Archive for the ‘learning’ Tag

How do we know what children have learned?

Back in August I blogged about a forum for artists, educators, and arts organisations that took place in Melbourne with Arnie Aprill from the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education. One of the discussion topics was documentation and the importance of using the video documentation to record what is being learned by students when they engage in open-ended, contemporary arts collaborations.

“How do we know what children have learned in an arts project? We ask them!” Arnie declared, and as soon as he said it, we all realised it was true. Simple, true and brilliant. “And,” he went on, “We film them talking about it, and use this footage to document the growth and development of their thinking and understanding, and to demonstrate to others the value of the projects in terms of student learning.”

Studentswriting in reflective journals (Gillian Howell, Culture Jam)Therefore, throughout the Culture Jam project (my artist-in-residence project at Elsternwick Primary School in 2012) I included interviews with students as part of the ongoing project reflections, and filmed these interviews. I also gave them questions to consider and respond to in the reflective journals they wrote each week. These inclusions gave useful insights to me and the coordinating teacher throughout the project, but they also served as a form of student assessment.

I’ve now finished editing that footage and you can watch it in the clip below. Head to my Youtube channel to see footage of the other compositions – their work in progress and their performances.

To learn more from the vast experiences, expertise and wisdom of Arnie Aprill, you can pay a visit to his blog here, or via the Music Work blogroll.

Learning journeys of young musicians

The first week of September always marks the last get-together of that year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a group that I direct every school holidays that is made up of 28 young musicians (aged 8-13 when they start, usually 9-14 by this time of year). Each time we meet, we compose a new piece of music using collaborative strategies and improvisation, taking inspiration from a core piece of orchestral repertoire.

Then the last project for the year is over (in this case, Elgar’s Cello Concerto Re-imagined), and I can reflect on the musical and developmental journeys that I’ve seen some of the young participants take.

Sullen violin girl

One girl came to us at the start of the year flanked by her sister and a friend. The three of them took part in the Open Workshops audition with a certain amount of eye-rolling and cynicism. I took a punt on the older of the two sisters being ready to branch out on her own and offered her a place in the ensemble. In the first project, she barely moved her bow. She and another girl, similar in age, joined forces and giggled their way through the project, offering little to the creative process. The musician leading that small group was infuriated.

The next project, we put her in a different group, and her musician leader gave her a lot of musical responsibility. She jollied her along, creating a shorter name for her (in a gesture of jovial friendliness) and insisted, in an encouraging, positive way, that she be the one to play a solo in her group. Sullen Violin Girl was sullen no more after that project.

Fast forward to September and the project we have just completed, and this violinist was a different person to how she’d been at the start of the year. When I asked at one point for volunteers to play a solo – an improvised solo – she was the first to raise her hand. “Great sound!” I enthused at one point, and she happily told the whole group that this was her new instrument. (That’s a topic for a whole other post, the wonderful momentum that cam come when a young player starts to play on a decent instrument). She was obviously very proud, but also so much more confident. Her’s was a very positive journey, from insecure, shy, sullen teenager to someone who was really starting to blossom.

Hard-to-stay-focused boy

This boy was one of the younger members of the group. He’d impressed us all at the auditions with his vibrant imagination. He wasn’t a strong player, but he obviously loved inventing his own music. Once in the large group however, he floundered. He found it difficult to stay on task as long as the others in the group, needed a lot of personalised attention, and would frequently raise his hand to ask when we’d be taking a break.

In the second project it all got too much for him and there were tears. “Just because I’m the youngest doesn’t mean I always have to play the easy stuff,” he wailed. I sat with him and listened, and explained how we were happy for him to make the music harder for himself. If his part was too boring he could change it to make it more challenging. But, I told him, he has to try and do this by himself. His musician-leader would help him, but he’d need to take the initiative. He cheered up with that information, and went off to eat his lunch.

