Archive for the ‘rhythm’ Tag

Syncopation without explanation

I’m a big believer in implicit learning environments – where a musically-rich and consistent environment enables students to build all sorts of understandings about the language of music and how it functions, without dependence on explanations or theory. This is the main characteristic that underpins my teaching at the English Language School I work in once a week as a music workshop artist.

However, challenges do arise when the only person in the room able to maintain the musically-consistent environment is you. And when you can’t give verbal explanations (you can, but the majority of students won’t understand and will either tune out, or get stressed or confused) it can be hard to establish a critical mass of understanding of certain concepts.

Here’s a challenge I am grappling with – the Upper Primary students are learning the song People Get Ready. We’re accompanying it on xylophone with a 2-part riff that has a slightly syncopated rhythm. The notes are simple and easy to memorise, but the students struggle to imitate the counting. They tend to speed up and lose the syncopation.

Tony (my boyfriend – also a musician) suggested I do some work with all the quavers in a bar of 4/4 and try and establish a bit more understanding of the hidden beats. “Get them to clap on certain numbers of a cycle of 8 beats,” was his thought. I’ve used this kind of tactic before, but felt unsure it would work in the ESL setting, because it would introduce a new rhythmic idea, and the students might then be confused about which rhythm was to be used. How could I establish that this was just a teaching tool, rather than a new part of our musical arrangement?

However, I had no other solution, and I was also curious. I could see that for some students it might cause confusion, but that for others, it could offer some clarity about how the synocpated rhythm worked. They might figure out the relationship between the two all by themselves.

Here’s what we did:

  1. I wrote the numbers 1 to 8 on the whiteboard, and asked the students to count them out loud, 4 times.
  2. I put a red square around number one, and asked them to clap on the 1, as they counted all the numbers aloud.
  3. I put a red square around number 2, so that they were now clapping 1 and 2 in the cycle of 8.
  4. I gave out untuned percussion instruments and got them to play on those numbers now (as a way of repeating the exercise a few more times but adding an additional element, as well as creating new interest).
  5. I then added some more squares, around numbers 3, 4, and 7. This clapped numbers now became our syncopated rhythm. Beat no. 5 was the one they had to get used to waiting for in their heads.
  6. We clapped this new rhythm, counting all the numbers aloud, and giving a wave of the hands on beats 5 and 7.
  7. I asked individuals to clap or play the rhythm on their own (another tactic to encourage listening and attention – they like to perform on their own – and add new interest to the task).
  8. I brought out the bass xylophone. Under the different squared numbers I wrote the notes of the syncopated riff we had learned the previous 2 weeks. One by one they took it in turns to play (or try to play) the riff, with this new awareness of silence on beats 5 and 8.

This last step was more confusing than I’d expected. We had previously learned the notes by counting aloud how many times each note was played before changing notes:

C C C F_ FF | F F G C_ CC

(Hopefully my spacing between letters, and use of underscore,  shows some reference to the notation here!) Now we had new numbers to count aloud – that’s a lot of similar numbers, meaning different things – and the feel of the pitch contour and rhythm together suddenly felt more awkward.

For some students, it was easier to play the riff (and blur the syncopation, as before) and ignore the numbers from the cycle of 8 beats we had been using in the previous task. When they tried to count the 8-beat cycle while playing, and keep track of the note changes, they got confused. Others, however, had little moments of understanding the relationship. You could hear it in the way they started adjusting the riff, paying more attention to beats 5 and 8, and sitting on the middle or back of the beat, rather than right at the front.

So the strategy worked for some students, definitely. But perhaps I am still missing something. Can I make this even simpler, in an implicit, rather than explicit way? I’m sure I can. I’d love any of your thoughts.

Language School projects, Term 3

I started back at the Language School this week. Every term, I try to invent a composition project with each class that relates to a topic that will be under investigation in their classroom work. It turns out that all three classes – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary – are all doing Transport this term. So… three projects inspired by transport? Here are my early thoughts:

Lower Primary

Once again, we have a very competent, functional class here, who have lots of ability, and good focus. I didn’t try to start any themed work with them; rather, I just took them through a number of ‘foundation’ activities, in order to get a better sense of how they are in music. I’ll keep you posted on how their transport theme will play out – probably a chant based on road safety, as I did last term at Pelican PS.

