Archive for the ‘music skills’ Tag

Reflecting on reciprocity, post-fieldwork

A few weeks back I wrote a post on reciprocity in research. In that post, I shared my resolve to find ways to engage my research participants in Timor-Leste in an exchange of knowledge and information of mutual value. I discussed with different organisations the possibility of leading training workshops for their staff, in order to ‘give something back’ to people, so that taking part in research was beneficial to them, as well as to me.

I did lead these workshops, and they seemed to be appreciated and valued. However, I also observed there were other ways that I could make a tangible contribution to people’s work and lives, simply through having conversations and sharing observations. Two conversations stood out for me as being of particular value to the participants.

The first conversation was at a remote rural school. In 2009, this school had been chosen by a local Catholic organisation to participate in a pilot music education project. Everyday for a week, all the students in the school had music classes, playing percussion instruments, and learning to read rhythms and perform in a piece. At the end of the week the older classes were invited to perform at a concert in Dili, at the Presidential Palace.

School in Timor-Leste

The teachers told me that they had understood that they would be given the musical instruments that the students had used at the end of the pilot project. They would be able to continue doing music with their students with these instruments. However, when the pilot project ended, the instruments were taken back to Dili. “We felt incredibly sad,” admitted one teacher. “We did music teacher training too, but without the instruments we didn’t really know what to do in the classrooms. It meant that everything just stopped.”

This story made me feel sad too. I knew that the instruments used in that pilot project were high-quality classroom percussion instruments, available to buy (if you have money) in Australia, but certainly not available in Timor-Leste. I also felt disappointed that, if the instruments were to be taken away, efforts hadn’t been made to ensure the training the teachers had taken part in modeled some locally-available musical instrument alternatives. (I acknowledge that there are many reasons why this may have been complicated to do at the time, particularly with traditional instruments in Timor-Leste and the rules that surround their usage; but I still feel disappointed to hear the teachers’ stories of essentially having their excitement and interest built up, only to lose what they understood to be the essential tools for the continuation of the project).

The teachers told me they had time to stick around a little longer, so I talked to them, via my interpreter, about the experiments with instrument-making that my partner Tony and I had done in Lospalos, back in 2010-2011. I told them how we’d discovered that our next-door neighbour had instrument-making skills, making for us a simple bamboo log drum called a kakalo. Kakalos were ‘work instruments’ – noise-makers traditionally played by children charged with guarding crops against foraging animals. I told them how, when he made the first kakalo for us, his own children seemed to look on in absolute fascination. It seemed to me that they didn’t know their father had these skills and knowledge. It was as new to them as it was to us.

Perhaps, I said, there are people in their own community who have similar instrument-making knowledge. They may not know about them. We found out about our neighbour’s skills because we were already experimenting with bamboo, and he was jolted into action after observing our (somewhat feeble, albeit well-meaning) efforts.

I played them a video I’d made that showed us making the kakalos, and the local children playing them.

The teachers were fascinated by this story, so next I showed them video of some of our other instrument-making efforts – making shakers by putting stones into empty plastic bottles, or making agogo-bells from empty plastic bottles pumped hard with air so that they gave a bell-like tone when struck with a stick.

The group of teachers were smiling and nodding a lot as this conversation progressed. At the end one teacher said, “I feel happy to have seen these videos and to get these new ideas. I feel like we shouldn’t keep waiting for things like instruments to come from outside. We need to just do it for ourselves.”

I also told them that, at the time of the music education pilot program, other music projects by this organisation had also stopped. I felt that I was picking up a sadness that they had been left behind because they are far from the capital city, that they had missed out because they are remote. I felt that it was important that they knew it wasn’t just them. This didn’t make their situation any better, but perhaps it would help them to feel less isolated or specifically disadvantaged.

On the road to the rural school, May 2014 (G. Howell)

On the road to the rural school, May 2014 (G. Howell)

The second conversation I had that felt like it was giving valuable information to the participants was with a young group of music leaders. They were members of a local rock band, and taught eager young teenagers how to play guitar, bass, and drums, three days a week at a local arts centre. I led a workshop on rhythmic notation with them and their students.

At the start of the class, and at the end, one of the members of the band said to me, somewhat apologetically, “we don’t really know anything about music reading, or other theory. We just play completely by ear.” In his voice I could hear a hint of feeling inadequate. I wanted to address this directly.

“You know, this kind of thing”- I gestured towards the pages we had filled throughout the workshop with music notation – “this is just one part of music knowledge. It’s not the most important thing. It’s useful, for sure, but there are other parts of music knowledge that are also very important. Things like playing by ear, and being able to copy and memorise, create harmonies, and make original arrangements and compositions.”

I told them that in fact, most of the world’s musical cultures don’t use music notation in their traditions. They didn’t know this, and looked surprised to hear it. I listed musical cultures from different parts of the world that don’t use notation. I didn’t want to downplay the usefulness of music notation knowledge, or to suggest they didn’t need it – if they are interested in learning it, then they should have the opportunity to do so, as far as I’m concerned!

But this was not the first time I had heard a skilled Timorese person downplay their own skills due to not knowing how to read music. It wasn’t the first time that I’d heard a hint that knowledge of music notation was considered by many to be the pinnacle of music knowledge – perhaps because not many Timorese people know how to read music. In the past, only those who studied in the seminary were taught to read music. I wanted to remind these guys of the very strong skills they already have, that they already share with their students.

I told them about the Musical Futures program:

“In the UK, for a long time the music education in schools was very focused on this kind of music learning – note-reading. But this kind of music was very different to the music that young people loved participating in outside of school, and students became bored, and stopped doing music in school. Then a researcher named Lucy Green did some research into how popular musicians – musicians that play rock and pop music – learned their musical skills. She discovered that they learned music by ear, from CDs, that they formed bands, and learned through playing with their friends.

“Now, in lots of schools in the UK, they are changing the way they teach music. They are getting the students to learn to play by ear, to copy from CDs, and to form bands. They are trying to teach them in exactly the way that you guys are already teaching your students!”

Later, on the way home I asked my translator what she thought the band’s reaction to this story was. She smiled and said without hesitating, or pausing for thought,

“I think they really liked it, because as soon as you said it was just one part of music knowledge, they started to smile a bit. And they were very interested to hear about this research in the UK. I think it made them feel more confident.”

These kinds of interactions are important. It is easy to forget how isolated many people in Timor can be from the outside world. It is rarely shared with them through their media, although increased access to the internet may see this start to change more in the future. Thinking about these post-interview conversations, it seemed like one of the most valuable things I could offer was to reflect a different version of themselves (and their knowledge) back at them, and to validate their efforts, or suggest manageable alternatives that they can imagine themselves doing. Showing videos offers a kind of proof that it is possible. And describing the situation in other parts of the world helps them to see their own efforts in a bigger context, and hopefully means they start to give themselves credit for all that they have achieved so far.

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Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.