Proud to Pluck

It’s 5.30pm on Monday at a school in north Melbourne.The penultimate session of the term for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Pizzicato Effect strings programme has just finished. The children, aged between seven and 14, have packed away their instruments, polished off the fruit and sandwich snacks, returned their name lanyards and gone home.

As the late winter sky darkens, with the sense of a small hurricane having passed, the Pizzicato Effect team – a coordinator, a break supervisor and eight strings and musicianship teachers – sit down together around a foldable school canteen table. Analysis of the session – both musical and social – happens with organic ease: ‘did that piece work for the players?’; ‘how about next week we find a way to reward Tony* when he tries hard’; ‘it was interesting how Steve learnt the transition between those notes’; ‘how was Trisha’s behaviour? She was tricky last week’; ‘I think Mary-Anne is struggling because she wants to spend more time with her friend’; ‘I loved how rhythmically together they were at the end – why do you think that worked better this week?’…

Some of the Pizzicato Effect staff team (and me!)

A pure ‘El Sistema approach’ favours intensive holistic music education: students attend classes daily, from a young age and, as well as instrumental tuition, these classes include ensemble, choral and musicianship sessions. The Pizzicato Effect has condensed this approach into two weekly two-hour term time sessions, with a core of around 40 children attending.

The programme is nearing the end of a year of transition. It has moved from a well-established six year-old curriculum time programme for children from one school, to an after-school programme open to children from across the community.

I shadowed the programme for four sessions over two weeks, focussing in particular on a group of younger children. More than any other children I met during my time in Australia, they reminded me of children from the school where I teach in London: boisterous, chatty, a bit naughty, excitable, funny and keen to have a go. The challenges of the sessions resonated in particular with my experiences of trying to establish an after-school orchestra and choir: achieving an atmosphere of calm focus isn’t completely straightforward when they participants feel that they have completed their day at school, and they are attending an additional activity.

However, the team’s efforts were rewarded: at the end of term concert, it was inspiring to see every child playing their instrument with solid technique and, most importantly, having a jolly good time. As well as using their instruments, they performed using their voices and a brilliant samba-style piece on upturned plastic buckets (an idea I’m certainly stealing!). These weren’t mutually exclusive activities: being able to pitch notes vocally and play a rhythm in time with others are vital musicianship skills.

One of the best things about ‘Pizzi’, as it’s affectionately known,  is the supportive, collegial atmosphere cultivated by the staff. As a result they were honest, self-critical and – vitally – solution-focussed in discussing the successes and challenges of their sessions. It also underlined the depth of commitment and care they have for the children’s musical and holistic development.

Some of the Pizzi staff performing at the end of term concert

Here are some brilliant things about this programme:

  • The whole team is deeply committed to providing the young people in this community with high quality music education – something which, due to the lack of UK-style music hubs – is in short supply
  • They are motivated by a belief in the transformational power of music
  • They are commited to creating opportunities for the children to be creative, as well as working on techniques. They were great at giving the children space to demonstrate or suggest ideas
  • They have thought carefully and self-critically about the content of their programme
  • Their strong, resourceful and equal team. Every music programme like this should, as they do, build 30 minutes into the beginning and end of each session, for planning and discussion
  • The children had s strong sense of ownership, identity and pride in the programme – they regularly talked about things they’d done with the programme, the friends they’d made and their enjoyment of the sessions and working with the teachers
  • Break time snacks (I was always going to have to mention the food somewhere!) were procured for free from an organisation which redistributes surplus fresh food. I loved that this organisation exists, and that MSO have utilised them for snack provision!

The whole team, and Lucy and Louise in particular, were ridiculously welcoming and kind to me. Seeing the programme at work was a total pleasure!


*All children’s names have been changed


Orffully Good


Sorry about that title.

Since arriving in Melbourne, I’ve seen a programme focusing on rock and pop style learning, and one focussed on western classical learning. This week I’ve looked at an alternate/bridging approach: the Orff approach.