Middle Primary

We listed all the different ways the students travel to school – train, tram, bus, car, walking, even bicycle. Then we experimented with a vocal percussion piece of ‘train sounds’. I have quite a few new students in this class, including a lively, easily distracted boy – Volodya from Russia, who is very cool and keeps breaking out into break-dancing (and comments on everything, but EVERYTHING I say!) Hmmm…. will need to get all of that creative energy channeled in a positive direction, quick-smart. Also in the class is Oscar, the very bright Liberian boy who started midway through last term, who can drum and beatbox with gallons of style and skill, and who I suspect will get bored with the slowness of the others in the class very, very quickly. With these two students in mind in particular, I think we will put together a hip-hop, beatboxing chant/song/dance about public transport, maybe utilising train station names, street names, tram and bus numbers, and so on.

Continue reading

The wonderful clarity of western-style notation

I’ve found myself in the middle of a really interesting project with the Middle Primary students at the Language School. A focus this term on pulse has taken us into working with simple rhythmic notation (using crotchets, quavers and rests – or quarters, eighths, and rests, as you prefer). I hadn’t planned to introduce western-style notation this term – in fact, I’m not sure it has ever featured in my work at the Language School – but now that I’m in the middle of it, I’m not sure why it hasn’t been a feature.

For one thing, it’s visual. And it can be ‘read aloud’ by the students using simple, logical sounds (ta, titi, and sah). It makes sense to them.

We started with whole notes/semibreves. This was not a good place to start, as they hadn’t yet started internalising pulse. Ditto for minims/half-notes. Things really cranked up when we got on to the crotchets and quavers. We began to invent different rhythms. We said them, clapped them, then put them onto untuned percussion instruments. We divided into two, then three groups, and so were playing three different rhythms concurrently.

And here is the joy of it all – it all hung together! Beautifully. “Well, of course!” I can hear all the music teachers chorus,with a slight air of impatience. These tools have been around a long time, because they work. But what is exciting for me is to see just how quickly and effectively they work without much verbal explanation. They are supported by the musically-consistent environment of the music classes (we have strong attention to musical detail); they also enable the children from China and Thailand, some of whom have had music instruction prior to arrival in Australia, to tap into their knowledge and learning from their country of origin.

For the newest arrivals, and those from refugee backgrounds, who tend to be sruggling with literacy and who have had incredibly disrupted schooling, if any schooling at all, it also seemed to make sense. There are five children in the class who fit this description (Horn of Africa, and Middle Eastern nationalities); only one child was clearly still guessing what was going on, the others seemed to have made sense of the task and were gradually piecing things together.

Today, we progressed things further, writing a rhythm, and then adding pitches to it to make a melody. I gave them a 5-note pentatonic scale to work with, and asked them to suggest which pitches should go where. As we progressed through the rhythm, I played them what they had invented so far. We came up with a funky little tune, and learnt it. Applying pitches to a known rhythm was a good challenge even for the most competent students. They had to figure out how to glance quickly at the board, and then back down to their instrument. We did a lot of echoing, so that they could establish a strong aural memory of the tune.

So, now in week four, we have a 3-part rhythm played on a range of instruments, and a melody, which I have started accompanying on the guitar. What’s more, it all hangs together, with very little direction or correction from me. I think the visual representation of what they are playing helps them put the different parts in context with each other, perhaps.

I think it is going to become a song. The school has been asked to perform in a local Refugee Week community celebration at the end of term – I think this Middle Primary song might end up linking to that event.

MTeach, week 4

(Posts written on this subject are written with the MTeach students in mind, as a way of giving them notes on what we do in each class – but hopefully of interest to others as well).

Last week’s session with the MTeach students at Melbourne Uni was focused on inventing melodies. I taught them a workshop project I like very much, that involves inventing melodies through chance processes. Several people in the group had brought their own instruments with them, others played tuned percussion, guitar (including bass guitar) or piano.

This is an outline of the project:

Cycle of 6

Continue reading

MTeach class, week 2

In this week’s class, we looked at three ways of developing students’ rhythmic invention and skills.

Circle game – Accumulative Rhythms

This is a good warm-up, it can create a powerful focus in a group. It is also a big brain-teaser, so needs to be worked on slowly, adding complexity a little at a time.

The whole group stands in a circle. One person (the leader/facilitator/teacher/student) starts a clapping pattern going. The person beside them watches, learns it, and joins in. The next person along does the same, and so on, around the circle. It is important that people don’t start clapping the rhythm before it has come to them – even if they have figured it out long ago and are keen to get started!

Once the rhythm is well-established, the leader starts another rhythm. The person beside them hears it, and joins in when ready, passing it on to their neighbour. See how many different rhythms you can have travelling around the circle at the same time!

Continue reading

Prison workshop #2

I approached the second session in the prison with a certain amount of nervousness. The first one had gone so well – would we be received with more skepticism on this second visit? I wanted to push the guys a bit more, challenge them further musically – would they resist this? Did they want it? Maybe these sessions are more of an opportunity for them to chill out, than to build skills. Music can be a fairly hardcore discipline when you start to develop skills. It takes focus. I didn’t want to set up things that would give anyone a negative experience, or sense of failure.