In the September project, he was still energetic and twitchy, but I got the sense that he’d settled into our routine now. When we did body percussion in our warm-ups he didn’t – as in previous warm-ups – start to jitter his feet and legs like an out-of-control Irish dancer, but managed to stay more or less in one place. At one point he came and showed me his bag of rice crackers. “I don’t want to get hungry! I’m always hungry here!” he told me. He still raised his hand and asked for breaks at inopportune moments, but I too had learned how to respond to this, and would tell him he should take a break if he needed one, but that I needed to keep the rehearsal going a bit longer. “Oh… alright then. I’ll stay too,” he said, sighing.

He played a solo, in a section where I had asked each of the soloists to play very slowly. “You could change notes just at the start of each bar,” I suggested. His eyes never left me during that section, waiting for his cue. He played his improvisation just as I’d asked, one note, changing at the start of each bar. Slow and solid. I think he knew how good it sounded.

I didn’t get to catch up with his parents at the end of the project. After the tears in the middle of the year his dad had said, “This is so good for him! Being part of a group, having to work with others… he isn’t good at these things, and he is just getting so much out of it.”

The quiet ones

After the project had ended in September and I was back home, I found myself thinking about the quieter members of the group. They were among the less confident players. One was a cellist, one of the oldest in the group, and quite a beginner. Initially we’d had two older beginner cellist girls in the group (I try to ensure the older kids have someone else their own age in the Ensemble – I can well remember the self-consciousness I felt as a teenager taking part in activities where I seemed to be the oldest and the tallest) but the other girl never came back after the first project. This girl didn’t get to blossom the way the Sullen Violin Girl did. She never put her hand up to play a solo and would shake her head in horror if asked to do so directly. I don’t think she liked playing alongside the other two cellists who were both younger than she.

Two other girls who didn’t ever want to play a solo were sisters. They had learned to play their instruments (piano and violin) in a very stern, traditional, schooled fashion, and the creativity of the Ensemble was a very new experience for them. I think the younger sister got a lot out of it – as a violinist she was often a section player and so not necessarily being asked to invent things for her instrument. The older sister was the main pianist/percussionist in the group, and by September I realised she was not offering her musician-leaders anything. Everything she played was suggested to her by someone else.

In a fast-paced 2-day project like the ArtPlay Ensemble projects, there isn’t a lot of time to coax individuals. You can make suggestions and encourage them to try, but if they don’t respond, time demands that you move on. In this way, I think the project wasn’t as good for some as it was for others. Was it the wrong project for them? Were we wrong to offer a place? Or was there a small sense of hope inside them that something in this project would unlock the kernel of potential that they know is there, but that they cannot voice due to the greater fear of sounding ‘wrong’?

City Beats, part three

Last week saw the third instalment of the MSO/ArtPlay ‘City Beats’ program – two days of workshops with students from four different schools. Working with them over the course of the year is giving us lovely insights into the way they are getting comfortable with the musical processes we’re using, and with the MSO musicians (me in particular, as I am the common link between each of their visits to ArtPlay).

In their first visit, we created three-part stories and devised three musical narratives (movements) to depict these stories. In their second visit, we expanded one of the movements into a whole-ensemble piece.

In this third visit, we needed to create whole-ensemble arrangements for the other two movements they’d created back in April. Our first group arrived on Tuesday morning, bounding into the light-filled ArtPlay space. Several came up and hugged me to say hello (in fact, I got hugs from people in each group across the two days – nice!).

With each of the groups we started with a brief warm-up and then watched video footage from the first workshops, focusing on the musical material we needed to arrange that day. I reminded them of the stories they’d created. Then we arranged our chairs in a circle and got started.

These were very directed workshops – the musical material had already been composed, and so our focus was on arranging and perhaps embellishing. This direction notwithstanding, we still came up with some unexpected new material.

For example, these song lyrics (from the group whose story was about going into the city and getting caught in a terrible storm):

Happy to be together

After the storm

Everyone’s safe, let’s celebrate

Good grief it’s excellent! (Ow!)

The ‘Ow’ is Michael Jackson-style. ‘Good Grief’ was an unexpected offer – I don’t think I’ve ever written a song with that expression in it before!

