Archive for the ‘music education’ Tag

Looking for ‘engagement’

I was at Language School today, and this post is about something I have noticed for the last few weeks – the way that the students show their engagement in different ways and how valuable it is to be open to seeing ‘engagement’ manifest itself in a big range of behaviour.

Here are some student snapshots:

Assunta, a Sudanese girl in Upper Primary, is really struggling to cope at school. There is all kinds of crazy upheaval going on at home, and so she is experiencing lots of confusion, distress and anger, and this is being played out at school. In class, if she decides to sit out awhile, or lie on the floor, I usually let her without commenting or questioning it, as it seems like ‘time out’ is often just what she needs. In music she can be very focused and engaged on what we are doing (watching, listening, joining in, working cooperatively with the teacher and other students), but often switches, all of a sudden, to far more disruptive, aggressive behaviour.

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Running away – teaching refugee children

I keep thinking about my day at the Language School this week, and about young Sarah in particular. She is a Sudanese girl in the Upper Primary class, and she keeps running away from the music class.

Generally she runs away at the midpoint of the lesson, when the students get a short break to get a drink of water or use the toilet. She usually tells people – the teacher, or the other students – that she is ‘not coming back’.

Before that time, she is usually taking part in the lesson. Sometimes with a certain amount of light, friendly, unpressured persuasion from me and the teacher, at different times. This week, for example, when we were doing our instrumental work, I set her drum at her feet, and told her she could start playing whenever she wanted, or she could just listen. She listened attentively. I was playing a similar drum at the front of the group, and after a while, while I was speaking to the whole class, I went back to her, took her hand and brought her and her drum up the front to sit with me. “We’ll play together,” I suggested, and she joined in from that point. I felt like this was a good solution on my part, as it would have been hard for her (being proud and a bit stubborn) to join in of her own accord. I think she felt happy to be invited by me in a friendly and gentle way. She had been listening very well up to that point, and came with me very willingly.

But she still ran away at break – usually staying outside near the water taps, or standing in the corridor just outside the music room.

The class teacher went after her to bring her back. (This teacher is not in fact the regular class teacher, she takes the Upper Primary class for a lesson every second week. Sarah doesn’t run away when her regular teacher is there – at least, not in my experience. The children tend to be more settled with their regular teacher, in all of the classes. It makes it tough for teachers who only take them for a lesson once a week or so).

Sarah came back, but wouldn’t join in the music again. She sat on a chair and watched, absent-mindedly squeaking the chair beside her as she watched.

It started to drive me to distraction, the noise of the squeaking chair. I’m not very happy about how I dealt with this situation, though I know I was feeling a certain amount of pressure. This was our last music lesson before the class must perform their composition in a concert in a fortnight’s time, so I was very keen that they get through the piece in as focused a way as possible.

“Sarah,” I said more sharply. “We need you in the music. Come back to the drum.”

But she didn’t. The teacher and I exchanged a look.

I said, “If Sarah doesn’t want to do music, that is okay, but maybe she needs to go to another classroom while we finish working.”

“I think so,” agreed her teacher.

“Maybe she needs to go to Lower Primary,” I added.

“That sounds like a good idea,” said the teacher. Sarah didn’t say anything (as far as I can recall) and she and the teacher left the room.

It was a frustrating moment for both the teacher and I, but also I guess for Sarah. She would have felt ashamed to be sent to the class of younger children.

Teaching strategies

At lunchtime, I spoke with her regular class teacher about it. We were talking more generally, initially, about the expectations even this specialised school can have of the refugee children.

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Writing songs

I had a particularly good lesson with Middle Primary today at the Language School. This is the group aged approximately 8-10 years old. There is quite a mix of children in the class – the most dominant ethnic group is Chinese, but there is a big range of English skills in the class overall. They have been very responsive in music so far this term and we are developing a nice rapport.

As explained in an earlier post, I am building a music project with them based on the picture book What’s that noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie. Today my plan was to create a melody for the main repeated ‘chorus’ (as I call it) that recurs throughout the book, and is rhythmic and rhyming.

I decided to use a tactic I experimented with last year with the Upper Primary class when we worked with Mem Fox’s book Whoever you are. I get the whole group to say the first phrase (or pair of phrases if it is easy to memorise) over and over, letting it work itself into a consistent rhythm. All the while I am listening out for any hint of a natural melody that might emerge from an individual or from the group.

That melody didn’t emerge today, so I started on my second step – I sing the two phrases, for them to copy and sing back to me. I improvise a new melody each time I sing them. I make some deliberately odd, and others quite melodic, in order to demonstrate a big range of possibilities, and in the hope that none of my melodies gets stuck into anyone’s head.

Then I ask the group,

“Did you hear how I changed the music many times? Who would like to sing their own music for these words?”

Today we had hands shooting up straight away.

At this point I hear all the ideas, one by one, and I notate them. First I sing them back to the child, to check that I have heard it accurately (sometimes their pitching can be ambiguous), and then I go to the piano to check (perfect pitch would be a great asset, but not one I can claim, sadly).