Here is what I was aiming for:

  • Work with rhythm and pitch separately to start with – try to encourage more detailed listening from the group, awareness of other parts, working in sections, adding more complex layers.
  • See if we can stimulate some deeper expressive/emotional responses musically – in particular responding to R’s idea (R is our cellist) to use an extract from the Dvorak cello concerto as a stimulus for reflections on separation from home and loved ones.
  • Try to build on the quiet ensemble singing that came spontaneously in the first workshop, during Y’s improvisation on Just the Two of us.

Getting through security takes time. We have to sign in, have our irises scanned (one by one – we are already on the system of iris recognition so this is faster than it was on the first day); we put our personal items that we don’t need for the workshop (wallets, mobile phones, keys, ID tags for the orchestra office) in a locker; we transfer the small items we need for the workshop into see-through plastic bags, and put these through the x-ray, along with our instruments. Then we walk through a walk-in X-ray machine, kind of like a cone-of-silence pod, one person at a time. After this we get scanned with the hand-held metal detector one by one (arms outstretched, back then front), collect our instruments and other x-rayed items, then go three at a time into first a sound-lock room, in which we do the iris scan again, and then out into the corridor and into the large light room where we do the workshop.

Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

Language school compositions: progress report

I had a fun day at the Language School today. We are seven weeks into Term 3 (so three weeks from the end of term) and by this time we are in the rehearsal stage for this term’s compositions.

Middle Primary students have created two group pieces. The first – “Winter” – was started when we were in the grip of a really cold series of winter days. We explored the sensation of ‘cold’ first physically (pressing our hands and cheeks against cold surfaces outside, opening the windows and feeling the cold wind enter the room and touch us) and then aurally, going through all the percussion instruments in the room and ranking them in order of the ‘coldest’ sounds, and techniques for producing cold, rather than warm sounds.

This exploration has resulted in a 3-sectioned piece, involving a big ‘shiver’ of cold sounds added progressively, a multi-layered melodic piece utilising ‘cold’ sounds played in rhythmic and melodic ostinati, and a version of Largo from Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (with the solo performed by Melanie, our wonderful violinist and intern from the Melbourne Conservatorium).

Of course the weather is much warmer now, with recent temperatures reaching 25 degrees (bit alarming for August – it is still supposed to be winter!); we will need to imagine ourselves back into those cold days for the performance.

Middle Primary’s second composition is drawn from their work with the Alphabet Dance, in which they created a dance movement or gesture for each letter of the alphabet. We have now started to choose words to spell out, and to arrange these into a dance piece.

Our theme for the words is Fruit, and today we invented a chorus that pays homage to the mighty banana:


(Try to imagine the funky syncopated rhythm we use for this).

Continue reading

The unbeatable metronome

I think one of my most useful resources in the ESL music classroom is my metronome. I use the old-fashioned kind – with the tick-tock swinging pendulum and the little weight-slide that you use to adjust the speed.

The students I work with at the Language School love it. It’s a strong visual cue, it makes the regularity of a beat tangible, and predictable. It teaches them about the discipline of keeping to a pulse in music without me needing to find simple words that can explain the concept to them.

This suits me, and suits the students – language and explanations can be cumbersome in an ESL setting where too much talk can mean you lose students’ attention quickly. It’s tiring for them, to be constantly trying to figure out what is going on, listening to people talk in a language they are not very familiar with!

So visual cues and clues are like gold. Here are some of the tasks and games I’ve been doing with the metronome these last few weeks:

Continue reading

Warming up

With each class at the Language School I do the same series of warm-up games for several weeks in a row. I’ve learned to do this (my instinct and preference as a teacher is to create new things all the time), because the repetition means that the students start to build confidence in what we are doing and what they need to do to take part, and I can actually see what they are capable of. When they are doing something unfamiliar, they are just working out what to do by copying the others, and they don’t always understand what is going on, and how it all fits together.

Both middle and lower primary students start with a game I call “names in the space”. I set up a rhythmic pattern in 4/4, of claps, followed by two spaces. I start; I say my name in the first space. In the next space, the students all repeat my name. Then, the person next to me in the circle says their name in the next space, and in the space after that the group repeats that person’s name. And so on, around the circle.

The game is useful in several ways – it challenges their oral language because the game requires them to ‘land’ their voice in the space, (separate to when they are clapping). They have to wait their turn. They have to stay engaged, as everyone must give the response in every second space. It also reminds me of all their names, right at the start of the lesson!

Continue reading