Composing self-belief
Posted 05/22/2018 08:17AM

Damian Barbeler working through activity at ISB

By Nick Yates, ISB Communications

International School of Beijing (ISB) musicians got inspiration over the past couple of weeks from an award-winning visiting composer who aimed to "introduce students to their own abilities, open their minds to their potential".

Australian Damian Barbeler's works have been performed and broadcast around the world, and he is known for his compositions inspired by nature. In the latest example of experts from outside ISB enhancing experiential learning at the school, Mr. Barbeler (pictured above, center) worked with grade 6-12 students in a variety of settings on composition and technique over 10 days. As well as challenging them with many fun, practical exercises, he wrote a piece of music that was premiered by students at the High School Concert on Tuesday, May 15.

Experiential learning is a format based on learning through essential questions and experiences. It is integrated into the ISB curriculum to allow students to develop deep understandings, innovate and positively transform ways of thinking. Mr. Barbeler, who lectures at the Sydney Conservatorium and has toured secondary schools around the world, ran a program at ISB aimed at building students' confidence and self-belief.

"Students, especially those who are nervous about expressing themselves, tend to think composing is hard because the process has become very intellectualized," he said. "But actually, making your own music can be very spontaneous and a very natural thing to do. When you're teaching kids to play music, there's so much to learn in terms of skills, it's nice to stop now and again and remind yourselves why you're learning the instrument, which is for creative expression."

Exercises included asking students to compose music based on a natural scene. "Impossible Echoes", the piece performed at the High School Concert, was written by Mr. Barbeler while he sat on Sydney Harbour. He described it as "a poetic imagining of sound bouncing around the harbor".

Damian Barbeler working through activity at ISB

The Aussie composer's exercises weren't limited to natural inspiration. For example, Middle Schoolers wrote a piece of music based on a Peppa Pig adventure and High Schoolers came up with a theme tune for an imagined tongue-in-cheek spy caper.

"In a lot of subjects, educators now are thinking more about process- and experiential-style learning. There's a place for technique and skill and theory, but there's a feeling that active learning must be part of the mix," Mr. Barbeler said.

"What we're trying to do is introduce students to their own abilities, open their minds to their potential. A lot of kids would not have known they were capable of writing something like this; they have innate abilities that are untapped. You're trying to give them a sense of what's possible creatively as a human being.

"There's a lot of inspiration outside of the school walls. All my teaching has some connection to professional, grown-up art making. A grown-up artist doesn't just work at the computer, they go out into the world to experience things as inspiration. Hopefully, the students get a feeling that they can do that."

High School/Middle School Performing Arts Teacher Nathan Long organized Mr. Barbeler's visit. He said, "I wanted the students I teach to gain a different perspective on how to be creative composers through the use of sounds and textures and not rely solely on notation. I wanted them to do something outside their comfort zone because I think that is where valuable learning experiences can take place."

From Impossible Echoes to Peppa Pig, ISB musicians have no shortage of inspiration thanks to top visiting talent like Damian Barbeler.

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