Archive for the ‘Refugee Week’ Tag

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.

Thoughts about Refugee Week compositions

Every year I create work with students for performance during Refugee Week (20-26 June in Australia, with June 20 being World Refugee Day). We’ve created songs, instrumental pieces, music inspired by individual students’ stories of flight and sanctuary, recorded pieces, and live performances. Some of the songwriting has been particularly memorable and can still bring a choked-up feeling to my throat when I think of the sincerity and emotion the children perform them with.

Some of the students I teach have been through unimaginably awful experiences. At the Language School they are learning alongside other newly-arrived students, who may be immigrants or in Australia on temporary visas, relocated here due to their parents’ work. Not everyone is a refugee, but everyone has come from somewhere else and shares the experience of being in a new country, and of leaving another home behind.

One of my first Refugee Week projects was Lingua Franca, in 2001. The range of prior experiences that the students had was summarised beautifully by one Chilean girl, who wrote:

Some people leave their homes and it’s as if it is just light rain. Some other people though, HAVE to leave! As if it is a big and terrible storm.

This poetic comparison, using the weather as a metaphor for human experiences, became a song, Some People:

Some people leave their home in light rain.

Some people leave in a storm

Some people choose when to come or to go.

And some people have no choice at all.

One year, the class teachers and I decided to focus on people’s homes in their countries of origin. First we asked all the students to draw pictures of their homes. This yielded some very vivid images – from skyscrapers and technological advancement (China) to planes dropping bombs on houses and people (Afghanistan). Then we interviewed them about their picture, pointing to different details and asking what they represented. We wrote down every word the students said, and used these words and sentences to create songs.

One five-year-old boy from Sudan drew a picture of a lion and described the way a lion tried to come inside their hut one day! His classmate, a young girl from Denmark, drew a picture of a house with a large love-heart taking up most of the ground floor, and flowers in pots on the window sill. These images, and others from the class, became the following song:

There’s a heart inside my house, with a ribbon that I lost.

There are flowers in the window at the top.

There’s a swing on a branch on a tree,

And good friends live next door.

Lions want to come inside, but the heart will protect me.

This is a song that still brings a lump to my throat – the last line in particular, with “the heart” a metaphor for the protection that adults and family provide for children.

Maps of the heart

In this year’s project, I started by brainstorming “the most important things” with students. I asked them to draw a “map of their heart”, showing all the things they cared about, and giving greater portions of the heart to the most important things, and correspondingly less space to less important things.  I introduced the idea that hearts sometimes get broken, or cracked. If you have lost something important you might have a hole or a gap in your heart, a piece that you have left somewhere else, or with somewhere else. The students (all upper primary students) found this a compelling thing to think about representing.

I found that their responses could be divided into categories about friends, family, small cracks and holes, and the future. Many of them included future plans, hopes and dreams in their hearts. In response to what these “heart maps” revealed, we’ve developed three pieces of music – one about cracks in the heart (the pain of leaving a country, and saying good-bye to people you care about), the importance of your family and friends when you change countries, and the future – all the things they hope to be and become.

Risk and fragility

But this focus on what for many may be quite raw and traumatic experiences is risky. I don’t know what it will reveal, and I need to move the projects forward very gently, and very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if I am too careful, and if my efforts to avoid too much examination of danger and terrifying experiences is ignoring a reality for some students. For example, our song about friends and family is in the relatively peaceful key of G-mixolydian (G major with a flattened 7th), and declares:

I miss my country, it’s far away from here.

But I’m lucky, because my family’s with me,

And I have good friends.

Friends and family

Taking care of me.

We wrote it in one lesson, using the words that had come up in their brainstorm in response to their heart-maps. As we sang it through at the end of the class, one of the Somali students said to his class teacher (who was sitting beside him),

“But I don’t miss my country. It was a bad place, very danger, very sad…” and he mimed shooting a machine gun across the heads of the other children in the class.

“That’s true,” said his teacher immediately. “The things that happened there were very bad, and you don’t miss them. Maybe though, you can think about the place, and the things that happened there, as different. The place itself was not bad, but many bad things happened and you couldn’t stay.”

At this point I asked them what they were talking about, and we discussed this issue with the whole class. Not many students contributed – perhaps because they didn’t have the language, perhaps because we were at the end of the lesson. I wanted to find a way to include that student’s comments and concerns in our song. We wondered if he could perhaps speak at the end of the song (prior to the next piece in the cycle – this project had become a 3-part song cycle). But he didn’t really respond to the suggestion. He was happy to play the instruments in the song, and perhaps didn’t want further scrutiny over his prior experiences. Or perhaps he did. It’s difficult for me to know for sure, and I only see the students once a week.

