29 Jul 2014

Tapping rhythm, teaching song. Part One

"To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable." Aaron Copland

It was often on our walks to school that I tapped out a rhythm with my white cane, partly to amuse my eight year old son (who was not amused), and partly to relieve my own boredom in travelling along the same uneventful streets every day.

Down quiet lane-ways, the cane tapped out my version of the Spanish bulerías, counting eight and twelve together in a bouncing pattern that echoed off our brisk footsteps.

Michael was used to his mother bursting into song and on one particular morning, as I moved swiftly to avoid a bin, a step, a pole and then a car – the words blended beautifully with the tapping rhythm of the cane and a new song was born!

bin – step – pole – car: bin – step – pole – car…

I repeated the new mantra and asked my son to continue the chant while I made up a melody.

He flicked a sideways glance at me and with the promise of a bribe of some sort, he indulged my new songwriting fantasy. Lyrics came easily.

“There are too many things in the way, too many things to avoid: all I want to do, is get, safely, to school: bin, step, pole, car, bin, step, pole car…”

Michael ran ahead to move some of the emptied rubbish bins strewn across our path.

“Hey, thanks, Michael. What a good Samaritan!” It suddenly occurred to me that my son might not know the meaning of a good Samaritan, so I asked him.

In his usual, lateral-thinking style, my son took a guess

“ A garbage collector?”

The reason why I was so keen to write original songs was because I had volunteered to ‘teach’ music at Michael’s school as there was no music program in place. As I could not offer to help with reading, I could at least enhance literacy through music.

Each week, as I taught the various grades songs from around the world, it was a new challenge to keep them engaged and participating as some students, particularly the boys in the senior grades, were too shy, or too cool, to join in the group activities. I brought in a variety of unusual percussion instruments from our recording studio.

Keeping them quiet long enough to listen to my instruction was impossible. They were thrilled to have a legitimate reason for banging loudly on drums and djembes, shaking the living daylights out of wooden maracas, and deafening us with cymbals and bells until the supervising teacher shouted them back into order. I prayed for the bell to ring before the next student uprising, smiling at the teacher, wondering why anyone would work with such rowdy children!

On some occasions I did manage to teach them songs they could perform for the whole school at general Assembly. Even though classes were often noisy and unruly, it felt deeply satisfying to be contributing to the school community, to teachers and students alike, bringing music into their weekly routine.

There was only one sadness in my heart. I wished I could greet the children by name. In a classroom of ever-changing faces, auditory recognition was impossible.

The Song Room

An opportunity came my way when a musician friend told me to apply to The Song Room as they were looking for a ‘teaching artist’ to run a music program at a city primary school. Really? I could get paid for doing what I loved?

I made an appointment, spoke with the Director and got the job!

The Song Room were eager to find an experienced  person who could begin  a music program straight away for the underprivileged school awaiting such an enthusiastic person. Being able to say I was currently teaching children at my son’s primary school played an important part in gaining their favour. On that day, an invisible badge was pinned to my chest, or to my glad heart, and I wore the new title of ‘teaching artist’ with pride.

On my first day at Debney Meadows Primary school, I counted thirteen steps up to the front door. Tap, tap, tap – around the front office to locate the stairs. Tap, tap, tap – down twelve steps and on through a long corridor, scattering little children to left and right. I noted it took sixteen paces to the music room. I felt for a door handle and congratulated myself on opening the right door.

Making my way to the wall of windows, I opened the blinds to let the sun stream in to my new work space. Next, I folded up my cane, hiding it under the desk and away from curious little hands who would be arriving soon.

I took a few deep breaths as I danced around the floor, familiarising myself with any low desks at perfect shin-bruising height.

How can you see me?

Excited voices trickled down the corridor, a teacher hushed giggles just outside the door, threatening disciplinary action in the hope of containing the students exuberance.

Any minute now and it would be like the running of the bulls in Pamplona!

To my surprise, some children entered quietly in pairs, while the renegades made a mad dash to clang on the percussion instruments like monkeys scrambling up a banana tree!

I ask them to climb down off the instrument shelves and sit in a group on the floor. Their teacher greeted me warmly and her smile conveyed ‘yes, I know, they’re full of energy’.

We resume control of the group and I explain my new role as part of their exciting new music program. The children at this school were either new arrivals to Australia or came from refugee homes with little English knowledge, so part of my job description was to design and teach literacy through a fun repertoire of songs and musical games.

Twenty five small bodies sat huddled in a semi circle on the floor around me.