P1090205.JPGThis experience has come courtesy of Lynne, who is – before I go into the music education side of things – a legend, for the following reasons:

  1. As well as welcoming me to her lovely school in east Melbourne for three days, she’s also had me to stay
  2. She loves food as much as me: fish and chips, chicken and potato cakes, CAKE (there it is, again), and chocolate. Her equally excellent husband, Alan, has made me a sandwich for lunch every day
  3. She drinks lots of tea
  4. She lives close to where I was born (and her kids were born in the same place!) so when she collected me from the station, drove me straight to the hospital to see where the main event of 1987 occurred…!
  5. She took me out for cake and tea on Monday and a drive through the Dandenongs on Tuesday
  6. She is very talented at beading and quilting
  7. She loves people and sees the best in them – whether it’s her grandson, her colleagues or the kids she teaches. Her Christian faith shines through in this.
  8. She is very passionate about life in general and in particular music teaching and the Orff approach and is incredibly knowledgeable about it
  9. In her own words, she loves watching people be creative
  10. She has an amazing gift for giving kids the space to be musically creative – something which, for all the great stuff I have seen in the last month, I hadn’t seen much of before seeing her in action.

A space to create

Carl Orff was a composer in the 20th century (you’ll probably know his work even if you’ve not heard of him) who also developed an approach to music education rooted in facilitating development of students’ ideas and creativity.

In its student-centred approach, it has parallels with the Musical Futures approach I looked at last week; however this time, instead of developing students’ musical skills by supporting them to play songs they know, the approach wants to reach into the depths of students’ natural musicality to help them compose their own music.

In its focus on development of pitch, pulse and rhythm awareness, Orff also has links with the Kodaly approach I observed at Moorambilla. However, it’s a much less rigid approach than pure Kodaly with more room for students to navigate their own musical experiences and understanding, and develop their musicality through movement.


Lynne has been teaching Orff music for 25 years, and one of the most inspiring things about her as a teacher is her dedication to professional development and learning. She regularly attends and organises conferences, is always on the lookout for new ideas and resources and has a deep and constantly evolving understanding of the theory and rationale behind everything she teaches in her classroom.


Here are some snapshots from the three days I spent at her school.

Year 5/6 Glide and Punch


Stuck to the board with magnets are eight actions: four soft (blue), four hard (red). The children sit in a circle and roll two dice. They create a movement incorporating the two words assigned to the dice numbers.

‘But wait!’ I hear you cry, ‘That sounds more like dance to me!’

For Orff (and for most other cultures in the world), movement is intrinsically connected to other forms of musical learning. Musical understanding comes from organically emerging kinaesthetic activities:

“Its foundation was concerned with the child: the needs of the child and the emphasis on nourishing the musicality of each child through elemental activities in music and movement. The Orff teaching process involves singing; body percussion; playing on a variety of both tuned and untuned instruments; movement and dancing; and speech activities”


The children come up with ideas for the movements, first in pairs, then individually. One action is ‘dab’ – this causes some confusion thanks to this dance move currently sweeping across playgrounds globally: one boy sweetly and sensibly does a literal ‘dab’ as intended and when asked why by one of his friends whispers, “that’s just not the ‘dab’ Ms meant for the music lesson!”. Their work will grow over the next few lessons to body percussion sounds, and then instruments. They understand the concepts of of legato and staccato without playing a note.

All music lessons here begin with movement to music (not dance – which has separate connotations attached). Lynne stands back and lets her students move. At first, particularly in the older years, some are silly and a bit self-conscious (especially with me, an intruder, in the room), but by the end of the song they are moving freely; alone, in pairs and small groups.

Year 3/4 Rhythm Notation


With no preamble, Lynne puts a paper coffee cup upside down on the table. Plonk. Her action reminds the children that they have done this before. They laugh. She plonks down another. This time, their eyes track the cup and they clap as its rim hits the table. The next time, they anticipate and clap too soon as Lynne pulls it back.

When four cups are on the table she points to each one using a steady pulse and the children clap along: a 3D 4/4 bar.

She swaps one cup for two smaller, brightly coloured cups. The children’s clapping changes to incorporate these two new quavers. She removes another cup and replaces with a clear water cooler cup: a crotchet rest; its translucency a visual reminder of what it represents. Later on, with a class who pick up the concept quickly, she adds four shot cups: semiquavers.


Some 4/4 rhythms are displayed. In teams, the students use their own set of cups to copy the rhythm and then clap it correctly. Later, the concept is developed to incorporate pitch, as the cups are spread at different points on the floor. They are reading notation without writing a dot.


Percussion club

Tuned percussion are the tools at the heart of the Orff approach: they’re versatile and make a beautiful sound with ease. Lynne’s classroom is filled with pleasingly tactile and sonorous instruments: xylophones, glockenspiels, marimbas, metallophones, vibraphones, chime bars, joia tubes (hadn’t seen them before and they certainly are joyful!), boom whackers and all kinds of other wooden and metallic instruments.

