Archive for the ‘percussion’ Tag

Nests – all about the interactions

Children with lanterns wait to enter the Nests forest (Gillian Howell)“Adults, just to let you know, everything in here is okay for the little ones.” Quite a few parents gave smiles of recognition and perhaps relief at that point. They were being reassured not to feel anxious about trying to control their child’s (possibly wrong) choices. Rebecca continued, “Okay to explore and touch and –“

Feel?”  asked (or prompted) one little girl, which made me smile.

“Yes, feel too”, Rebecca agreed. “So parents, we’ll let your little people lead the way with the explorations.”

With that, we picked up our lanterns and entered the magical musical forest at ArtPlay. There were many beautiful, child-led interactions that took place across the weekend. Here are just a few:

One very confident little man sat down next to Rebecca at the frog bog, and picking one of the stones there, told her emphatically, “Rocks are my absolute favourite thing!” He had a bit of a gleam in his eye, Rebecca said, but she suspected he must have picked up some telepathic messages from his parents, hovering nearby, because he didn’t express his love of rocks in any particularly alarming way.

child with rocks (Nests 2013, Howell, Russell, Evans)

A little girl came up to me with the instrument she had chosen to play – a pair of blue and green resonant blocks, made of a very durable, robust plastic. She banged them together and looked at me expectantly. I matched the pitch on my clarinet and repeated her rhythm back to her. She smiled in delight, and played again. We jammed awhile, sometimes taking turns and sometimes playing at the same time. We got faster, then slower, we tried sudden stops to see if our playing partner would be able to stop in time. Then she wandered away, and so did I.

Musical interactions, Nests 2013 (Russell, Evans, Howell)

One child delighted in the large autumn leaves we’d scattered throughout the installation. She approached each of us in turn – me, Rebecca, Tony, Eelin our photographer – to present us solemnly with a leaf. She didn’t speak, so nor did we. I tried to fix mine in my hair. I spotted Eelin walking around with a leaf balanced on top of her head. Later, the little girl placed the frogs in the frog bog on leaves, creating a special place for them – like lily pads.

Nests installation (Evans, Howell, Russell 2013)A little boy stood at the edge of a nest, gazing at all the activity in the room. He looked entranced, a smile on his face and his eyes wide. He whispered to his mother every now and then, their faces very close to each other. He had a juju shaker in his hands. His mother was beside him, crouching down, taking it all in with him. Sometimes they played instruments, but they also spent a lot of time just watching everything together. This was a very intimate, imaginative immersion into another world that they could share together.

One of our Nests is filled with instruments made from very organic, natural materials – an African log drum, juju shakers made from large resonant seeds, caxixi made from woven grasses. Tony described later a ‘free jazz improv’ he engaged in with the children in that nest. Again, the patterns of turn-taking and unison changes in volume and tempi emerged, but also, he said, some truly innovative rhythmic licks. These weren’t just random batterings, but expressive utterances and gestures, offered in response to the sonic environment the children found themselves in.

Free jazz improv, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We designed Nests to encourage exactly these kinds of musical interactions, and to immerse children in a visual and aural environment that would encourage them to listen, notice, and respond. This was an un-facilitated experience where the children created their own pathways and directed their own explorations, but there were key elements in place – in the recorded soundscape and the way we’d set up the space to allow for elements of surprise and timely ‘reveals’- that guided the children’s activities and attention. Thus, in the narrative arc of the installation, the children went from individual, self-focused explorations into some truly intense and powerful whole-ensemble experiences.

As they exited the installation, the ArtPlay staff asked children and parents for their impressions. The frogs were consistently cited as the most memorable part of the workshop.

Frog Bog, Nests 2013 (Howell, Evans, Russell)

Many children also talked about the excitement of the big drum that we gathered around, making the sounds of rain and thunder as one big group.

The gathering drum, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We learned that several people were coming to Nests for the second time (impressive, because it sells out very quickly. They must be very organised bookers!) “We haven’t stopped talking about it,” one mum confided. “And this will be all they talk about for ages now. They just love it!”

