Archive for the ‘singing’ Tag

End-of-year at Pelican Primary School

My final two performances for the year were with the children from Pelican Primary School. First, the choir performed at Federation Square, which was a wonderful chance for them to put their work in context with other primary school choirs from around Melbourne (I think they felt they fared pretty well in the comparison!). Then we held the end-of-year concert, in which every class performed.

I’ve really enjoyed my year at Pelican. I feel, after two years working there, I’ve now found an approach with these children that works well. Inspired by my reading of Lucy Green’s research, and the Musical Futures ideas that I learned about in the April workshop, I’ve been using a lot of popular music as the vehicles for developing musical understanding among the students. It’s resulted in huge student engagement, a real love for music classes and participation, and lots of creative ideas, being generated by the students themselves.

Some highlights:

Parents Rock! Band

This year I put together a small band of parents to accompany all the concert items. I had a guitarist, a violinist/pianist and a percussionist. I roped in Tony to play bass guitar. We got together a week before the concert to rehearse each of the songs. The Parents Rock! Band (as I called them) was a hit. I want this idea to grow. Hopefully we can draw more parents into it, particularly from the African communities that are so strong in our community.

Grade 2 pianist

Year 2/3 performed a version of K’naan’s Wavin’ Flag. One of the students learns piano and I’d given him a simple chart with the melody and harmonic accompaniment for the 2 sections of the song. This little boy is normally very quiet and reluctant to participate in his class’ music lessons (I suspect it all gets too noisy for him). I’ve never seen him smile so broadly, and look as proud as he did in the whole-school dress rehearsal the day of the concert, when he performed with his class and with the Parents Rock! Band.

Singing their hearts out again

The year 4/5, who earlier had had a hit with their rendition of California Dreamin’, sang Rolling in the Deep. Again, we sang in two parts, and had a number of soloists. In the staff room on the day of the concert, teachers raved about the different solo singers, expressing their delight in hearing how good the voices were – qualities they often hadn’t realised were there.

Taking ownership

The grade 5/6 students developed a dance routine for Party Rock Anthem. This was the concert finale. I found some choreography on Youtube, and we worked with that for 4 weeks, watching the video in class on the interactive whiteboard.

Lots of them watched it outside of school hours too. It became a real project – something that was challenging to learn but possible. “This is not just about learning to dance,” I told them. “It’s a chance to learn how you learn, how you can teach yourself new things by working on them consistently.” They were hugely motivated – the most motivated I’ve seen them all year – and took tremendous ownership of their concert item. They requested an edited version of the song (some of the sections needed to be doubled in length to fit their choreography), listened carefully when I explained the song’s structure, and developed a some good ensemble choreography.

Equally significant was the difference in their interpersonal relationships. This is a class that is often hard on each other – they are quick to laugh and jeer when one of the group makes a mistake in class – it’s quite alarming to witness sometimes. This meanness started to lessen during the dance project. When individuals moved into the centre of the space to perform short solos, the rest of the group whooped, cheered and clapped, supporting them on. We told them to do this initially, but again, they took it on and made it their own. There was so much pride and confidence spilling out of that class by the night of the concert – they were so excited to performed their dance!

The building of esteem in the school choir

The choir gave their best performance of the year at the end-of-year concert. We sang three songs – Vuma vuma ( a 2-part Zulu song that I learned from one of my students at NMIT), which we sang with dance actions; La Isla Bonita, taking our 2-part harmonies directly from the Madonna recording; and Firework, taking inspiration from the version performed by PS22 Chorus.

This has been such a successful year for the choir. I’ve had 34 consistent members throughout the year – that’s nearly 3 times the usual number. I’ve had equal numbers of boys and girls, and strong participation from students in older classes. I started the year by finding them tangible examples (‘models’) for them to look to in developing their voices and building ambition about what they could achieve in the choir. I developed a more formal structure for rehearsals to which they responded particularly well. With all of these initiatives, I wanted to help them put their work in context – to see their work as being authentic, with real-world value. The choice of popular songs helps with this, but we also sang several more traditional or varied songs, such as Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, one of our main concert songs this year. Choir now has cachet in the school, I think.

Creative inspiration

All this performance work adds an additional element to the children’s imaginative lives. Children approach me in the yard to share the latest song they’ve just written, such as this little gem:

There’s a boy and girl, they really like each other

They’re holding hands, oh yeah

They really love each other, oh yeah

And now, they’re gonna get ma-a-a-a-arried

Or the latest dance routine they’ve made up. The lunchtime immediately after the younger years saw the year 5/6 shuffle dance, there were huddles of prep, grade 1 & 2 shufflers scattered all across the playground.