Joyful joia tubes

The percussion club is for children from across the school. Around 15 players aged between seven and 11 sit at their instruments (their mallet technique perfect – one nine year-old corrected mine!) and softly, two girls begin to play ostinatos* on their xylophone and glockenspiel. Lynne doesn’t say anything, and the rest of the group sit quietly, listening. Eventually, some of them begin to join in with their own patterns, and Lynne gestures to those who need prompting to start. The atmosphere in the room changes as the players lose their self-consciousness about when to begin or stop. An intense focus radiates across the room. Individual players modify elements of their patterns. They’re listening, naturally adapting to make their music fit with others’.

*Repeating patterns, as anyone who’s had the pleasure of teaching Key Stage 3 music will tell you in the tone of voice reserved for en masse ‘good mornings’ in school assemblies.



The Justin Bieber Speech

p1080643At a school in north west Melbourne, 24 10 year-olds, wearing their yellow and green uniforms, sit on the carpet of a classroom filled with music technology. It feels like an April day in the UK: renewed warmth from the sun, blossom on the trees and an optimistic breeze.

Today, the class are choosing a song for their next project. Their teacher has apologised to me: this is going to be a boring lesson to watch.  He’s wrong – it’s fascinating.

“OK, I’m going to play you some songs.” he says.

“In our last project, you chose lots of recent songs,  so this time, I’ve got some older things which I hope will broaden your repertoire…”

“Like from the 70s?!” asks one boy

“Yes, and-”

“My mum was born in the FIFTIES…”

Cue classic carpet talk tangent, surely found in primary classrooms globally.

Once discussion of parents’ birth decades is brought to a fairly swift close, the teacher takes the class through samples of around 15 songs. The breadth of rock and pop from the 1960s to 2010 is paraded before their ears: Van Morrison, Journey, Cyndi Lauper, Smash Mouth, Outkast, Coldplay, Beyonce.


As they hear the samples, with the teacher skipping through to find the best or most recognisable bits, there are collective groans or cheers, or sometimes – for example, when the Cup Song comes on – the class is divided.

He advises them:

“You might think you can sing this one, but it’s really hard!”

“This one has a great drum part.”

“The keyboard in this one is really important.”

On comes a song by Pink: the reaction ranges from disinterest to disapproval.

What’s most interesting is the teacher’s response to songs receiving this reaction:

“I’m going give you the Justin Bieber speech.”

“Huh?” exclaim the kids.

“Whenever a JB song comes on and people say they hate JB, I say, ‘but this one’s fun to play’.”

For children and adolescents, at a crucial stage in formation of their identities,  it’s tricky to differentiate between enjoying listening to a song, internalising an artist or band as part of one’s musical identity and enjoying playing a song. Helping young people to understand that it’s possible to enjoy playing and create ownership over music which happens to have been performed originally by Justin Bieber whilst retaining a dislike of JB himself is a pretty crucial skill to learn for meaningful music education.


A democratic process
Once all the songs have been played, an elimination runoff vote takes place. The teacher runs through each song again, gauging interest, whittling down to around eight top choices. He then tells the class they have three votes each for the next round. When it’s down to three songs he asks them to close their eyes (avoiding the influence of peers) to vote again. It’s down to two and eventually a majority is declared: Paradise by Coldplay triumphs (with ‘Pizza Slice’ rolled around as an alternative lyric).

The class participate in the process noisily but impressively: every child is engaged and takes the vote seriously. During the first round of voting, the teacher warns them he’s watching for anyone trying to vote more than three times – but no one does. When Paradise is declared the winner, no one complains.

I don’t know the class, or much about their history or context within or beyond their music lessons. However, their behaviour suggests a group who feel like their opinions and choices are taken seriously and who, in return, take their music lesson seriously.


Organic musical analysis
“So, now you’ve chosen your song, we should listen to it properly!” says the teacher.

They listen to the whole song, but as they do, he pauses it to ask questions:

“What happens to the piano here?”

“What’s the guitar’s role?”

“How is that bass sound created?”

The answers are impressive – particularly in their awareness of the use of music technology, suggesting the embedded nature of their experience in this area: in response to the latter question, one boy suggests,

“Is it to do with the keyboard?”

“Great answer! Yes, it’s a synthesiser doubling the bass guitar melody” scaffolds the teacher.

