Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast Episode #14.
In this episode of the Crescendo Music Education Podcast, I'm going to speak to Ian Ross Williams, a recently retired fellow music educator. We have such an interesting conversation, so many little detours, we're talking about composition. We're talking about his work with indigenous Australians. It's fascinating. So this is the first part of this conversation. And I'm sure you're going to enjoy listening to Ian Ross Williams.
Hello, and welcome to Ian Ross Williams. Hello, Ian!
It's so good to see you. We live in the same state in Queensland. And I'm going to start by reading the beginning of your longer bio that can be found on your website, and we will put the link in the show notes. I really liked the first little paragraph so I'm gonna read the first paragraph and then you can flesh out the rest of your career as we chat. Ian Ross Williams was born in Sydney, wasn't that long ago but yeah, okay long ago..
Long ago was long ago. Don't be silly
And raised in a happy churchy musical environment. hours were spent taking part in sing alongs family or social gatherings as well as alone, often accompanied by Pedal Pianola, boy soprano with a golden voice. Ian was was blindsided in year six, by a girlfriend who asked him to please not sing. Up until that point, he had been unaware that he often sang in the playground. Now slightly more self aware, Ian's teen years often did include performing in public, but generally, at more appropriate times. It's honestly such a good opening to a bio. And there's lots more details so people can read that.
But I do remember even as a little kid it hit me up. I must sing all the time. And of course I did. I love singing.
And just half the time you weren't even aware of it?
Not quite unaware of it. Or at least thought it was? I don't know. You thought it was appropriate in some strange way. Perhaps?
You did, obviously just such a part of your makeup. And then you went on to drop out of high school, become a teacher I did an autistic school and have been very well, you didn't fit in? Well, yeah. And you had this interest. Lucky us really, as music educators we are now benefiting from this, really. You had an interest in indigenous culture and you've lived in Northern Territory and Northern Regional North Queensland, Sunshine Coast and been around the place as an educator and a performer. And there's lots of details there. Do you want to share anything specifically now about your career?
Well yeah, I started out. So I was very interested in autism, having worked at that school, and the principal basically got me into an early childhood teacher training program in Sydney. And my full intention, and his was for me to come back there and try and teach her. But my interest in Indigenous Australian culture had increased during my teacher training, and a job appeared, almost miraculously, just when I was ready to graduate, looking for teacher to submit to we islands northwest of Darwin.
And it was just an opportunity to two wonderful myths, I decided that I wanted to teach in Aboriginal communities. But I wanted to teach somewhere where the culture was, you know, in a direct line of sort of assess culture where the ceremonies were still alive, I suppose you could say. And I decided that really, perhaps one of the island communities was to go, and then this is Java period. So the I worked up there for three years. And during that time, there was very little, it was a bilingual program in a two way language. And there was very little song material for the little kids. I was working on early childhood, and we began writing songs when we began translating songs into TV. And the long and short of that was the final years there in 1981. I compiled an album and recorded an album of songs in the TV language and compile the book, which was a huge piece of work, because I had all the lyrics all the chords, translation glossary, illustrations, And we we produce that and sold it as a fundraiser for the school. And I think every single household on the island had a copy within a couple of days. And it was the first time in the community that they recreationally read in their own language and the strength of as a literacy kind of thing. A song songs with lyrics strike home, and it was kind of jumped through what some of the questions that you've given me, but I think if I had to name a single highlight of my career, probably that album, indeed, it's probably like a gamble. You know, you when you win on the pokies, early up, you want to keep joining it. And basically, that's why I want music.
What it became one of your addiction. Did it?
Surely. Yeah. But I've always been interested in songs. So but anyway.
So working with the in the community up there, were you working with the kids, the parents, the elders, other educators.
Yeah, like all of that, but the curriculum was such that all of the teaching was done in two language. So I would work with the teacher, the aboriginal teachers, and we work together and I deliver what we do. I was applied based on my base program.
Thank goodness. So with, especially a language like such an old language like that, that wouldn't have its roots in written language, would it?
Oh, absolutely. There's always that there's always that tension. Yeah.
So you'd have to be working through that as well with them. I guess. A lot of that already been done.
There was a literacy production center where there was materials produced, but we produced, you know, various stuff of our own, just on cards and charts and stuff. But yeah, they're not unfortunately, of course, not high quality books to read, and so forth. They had that the more homegrown look about them.