The students teach their siblings the songs they are learning in class. Something I loved about the whole-school dress rehearsal on the day of the concert was the way the children sang along with each others’ songs.

The Pied Piper of Comoro

I’ve fallen into a pleasant daily routine here in Dili. I go to language school in the morning until 12:30, then cycle into town to have lunch and do my homework, and when I get home in the afternoon I play my clarinet or flute on the front porch and watch the world go by.

Generally I find that the world also watches me as it goes by, and the young children in particular stop and listen. When they stop by the gate I wave, and if they wave back I tend to strike up a (halting, broken) conversation with them in Tetun. It’s great practice for me, and in return for my music they sometimes share their own music with me.

Today – Saturday – there were more kids around than usual, some older ones that I had met earlier in the week (and interviewed for my Tetun servisu uma (=homework) so I knew their names), and some younger ones that I knew by sight. One of them mimed that he wanted to have a try of the clarinet. I now have enough Tetun to explain that sadly, he can’t, that only I can play this clarinet.

Do you know any songs? I asked them. One or two shyly admitted they did. Mana Dina, who lives on the same block as the house I’m staying in, wandered over to our group, and she explained to me that some of the children go to school but others – she patted them on the head in turn to show me which ones she meant – were not yet at school.

Mana Dina encouraged the school children to sing a song from school for me. They sang a song with actions that I copied. Then the rain started up so we moved over to the patio. Mana Dina instructed all the pre-school children to sit on the tiled floor in a huddle. The older children commandeered the seats. Now that they were warmed up and in place on the patio, they began to sing with great enthusiasm, with an older boy calling out names of new songs to sing every time one finished.

The pre-schoolers looked mostly lost or overawed. It was interesting to see how the school-goers were completely au fait with systems of learning and getting organised, but the younger children looked like it was all going by way too quickly.

I taught them to sing Ram Sam Sam. It’s a good song to start with because it has very few words and they are nonsense words, easy to remember, with actions. I taught it phrase by phrase, using the word ‘prononsia’ that the teachers in my Tetun class say when they want us to repeat a new word after them.

We sang it through a couple of times, and they did very well. So then I got ambitious, and divided them into three groups. I grabbed the words hamriik (stand up) and tuur (sit down) from my memory and told them in my pidgin Tetun to stand up on certain words and sit down on others. This turns Ram Sam Sam into a kind of game, with each team aiming to make sure they only stand up on their words and not on someone else’s.

“Lalais!” (faster) I suggested after each time, and we sang it again faster. Then the children also starting calling for it to go “lalais”. At this stage it was still raining heavily and some older children had turned up with huge golf umbrellas – presumably to fetch their younger siblings and bring them home for tea. Suddenly the group ran off, slipping into their flip-flops and racing away through the downpour. As they ran back home I could hear them singing Ram Sam Sam at the top of their voices.

Sharing songs

I am nearly on my way to East Timor. Just a couple of days to go, but my suitcase is packed, my flat is sublet, and I am in the final throes of preparation.

One of the things I am working on is the best way to take songs with me to Timor. Of course, most of them are in my head, but the chords aren’t always! Also, what sometimes happens is that some songs just don’t come to mind as quickly as others. I know so many fantastic, catchy, beautiful songs from all around the world, but I find that the same old favourites are the ones that come to mind most frequently, and they aren’t always the right songs for the groups I am with. Therefore, I don’t want to rely just on my memory.

Packing to go to a developing country means taking things that you wouldn’t normally need to take when travelling or working away from home. Bed sheets, for example. Bed sheets over there tend to have quite high percentage of polyester in the fabric, and they may not have been washed since they were last used (in fact, they may not have been washed in a very long time, due to water shortages and perhaps lower priority placed on bedding… I don’t know why, actually). Also things like surge protectors. Books to read. This means that luggage weight is an issue so bringing hard copies of song pages isn’t a great option.

I thought about scanning them and saving them in my computer as pdfs or jpgs. This could be quite good as it makes it easier to share. But I don’t have a scanner at home so it isn’t a very practical option for me.

At this stage, I’ve decided to record myself singing the songs, and I’ll also call the chord names out as I go. I’ll record into Garageband and then send the tracks over to iTunes, and then I’ll be able to listen on my iPod. So tonight or tomorrow night, I have a charming night ahead of me, where I will sing my way through my various song collections (aided perhaps by some nice wine). Perhaps I can persuade some friends to join me? One jolly little singalong before I head off?

