Monday, 13 August 2012

Thiruvananthapuram-Kottayam Update

Hello from rainy Kottayam!

…and the past ten days’ happenings have involved four 9-hour days of teaching at the music school in Trivandrum; a lovely trip to the seaside; a rather speedy motor-bike ride with Abraham; our discovery of Dosa – an amazingly delicious Indian breakfast; and a few full days of rehearsals, lessons, and exam-writing at ACCM.

At CDMS our schedule was typically non-stop, spontaneous, and pretty unorganised (it’s the way Indians seem to do things…)! We found that we were still seeing new students, and find that it’s quite tricky to keep track of progress with so many of them (especially Grade 1 and 2 keyboardists!)… Apparently, due to the fact that the students and their families all have varying schedules themselves, it is possible for any student to turn up for a lesson, or practice, on any day of the week (the register from the middle of week had nearly 150 names on it on one day!) However, we have tried to give each student that is preparing for an exam an equal, fair amount of time to run through/work on their pieces, and also work through some scales and technical work. With this limited amount of time, and awareness that the majority of students are weakest in sight-reading, viva voce and aural elements, we are going to be holding some group workshops on how to approach these areas specifically – watch this space! For those students who we have seen before, we were pleased to see improvements in their fingerings (which they totally ignored before), rhythms, and general sense of timing.

Issues that still crop up include piano students practising on keyboards, lack of expression (including the avoidance of ornaments, dynamics, and pedalling by a couple of higher grade students!), and the fact that they struggle with reading the music – most students have to return to the beginning of the piece (or the beginning of the phrase/section if we’re lucky…) when they’re asked to start from a specific point.

It’s also quite difficult to teach keyboard lessons with another 10 keyboards playing away in the background, which also can’t be good for practising…there’s not a lot we can do about this as the school is quite restricted in the amount of rooms there are, but we’ve at least tried to move lessons into the ‘piano room’ (thankfully there’s only 2 clavinovas in this one…)

Main keyboard practice room at CDMS.

We’ve held pop singing workshops both weekends, continuing to work on vocal exercises, sol-fa recognition, and Beauty and the Beast. The students’ attendance is very inconsistent – new students turn up every time, and the class size of the first workshop was triple the size of the second! It is always encouraging to see a bigger group, but this makes things difficult at the same time as we can never revise an old song without re-teaching it. However, we incorporated fragments from Beauty and the Beast into our warm-up exercises to make them fun for the returning students, and to introduce the song to the new students. We then tried to sing the song through as a whole, with the addition of part-sing and counter-melody.

Back at ACCM, we’ve managed to introduce the Romantic and Modern periods in our history lessons. After realising that students were struggling to prepare for their presentations and with us failing to keep their attention in lessons, we have decided to change the structure of our lessons to make them more interactive. Instead of giving the historical context, we now start our lessons by playing musical excerpts as an introduction to the stylistic features of the period. It is evident that the students have either got a limited vocabulary, or that they cannot relate music to emotion and mood. (One student thought Handel’s ‘Glory to God’ from Messiah sounded ‘sad’ to him…) We’ve tried to help them by giving them a list of descriptive words to choose from, which has started to improve their stylistic answers. Due to the diversity among the students, we have set them an essay to see how well each of them can describe music in words.

Preparation for the recordings seems to be going well. We were thankful to hear that the date has been pushed back to the third week of August, meaning that we have both more time to work with the students on their repertoire, and to practise ourselves. We are starting to see progress in the group pieces – Behold the Lamb is beginning to come together in tune and in time, and the students are also enjoying working together on Hillsong’s Hosanna, which will also be performed in the recording. We’ve written out our own arrangement of this for the students, which involves a chorale-like opening, and piano and guitar accompaniments.

Students are individually showing improvement as well. For example, in singing lessons, Beni is sounding so much more confident. When we first heard her sing, she sang with very different tone qualities in her upper and lower registers, which she struggled to connect. Following various exercises, she has learned to lighten her lower register and to support her higher notes, which has given her a more consistent tone throughout her vocal range. Despite improvements like these, it appears that all of the students aren’t spending enough time on practising everything. This is partly to do with their poor time management, but also the short opening hours of the college (where their only practice facilities are) and our intensive lesson timetable. On this note, it is apparent that the students are getting frustrated about the workload, as well as the lack of resources that the college has to offer, and the fact that there is so few of them to collaborate by means of peer learning and ensemble playing. We can sympathise with this, and also personally find it difficult to do so much in so little time (- we’ve realised that we would ideally need a whole year to cover everything at the right pace!) However, we feel that we should try to cover as much as the students can take in, as we want to ensure that they will have a good enough amount of musical knowledge in preparation ready for their next semester.

Whilst on this subject, we thought we’d briefly summarise the 5 weeks of teaching that we’ve carried out here so far: We’ve managed to stick to our schedule, covering a pretty impressive amount of content - especially in the history module (15 century’s worth of Western music)! In aural training, we’re continuously practising rhythmic, sol-fa and note dictation. Although some students find this easier than others, all of them are improving at their own pace. For theory, we’ve covered most of the basics, including rhythm and metre, keys and scales (both major and minor), and intervals. And in composition, we’ve covered the basics of song-writing, including rhythm, melody, lyrics, and harmony. On the practical side of teaching, we’re still giving each of the students an hour’s piano lesson a week, but three out of four of them are first study guitarists or singers, and all of them are of low standard on the piano. Lessons have focused on technical exercises and sight-reading, and pieces that we have provided for them (e.g. J. S. Bach’s Minuet in G) or those that they would like to play (e.g. Beethoven’s Fur Elise) – you can guess which ones they learn quicker…

As their only academic teachers this term, we are also responsible for setting exam requirements and papers, which we’ve began to work on this week. We’ve made assessment plans for all of their ‘modules’, which consist of:
  • A 1-hour written paper for theory
  • A 2-hour exam for history, combining listening and written elements
  • A 1-hour listening exam for aural
  • Composition coursework, where the students will need to write an accompanying essay for the songs that they compose
  • Practical exams for both their first and second study instruments

As their school term doesn’t actually finish till mid-September, the written exams will be conducted then, so we also have to create marking schemes and listening tapes for Abraham to use too. We didn’t quite expect to have these levels of responsibilities initially (teaching a BMus course did sound a bit scary though!), but are thankful that Abraham has given us the trust and freedom to teach and assess in our own ways.  We’re also enjoying the challenge and feel that we’re learning more about how to teach every day!

Anyway, having worked two full intensive weeks, we felt the need for a bit of replenishment in the form of a beach trip to Kovalam, which was just beautiful…

Next week’s updates to follow!


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