Saturday, 15 August 2009

Aishalton Music Course 2009

Adorable Agnes is 9, sloe-eyed and sweet. Loving Leonarda is 62, valiant in her disclaimers. The rest of our band of twenty-five participants is fairly evenly spread across the intervening ages: Cute Coleen in her teens preening in between the scenes, Beautiful Benita bonny in her twenties, Keen Kateri concentrating through to the end of her thirties, Rosey Rona singing through the narrowest possible lip-gap so as not to let her forties slip through, and Anxious Anthony modestly failing to notice how well he’s doing in his fifties.

It’s an impossible task, running a music course here. Almost no-one has studied any music before, and musical notation isn’t present in any form in people’s daily lives (school music classes, sheet music kicking around in public places, internet, songbooks available at churches or clubs...). One of our group plays the guitar, and two have ever had a go on the descant recorder, which they call a flute and blow without ambition or technique. We have one very bad blackboard, chalk, a large empty hall with a thatch that drops even more than the twiglet house, some benches, two guitars and a recorder.
Bevis drawing the award-winning perfect treble clef
The first attempt at music dictation- more than half the class were note-perfect
So, freed from the constraints of resources and facilities, under no pressure to achieve anything of note, we’re having a ball instead!

Two broom handles and some string made Steve the Giant Stave. We learnt the names of the notes on it, sung ourselves on it, raced on to the correct notes in ‘spaces’ and ‘lines’ teams, and leapt from note to note like goats. The benches that are missing a leg are flipped on to their sides to make seats, so the good benches become the right height for tables. People rule up their own staves in cheap notebooks- particularly eclectic when they give staves 4 or 6 lines. Our pub quiz (no, no beer, but teams, proper question rounds, swapping papers to mark, and PRIZES! – a packet of biscuits for the winners, lollies for the runners-up) question sheets took me a full morning to write up in hexiplicate, but were worth every minute, as they gave the quiz the proper gravitas.
Winning team in the 'time signatures on the floor with chalk' speed contest
Pencils are perfect for conducting, and my laptop is just about loud enough to play extracts for them to find the downbeat, work out the time signature and then conduct along. We make treble clefs with string, tell stories with giant cardboard semibreves and crotchets as clues, and do as many entertaining breathing and whooping exercises as people can manage. We also dance three-step and four-step with breathless hilarity.

Working on rhythm by singing with actions

Retention has been good, and the quality of attention astounding.

Agnes and Joan taking down the notation for today's new song

Sister Lucy and Clara, our dancing stars!

Adults are giving up time on their farms to be here, children stacking up home responsibilities for the weekends. I’m trying to imagine some of my sister’s London pupils coming early to music class to sweep the dead cockroaches, storm dust and general detritus out of a large hall, without being asked. Failing. We have learnt all the basics of musical notation and are now starting to apply some of it. We’re grappling with the idea that there are choices to be made in singing- even dynamics have come as a shock, so phrasing is positively Copernican.

The most intriguing thing to me has been trying to imagine a world where songs are organic mysteries. Why should you expect a song to be fathomable, and to sound the same every time, if you’re thinking of it as a tree or a small fruit bat? I am trying to appreciate “To God be the Glory” with anything from 4 to 9 beats in the bar, but it definitely feels unsatisfactory; refractory, like a bad-tempered camel. Because people on the course have expressed some frustration with the rhythmic incontinence of Aishalton’s musical style, I am trying to teach them about songs as buildings: deliberately constructed, balanced and often even symmetrical constructs, containing rooms with different functions. I hope I haven’t killed anything in the process. Of course, some songs can carry off a certain time-signature fluidity- and others can’t get any worse. We have some amazing Caribbean choruses that certainly make it easier to imagine WHY people think of songs as trees or small fruit bats.

Closing celebration (Father Britt centre)- clapping 5 concurrent rhythmic patterns

We finished the course today with a concert party for friends and family. Everything was home-made: the programme, giant notes frieze, music education posters, doughnuts and cake and cool-down (Rupununi name for flavoured drinks). The participants conducted, danced, clapped, sang, acted and laughed their hearts out. The audience, of an even wider age range than the participants (5-90, to be precise), joined in with the clapping and dancing. It was a wonderful afternoon. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. They are clearly proud of themselves and each other too. I don’t know whether anything will come of the course, or whether participants will consolidate what they have learnt. But ‘development work’ could get terribly humourless and ethicatious if I’m not careful. Sometimes we all need a bit of extravagance, a bit of beauty and a bit of nonsense. Music is a great place for the childish and the childlike to meet, and replace inhibitions with exhibitionists. It’s a friendship centrifuge.


  1. I love Agnes! Happy you got to teach her!

  2. Sounds like you did a great job! And I'm glad you enjoyed doing it to.


  3. I have been wondering (concerned too) as to how the music course was progressing. Obviously I need not have been fret-ing (oops sorry). Sounds remarksble! You say concentration was good in general, this only happens if you have an interesting and interested teacher. Ah yes, that'll be Miss Broscombe. Well done, love Win x

  4. They have no idea how lucky they are to have you running this course! Sounds amazing and very joyful! Just catching up on the latest posts. B x

  5. I'd like to print your pic of Agnes and leave it on the wall of my (ex-)classroom for the next incumbent when I go in for the final time on Thursday (results day). This is attentiveness that we aspire to inspire!
    Ange xxx

  6. Such a great description of the most wonderful course! They are lucky to have you xx

  7. Wonderful description - I felt like I had been there - wish I had, too! It sounds like you got as much out of it as your wonderful students. Love it!