This would be a risky approach if no ideas were forthcoming, as the class could lose momentum and energy, but as I said, I have a nice rapport growing with this group, and I felt confident that some of the children would be happy to have a go.

One of the later suggestions seemed to please everybody, as all joined in with it when I played it on the piano – so that was the one we stuck with. I invented a simple accompaniment on the piano and we sang it a few times, to get the feel right and let the melody and implied harmonies digest a little.

We then repeated the process with the next two lines. The melody we came up with for these suggested the shape for the next two lines and suddenly our chorus was finished. It had all come from the children apart from one rhythmic suggestion that I made for the very last line (mindful of how I wanted it to fit in the larger piece we will be composing). I think it is fine for the teacher/adult to have a voice in the process – it is a collaboration after all, and I am one of the collaborators!

What I love in particular, is that before we started on this process I already had an idea in my head of how this chorus could be sung – and now we have a melody that is totally and utterly different. I would never have composed it myself. It really has emerged from a group process and that is a very satisfying thing. The children know this too. I saw their faces light up as they began to see where the process was leading us – these are children with very little knowledge of English, and very little prior experience (if any at all) with this kind of group devising process. There was enough repetition for them to see how all this incomprehensible jumble of speaking and singing was starting to connect and form a shape.

More thoughts on my teaching methodology

As I started planning the next term at the Language School I began to make a list of  some of the key principles I keep in mind when working in this environment. It is starting to look a bit like a methodology description… nearly. Here goes:

Things I learned from my research project in 07:

  • Repetition builds confidence. It gives the students time to become familiar with a task, and then to build skills. Create a warm-up sequence for each group and repeat this at the start of each lesson for about 4 weeks.
  • Lots of the children can only copy. They simply don’t have the language skills yet to understand any explanations. Therefore everything we do in music class should be do-able simply by joining in what the other kids do. Music is ideal for this.
  • Syllable awareness is a challenge for many of the students (and a significant step towards literacy as well as oral fluency), therefore a challenge worth pursuing. It is also an ideal, self-evident compositional tool. It is good to work in both directions (the rhythm of words becoming music; setting music to the rhythm of words) – this is one of the ways I work with text from books, for example.
  • Establish with the group the important skills for music work – Good Looking, Good Listening, and Good Waiting. And Working Together. I use these phrases to reinforce the ideas to the students in every lesson. The language is simple and familiar. I can add the gesture of pointing to my eye/ear to further illustrate the meaning for the newest students.  I make a point of praising students who demonstrate these skills – this gives me a further chance to use the phrases and increase their familiarity.
  • Keep the mood light and happy. School is hard work for these students – they are navigating and negotiating a lot of unfamiliar territory, all in a new language. Music should be fun, a time for everyone to feel good. Use light-hearted questions to refocus attention (eg. “Who is the teacher?” and “It’s Eric’s turn. Who is Eric?” are some tactics I use).

Ideas from music therapy:

  • The role and use of a consistent ‘framing’ song (ie. a song or chant that always starts/finishes the lesson, and frames it in the children’s minds so that they come to recognise this space as a safe/creative/non-judging space).
  • Using the idea of entrainment – matching the ‘tempo’ of the group’s energy with a task, game or song, and then moving it one notch at a time towards the energy level you need them to be at for the main body of the lesson.

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Professional Development for orchestral musicians

This year we invited Melbourne-based composer, percussionist and performer Graeme Leak to run two days of workshops for the orchestral musicians. Our participant numbers were a bit low (as is often the case with these kinds of initiatives) but those of us that took part had an inspiring couple of days.

Graeme is the author of a very useful, insightful handbook on performance-making and much of what he did with us was drawn from this book.

It is such a nice opportunity for me to simply take part in one of these workshops; usually I lead them. Graeme has a clear, straightforward way of communicating and built trust very quickly with the players. For much of the first day we didn’t even take our instruments out of their cases. On the second day, Graeme brought a bunch of his instruments in for people to try, including his tin can string basses, wooden bowls floating in water,  a melodica, and a theremin. He treated us to a performance of “My Way” on the theremin. Pretty special.

Workshop ideas I particularly liked:

  • Breath impulse work/independent pulse – placing a sound of your choosing (initially vocal, later on instruments) at a point of your choosing in your own breath cycle, and maintaining this while others do the same. Quite a hypnotic, ever-phasing texture emerged. I could have listened to it all day.
  • Polyrhythmic textures, working with 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4. I have done these tasks before -led them and composed with them, as well as taken part in workshops where they have been a focus – but I never tire of the possibilities or the outcomes.
  • Playing with texture – a bed of constant muttering, with occasional voices emerging above or below the bed at different times. An exercise in how to work with texture in ensemble music. A practical example of how it works.
  • Vocal tasks involving random pitches that gradually become a unison. Great for the ears, and musically interesting.
  • A body percussion task using on- and off-beats. How we struggled! It was more a physical coordination and left/right brain issue than one of understanding the task.
  • A vocal task, working with major, minor, diminished and augmented triads. We worked in three groups, focusing on adjusting pitch by a semitone in order to change the triad being sung by the group. Each group had rules about when they could move and in which direction. Again, quite hypnotic. Interesting too, to observe how much more difficult it was to  hear the colour of the chord when the voicing and inversion of the triads was altered.