There were lots of shining eyes and excited children. Many looked like they were holding the joy of the experience tightly inside them, not necessarily wanting to talk about it yet. I don’t think they would know exactly why they had enjoyed the last half-hour so much. It is more than just the chance to play lots of different instruments. These 3-5 year olds were having a significant early experience of the tremendous sense of well-being and pleasure that playing music with other people can bring. It is a sense of being heard, of having a voice, of being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s the reason I play music, and lead music-making with other people, and it is a big motivation for continuing to seek out group music-making experiences in your life. I’m very pleased to think we may have instilled some of that motivation into these little people and their parents.

This was the third and final stage of our creative development of Nests, and we are grateful for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab funding for supporting this idea and enabling us to realise it and present it in the beautiful ArtPlay space. The next installation of Nests will be in July at Chapel off Chapel, as part of the City of Stonnington’s children’s arts festival Roola Boola.

Nests by Gillian Howell, Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans, 2013

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Children navigating and exploring independently

Nests at ArtPlay (Howell/Russell/Evans)

Yesterday we presented the second stage of Nests, a theatrical music installation that I am developing over three stages at ArtPlay with collaborators Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. As an installation experience rather than a workshop, Nests is largely un-facilitated, and the children are free to explore the environment in whatever order, and whatever way, they choose. There are all sorts of things – musical instruments, lighting effects, and physical obstacles –  for them to discover, navigate and explore independently or with the help of their adult. More than just exploration though, we’ve created the whole physical and aural environment in a way that (we hope) encourages the children to engage in musical interactions with each other, and with the musicians roaming the space.

However, children aged 3-5  have an unerring and delightful tendency to not do what you are hoping they will do, and yesterday’s Nests visits were filled with examples of this! Children enter the space holding long, slender lanterns. These help illuminate their path as they enter the darkened space, but as the lighting lifts, there are places for them to leave these lanterns so that their hands are free to play the musical instruments (as you can see in the image above, where the lanterns are hovering over one of the nests). Well, some children simply loved their lanterns and wanted to hold onto them throughout. Even if they put them down momentarily when entering a nest, they made sure to pick them up again as they moved across to the next nest. The space was constantly awash with little children carrying their long, swaying lanterns.

Other children were constantly drawn to the giant ‘sun/moon’ circular screen that acts as a backdrop to the space and is lit theatrically throughout to suggest different times of day. The lighting makes it possible to create dramatic shadow play with hands and bodies, and some children returned again and again to this screen with their parents, creating all sorts of images that clearly delighted them. These interactions have prompted us to think about how we might incorporate some shadow-play into the installation for stage 3.

Observing children’s interactions with the instruments was also interesting. In one session, we seemed to have lots of children who took great pleasure in returning instruments to their eggs, and zipping the eggs up tight again, after they had had a play. It was very neat of them, but not something we’d seen in the first sessions of Nests back in February. It meant that the children got to ‘discover’ the instruments several times over, however, and perhaps this was part of the motivation.

Nests 'conversations' (G. Howell)We had three adult musician-facilitators in the space, engaging and interacting musically with children – one person who was working with the instruments in the installation (a range of exotic percussion instruments from around the world and made from all sorts of beautiful materials), and two people playing wind instruments (me and one other). We imitated sounds that the children played, copying rhythms and pitches, and encouraged musical ‘conversations’. We also modeled interactions and imitation with each other. Children reacted to these interactions in different ways. I found that for some, it was too intrusive or perhaps made them feel self-conscious, and as soon as they noticed I was making a connection with their playing, they would stop. Sometimes, they would start again; other times, they would leave that nest and move to another part of the installation.

For example, we have a very rhythmic section in the soundscape that encourages everyone in the room to groove along on a unison rhythm. One little girl was very responsive to this rhythm and began to do a little dance, stamping her feet in time with with the rhythm. I began to copy her, and her mother noticed and pointed it out to her daughter. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to share this idea with me. She watched me dance for a moment, then moved a bit further into the nest so that she was behind her mother, and continued her dance from there.

Some children were intrigued by the idea of the musical conversations. There were some absolutely gorgeous moments where a child realised that the musician beside them was copying what they were playing! One little boy’s father was beside him, and described what was happening. “She’s copying you, isn’t she? Play it again and see what happens… play it faster! And faster again!” And so, that interaction was three-way, with the boy and his father playing a game with each other as well as with me.

