Learning to listen

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Music is an effective tool for teachers to align disciplines and help students make connections in their learning

Music is a language we all share. It touches every part of our lives. But all too often, it can be treated as an afterthought. I have taught music in schools in Australia, Mexico and, most recently, Vietnam.

Each of them has had different understandings of, and requirements regarding, interdisciplinary instruction. One school was happy for music to stand alone, completely separate from the instruction of the main classroom.

Another encouraged some links between music and classroom in the form of a themed song or dance. Both these approaches are valid but neither are examples of interdisciplinary instruction.

My current school allows time for class teachers and specialists to meet and plan collaboratively – a route I believe truly allows music to flourish. If, for example, a class is focusing on an inquiry that does not naturally lend itself to exploration through music, a music teacher can still teach a common concept, or focus on a Learner Profile attribute that the class teacher is also focusing on.

In this way, students can make connections between subjects and across year levels. In our school, the Grade 3 central idea – “the environment influences how we express our culture” – leads to exploration of indigenous cultures including Australian Aboriginal and Native American.

I chose to explore the heritage and customs of the Australian Aboriginal people and the influence of the environment on their art and legends. These lines of inquiry are negotiated collaboratively and are broad enough to be explored in any subject, but my teacher questions are music-specific: what instruments were traditionally used by Australian Aboriginal people?

Why do you think they used these instruments and made music? The key concept that is explicitly taught throughout the unit is connection, which I introduce at the beginning of the unit and constantly refer to in terms of how music and the environment are connected in Aboriginal culture.

First, the students and I discuss what they already know about Aboriginal culture and music. We watch short YouTube clips demonstrating the making of a didgeridoo and identifying other Aboriginal instruments.

We hypothesise as to why the Aboriginals made their instruments out of wood, rather than buying them. We start to explore the teacher questions and the concept of connection. In conjunction with these discussions, we learn some short Aboriginal songs and make up dances inspired by movements observed on the YouTube videos.

We read stories and discuss their connection to the environment and their music. Once the students have explored a repertoire of Aboriginal-inspired movements, groups make up their own stories to tell through dance. We set these dances to traditional music and video them to watch and reflect on. I have taught this unit for three years and each time it has taken a different path. Sometimes there is more focus on movement; sometimes we branch out into other indigenous cultures.

Most recently, we incorporated the recorder and xylophones. Whatever the path, it usually culminates in a corroboree, an Aboriginal ceremony. We decide on an order in which to perform our songs, dances and stories, think about costumes and then hold our ceremony.

This is usually just for us, although it could easily be adapted for performance. This unit is very meaningful to the students. It is easy for them to make connections between what they are learning in their classroom and other subjects.

I get chills when the art teacher tells me about her class bursting into an Aboriginal song as they work on their dot paintings, and my classes are richer as students bring stories, knowledge and instruments from their class and home to share in music.

It is our privilege to help our students make these connections.

By Elizabeth Mason, PYP Music Teacher, International School Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Adapted with permission from Musicworks 2012, the Journal of the Australian National Council of Orff Schulwerk