Well, which is partly those times, and I'm sure because absolutely, also didn't have an endless bucket of money, I would imagine both of those things. And there's the Tiwi language, I'm assuming it's a separate language group. Is it similar to some of the mainland languages? Or is it quite developed?
I've forgotten how it is part of a larger group of languages. Yes. That's a short answer. Yeah, look, I'm not qualified to go in. And I haven't thought about that for a long time. So I've forgotten what language is related to. Yeah, it's definitely an Aboriginal language does relate in some ways, some of the mainland languages but not even as a dialect dialect are definitely different. And then of course, once I left left there, I moved to Darwin and it was already thinking about trying to make a living as a professional musician and performer performing around schools my songs with my sweet song because I didn't have enough material and that's when I begin writing in earnest in English and also in the Kriol, which is a language that grew out of the agent contact languages. So Kriol as a first language, it becomes a first language. And so I began writing in that because it was such an even though it's controversial amongst linguists because they prefer to be working on traditional languages. It's a very usable and entertaining language, you know, (singing), you know, things like that but I wasn't able to make words. I was working in schools doing singing more with more with ESL actually. And then I came across did grad dip in Aboriginal education that Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander education at James Cook. And then I went up into Aurukun and various places and spent time at the Arabar bar for a long time at Yerba. And then I came down here, and then by that stage, you know, quite a few years down the track 10 years, let's say it more than 10 years, I had the material and then I began performing tended to be back up in North Queensland and animal and places like that. Because of that my songwriting changed at a certain point but my songwriting for kids was very much concerned with Northern Australia lifestyles, I guess, and it was grounded in not so much fantasy is quite kind of gritty and adventurous. You know, stuff like beats.
Yes, I remember one of the first ones I heard of yours 'Down the Creek'. We're gonna go down the creek.
Yeah, they grounded and there's not many, I can remember hearing the wiggles and wincing at their sort of attempts at sort of trying to be inclusive with Aboriginal stuff. And one of their earlier their first outlet was and I thought, and I realized that I do really know what I'm talking about in terms of the lifestyle, not the culture. But yeah, so that was a strength that I was. And that was my interest at the time, too. Yeah. And then my training off of Shawver thing that happened in 2013. That changed my songwriting dramatically. And by that stage, I was in the class. I wasn't a classroom teacher, I was a music teacher. By that stage, I started music teaching about 2000 might have been done in 99, down on the Sunshine Coast, but my songwriting and actually well, I've been writing for two decades already sort of started in the 80s. So beginning of the 80s, then in the 90s, but in the naughties, the 2000s, I'd kind of dipped. My, I've been very productive. I've, you know, written many albums over those two decades, albums worth of material. And then it took a dip. And I had my midlife adult band crosses. So I had a band, which I sort of thought of as my midlife crisis. Was it? Well, yeah, it's sort of song rock, soft rock, perhaps but, and I wrote lovely material for that. And people liked it. And it was fun, but I do think that the world of adult music is like, there are countless millions of really seriously good songwriters. And then there are they truly still a great songwriters. But in a month, children's music, the real quality is a lot thinner on the ground. And, and that is my strength. So I've always returned to that because it's what I do love it. I've loved my teaching career as a music teacher, even though I resisted it for the first of my career stayed in the classroom. I'm really glad I sort of sense and went down that well.
Well, I would imagine as a music teacher, at that would give you great insight into children's music, and the way children, you know, perform and what they like and what they don't like. And I mean, it's got to give them a better perspective as a composer has.
Yeah, and I do have a sense of things at work certainly in the classroom musically. Yeah. And yeah, yeah, there's a fair depth in a lot of experience.
Yes. And I don't know enough of your pieces. But the ones I know, I just love so much. They're so beautiful. Some of my favorites. I mean, "So Many Stars" is just beautiful.
I wrote that. I think it was in 2007. The biggest success I've ever had in terms of sort of being out there in the world was my underneath the mango tree route.
Love it! I love it. And you know, that's what it's about.
It was such simple song. So many of them. I don't actually remember writing but I do remember sitting in my little Beale upright piano and working on that. But certainly at the Beale piano, 2007. So underneath the mango tree was written sorry in 1980s, anyway, but I remember at the piano, I had the piano of various places if I can't place it, but it was actually underneath the mango tree. What are we hiding in the tree was a chimpanzee and it didn't work for me. And it only dawned on me Turner Kenny, the TV and that's where all bets were it kind of to be but I've always been interested in rounds. And so the ABC ran with it. So the ABC symbols used it in, I think it was 1990 and then...