Tony, the other wind player, described a funny moment he had with one of the parents. He noticed a dad pick up one of the castanets and begin playing a rhythm. Tony picked up another of the castanets and began jamming with him. But then the man’s partner noticed what was going on and took the instrument from the man’s hands and put it back down on the ground! Perhaps she felt that such interactions were only supposed to involve the children, which was not one of our rules at all!

In our discussions at the end of the day, Rebecca, Ken, Tony and I considered the role of the parents in the installation. A challenge with the ‘un-facilitated’ environment or lack of explicit instructions is that the adults might not be sure what is expected of them and their children. Nor do they know what is coming up next (all the cues throughout the installation are given in the recorded soundscape). In the third session of the day, Rebecca made a point of saying to the parents before entering the space that “everything here is fine for the children to explore and touch and interact with”. This statement helped the parents relax and allow the children to create their own experience.

Another of our discussions has been about audience, and the importance of creating the work with both children and adults in mind. Early on in Nests, Rebecca approaches each of the adults one by one and gives them a wah-wah tube. “This is for you,” she tells them, and many parents seem delighted to be given their own instrument to play. We have also observed parents having their own moments of musical exploration, particularly with things like the little Meinl thumb piano, with its plaintive and nostalgic A-minor tuning. Many parents describe their Nests experience at the end as being “beautiful” and “peaceful”, and it seems to me that this is as much a description of their experience as that of their children.

With some groups, the three of us found it challenging to make any connection with children at all, as they were so engaged with sharing the experience with their adults. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem – if Nests is a beautiful experience that parents and children can share together, then that is a wonderful outcome.

Nests is developing further each time we present it; for this second stage, we had made some adjustments to the soundscape and the timings of the different ‘events’ or stimuli that take place within the installation experience for the children. We added a ‘good-bye’ song at the end, slowing down the energy as a way of containing and ‘holding’ the children in the experience and allowing them the space to process it. I also added a slow ‘bell toll’ in the middle of the soundscape designed for the parents to hear and join in with their wah-wah tubes. However, this didn’t really work – the parents didn’t notice it! I think I might take it out of the soundscape for stage 3. I also added a bass guitar line to the Jam & Groove section, which made it rock along a bit more, and invited a big whole-ensemble energy surge for children and adults to share at a key moment in the installation. These musical cues help guide the children’s attention towards different parts of the installation and give them different musical experiences beyond their own self-directed explorations.

Stage 3 will be a weekend’s worth of Nests, on 11 and 12 May. Bookings open this coming Wednesday 20 March.

A (musical) jam with hundreds and thousands

Gillian's jazz gig, Fed Square,  April 2010 065Last night I put the finishing touches on the score for this weekend’s ‘Gypsy Jam’ at the Myer Music Bowl with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] and graduates from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. This participatory music jam will take place before a free outdoor orchestral concert, one of a series of four free concerts that the MSO puts on every year as part of Melbourne summer festivities.

This year I’ve created a ‘Gypsy Jam’ in order to tie into the concert program which features Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. Bartok = Hungarian = Gypsy… purists will know the link is somewhat tenuous, but for our purposes, it’s going to work very well indeed! The jam acts like a pre-concert ‘aperitif’ (after all, people bring a picnic with them to the free Myer Bowl concerts so if the concert proper is the main course then the pre-concert jam could be an aperitif or amuse-bouche), and people can elect to come down to the stage to join in (we’ll have lots of percussion instruments available for them to play, or they can bring their own instrument with them), or join in from their picnic spot on the grass.

Thousands of people attend these free Myer Bowl concerts, so that means there might end up being thousands of people jamming. Everyone is welcome, so if you are in Melbourne, pack your picnic basket, grab your horn of choice and head down to the Myer Music Bowl, ready for a 6pm jam start. Gates open at 4pm. Here’s what it looked like last year, when our theme was Mexican (to tie in with the concert performance of Copland’s El Salon Mexico). Olé!

 

 

Making ‘Nests’

I am working on a very beautiful collaborative project at the moment. Called ‘Nests’, it’s a theatrical music installation that invites children aged 3-5 years of age to discover and explore a big range of very unusual, exotic percussion instruments from around the world, and draws them into musical interactions with each other and the adults around them. These explorations take place in gigantic nests that the children can enter and sit in.