I loved seeing how much the group from the bushfire-affected school has blossomed over the year. They were careful and thoughtful in their first couple of visits, but this time there was a delightful sense of confidence and playfulness in their approach to the workshop. Also a sense of the possibility of mastery – one boy, for example, asked if he could play the thumb piano (kalimba) again, and added, “Last time, one of the others had a different one that had a card that told you what all the notes were.”

“That’s right – I think we’ve got that one here,” I said, and found it for him. He sat down with the xylophone group and was from then on completely absorbed by his new instrument, working out all the melodies note by note, and finding substitutes for the pitches that were missing on his instrument.

One of the groups comes from the outer western suburbs, and each time they come along, I am struck by two things – how tall they all are(!) and how naturally they groove together. There is a lot of innate musicality in this group – the music tends to sit together really well, without a great deal of ‘containing’ from me. We created two new sections of music with them. I particularly enjoyed our musical depiction of the words Flat. Gravel. Slower travel, with lots of dry, scratching, scraping sounds from a range of percussion instruments.

Our fourth group comes from the outer southern suburbs, and created the story about the Beatbusters. For this visit, they brought along three guitars, and we created a delightful little piece to open the narrative with, that placed one simple riff on the xylophones and accompanied it with a progression of four chords on the guitars. It was one of the charmed pieces of music – so simple, and yet so poignant and effective. Could’ve played it all day. Ah!

On being a facilitator

Thursday last week was the culmination of the Thinking about Forever project, which I worked on back in March with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Parramatta String Players and composer Matthew Hindson. My role was as the workshop facilitator, and I directed the process that led to the young musicians composing their own music material with dancers in mind, and in response to the given theme of ‘sustainability’. Six months on and the music we created over that intensive weekend has been worked into an inspired and deft score by Matthew, the music then recorded by the ACO and choreographed by Kay Armstrong and the YouMove dance company. Last Thursday it was presented at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, to an audience of school students from throughout Western Sydney and a number of invited guests from the Australia Council Executive, and other arts organisations.

The facilitator role is an interesting one. What does it mean to facilitate, and to facilitate well? I think of it as being responsible for establishing the right creative environment for the project initially, and then initiating or provoking a series of responses to a task by the participants. As the group work gets underway, the facilitator role is to guide, scaffold, model and encourage, as necessary. Ultimately, the facilitator’s role includes stepping away and allowing the group to work and present themselves independently. I think about the origins of the word ‘facilitate’ coming from ‘to make easy’. A good facilitator moves participants through a process in a way that makes it easier for them.

It can be quite an invisible role. In some ways, the mark of a good facilitator might be in their capacity to step back at critical point where the group is able to work completely independently, and to have guided them in such a way that when they look back on it, they remember the process as one where they did everything themselves, by themselves. I’m exaggerating slightly – but only slightly!

One of the nice things about this project was that my role in drawing the young musicians’ compositional ideas from them, and guiding them to build these into a larger structure, was very much acknowledged, alongside that of Matthew’s work as the composer who drew those ideas into a fully-realised, through-composed score, and Kay Armstrong the choreographer. It’s an acknowledgment that everyone in a creative team brings something to the project, that if one of the group hadn’t been there, the outcome would have been very different. Thinking about Forever has been a very satisfying project to work on – a great collaboration between a large number of creative minds, from the very young, to the seasoned professionals.

End of term performances

Last week was the last week of term 2, and also Refugee Week. I took all the Language School students to Federation Square to perform in a special children’s concert for Refugee Week.

The Lower Primary children sang their Germs Song. We dressed them up in white men’s shirts (to look like lab coats), and bought face masks and toy stethoscopes from the local Two Dollar Shop. They marched onstage with the face masks on, then on my cue pushed them down so that they could sing. They performed their actions with aplomb (such as pointing vigorously one finger into the palm of the other hand, while singing “Germs can make you sick. Germs can be anywhere. You have to put soap on your hands and the germs will go away. Yeah!”

