As well as observing lots of interesting Australian musical and non-musical culture at Moorambilla, WCMT (and possibly Moorambilla) will be pleased to know I’ve also learnt some really useful music education tips and tricks!
Make Everything Practical and Musical is the first rule you are taught in any form of music teacher training (unless it’s bad music teacher training), but practicing that skilfully is an art form in itself. I’ve seen that art form in action here this week.
Warming up and focusing
I’m trying out a bit of ethnographic thick description to explain what I’ve learnt.
9am: the sun outside is warm and bright, but the members of Moorambilla choir pile into the chilly hall, dressed in hoodies and jeans. The walls are covered in beautiful photos by Moorambilla photographer, Noni, of the landscape around Baradine. The choir dump their bags, take out their music and sit on three rows of plastic chairs – youngest (‘smurfs’) at the front, oldest at the back. They’re chatting but expectant: (mostly) ready for action. There’s an aisle down the middle so that Michelle and whoever else is supporting can quickly access different groups and individual singers. At the front, accompanist Ben sits at a Clavinova, alongside a whiteboard.
“Stand up! Yep, you as well. Hello? Look at what everyone else is doing: you need to get up, too! Eyes this way, everyone; feet shoulder width apart.”
“My mummy makes me mash my mini M&Ms on a Monday morning. Starting on a D, please, Ben!”
A warm-up tongue twister repeated on each ascending semitone begins, to awaken the voice, muscles, music and brain. The choir open their mouths to sing as Michelle counts them in.
She eyeballs the choir.
“You are fabulous. You are glamorous. You are clever.”
She stands up straight, pulls a Minnie Mouse stance: her arms very straight by her sides, hands out, and adopts a diva-like facial expression, mouth and eyes wide. The choir copy and the energy in the room begins to focus.
They sing, working their way up the major scale, singing ‘oh no’, with a dramatic hand-to-forehead on each chromatic step upwards. To keep the sound interesting, Ben plays around with the chord progressions. They’re stopped every couple of steps, encouraged to lessen their nasal Australian accent vowels by trying the tongue twister with exaggerated nasality. Everyone stops to laugh.
Voices are warmed, inhibitions lowered, but the sound is still many individuals rather than one voice. Time for some Solfa: a technique developed by Hungarian composer Kodaly to teach Western note pitches. A hand sign is assigned to each note in the octave. The singers are shown and asked to copy the hand signs whilst singing the scale. To help them focus, Michelle changes how high the scale goes.
Initially, she warns them (“we’re going to number 4, watch my hand!”) before ceasing to speak or sing altogether as the choir sing, following only their conductor’s hand. By the end of the warm-up, almost all have tuned in visually, aurally and, finally, orally; almost all can sing the precise pitch directed by the hand. With the high school choir, she introduces major and minor thirds and sixths. With minimal discussion, the choir have learnt two pillars of choral singing: the role of the conductor and the importance of united voice.
“Look at your score. Turn to page one! Now, show me your hands!”
Hands are shown, with some uncertain giggles, sideways, palm to face.
A similar hand is drawn on the board. A line extends from each finger.
“Repeat: E is for Excellent!”
A semibreve circle is drawn on the bottom line.
“G is for groovy”
Cue a silly 1960s pastiche dance move. And another semibreve, on the second line up.
“B is the [Transylvanian vampire voice] blood line because it runs through the middle!”
Everyone draws a pretend line down the middle of their inner arms
“Fabulous, Darling!” (accompanied by throwing back of heads)
Circles are drawn on the top and second line down.
“Each of these expressions requires a FACE!”
More circles are drawn; one in between each line.
I’ve taught the stave before. I’ve taught FACE and ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Football’. I’ve done lessons where everyone makes up their own mnemonic to help them remember the names of the treble clef stave lines. But I’d forgotten about linking the music to a physical memory, not in the next lesson, but there and then.
“Back to our hand signs.”
Michelle draws Middle C: “It’s not the middle C on the piano, it’s the middle line of the stave! The clefs were invented for choirs like you! Look at the inside of the treble clef: inside each boy treble is a man bass!”
This time, alongside the hand signs, Michelle points to each note on the stave.
The choir sings.