Equipping children with the language to support musical analysis is one of the bits of teaching music I find hardest; particularly when it comes to helping them to articulate textural or expressive nuance which they may well be able to hear but not describe.

I like that the teacher has taken time to engage the class in deep musical analysis, before they have even played a note, by first establishing them as owners of the song, and helping them to recall and draw upon practically-acquired musical knowledge.






Two programmes with vision

Monday, 3.30pm:
15 boisterous eight-10 year-olds wielding violins, violas and ‘cellos descend on a school hall in north Melbourne. They play rhythm and pitch games, compose a blues song and together practise a simple tune on their instruments. Later that week, they learn to perform a rhythm and improvise effectively using upturned plastic buckets.


Tuesday, 9.00am:
25 Year 5s mooch into their music classroom. They split into groups of five and gather around jam hubs. Headphones on, they take up their instruments: one each on electric guitar and bass, a couple on keyboard, and another on an electric drumkit. To the un-headphoned they appear to receive no aural reward for energetic and rhythmic bashing, strumming, plucking and plonking of their instruments; but in fact, each group is rehearsing a self-selected pop or rock song.


Hello, Melbourne!
I arrived in Melbourne last Sunday and am here until the end of my trip in two weeks’ time. The nights are not as chilly (or at least, I’m sleeping in a better-insulated building aka my good friends Glenda and Richard’s house…) but the days are not as sunny!


I’m focussing on two overarching approaches to primary music education while I’m here:

The Pizzicato Effect programme
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Pizzicato Effect programme, and its associates, is a programme inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema model in which intensive classical music training is viewed as a vehicle for social change. The programme is based in a community in north Melbourne where “many of the of the children…experience significant challenges due to generational poverty, current or first-generation immigrant or refugee status.” (Osborne et al, 2015).


The programme runs every Monday and Wednesday afternoon and is open to all children in the area. All participants learn the violin, viola or ‘cello with sessions including group tuition, ensemble rehearsals and musicianship training. The staff have three aims for the programme:

  • Social development of young people and their communities through musical accomplishments
  • Access to musical instruction, without cost as a barrier to participation
  • Provision of a safe, positive, inspiring, fun and high-aspiring learning environment that promotes engagement with school and community life
    -MSO, 2016

The Musical Futures programme
This programme champions a student-led, peer-taught, technology-focussed approach to school music lessons. It was originally developed and has become popular in the UK in secondary schools. Although it’s now being piloted in the UK at primary level, in some Victoria primaries, it’s already well-established. I’m visiting a few of these schools to see how they work.

Peter, lead music teacher/Musical Futures mastermind at Timbarra P-9 College

For Musical Futures Australia, the approach:

  • Brings students’ passion for music into the classroom, driving their own learning and sharing their experiences and skills with others 
  • Incorporates the learning of technique, notation and other forms of written instruction as part of the process practical music making
  • Creates authentic musical experiences for students as they make music in groups with friends
  • Non-formal teaching and informal learning approaches allow teachers to develop new roles as mentors, coaches and guides. Teachers become another musician in the classroom 
  • Supports schools existing teachers, increasing their skills and confidence and  enabling them to deliver high quality music learning
                                                                            -Musical Futures Australia, 2016

P1080366Superficially, the two approaches contrast (at least in their natural musical genres); however, watching them in action this week, I’ve seen lots of parallels.

Music education in Australia: same but different
While Australia is experiencing similar challenges to its state education system to the UK, the context has many subtle differences, particularly linked to its historic roots. Here they are:

  • No music hubs: where England (and, in slightly different guises, the rest of the UK) has a politically scorched yet functioning localised music hub system, (in theory) providing music education opportunities to all young people and professional development to teachers in each area, not much like this exists in Australia. Ian, from Musical Futures told me that the closest relation would be regional conservatoires in NSW. As a result, organisations like MSO and MF have perhaps greater gaps to fill than the UK in terms of supporting ensemble music-making, instrumental learning and teacher development.
  • Education is run at state level: actually, this is quite similar to how the UK’s ended up thanks to NI, Scotland and Wales deciding that if they’ve got the power to run education in a more sensible way than England, they’ll ruddy well take it! Systems of curriculum, assessment and school organisation practice are different in each state. In Victoria, there are three competing school systems: the state sector, private and separately funded catholic schools.
  • Curriculum is light-touch: unlike England (and, again, to greater or lesser extents, the rest of the UK), schools are not under the same statutory obligation to teach music. The Victoria curriculum has guidelines for the validity of music as one of several arts subjects, but there’s little prescription in terms of the depth or breadth to which the subject should be taught.
  • Pedagogical autonomy and less emphasis on data: Based on conversations I’ve had with teachers this week and at Moorambilla, it sounds as if, unfortunately, Australia is only a few steps behind the UK’s current obsession with teacher and data scrutiny. However, for the moment, they’re living life pretty freely by UK standards – no performance management-hingeing observations, no obsession with MAKING PROGRESS in line with a made-up national average; oh, and, what was that other one? Oh, yes: NO OFSTED. Although schools / workplaces always have politics, the freedom from these was tangible in the atmosphere of the school I visited this week.