All I could see were little blobs with dark smiling faces, their white shining teeth beaming back at me. As far as they knew, I was just another teacher, until I brought out my magic gadgets: the white cane and talking watch had them mesmerised. Oh, good. Bonus – for me. I had them spellbound.

It was a time of curious questions and puzzlement on their part. They had never met a ‘blind’ person before, a blind person with clear blue eyes who seemed to be looking straight into their amazed faces. Questions toppled over one another in their haste to make contact with the blind teacher.

“Can you see me…over here, can you see me?” came a chorus of calls. I was overwhelmed. “Can you see me, can you see me? How can you see me?”

As I tried to respond individually to acknowledge their presence, those I could see in the front row sat smugly as if I had given them a prize: to be seen by the new blind teacher suddenly turned into an award-giving ceremony.

One dear child, trying to work out how best to help me see her, held a white piece of paper and tucked it under her chin. She quietly asked in a rare moment of silence, “Can you see me now?”

Indeed I could. I marveled at her ingenuity. The contrast of the page to her dark Somalian skin stood out a mile. She beamed with gleaming white teeth when she knew I really had noticed her.

The more I spoke about needing to be up close to things to see them, the more the group edged forward closer to my chair until they were almost sitting on top of my feet!

The younger students were completely fascinated by my talking watch. Total silence could be achieved in three seconds flat when I asked for quiet in return for the speaking voice to announce the time – whereupon one child even quizzed who lived inside my watch?

I was thrilled to know I could control an unruly grade during the chaos: an entire class would stop dead in their playful tracks, squeezing closer to my side to listen to the voice announcing the time. One by one, the teachers asked where they too could invest in such a wonderful silencing device!

Songs of Acceptance

Each week on my arrival to the school, children called out from every corner of the playground and
indoor corridors, “Maribel? Hello, Maribel. Maribel’s here!”

I even had to put my finger to my lips when tapping quietly past the lower grade classrooms so the children wouldn’t call out and disturb the lesson in progress.

The kind students and thoughtful teachers welcomed me so warmly into their school community, their acceptance stirred my heart with fervent purpose. I spent many a happy hour combing through CD’s to inspire my thoughts and plans for new repertoires.

It became a regular game to usher the younger students down from the instrument shelves as they flung their agile bodies like jungle monkeys swinging from wooden drums to be the first to make a clanging sound in the music room.

I loved it!

While sitting quietly on the train going home, exhausted but content, new music games and song lyrics couldn’t be silenced. The moment I arrived home, I had to scribble down the ideas to work on once I had recovered from my output of so much hyperactive energy.

Music flowed richly in my life at this time. My partner, Harry added his generous skills as a composer and musicianship and was amazing. He recorded sound tracks for my students, wrote original music and lyrics with me to make the learning of English fun (we still improvise on anything that amuses us, like losing a sock in the wash, called The one-sock opera!).

Teaching ignited such a creative spark within my sense of play, I composed a puppet musical, was invited to lead a music workshop, ran a two-day program at a youth camp and formed a fun and up-beat quartet called the Lollipops!

Here are three original tracks we composed for children…listen and enjoy!

All Different (Maribel vocalist playing her Celtic harp)

Jelly Cheesecake (Maribel & Harry vocalists. Harry on ukulele. Our take on Waltzing Matilda)

One Planet (Maribel vocalist. Harry composer. A funky rap with a ‘green’ theme)

How does music make a difference in your life, please share your comments…

The Song Room

© 2014 Maribel Steel 


Harry Williamson said...

Happy that your music is now available!

Harry Williamson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Amy Bovaird said...

I absolutely LOVED this post, Maribel! Especially the part about tap can pole...! That is me too! I often make up nonsense words and put them in a song. As a teacher who has struggled with discipline, I am in awe of how you used your creativity with your talking watch to get the kids' attention! What a lovely scene with their curiosity! You really ARE an inspiration to so many, leading the way with your laughter and indelible enthusiasm!

maribel steel said...

Hey Amy - welcome back to the comment box! Thanks for your cheery support, glad you resonated with this story - it really was a weekly dose of exhausting fun! My hat goes off to all teachers who look after our little ones every day...Maribel

Michael Roc Thomas said...

Dear Maribel, you seem inspirational which is always marvellous however inspiration & guidance raises its glorious head. I shall be sharing your insights with our daughter Steele. Wishing you the very best for Christmas & the New Year. Michael Roc Thomas & Steele. x