Image for NESTS by Ken Evans, GIllian Howell, Rebecca RussellNests is special to me for a number of reasons. One is because it is the first time I am getting to work with two artists I’ve admired for a long time, theatre designer Ken Evans and visual theatre director Rebecca Russell. We’ve been friends for a long time, and have always had many wonderful and inspiring conversations about making work with and for children, but this is the first time we have developed a project together.

Another reason it is special is because the idea has grown quite slowly and organically for me over a period of time. I first put musical instruments in nests in the  jam for 0-5 year olds that I created for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival in 2011 (I didn’t blog about that project at the time, sadly – had too many projects going on!). The idea of getting to sit in a nest really seemed to resonate with children and parents alike, and I kept it in the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to take it further. I knew Rebecca and Ken were the perfect artists to develop it with, and we developed the concept for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab pitching process back in July 2012 and were invited to develop and present Nests as an installation in 2013.

We gave ourselves two specific challenges to explore with the project. One was that it be an installation, rather than a facilitated or led workshop experience. I love seeing children in this age group choosing their own ‘pathways’ through new experiences and learning through their own creative play, but this doesn’t often happen in music workshops, because children of this age often explore things quite independently and with instruments in hand this leads to very chaotic, noisy environments! Music experiences are therefore usually facilitated or led, and everyone is usually engaged in doing the same thing at the same time. For Nests, we wanted to create an environment (aural and physical) that would foster and draw on the children’s natural love of self-guided exploration, but that would also encourage them to listen and respond to each other’s musical sounds.

The other challenge was to create an installation that could be packed up and used again. We’ve designed Nests to be portable, because we want to be able to tour it to other settings in Australia and beyond. So right from the start, Ken had the complex design challenge of working out how to build something that looked like a nest, was robust and sturdy enough to be climbed on and sat in by children, and that could be put together and packed up relatively quickly, and easily transported in the back of a standard car, and light-weight enough to take on a plane.

Music in the Playscape cubby (Gillian Howell)We’re developing Nests in stages. The first stage was a 3-day creative development in December 2012. We spent a lot of time talking in the studio, but also ran an informal music exploration session at the Playscape in Creswick (in regional Victoria, Rebecca and Ken’s neck of the woods). This session with local children gave us the opportunity to see how they responded to the different instruments I’d started to gather, to see what most appealed to them, what didn’t hold their interest, and whether 3-5 year old fingers would be dextrous enough for some of the instruments I’d chosen.

We learned that the more resonant instruments, such as the energy chime, thumb piano and gas bottle instrument you can see in the image above, really held the children’s attention. They played together for quite extended periods of time on these instruments and were very absorbed. And I was very happy to see that all of them could play the wah-wah tubes (which involves moving the thumb on and off a small hole in the metal tube) without difficulty. Instruments like the caxixi or the ‘waterfall’ (a bundle of tiny wooden bells that make a sweet, gurgling – but quite piercing for young ears – rattling sound) held very little interest. Short clacking sounds like the set of sprung castanet-like clackers that I bought in Vietnam were attractive but often put down quite quickly in order to play something else.

'Frog Bog' at Creswick Playscape (Gillian Howell & Rebecca Russell)At the end of the session we drew everyone together to sit in a circle and I brought out my collection of frog guiros. (I have 11 of them – I bought them in Thailand, one each day. I couldn’t resist them. Tony would say, “Gillian, I think you have enough frogs now” whenever the roving salesmen would approach us in the restaurant or on the beach, but I am very glad now that I ignored his comments and bought the frogs). We created a magical, almost meditative ‘frog bog’, listening to each of the frogs in turn and having frog conversations with each other. (They are all different sizes. I call the biggest frog ‘Big Nana’ because I didn’t want the biggest frog to be male, but I wanted it to be the frog that all the other frogs listened to. Nanas often have an important, loving authority in little people’s lives, and the children love expressing this authority with the Big Nana frog).

We took the learning from that early exploration session into the next Nests phase, deciding on the sets of instruments to place in each nest, designing the environment and building a kind of narrative structure for the 30 minute installation experiences at ArtPlay. More on that in the next post.