Ultimately, I believe these creative process are important for the students on several levels. The ownership they feel when they help to create music that they later perform to others is incredibly important to them, and they feel very proud of their efforts. Every step in the composition process takes place in class, so they know exactly how each piece came into being. It is also significant that through writing songs, they get to tell their stories to a larger audience. The challenge for me is making sure the stories we tell are indeed their stories, including the uncomfortable ones… or not.

Brainstorm for new song

Last week I started a songwriting project with Middle Primary at the Language School. We have been working all term on some instrumental music, but have recently been invited to perform in Refugee Week celebrations at the end of term, so I decided to add a song to our composition.

We brainstormed together, and I wrote their words on the whiteboard. Orienting questions included:

  • Is it easy or difficult when you come to a new country. [Everyone said ‘difficult’]. What sorts of things are difficult?
  • How do you feel? How did you feel when you first arrived?
  • What do you miss from your old country?

Below are some of the results of this brainstorm. Some of their words are very poignant, such as the reference to ‘suffering’, and the sadness of saying goodbye to friends and a country you would like to be able to stay in. In the end, we only used a few key phrases in our song – we’ve written a song that will be ideal for audience participation, as it has a ‘response’ that repeats constantly throughout the song.

Music lesson 0006

Music lesson 0004

Music lesson 0005

Completing the ‘Aranea’ project

Students in Upper Primary also completed their composition project this term, performing a sequence of four compositions that told the story of ‘Aranea’ (by Jenny Wagner) in music and words.

This project ended up being fairly complex. We had to cut it down for the Refugee Week performances at Federation Square, unfortunately, but performed it in full at the school concert the following week.

We divided the story into four main sections: Aranea safe and happy, building her web; the Terrible Storm, that destroys her home and forces her to flee; her first place of safety, in the White Room, where she still feels that she could be in danger; and her eventual Return to the Garden, and rebuilding her life and her home.

The book is not (as far as I am aware) written as a metaphor for a refugee experience, but I like it for this. WE never made the parallels explicit for the students. However, throughout the term in their classroom work, the Upper Primary students were already exploring ways of telling their own journey stories, and so the music project provided a further backdrop to this.

The opening and final pieces were songs. The first had the class divided into two groups, playing contrasting instruments. The instrument groups alternated between verse and chorus. We wrote the words for the song in part by summing up the first part of the book, in our own words, and in part by quoting directly from the text.

Aranea, spinning and spinning. Living in the curl of a leaf in the tree.

She is safe and happy. She makes a spider’s web.

First the crosspiece, then the frame. Around in a spiral and back again.

The Storm music grew from our work the previous term. It created interesting rhythmic layers by working with chants and phrases drawn from the text in the book. It is a technique I use a lot, and I find it very effective with ESL students.

The White Room was my favourite piece of music – one of the most interesting and dramatic pieces of music I think I have ever written with a group of students. We wanted to depict the fear the spider was feeling in an unfamiliar and hostle space – even though in theory, she was now ‘safe’, in that she was sheltered from the storm.

We created an eerie soundworld using high pitched violin harmonic, long and constant, and harsh. Several students dragged a metal triangle stick around the rim of a cymbal. Another student played a triangle, but gripped it very tightly so as to thoroughly dampen its resonance, and jiggled her stick at high speed in one of the lower corners of the triangle. It sounded like teeth chattering.

The remaining students stood in formation, heads bowed, and hands gripped into frightened fists. On a cue they began a slow stamp, in unison. Then cried out the following:





Her heart is running very fast.

[The rhythm of the phrase echoed by drums, shockingly loud, like gunfire]

She can’t hide anywhere. PEOPLE COULD COME AND KILL HER!

[The syncopated, uneven rhythm of this last phrase is then played by all the metal instruments, struck hard, with full damping]

The music for The White Room had extraordinary emotional impact. It was intense. The children performed it with utter conviction. I am not sure I have made anything like it before. It lasted only about a minute and half.

We closed with a song, more upbeat, but still with a slight dark edge to it. It included chanted sections, sung sections, and a body percussion accompaniment.

She goes outside, she finds her leaf, and remembers what happened.

She is so tired! But when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm.

Now she makes her web. Now she catches food. Everything is better now.

She has a new life, safe and happy, she has a new life, safe and happy.

The storm is gone, the sun is coming out,

And she will live in her leaf in the tree.

Remember they wrote these words. I prompted them with questions (such as, “how is the spider feeling?”), but the song is made up of their responses. I find the observation that ‘when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm’, very poignant.

It was a long term (literally – 12 weeks, instead of 10), and while I never intended this project and the others to get quite so complex, they did become very involved. But there was a huge satisfaction for all of us, I think, in realising these projects, to start with just an idea, and a book, and each week to develop new material. At the time of creating the new material, I suspect many students don’t really know what is going on. What I hope, however, is that by the end of term, when they perform their music, they will remember how it cam to be, and remember that they were all involved in making it, step by step.