Upper Primary performed very well. They had two instrumental pieces related to stories of leaving countries and making a new home here. I was particularly proud of them – their music was quite complicated, with lots of structures and riffs to be memorised. They did very well.

Middle Primary had the most complex instrumental piece of all to perform. They have been ready for performance for a while now – I wondered in fact if we had peaked too early and had been trying not to over-rehearse the piece, which was a series of riffs and melodies gleaned from a Somali pop song that one of the students brought into class.

At Federation Square that week, we had a bit of a moment, and it all started to fall apart. The moment occurred when I went to cue the drummer children who were sitting in the back row. They weren’t looking at me (they were looking out the window in fact! Federation Square is right by the river and the view is admittedly very appealing…). One of the drummers saw just the end of my cue, and panicked and started playing (if she hadn’t seen me, I could have waited to get their attention and do the cue again). So the drums started, then the clave dancers started and unfortunately they all started in the wrong place, in their panic. This got the glockenspiel players in the next row all confused, although they valiantly kept going. The panic meant that nobody was looking at me anymore, so I couldn’t have stopped them (in order to just start again, nice and calmly) even if I’d wanted to – not without making it a very messy stop.

However, what I found really interesting about this whole experience for them was their reaction. It seems odd to say it, but they knew they were out, knew that they had lost the beat and were no longer playing in time with the others. There was a time, earlier this term, where each section would quite happily get the cue to start playing, and put their heads down and play as loudly and quickly as possible, with no clue about how their part needed to fit into the bigger texture. This musical shambles we found ourselves in the middle of, was wonderfully revealing in showing how much they had come to understand the music, even if they weren’t quite ready yet to find their way back when something went wrong.

As we left the stage, the drummer girl who had caught the end of my cue came over to me and said, with great concern in her voice, “We weren’t looking. So we didn’t…do… good.” I was impressed by this firstly for the determination she had to speak to me about the performance, despite having very little English, and being a very shy, quiet girl, and secondly because she knew exactly what had happened.This child has only been in the country about 8 weeks. She arrived at the Language School halfway through the term when much of the music had already been learned. It’s quite full-on to come into a creative music environment with no language, expecially when you are quiet and kind of anxious by nature. She worked incredibly hard in music.

Incidentally, her mother came to that performance at Federation Square and we spoke afterwards. “Selina has done so well,” I told her. “She has worked so hard to learn that drumming part, and she does it very, very well.”

Her mother said, “You know, in Chile she was always so shy, so very quiet. And now, to see her hear on the stage, playing the drum, and after such a short time… it’s incredible. I was crying, I had tears in my eyes watching her. So thank you.”

The following day they performed the same piece again, to a different audience. This time, it came together beautifully. I was very proud of them, and very happy for them.

That was my last day at the Language School, at least for a while. I’m not teaching there these next two terms as I am away too much (China, then Sydney, then East Timor… more on those plans later). I’ve been there five years. Very happy years. It’s strange to think I won’t be there next term, and strange to think they won’t feature in this blog. As I write these words that is only just occurring to me. I started this blog to write about the Language School. I will miss it in many ways, I expect. I’ve been privileged to work there.

Conceptualising learning – some new terms

From January 11-13 I attended the Cultural Diversity in Music Education conference in Sydney. It was an interesting conference, with a big range of workshops to participate in (Papua New Guinean log drumming, anyone? Balinese gamelan? Freedom songs from Pretoria?), papers to listen to, and some interesting plenary sessions that got everyone talking.

I presented my paper on some of the methodological challenges that I identified in conducting interviews with newly-arrived children – things like the kinds of questions you ask, things to consider when interpreting their responses, ambiguities that arise when you are working with interpreters, creative interviewing techniques and tools, etc.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that one of my early research ‘discoveries’ (for want of a better word) was a kind of map of the way that newly-arrived children first make sense of their new environment, and then work within it. I saw the way that within every aspect of schooling (from making sense of school cultural rules, to discipline-based learning like music or English) the children followed the same pattern or stages of learning:

Level 1 – where everything is learned by copying. The children don’t necessarily understand the intention behind the task, they are simply doing what they see others doing, and so figure out their participation in this way.