City Beats – kids making music in the city

Yesterday and today were the last days of the 2012 City Beats program, and all the children from the four disadvantaged schools we’ve worked with this year returned to ArtPlay to compose a final work with me and three Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians. In this year’s program we’ve been using the four classical elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air) to inspire our percussion and vocal compositions.

In each project, I’ve introduced the children to a particular technique for developing original material, and particular instruments that suit the character of the element we are focusing on. We started with Earth in Term 1, and worked with very grounded grooves and riffs, using djembes and xylophones. In Term 2, we shifted the focus to Water, and the children explored very resonant instruments, such as orchestral chimes and tam-tams. We also experimented with water as a percussion instrument, pouring, slapping, splashing, and striking metal instruments like bells before submerging them slowly into water and hearing the pitch change.

For Air, we introduced the children to harmonic whirlies, and wrote songs inspired by their stories of experiencing the air around them. Here is a clip of one such song – this song is a real ear-worm! But don’t let that put you off – press ‘play’ and listen as you read the rest of this article! The melody was created by listening for any fragments of tone patterns that emerged when several children played whirlies at the same time. You can also hear their 8-beat vocal patterns in the introduction.

(Go here to hear other songs created using this process).

In this week’s Fire workshop, we created short stories about ‘fire’ and decided collaboratively what should happen in the beginning, the middle and the end of the narrative. The children then divided into 3 groups, and created a short riff, basing it on a sentence or phrase that summarised their part of the story. They then arranged these riffs into short pieces. We performed these compositions to each other, and then finished the 2-hour workshop with a spontaneous jam, bring back material from the 3 previous workshops.

The beauty of the City Beats program is that the children come back every term, and we get to develop very solid relationships with them. We observe some beautiful learning journeys through the year – such as one girl, who in the first workshop was so self-conscious and resistant that she wouldn’t even say her own name during the warm-up activities. In today’s workshop she was a different person, completely relaxed, enthusiastic, contributing ideas, playing a range of instruments, and just having a great time. All the groups display a wonderful ease with creating their own music now, and are far more aware of the others in the group, many of them locking into grooves and harmonies with little assistance.

City Beats is a program for disadvantaged and under-served schools where the children are unlikely to be able to access any extra-curricular music opportunities. We hope that it serves as a starting point or a pathway for those children who want to do more music – bringing them into the city (for many this is a rarity in itself), introducing them to ArtPlay, to me, and to the MSO, and giving them confidence in their musical skills. We tell them about other workshop opportunities or scholarships that are coming up, and hope that the City Beats experience encourages them to take the next step.

A face for every minute

As a child I can remember an ad on TV that featured a woman whose facial expressions were particularly animated. My sisters and I used to call her The Expressions Lady, and she appeared on a number of different ads. We got used to looking out for her, and sniggering at her over-the-top expressions that seemed so out of proportion to the rest of the action.

Looking at some of the photos of me from the New Music Express project at ArtPlay 2 weeks ago, I think I may be turning into The Expressions Lady.

In my early days as a project leader, no-one ever seemed to capture me in poses like these. Nowadays, they are the norm. Do I mind? Nah! They make me smile. They remind me of how involved I get in these projects, the stories I tell, the images I try and conjure, and the fun I’m having.

Here are some other images from the project:

Playing by ear

Each term I devise a different collaborative music project for each class at Pelican Primary School, which we develop over a series of weeks. The grade 4/5 class has been working on the song Somebody I used to know by Gotye (a Melbourne artist, they were excited to learn). The song starts with a xylophone melody that follows the contour of Baa Baa Black Sheep and the class were familiar with the song when I first played it to them.

This project of learning to play the Gotye melody has developed into an exploration of pitch, and specifically, using an understanding of pitch to learn to play familiar melodies by ear. My ideas of how best to facilitate this developed over the term – we were working things out together.

Week 1

Initially, after getting the students to listen to the melodic introduction to the song and mark the contour in the air with their hands, I gave each child a tuned percussion instrument (xylophones and glockenspiels), and told them the first two notes of the melody. I asked them to see if they could work out any of the other pitches. We played the song’s introduction over and over and they tried to play along. This was much too difficult for them and many of them got frustrated and disheartened. I realised that they didn’t know how to approach the task, so did a rethink.