Did ABC approach you?
No, no I think I sent it to them but I think I sent them a few songs and that was the one they went with and then they later on with the partner song that I wrote for tanaka which is (singing) "hide and seek in Hide and Seek come to see me" that one is also just part of it. And they put that as a separate song and then they also used my again this was starting to be a theme now the Aboriginal connection, which is always problematic. Yeah, they publish Sikbala (bobala main baba) which is in Kriol. And I thought oh if that's what they like, write a sequel to, underneath the mango tree, which was so many stars, and so many stars is a nice little join of my other. I think I've joked to you that song if anyone says which song would you wish you'd written? I always say Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. 200 years old and a beautifully philosophical, but so gentle and almost so people sort of, yeah, it's a song that stood the test of time. And it's a very beautiful little thing in its own and why so that was a nice conjunction. That's weird though.
Oh I like that, Twinkle, Twinkle, I love that. And also on YouTube, which is where I came across. Mind you, I think I have all your CDs in my cupboard, but just don't use my CDs anymore. I must RIP them. But I use so many stars from YouTube. And that little little glockenspiel sounds and it's just beautiful. Even the visual.
Yeah, love I love when I think about songs, and not just good songs, any songs, there are songs that are built around the orchestration or the band or whatever it might be. Just incredible conjunction of, you know, the production. But to me, the great songs are ones that can stand alone with minimal accompliment, and can be done very well by most people almost performance, let's say, Yeah, I think you know, when you've got something if it can be done with a minimal, you know, then it's fun to it's fun to arrange songs. No one does but I like the fact that mine's simply got an ostinato which is a kind of a glock sound here.
Yeah, I agree.
Cliche, you know, the rundown of the base baseline. Instruction, but yeah, it works. Yeah.
That was one of my favorites, too.
Oh, good. Well, what I should say, I shouldn't be saying, hey, my favorites are what is the composer? What are your favorites?
I look the ones there are some that surprised me. But it's not surprising. I understand the reality of the school world that we're living in now. But there was a lot more time when teachers wouldn't be able to sing songs if they were so exposed in their own classroom and just happen now there's no time. And even for music teachers, music teachers are now, just not enough of just pure enjoyment of singing and music, even in a music classroom nowadays.
Yes. Even that is becoming minimized. And that's something I think we need to be super aware of. But I think we will come back to that one because I wanted to anyway, so yeah, favorites. Yeah, I know it's like choosing your favorite child.
The songs that work are really like "Whimsy Was a Little Fish", and for a whole lot of reasons. It's certainly one octave, doesn't play B. But it's also again, there's a connection with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star we've got. (Plays piano) So you've got every discrete beat, as either a tar or titi on it. With "Whimsy Was a Little Fish". Every discrete beat has the same note. Sometimes it's titi sometimes it's ta and sometimes it's tika tika, and it's a pattern that's repeated but there's a section that's virtually all tars, titis, and sars and the second one which is exactly the same pattern again melodic line, but that's got tika tika this time. And so there's that aspect to it but it's very usable because if you playing on on melodic percussion, you've only got an octave to work with so you can even use it as a charm buzz. It's just a cute little song. It's it is whimsical. I've always liked "Secret Agent Magpie" and a lot of of kids like that. That's why I revisited it last year to make it a little bit more spiffy for the YouTube. Yeah, they're two of my most favorite ones. "So Many Stars", "Secret Agent Magpie" and "Whimsy Was a Little Fish" yeah, there's others, let me think, I really like "Rainbow Snake" which most people may not know. I'm gonna go up to the islands and record with the woman that I recorded a lot of that album with. She's very hard to find, she's moved and she's on the other side of Northern Island. I'd like to record it just sort of bookend almost my writing and recording career catch up with her and do that failing that but I'd like to do with an Aboriginal person so you can echo it for me it goes like this. (Singing) There's a rainbow fish. (Echo) There's a rainbow bird. (Echo). A rainbow beach (Echo). That's what I've heard (Echo). But big and dangerous (Echo). Is the rainbow snake (Echo). Travels the land (Echo). Sleeps under the lake (Echo), Here I am, it's me (Echo). Standing in the rain (Echo). Suddenly (Echo). Sunshine again (Echo). Everything is glowing (Echo). In the rainbow light (Echo). Up in the sky (Echo), Beautiful sight. (Echo)
Oh, you have to forgive my morning voice, sorry.