A bit of Christmas spirit

About twenty-five friends gathered for my annual carol-singing party. This tradition has been going about ten years now. I invite anyone I know of who likes to sing, I have copies of lots of carols, and the idea is to get together, eat, drink and sing through the repertoire of favourites. Last year we added in a street-sing and doorknocking, and raised money for Oxfam in the process. This year we took that approach again, and so a new tradition begins.

We raised $200 for the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project. It was a hot night which meant we did tire quickly, but we were nourished by all the delicious food that everyone contributed. Here are some photos from the night:

(This babe in arms was only new-born at last year’s party. If she comes along every year we will be able to chart her growth with these posts).

Saying the Koran

It’s Ramadan at the moment, and for one class of grade one students at Pelican PS it turns out that means murmuring prayers from the Koran intermittently throughout the music lesson. It started when the class arrived at the music room door – one of the boys was speaking very quickly in Arabic, and it sounded to me like a learned prayer. I asked him what he was saying and he said it was the Koran. Another began to join in, enthusiastically. “It’s the Koran, he’s saying the Koran,” other children informed me. They spoke very fast, like it was a race, and I remember when I was child going to Mass how some of the longer prayers like the Creed (do we call that a prayer? I don’t know…) sounded like incredibly fast and complex whisha-whisha whispering, and it seemed amazing to me that people could remember all those words in order.

In that class, we started with some circle games to get the focus settled and then began to sing a song, one that they already knew. But after the first verse I realised there was something odd in the sound, and it took me a while to adjust my ears and work out what was going on. Someone was saying the Koran (I’m describing it as “saying the Koran” because that is what the children called it) while we were singing.

This hasn’t happened before. I figured it probably had something to do with Ramadan. I stopped the song and asked the children concerned what they were saying while we were singing. I assured them they weren’t in trouble, that I had noticed they were saying something else and that I was interested to know what it was.

This question led to a stream of information about Islam and being a Muslim, in the words of emphatic, intense grade ones. They told me about how there is the God Allah, and about how Adam was the first prophet and he “made everything”. One boy went off onto a kind of tangent after mention of Adam, about how the aim was to get to the place where everything was perfect, all green fields, beautiful mountains and where you no longer had to do anything, you didn’t need to eat, you could just be there… I must have looked puzzled, because one of the girls then chimed in, helpfully, “It’s kind of like paradise”.

I was intrigued. The children went on to talk about the evils of a character called ShayDan (I may have remembered this name incorrectly, and I have no idea how to spell it), who might “come up and whisper in your ear, tell you to do bad things, like, he might tell you to go up to this other kid and bash his face in!” One boy re-told a story he had been told at the mosque about a young boy and girl who had been going to the mosque to pray, but ShayDan had come up to them and gone into their ears, and then they didn’t go into the mosque they went away and started behaving very badly, and this was because of ShayDan.

All very interesting. I never quite worked out why they had started saying the Koran during the song, as most of the Muslim children had been happy enough to sing along. I suggested that we sing the song again, and that children who wanted to say the Koran could say it after the song was finished. And if they didn’t want to sing with us today, they could just stay silent. What was interesting this second time through was that pretty well all the Muslim children now wouldn’t sing, and took the option of being silent. One girl started to sing, but had a stern finger wagged at her across the circle by one of the boys, and though she protested, saying, “What?” and gesticulating back to him, she stopped singing too. It ended up being a rather feeble rendition of the song, with the remaining non-Muslim children looking a little confused about what was going on.

Anyway… I draw no particular conclusion from this lesson. I’ve taught lots of Muslim children before, and taught during Ramadan, and never had anyone start ‘saying the Koran’ during a song before. I know that there are many groups within the Muslim community who hold different views on the place of music, and on participation in music, and I’ve been in schools that respond to these concerns in different ways. That day at Pelican I went back to the staffroom and asked if anyone had had children start reciting Koranic verses in the middle of classes before and no-one had. Sometimes I know that teachers wonder if the children create new rules for themselves of what they can and can’t do at school, knowing that the non-Muslim teaching staff won’t know which are real rules and which have perhaps been invented by the child, or are exaggerated or misinterpreted…. It can get very complex. I need to do a lot more investigation, so please forgive the scant attention and uninformed deliberation I am giving this topic tonight, and consider these thoughts as my initial entrees into a complex area for discussion! Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear of other people’s experiences of opposition to music or songs for reasons of religious belief.

This Music Education forum in the United States discusses the issue of children not participating in music classes, and points out that there are other groups (such as Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventist groups) who may abstain from music involvement. And this article draws upon one music teacher’s experiences in the British education system.