Week 2

I introduced the idea of pitches or notes being the different letters on the instrument and we established that these can go up (higher, to the shorter bars) and down (lower, to the longer bars). I taught them about pitches “moving by step” (moving to the next adjacent note rather than to a note further away), and  that we weren’t going to be thinking about them “by skipping” (as they call it) at this stage. Again, everyone had an instrument, and I asked them to locate D. I played a short phrase, always starting on D, and only moving by step (up or down one step). They listened carefully, and we played a series of phrases (unrelated to the Gotye song) in call-and-response – me by myself, and all of them playing it back to me.

The group was highly engaged during this activity. They understood it, and were challenged by it, but it was achievable for most. Two or three didn’t seem to be responding so positively, and appeared to be hitting any notes randomly (albeit in rhythm with the phrase they were to copy) and laughing across to each other. I asked them to repeat my phrase one by one. Immediately they were more engaged, and repeated the pitches and rhythm accurately. I think they found the task frustrating because they couldn’t hear their own efforts when playing at the same time as everyone else. I find that this cohort (who I’ve written about many times in this blog), generally has a low tolerance of situations where they can’t get immediate feedback (which in music is the opportunity to clearly hear their own instrument in the mix) in music class. This creates disillusionment and frustration, they stop trying, and start distracting others. They wouldn’t be able to develop the skills if they were feeling annoyed by the task (or be able to develop the confidence to approach it) so I tackled this issue of being able to hear oneself the following week.

Week 3

We started a musical version of Chinese Whispers. I set up a line of 8 instruments. Player 1 invented a short phrase, starting on D and only moving by step between D, C and B. Players 2-8 had to try and play it back, taking it in turns so that they were all playing alone. Each child got at least one turn on an instrument. While they weren’t playing they were sitting as audience, listening and (hopefully) mentally figuring out the pitches for themselves.

Everyone – those who were sitting at an instrument and those who were in the audience – could hear when an echoing phrase was different to the original, or the same. A lot of excellent self-correcting started to happen.

Week 4

We discussed phrases in music. I explained that the phrase end was where there was a natural pause in the music – maybe not a long one, but a point where the musical line came to some kind of rest. We sang through Dynamite as an example (a favourite song of the class), and they raised their hands every time we came to the end of a phrase. Everyone did this with confidence. “You see?” I said, “You already know this about music. All I’m doing is putting a name to something that you already know and understand.”

Next, I gave out a chart of the Gotye introduction, written only in rhythmic notation. Each of the four phrases was colour-coded – red for phrase 1 and 3 (because these phrases are exactly the same rhythmically and in pitch), black for phrase 2 and blue for phrase 4. (Colour-coded information is a very helpful visual cue for a lot of my students, it helps them orient themselves around new information and not feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar symbols).

For this session, I asked them to focus only on phrases 2 and 4. Phrase 1, I explained, would be tackled later. Phrases 2 and 4 are slower (crotchets rather than quavers) and move only by step.

There was quite a buzz in the air in this class. The preliminary work we’d done on pitches moving by step had given the students tools for tackling the Phrase 2 & 4 challenge, and most of the class was able to play along with the recording by the end of the lesson. Some were already starting to figure out how to play phrase 1 – something that had been frustratingly difficult in the first week.

Next steps…

We will finish figuring out the notes for Phrase 1, and write the pitch names (according to what they have figured out) under the rhythmic notation on the chart. After that, we’ll creating a class arrangement, adding a bass line and other accompanying riffs, and create a drum/untuned percussion accompaniment by ear. I’m hoping they will be able to perform the piece for a school assembly in the next few weeks.

Wah-wah tubes

At the end of 2011 the Language School acquired a bit of extra funding for new instruments and invited my input as to what they should buy. I felt we were well supplied with hand-drums and wooden sounds (xylophones, wood blocks, etc), so suggested a number of metal instruments with very resonant, beautiful tones.

They bought an alto metalaphone (Optimum Percussion brand, with a very well-designed dampening bar), a set of 8 alto chime bars (same as the ones I used in Timor-Leste), and a set of 5 wah-wah tubes.

Last Tuesday was my first day back at the Language School, and we got to unwrap the wah-wah tubes from their packaging and try them out, as you can see in this short clip.