Next term – no plans as yet! But hopefully something a little more low-key!

Final compositions – depicting refugee journeys in music

The term ended at the Language School with the usual performances of the children’s compositions, and with a special event for Refugee Week at Federation Square. I say ‘usual’, but don’t want to downplay it – as always, there is something quite extraordinarily moving about these children singing to their peers about their experiences, in a language they are only just getting to grips with. It is incredibly moving.

Two classes performed at the Refugee Week event. Middle Primary had a set of pieces in three parts, that was a kind of musical time capsule, describing key events in their journeys from their countries of origin to Australia.

You can listen to it here:

Their opening song was jaunty and upbeat:

From Afghanistan to Islamabad, From Afghanistan to Islamabad.

Car to Grandma, car to plane. Leipzig to Frankfurt and Singapore

We waited… 2 hours, We waited… 4 hours! We waited… 8 hours! WE WAITED 16 HOURS!!

So sleepy my dad had to carry me.

This last line was sung in 2-part harmony and as it faded away the children began to whisper to the audience the amount of time their own journey to Australia had taken – from between 11 hours and many days’ travel!

They then segued straight into a 2-part chant, depicting their first day at Language School, when they are surrounded by information and questions, all coming at them in a language they don’t understand. The chorus was accompanied by unison, universal gestures of frustration:

WHAT should I do now? WHERE should I go now?

My head is going CRAZY on the first day!

They then moved to percussion instruments, and played an instrumental piece that was composed using some of the pitch exercises I had introduced them to at the start of term. The instrumental music served as an introduction to a song about The Things They Miss. Every time they sang the chorus, I would get a lump in my throat. They sang with such open hearts, and such sincerity, and such a strong sense of ownership of their music.

Now I miss the rain. Now I miss the snow. Now I miss the warm. The hot, hot, hot, hot days.

German bread and sausages. My friends and next door neighbours.

I came here from a village. I came here from the city.


Two dogs, three cats and Grandma, My house, my garden, Grandpa.

Uncles, cousins, friends from school, I miss them all,

I miss – them – all.

Class progress at Language School

“You look tired,” said one of my students when I walked into the room today. They were all waiting for me, (I hadn’t realised that we’d be starting earlier today), smiling warmly. I have so much tension at the moment, so many thoughts driving around in my head, but I felt myself start to ease off, and dropped myself into the day’s activities.

It was a pretty satisfying day at Language School, overall. Lower Primary were a little tricky – they have become progressively more tricky this term, not less. It is very, very hard to keep them focused. I have picked up the pace of all my activities, I am talking as little as possible, I am reinforcing the music room rules (‘good listening, good looking, good waiting’) at every opportunity, but still trying to see through the composition project I had planned for them. It is uphill work!

We finished today’s lesson by recording their glockenspiel playing, then I showed them a short DVD clip of my nephew (aged 2 and 1/2) playing home-made drumkit, while wearing a nappy. He (my nephew) has all the rock star moves. His drumstick work is pretty impressive too. The Lower Primary children really enjoyed watching this, so I should dig out some more clips for them to watch of other children playing instruments.

My happiest lesson today was with Upper Primary. We composed the last part of our Aranea music. They were so focused through the whole lesson, offering words, developing melodies, and repeating the song as it progressed.

I am happy with it. It has a catchy chorus, it has a chanted section, and has a bridge that adds tension and build-up, and it has body percussion. I think they will perform it well. The process? We brainstormed words, describing the spider’s situation after the storm (tiredness, remembering the terrible experience, finally going outside, finding a new place to live, rebuilding her home), then we organised these ideas into a chorus, a verse, and a bridge. I had already planned a simple chord progression to work with (Dm, Dm, Gm, A) – we set this up as an accompaniment and experimented with melodies.

Here is our song, composed in about an hour:


She goes outside, She finds her leaf, and remembers what happened.

She is so tired, but when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm.


Now she makes her web. Now she catches food. Everything is better now.


She has a new life, safe and happy, She has a new life, safe and happy.

The storm is gone, the sun is coming out,

And she will live in her leaf in the tree.

The last line is quite a tongue-twister for the students – lots of ‘Ls’.

Despite being in a minor key, the song has a lot of energy and uplifting feeling to it. This is music that we will perform as part of a Refugee Week concert, in a few week’s time. I am hoping to project images from the book at the back of the stage while the children perform, as well as images that they have drawn depicting their own journeys to Australia.

A good day’s work. Maybe I’ll take the night off. I’d like to indulge in some retail therapy, but it is not a good idea. Life is so expensive these days. My trip to Bologna (to the International Society of Music Educators conference) is going to cost me a lot (even with the airfare paid for), and is not something I had budgeted for. Maybe instead I will watch a DVD. I have an Italian postwar realist film out from the library at the moment. Might settle in with that on my computer.