Level 2 – where the children begin to understand the intention, purpose and meaning behind the different things they do. They have more moments of illumination, and they begin to conect together previously separate bits of information and experiences.

Level 3 – they understand both what to do, and why/how to do it to such an extent that they can lead and show others (thus providing the ideal ‘model’ for those students who have just arrived in the country and are at Level 1).

Tony Lewis, an ethnomusicologist at Sydney Uni, hasbeen exploring a similar idea in terms of how music gets learned in different communities. He described his own conundrum when learning first African drumming, and later Papua New Guinean log drumming, where he found that all the local people learned simply by being there. There was no culture of teaching, or explanation – people just watched and listened and joined in as best they could, gradually building proficiency through an aural and visual process. By contrast he knew that for himself, as someone with a lot of formal musical training and ability to make quite detailed ‘maps’ of rhythms and sounds, the more he engaged those faculties developed through prior training and knowledge, the faster and more efficiently he would be able to make sense of the new musical language he was studying.

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I have acquired a cello

… a cello.

Perhaps you will recall in my list of Things To Do once the Masters is finished… learning to play a cello was on that list. That led to me acquiring one through a friend who was going overseas. How serendipitous!

I am yet to have a lesson, but as experienced eyes may note from the photo below, I show excellent natural technique. Note for example the bow-hold – faultless. Hmmm…. after so many years watching MSO musicians explain to workshop participants how to hold the bow, I thought I’d have some idea, but no, it clearly didn’t get absorbed as deeply as it might have done.

What else? Well, I don’t think I have the position of the cello quite right as the bow keeps knocking into my knees when I bow either outer string. That can’t be right. Or perhaps that’s the reason so many cellists sway about a lot when they play. Maybe it’s in order to avoid their knees.

Also, the strings seem to be a fair distance away from the fingerboard. Holding them down is quite hard work. Perhaps there’s a secret to it. Perhaps it has something to do with the way string players seem to have quite a number of fingers all bunched up on the fingerboard in certain positions. They make it look so effortless, of course! (I suspect trying to play the cello will make me appreciate the clarinet a little more).

Anyway, I am having fun trying to do vibrato and tremolos and other such cool sounds. I am tempted to try the ‘icebergs cracking’ sound we used in a project last year, that involves twisting the bow hair against the back of the cello. It sounds horrendous, though is apparently quite safe, but I think I’ll steer clear of it for the time being.

Definitely the next thing I need to acquire is a teacher.


What makes a workshop?

After the Note To Self performance on Saturday night a friend and I started pondering the different kinds of workshops and workshop processes that are out there. There is a spectrum I think, that stretches from quite directed/directive processes, where there is little scope for being changed or swayed by content that comes from the participants, to very open, responsive processes.

My projects are closer to the latter, with an emphasis on material being generated through content ideas offered by participants. I will often have musical structures in mind, or place restrictions on their offers (such as modes or pitch groups or time signatures, or specific ways to start or finish), and I may even have some pre-written sections that need to be learned; but there will still be large sections of the work that are unknown at the start of the project, to be realised through the creative process.

Directed processes have their merits – they offer very tangible experiences to the participants and can give a sense of being part of something ‘official’ or endorsed, somehow. In music, it can be a sense of having learned ‘real’ music, as oposed to just ‘making stuff up’. From an audience point of view (especially for an uncritical, non-educator audience) it can seem like the directed process is the more successful of the two approaches, as the results are often more ‘adult’ in their delivery, with less open to chance or possibility. Process can be a difficult thing to take into account, or credit (for the uninitiated), if you are only exposed to the outcome of a project.

Today I worked with the Sartory String Quartet, the Australian Youth Orchestra’s string quartet that will be resident in Albury at the Murray Conservatorium for the next 8 weeks or so. We will be doing two separate education projects with local primary school children as part of their residency, so today’s session was an introduction to the way I work in this context, and to get them thinking about what the children will get out of the project, and what they themselves would like to get out of the project.

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