonderful way that performance energy sometimes lifts us up and finds new reserves of strengths to call upon, the riffs that I’d written grabbed hold of me, and wham, there we were, playing music together, with about thirty participants of all ages. I found my energy again.

Each of the Jams goes for an hour. The first one was based on a syncopated riff in D minor (currently proving to be my favourite and most trusty key signature for workshops) that was invented by a group of students and musicians in a workshop back in 2005; the second Jam, held at 2pm, used a riff and chant that was invented by another group of students and musicians in a workshop just last year. Both riffs were incredibly catchy and engaging at the time of their invention, so I knew they had strong musical substance to work with. “That sounded lovely,” one of the MSO musicians beamed at the end of the first jam.


Sunday I enjoyed by not doing any work (apart from sending a few emails). Today I was back at work teaching the Music and Visual Art workshop (featuring the Mondrian painting Broadway Boogie-Woogie that is drawing so many people to this blog – what’s the fascination with Mondrian all about, people?) And then tomorrow I’m back at Language School, and the day after that at Pelican PS… so work continues as normal, but the space in my brain has returned, and I’m looking forward to a slightly more normal pace for the next couple of weeks, at least until the ArtPlay projects start up again.

And papers. I’m hoping to get not one, but three papers written in the next two months. Conferences coming up in 2010 that I’d like to be part of. I wonder if the paper I wrote for Musicworks journal (the similar name to this blog is purely coincidental) has been published yet?

Improvising, composing and jamming

It’s end of term, so time for a bit of a wrap-up of where this term’s projects got to at the Language School.

I started the term with an interest in developing some improvisation skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students, and developing music on Identity, that would respond in part to music the students would teach to the class from their own countries and cultures.

Lower Primary on the other hand were so crazy and unsettled that the focus was to get them to be able to play together, to follow some simple conducting signals so that they might experience the pleasure of playing in an ensemble. I’ll write about them in a separate post.


This proved tricky to introduce in some ways, and some of this was to do with language, some of it was cultural, and some of it was to do with the way that student learning develops in Language School (ie. the systems that support the students to learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we were doing began to settle, musically.

In the end, what improvisation do we have? In the Upper Primary piece, we have a drum part (played by seven drummers, so pretty loud! They are sh0wing considerable restraint, I have to say) which came from the young Sudanese girl at the start of November. I am guessing that this was a rhythm she knew from somewhere else. She has left the school now, by the way.

We have 3 xylophone parts, and here the origins of the parts are more varied. One part came from me – I taught it, and the student plays it exactly the way I showed her, and she seems to love it. Her friend, playing next to her, is envious, and has tried through various sneaky means to swap parts (to no avail). The friend, May, has an improvised part to play. I originally asked her to invent her own melodies, always ending on either C or G. The first week, she did this well. She was reluctant, but with a lot of encouragement, she gave it a go, and executed the task well. The following week however, she mutineed. She wouldn’t say a word (not in English, not in Chinese), and I wondered if perhaps she needed to withdraw from the piece altogether, so pained she seemed. This week, I spontaneously came up with a new strategy.

“May,” I said, “I think that today we should choose music for you to play, that you can remember. We will all help you make this. I think that will be easier for you than always making something up.”

May looked a little unconvinced at first (something of her usual facial expression in music, it has to be said), but a couple of other students surprised me by saying, “Yes, it is easier, I think. It is better.” So May agreed.

I asked her to play me (improvise – though I didn’t use that word) one of her melodies. “Start on G,” I suggested. She played a string of notes, I asked if she liked them, I sang them back to her, she thought they sounded okay, and I wrote them down on the blackboard. We did the same with a second melody. Of course, she referred back to ideas she had already worked with in the previous weeks when she was improvising. And her third melody was her most ambitious, with jumps and triads and a definite ‘hook’.It seemed like she was gaining confidence in the process, and her own contributions.

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