    Staff band rehearsing for a school performance at break time
  • Funding: I’m still getting my head around this one, but from what I’ve seen, school leaders have more freedom to decide how they spend their budget. Result: the most ridiculously amazing primary music classroom I’ve ever seen:
  • Class sizes: they’re smaller. Maybe only 5-8 fewer children, but it makes a huge difference to atmosphere and teacher-student one-to-one time.
  • Singing: according to Ian, and Emily, an experienced classroom music teacher who’s currently completing a PhD on learning practices in the Musical Futures programme, singing culture is much less ingrained in schools in Australia than in the UK. I thought it was interesting that this was their perception of UK schools, thinking of my own experience trying to drag a few confident notes out of a hall of 200 children…! However, I understand what they mean: singing is a historic practice in the UK education system that is being revitalised through programmes like Sing Up; its resurgence aided by research proving its inherent value and as an essential tool for all musical learning. In Australian state schools, this culture has simply never existed. One important aspect of MFs’ work is helping to develop both student and teacher confidence in singing.

I’m looking forward to spending more time with both these programmes during the next week to see how musical learning plays out for the young people involved and their teachers.

P.S. I’m also aiming to get permission to post pictures of actual smiling children playing instruments this week!



Last week, Rachel and I had some welcome decompression time: two nights in Sydney and five in Yulara, Northern Territory, AKA Uluru!


(just over) 24 hours in Sydney
…were rainy, but great. We did a few things:

  • Enjoyed our bargainous but (to us) luxurious hotel
  • Went swimming in the glorious indoor heated pool
  • Watched the Olympic closing ceremony
  • Ate delicious, delicious French Toast brunch
  • Walked to Circular Quay (the one with the opera house)
  • Got the ferry across the quay to Milson’s Point (so exciting! So bargainous!)
  • Went to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden – if you’re ever in Sydney, you must go! It’s got sculptures (I do love a sculpture!) and amazing plants and peaceful picnic spots and unique views of the Harbour Bridge.
  • Drank a very calorific but very necessary hot chocolate
  • Met up with my friends, Alicia and Leigh, and drank cocktails with a (rotating!) view
  • Met up with another excellent friend-called-Alicia by Sydney Opera House
  • Were glad of our coats and scarves

Life on Mars
Having been immersed in all this landscape identity stuff, it was exciting to go to the beating heart (or Red Centre as Australians call it) of the continent and the people – both indigenous and non-indigenous. Unfortunately, Rachel and I immediately developed the Moorambilla cold, but we pushed on through anyway and saw (YET MORE) amazing things…

Uluru, and its rocky friend about 20 minutes down the road, Kata Tjuta, are those sites that you get used to seeing on postcards or TV. In real life, the phrase ‘jaw drop’ is in no way hyperbole. I’ve never seen terrain like it: it’s red (yet, upon closer inspection, filled with colour), it’s dry (yet, upon closer inspection, filled with life), and it’s flat (yet, upon closer inspection- actually, no, apart from the massive rock, it’s pretty flat).

Uluru and Kata Tjuta are are vast, by any standard of natural phenomenon; but when plonked in the midst of such flat planes, it’s very easy to imagine how, to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people who own the land and have lived on it for at least 40,000 years, these places must have felt very significant, bestowed on them by something bigger than them. In fact, looking at them, that’s how I feel.


However, the Anangu people have a different perspective on the idea of spiritual or religious significance to the ideas of a god or gods found in other parts of the world: Uluru and Kata Tjuta are important because they tell the Anangu’s story (often literally – there are cave paintings all over Uluru).

Piggy? Is that you?