We also created some duets together, taking ideas from the different starting points we had been exploring for most of the first day.

Workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids

Yesterday I was at ArtPlay, leading the first day of workshops for the ensemble of child and adult musicians that I direct for the Orchestra. We have two days of Open Workshops at the start of the year. These are free, and last for just an hour, and about 15 kids, aged 8 to 13 years,  take part in each session, with me and two other professional orchestral musicians.

It’s a useful process in two ways. Firstly, it acts as ‘taster’ for the year-long Ensemble program. The participants can see how they like our process and our approach, and get to take part in what we hope is a fun music workshop. We get to make contact with them and their families, add them to our email list, and then can invite them to future events and workshops.

Secondly, it is a kind of audition – though we don’t ever describe it as this. The workshop is designed to be a kind of diagnostic tool, a way for us to assess the children and how well we feel they would be suited to the Ensemble program.

Our criteria for participants in the Ensemble is very much about personalities, rather than musical skill or years of experience on an instrument. We are looking for bright sparks, who like working in groups, like working with adults, like to invent things, like to be challenged, are comfortable working in new ways, and of course, love their music. If they are invited to become part of the Ensemble they will have lots of opportunities to attend concerts and rehearsals, meet soloists and conductors, and take part in additional performances and conerts along the way. But we expect them to be committed to the full workshop program – two days every school holidays throughout the year. It means families need to take these dates into account when planning holidays and other activities. It is a significant commitment, but an incredibly rich musical experience for the participants.

We saw two groups of young people yesterday, and there were some very bright sparks among them. I love meeting these new people – it is really exciting to imagine them in the program and all the benefit they will get from it. I love meeting the parents too, and seeing the way these young kids are supported in their music learning.

The workshop process I’ve designed for these workshops is very simple, but it really does give a pretty good indication of the strengths of each participant. Here is an outline:

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2nd last day at the Language School

I worked out today that I only have one day left to teach at the Language School this term, and that will be taken up with a performance at Federation Square with the Upper Primary students.

I’m finishing term early because of my overseas travel (less than three weeks to go – yay!) but it has been a patchy term anyway, due to the Hunger and Musicircus  performance week taking up so much time. Then, the week following that one, I called in sick, exhausted and with a cold gearing up to invade my head. The students have therefore only seen me three times (including today) this term.

Well, we had a great day. The projects based on books have been embraced by the students and teachers, and in my absence a lot of work has been done. Here’s a summary:

Middle Primary have memorised their ‘colours’ song. We made this through a very organic and literacy-focused process – in Week 1 we developed some chants by string students’ names together in combinations that made interesting rhythms. We practised saying the phrases rhythmically, then the rhythms evolved into simple melodic phrases. In Week 2, we listed all the different colours we could think of (using those in  Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? to get us started), and we compared the syllables counts of the colour words with the names. We then replaced all the names with colours of the same number of syllables, and that is the song the children have memorised.

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Music projects from texts

Yesterday I was at the Language School, and got the three classes I am working with this term (Lower, Middle and Upper Primaries) going on their new project for this term – building compositions from books. I suggested to each teacher that they choose a book that has a lot of staying power with their class, that we could use as source material for composition work. I am imagining we will try:

  • Setting some of the text to music, or finding fun musical ways to ‘sing’ the book;
  • Building chants and rap from words or phrases from the text (not necessarily in order, or in context)
  • Creating music that responds in some way to the images in the books.

Many of the students who have had little prior schooling (due to growing up in war-torn countries or refugee camps) may struggle to remember the alphabet, but can remember whole songs word-perfectly (in English). I want to see if approaching a text through music, using different tactics including mnemonics, assists them in their reading, oral language, and word recognition. The three teachers have been wonderfully responsive to this idea and by the end of yesterday we had a book for each class. Each one offers some kind of vocabulary and emotional content that is appropriate for the age group.

Books chosen: The Very Hungry Caterpillar (with its wonderful vocab of days of the week, numbers and food); Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? which lists different colours and animals and has a gentle rhythmic repetition to it; and Whoever you are, by Mem Fox, which has a strong affirmative message of diversity and common humanity, as well as some phrases that are crying out to be sung!

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Musical Alphabets

I’m exploring Musical Alphabets at the moment with two of my classes. ‘Alphabets’ meaning a bank of sound-options, which can be put together in different orders, to spell out new words, and thus make new melodies and patterns.

Middle Primary students are working with a dance-alphabet. Each letter of the alphabet gets assigned a particular movement (for example, letter A is the right hand flung high in the air). So far we are up to the letter P. It can be slow going as each letter has to be memorised by the students, and some find that easier than others.

With the letters A-P now created, there are already quite a few words and sentences we can create. My plan is to divide them into pairs (or groups of three), ask each group to choose a word or phrase to dance, and to practise performing that dance over and over again.

We’ll be able to build up a big ensemble piece that might involve groups/pairs performing on their own, everyone performing their own phrase all at the same time, maybe everyone doing a unison word (as a kind of chorus), and if anyone is up for it, longer solos.

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