Taming the Lower Primary class with a song

I had my first productive lesson with Lower Primary students all term yesterday. The odds were stacked against us – it wasn’t my usual day, they weren’t with their usual teacher, and I worked with them straight after lunch rather than first thing in the morning. However, the lesson went very well! So what did we do this week that so captured them?

The focus of this week’s class was on writing a song together, on the theme of ‘names’. Regular readers of this blog will know that the children in this class have spent the whole term using rhythms derived from the syllables of their names to compose instrumental pieces, both melodic and purely rhythmic. I wanted a song to tie all of these sections together.

We started with a quick warm-up. I got straight into it, with no preamble or explanation. I started a clapping pattern and they followed. Then we said our names 1 x 1 around the circle. We did a big stretch to get the oxygen flowing, and then we sat down on the floor and I asked them all to face the white board.

We brainstormed sentences with the word ‘name’ in them. What is your name? That is my name. Why do we have names? I asked, hoping to get some more unusual sentences. But that was a difficult question for them to answer. I didn’t push it, but kept things moving.

Brainstorming words like this can be tricky for those children with less English, or who struggle with reading. I didn’t want to spend too long on this task. Very rapidly I scanned our list of words and sentences and started to pull some out that I felt had strong musical qualities. I asked Ally (our music intern student from Melbourne University) to play a simple ostinato on the notes C and G on the violin. I invented the first line, and said it to them, and asked volunteers to sing it back to me, looking for a possible melody. We then, together, chose another 2 lines, devised melodies for them, and our song was complete.

After this, we passed untuned percussion instruments out among the class. Some played djembes and drums, the others a variety of small hand-held instruments (cabassa, guiro, tambourine, wood block). In two groups, we played the name-rhythms we had invented in previous weeks. We then practiced alternativing singing the song with playing the rhythms. This took us up to the end of the lesson.

In all I had their full and focused attention for an hour. Given that in last week’s lesson there was defiance, tears and uncontrolled giggling, I felt very relieved! Here is the song we wrote, which I personally think is quite delightful!

Tell me, tell me, tell me, what’s your name, what’s your name?

Tell me, tell me, tell me, what’s your name, what’s your name?

What is a name? A name is what we call you.

What is a name? A name is what we call you.

This is my name. What is your name?

This is my name. What is your name?

Collaboration with ESL teachers

Last term one of my readers suggested I could set about building projects around work that my colleague teachers might already have underway in the classroom, as a way of encouraging further follow-through and reinforcement of some of the music-literacy tasks I have been developing.

It came as a timely reminder. I feel this is an approach I have tried before, and found frustrating in the lack of time there was available to properly plan with teachers, or communicate effectively about current work and goals for the class. We try, and have tried, but despite loads of good will and efforts, a true collaboration often proved elusive.

This term at the Language School I cannot teach up until the end of term (because I am going overseas – yee ha!). This means I won’t be around to lead the end-of-term performances that are such a significant and much-loved part of the term’s work.

Therefore, the teachers and I have concocted a plan – I will set about creating performance projects with the students that the teachers can continue when I am gone, that they will take through to the end of term. I need to plan composition tasks that take the teachers’ current skills into consideration, build in some in-class opportunities for teachers to lead and develop their musical skills, and work with material that is suitable for visiting in class by the teachers, during the week.

I have asked each teacher to select a book for their class to focus on for their music composition work – a book that was interesting enough to be read over and over again, and that contained useful literacy goals and vocabulary for the students. In the first week of term the books were chosen, and yesterday I started working with text from the books.

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End of Term 3

Today my two primary classes at Language School had their final music lessons for the term, and presented their compositions to students, teachers and parents at the End-Of-Term Assembly.

We started off the day reasonably well, doing a run-through of the song I have taught all of the primary students in their weekly assembly (Inanay – by the gorgeous group Tiddas – on the Sing About Life album). We sing it in two parts, which they are managing really well now. It is not an easy harmony for this age group.

Then Lower Primary practised their question-and-answer music Can I have some more please? No, you can’t! They have riffs that they play on glockenspiel that follow the rhythm of the words.

They were so unfocused! We have had a few tricky lessons these last few weeks – their regular teacher hasn’t been with them all the time, some of the students who speak and understand quite a lot of English have been absent from school (thus depriving the newer students of peer models), and these two key factors have meant that the structure of the piece doesn’t really seem to have sunk in. At least, that’s how it seemed at this morning’s rehearsal. I felt a bit frustrated by the end. Was this project too difficult for them? Mel (Melbourne Uni work experience girl who is shadowing me on this project) agreed with me that it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, when we consider what they achieved last term.

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