The ideas of ‘law’, ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘dreaming’ are synonymous, in one word: Tjukurrpa. For the Anangu, laws don’t have to be written down (in fact, in the cultural information centre near Uluru, I read a quote about how, to Aboriginals, the changeability of Western codified laws is bewildering). Separate Tjukurrpa, for men and women, have been passed down through the generations. Much of this knowledge is sacred: only particular members of the Anangu, of particular ages, are allowed to know about it. People outside the group don’t know much of this information, but lots of it is tied into particular parts of the rocks. There were several sections with signs asking visitors to not take photos because of the sacredness of the particular place.

Based on what I saw in NT, I felt the following was true about the Anangu people:

  • They are highly knowledgeable and skilled in making their desert liveable
  • They have deep respect for their land and place
  • They have deep reverence for the wisdom and experience of older people (I got quite excited by one cave on Uluru which was literally the old people’s cave where they were looked after by younger Anangu!)
  • Their culture is filled with integrity and humility, focused on peace and working for the greater good rather than the individual

That’s why I find some things about this area’s recent cultural existence pretty perplexing:

  1. Until 1985, it was ‘owned’ by the Australian government (named Ayers Rock in 1873 by the person who ‘discovered’ it, after the chief secretary of South Australia)
  2. In 1985, it was ‘handed back’ to the Anangu on condition that they ‘leased’ it to the Northern Territory government for 99 years
  3. Even though there are signs everywhere politely asking visitors not to climb the rock, because of its spiritual significance (and also because of safety concerns), if you really, really want to, after seeing the stunningly beautiful walks you can do around the rock instead, after seeing how important it is to the owners of this magnificent thing to not climb the rock, YOU CAN STILL CLIMB THE ROCK. And I was pretty shocked at how many people were going ahead and doing just that. Isn’t it like when people are asked to cover up when entering cathedrals? You just do it, right?*

*Disclaimer: if there’s anyone with a better/more in-depth understanding of these issues, please fill me in – the above is based on what I saw and read at Uluru!

Walking, walking, walking
We did a lot of it.

  • We walked around Uluru: 10.6km! Just far enough to start wondering if we’d missed the end and started going round again.
  • We walked through Kata Tjuta: this was painful – we got up oh so early to watch the sunrise; then, as we were already on our way there, went straight to do the pretty hardcore (by Anna standards) hike, very much upwards, through rocks and other uneven terrain – all with no cup of tea! It was even more Mars-like than Uluru, albet with amazingly green sections
  • We walked up and around King’s Canyon. It’s a three hour drive from where we were staying in Uluru and you have to be back before sunset (around 6.30) as car rental firms won’t insure you after dark on account of the high probability of roadkill = car write-off = human kill/injury…, so we didn’t have time to do the biggest walk, but the medium-sized walk was QUITE enough. Many, many more exclamations of IT LOOKS LIKE MARS.

A Note on Ayers Rock Resort
If you ever get the opportunity, DEFINITELY GO to see this bit of the world. But be warned: it’s a totally captive market! The whole resort is owned by one company (albeit an Aboriginal one – I really hope all the profits go back to the local community), and they basically charge what they like! We stayed in the hostel, which was fine, but not really hostel-y price. Don’t get fleeced out of any more money than strictly necessary to see the stuff that far surpasses tourist tack!

Starry night
The night before we left Uluru, Rachel (pro photographer extraordinaire) showed me how to take photos of the stars and the Milky Way and it was the best thing ever! This song popped into my head and wouldn’t leave.



On to Melbourne!

Ears like mine heard sounds like these

On Sunday, after five days with great teenagers at the MAXed out camp, we said a fond farewell to Baradine and Moorambilla. It’s been pretty exhausting for Rachel and me as observers (with the odd round of washing up/chair stacking/chatting to the kids/joining in with rehearsals/generally trying to make ourselves useful!), so I have no idea how the staff who had seen through all three camps were still functioning. Especially as lots of them were taking MAXed Out straight on to Sydney for a five-day tour!

Everyone involved in Moorambilla is driven by dedication to and love for the young people involved. They want them to succeed at the highest possible level and are totally committed to the power of performing arts to help them achieve success in any path they choose.