They are very effective, aren’t they? I love the fact that the mallets are quite small – no matter how strenuously the children try to whack the tubes, the sound remains gentle, and the rubber head of the mallet just bounces gently off the metal, no stress, no strain. After a while, they stop trying to beat it so hard and just get absorbed in the warm, shimmering sounds.

Music in immigration detention, part 2

I made my second visit out to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] recently, leading music workshops with the young men there. Once again it was a session with lots of music and energy, that demonstrated  the way that music offers these young men a way to explore their skills and their sense of identity through music. It also generated some interesting questions about ways of working with structure and form (in terms of music, and in terms of workshop content) in this challenging environment.

My first visit was 3 weeks ago, with the following two sessions postponed due to illness (mine) and a lock-down (at MITA, due to a public protest). I was joined for this second visit by a volunteer, John. John is a guitarist and mandolin player (though an economist by trade). The MITA Activities Officer also took part in the session.

During the week I’d been thinking about establishing a bit more structure in the workshops. Would the group benefit from, and respond well to, a warm-up activity of some kind? I planned a simple task that would teach us all each other’s names and kept this in mind as a starting point. However, the first guys to arrive began playing instruments as soon as they entered the space and once they’d started, it wasn’t easy to stop them. The level of English is generally very low, and without an interpreter, it is more effective to go with the flow of their energy than to try and impose a different activity to what they have started themselves.

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First day back…

Today I taught at Pelican PS. We have a new music timetable which sees me teaching all the older classes on Wednesdays, and the younger classes on Fridays. After finishing last term on a bit of a high, feeling very at home in this school, and excited about my plans for the students, today felt surprisingly heavy and tiring. I suppose I am feeling pretty heavy and tired at the moment (the intensity of the conference, the rush back, the immediate transition into the new teaching term, nearing the end of my thesis edits… all taking their toll).

The first class I took today was one that had been quite unsettled for most of term 2. They were easily distracted, hard to keep on task, took ages to settle every time we stopped one activity in order to transition to another… At the end of last term, we had a composed a rather edgy little melody on xylophones, created a more soothing countermelody for the metalaphones, and had a ripping guiro riff, and a punctuating drum part as well. We’d worked with rhythms drawn from the rhyme Solomon Grundy, and though it sometimes felt like lifting weights for me (to keep them focused and working together), we had started to combine all these layers to make quite a satisfying piece.

I started the lesson today by asking them what they remembered us doing in our last lesson last term. (This was a bit of a ruse – in fact I hadn’t taken very detailed notes!) Well! I was surprised by how engaged they were by this question. Different children remembered different things (including some work we did with the egg shakers and metronome that I had totally forgotten about), and as they refreshed my memory, I began to ask more targeted questions, and their hands kept shooting up in the air to answer.

So that was a good beginning. We started our work by recalling the melody played by the xylophones. I got them to ‘play’ it on their bodies, assigning different pitches to different points on the body, from low to high. Together we figured out how to play the melody, showing these intervals. (This is a tactic I’ve developed as a preliminary step to working on tuned percussion, to get them to start preparing for the intervallic leaps).

Then we moved onto instruments. I accompanied on guitar. It sounded really, really good! Their teacher was beaming as they left the class. I think he felt really happy for his students – they are considered one of the trickier classes in the school, and perhaps don’t have lots of experiences of success. But they were a big success in my class today.

Next I want us to develop some song lyrics. I think the music that we have is going to be an introduction and/or bridge in a larger song. I’m not sure what the song will be about. But I have devised a plan for getting us started on the words. I had initially thought I might ask them how the music we have composed makes them feel. (As I said, to me it sounds kind of edgy). However, I don’t think children from ESL backgrounds can always articulate their sense of how music makes them feel, very easily. So I have decided I will bring a set of large-scale ’emotions’ cards with me to the next lesson. I can borrow these from the University library. They depict primary age children showing all sorts of different emotions. I thought I might get each child in the class to choose which card they think is most appropriate for this music, we will gradually eliminate cards until we have narrowed down the options to a single emotional ‘set’. Then we will decide on a scenario or detail to describe in our song, and hopefully the words will generate freely after that.

I think it may prove a more effective way of linking emotional responses (and depiction of emotions) in music. The ’emotions’ cards are from Lakeshore Educational materials. The set they have in the library is an old one I think, but judging from this website, there are many such sets still available.