Here’s some interesting stuff that happened during MAXed Out:

Embodying landscape identity

At MAXed Out, composer Andrew had written some haunting music inspired by Moorambilla artistic team’s trip to Mount Grenfell – a very important site to the Aboriginal Ngiyampaa people. At the site is rock artwork created over thousands of years. Perhaps the most inspiring thing about it, as Michelle told MAXed Out, is not the age of the art itself, which includes hand prints, but the fact that these have been seen and felt by so many in all the millennia since their original creation. One of Andrew’s most evocative and beautiful lyrics reads, “place your hand upon the wall/touch my hand from long ago…” and, “ears like mine heard sounds like these”. This idea of human oneness wherever our time and place is at the core of what Moorambilla is trying to capture.

The longer I spent at the camps, the more clearly I saw the depth of the significance attached to internalising the landscape as a foundation of identity. Combined arts are the vehicle through which this is expressed and part of Moorambilla’s mission is instilling in members a responsibility to pass on this embodiment of the landscape. As Phil, an Aboriginal member of Baradine’s community said to MAXed Out, “[the landscape is] given as a gift so we can share”. Michelle passionately continued, “you know that landscape: it’s in you, so you sing it. You bring the landscape into the song”.

As well as movement being used as a musical learning tool, dance, movement and combined art forms are central to the performances for all three camps.

Moorambilla’s very talented and endlessly patient choreographer, Jacob, spent hours meticulously choreographing movement for each group which reflected both the music and the landscape – in one part they would create a desert-like tableau of rocks; in another, as one, they formed undulating landscape.


Alongside choral and dance rehearsals, the boys’ and girls’ camps took part in lantern-making with very talented artists, Jyllie, Sara and Jess from Lismore Lantern Parade. The lanterns are sculptures of creatures from Australian landscape and, at the showcase in September, will bring Moorambilla’s audience into the terrain on which the performers tell their story.

However, MAXed Out did something else…



In addition to the singing and movement led by Michelle and Jacob, MAXed Out, in the words of one of the Moorambilla mums, ‘stepped it up a notch’ in terms of their use of combined arts. At the core of the 25-minute performance outcome of the camp was the use of Taiko – a Japanese percussion-based music which embodies Moorambilla’s approach to multi-arts performance. With the help of professional Taiko-players, Tom and Ryugi, all performers learned and (with clever and speedy transitions) performed three elements of the performance:

  • A Taiko drum performance
  • The use of sticks to provide an additional rhythmic pattern
  • A percussive dance involving fans and stamps

The first session of drumming was, for me, a masterclass in teaching rhythm patterns based on right (don) and left (con)-hand drum beater strikes. The teaching of all elements was totally physical in approach: for example, rests marked by jumps and almost primal shouts. As usual, the staff had only the highest of expectations for the performers and the performers stepped up and gave it their all.

Although Taiko is borrowed from another culture, its huge scale in volume, pulse and control seemed to fit in perfectly with Moorambilla’s visceral, muscular and emotional relationship with the landscape and its desire to fling it out passionately to the rest of the world.

“There’s something about it that makes you want to stay there”


Another quote from someone at Moorambilla talking about NSW landscape (sorry, can’t remember who it was!).

Rachel and I were feeling a bit sad that, having heard (verbally and musically) about these special, unique places, we weren’t going to see any of it as we had no car.

Enter Song Company! This ridiculously amazing group of singers (they performed the most brilliant version of Waltzing Matilda ever for the kids) were artists-in-residence for MAXed Out. They kindly invited us out (or possibly we invited ourselves…) on their trip to the Dandry Gorge for the afternoon.


The Dandry Gorge is peace. The only sounds are birds. The silence and stillness combined with the vastness of the landscape force you to stop and breath. After a week of nothing but meeting new people and talking and singing and generally not stopping, it was exactly the right thing for us to do.

In addition to Song Company being talented and nice people, member Richard and ex-member, Clive, who was at Moorambilla to perform his beautiful land-and-people poetry as part of the performance, also knew a lot about birds and botany! We had a totally joyful afternoon walking a sculpture trail around the gorge, with Richard and Clive telling us about the wildflowers and the birds we could see and hear.

Main takeaway points:

  1. Wattles: there are a lot of them in Australia, and they’re all different.
  2. Cockatoos/birds in general: there are a lot of them in Australia and they all have different and interesting calls
  3. There’s a plant called a grass tree whose flowering is triggered by bush fire. I said to Rachel, “LIKE A PHOENIX!”, and she said, “except phoenix aren’t real…”.

    Here is a grass tree aka real life phoenix!

Michelle said to MAXed Out, “Do you know about Warrumbungles and the Dandry Gorge? You’ve danced it, you’ve sung it: it’s in your DNA”.

Even as ‘outsiders’, spending two weeks on the edges of the unique landscape of rural NSW, it’s impossible not to let it get into your bones and want to respond to it creatively. It’s totally clear how, for people who have lived here all their lives, this compulsion is much stronger.

Thank you for your welcome, your kindness and your inspiration, Moorambilla! Please come to the UK soon!

P.S. A Rant:
Both Moorambilla and Taikoz are in the same boat as lots of small and brilliant arts organisations in the UK: i.e. struggling for funding. It’s a total tragedy that two organisations which are so skilled, focused and effective in their passion for empowering and building confidence in young people, and so unique in the areas in which they work, should have to struggle to survive! While I was there, Moorambilla won an Art Music Award for Excellence, yet with little government funding, their future is not secure. I wish some politicians in both hemispheres would notice all the research that proves how life-changing these kinds of organisations are for the people with whom they work and support, and positively culture-shaping they are for society-at-large.


Mini M&Ms on a Monday Morning: building a choir – Part 2

We now return to the rehearsal from the last blog post…



“These circles and dots have different meanings,” Michelle tells her now captive audience. After explaining the time signatures in the score (“top means number of beats, bottom means kind of beat – it’s as simple as that!”), and recalling her own confusion at these dots when she was the choir’s age, she draws a circle on the board – a semibreve – and asks the choir put their arms out in front of them. She draws a line in the air, striking invisible full stops four times:

‘.Semibreves .are .so .long’

Minims get the same treatment:

‘.Min .im’

Crotchets are fitted into the four semibreve beats and quavers clapped into the crotchets.

Over a steady beat, the choir are drilled in musical maths: Michelle calls out note values and the choir repeat them in time. She writes rhythms on the board and the choir clap them back.

“Now turn to your scores.”

The choir look through their scores to find examples of the rhythm, linking the isolated note values to the music they have already begun to learn aurally. Contextualising the principles at the same time is important in helping the singers to link the dots to the music to their voices.

The music, composed for each choir, has beautiful and complex rhythms, intervals and harmonies. It’s not as simple as the subdivisions of four that the choir has just been learning, but it gives them some vital, independence-building grounding. At one stage in a high school rehearsal, the piano part, in 4/4, has a quintuplet ostinato.

“How do you remember a quintuplet rhythm?”

A few five-syllable ideas are thrown around.

“Bloody difficult-bloody difficult-bloody difficult-bloody difficult”

Everyone laughs, and will, forevermore, remember how to read a quintuplet.


Perhaps I’ll start using scores in rehearsals…
Before seeing Michelle and Moorambilla at work, my thoughts on letting my school choir learn their music through anything other than painstaking, line-by-line call-and-response were as follows: ‘It would take too much time, it would distract from the primary task of Getting the Performance Ready’.

But here, I’ve seen how learning to sight-sing, and linking melody to music happens best when it’s organic and incorporated into a tangible task.

Two Important Things:

  • It’s not essential that, in one rehearsal, every trainee singer can read every note – it can be fitted into a few minutes as part of the main task
  • It’s still essential to scaffold, support, and highlight through modelling the intended melodic and rhythmic shape and sound.

Listening and Blending

One thing I’m not sure I’ll master without some mentoring is the thing that takes the choir from being a pretty good one to a great one: singing as one voice.

In any choir, once the melodies and rhythms have been internalised, the individuals who happen to be learning these simultaneously need to find a way to become one instrument. How to get a group of 8-11 year-olds to sing as one is where I get stumped.

There are tricks for blending that I’ve seen both at Moorambilla and in choirs I’ve sung with: primarily, simply telling your choir, over and over again, to listen to each other, and look at each other! You can also guide a choir to the precise vowel or consonant sound you want. That takes a choir in the right direction.


However, Michelle does something more. On the last day of each camp, the choir stand in lines. They repeatedly sing a short phrase of the music. As they do, Michelle isolates them in small groups. She listens to how their voices sound and moves individuals around. She’s matching the timbres of different voices. Some voices compliment each other, fit together and elevate each other; some don’t. Some weaker voices need help from a stronger one. As the voices match, the tuning of the melody solidifies and the tone becomes sweeter and stronger. The sound morphs from lots of people singing together nicely to one ethereal atmosphere.


Time for morning tea!