Mine is a bit raggedy too, I'm post COVID. So, yeah, that's a nice little echo song and action song for little ones.
I love that I'm going to grab that one.
It is a nice little song. And I have actually got a demo of it. I did record it but I didn't have that second verse. The second verse, only a recent condition. But I wrote that song in Weipa when I was on tour that I did in about 2002 or something. Maybe later, maybe 2004 didn't record the first version of it till the mid 2000s. But since it is a suite, and the echo is where I actually started out. One of my other favorites actually is in the TV language awake, where Jimmy and that was an echo song. And this is this was all as you know, with a view to being a performer. And when the kids don't know your material, and you want them to be taking part musically, that's a good method to have and it goes on. And that rainbows snake song is my best echo song. I think I've written a few. But the way in which anyone was quite popular on better style than I have, I think I've got the fast version up on YouTube. There was a slow version, which I recorded with some of my Aboriginal relations. And it's much more mournful said version, but I haven't put it up the people but saying since passed, so yeah, taking that that one something I'm not sure.
The other one that I love. I'm going to jump in again, because I'm doing it now. Because we're going to sing this one as part of our NAIDOC Week celebrations. I'm doing "Living in Australia".
Yeah that is a favorite. That's a strong little song. Lovely little action song. My new version up on YouTube. Have you seen it?
Oh! well, have we seen it? I'm responsible for most views. Do you know what I've even sent the link home to my family's at school because some of them have asked me. Oh, can you tell us about that Australia song. I mean, okay. So I actually emailed home the link to my lower school kids and the parents have gone this is so good. And the kids are singing. It's like viral at my school.
It's a lovely little song and it is one of my favorites too. And I remember writing that one. I wrote it in Darwin when I was living in Darwin. And I was driving and it just came to me while I was driving home from having sung around the schools all day. I was doing two sometimes three schools in a day. And it just came to me that I'm just finished off at home and yeah, it's a nice little song but that video I went to a lot of trouble to get that you'd be surprised how difficult it is to get people actually yeah, I'll do that. And then when they say well, I'm waiting, you know, doesn't happen even though they're good intentions life being what it is but so I ended up going up to Darwin to get the final one the little guy. He's basically my great great nephew. Cuz his mom is my niece. I think I'm not very good at relations. But anyway, adopted I have to say, he was so cool. It was so funny. If you look at that video, if you watch when he sings, (singing) they were all here before the white man knew the action is they were all here before the white man. He goes, they were all here before the white man knew. And he's pointing at me as the white man. He's a cute little guy.
Oh, no. But the other thing, the other good thing about that song, apart from the fact I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't like, a great song, because I'm a music teacher. But we've had some really good and appropriate discussions about the land and the coming of the white man and indigenous people. Because to me, that song gives us a window into appropriate discussion with younger children. You know, like, I don't feel super comfortable, apart from the fact that I don't have time to launch into great big stolen generation discussions with these tiny little kids. But I'm not saying that nobody should do that. I'm just saying, for me in the music classroom, this is a perfect window, we talk about the animals that have been here for that length of time, we talk about the animals that were introduced on the boats with the great with the great big sail, you know, they came over when the white men came over, and the kids are going white men you and, it's just, it's appropriate, and a window into that discussion.
And this is what I like doing with children's songs. I mean, can't do with every song and I don't want to be sort of over overly serious all the time, but like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star again, you know that philosophy, you know, you're wondering about the universe. And in this case, I put those issues on the table in just a purely pragmatic kind of, we're all here this is how it happened. What are we going to do about it? How do we feel about it, but it's just there so it's there if you want to take it up on there if you don't, so yeah, I'm quite proud of that song. It's a it's a good solid song. I think it'll out last week. And that one, specific to Australia I did write a New Zealand version I was did a teaching exchange in New Zealand for you I've got a New Zealand one. (singing) Safe here in New Zealand. There's no snakes upon the ground, Mauer disappeared but the kiwi is still around key as you can see you got to be just like a bear to watch a weather with a spiky foot. A wet big cricket. I have got a cat a bow spider. But anyway so yeah, I used to sing that with the kids in New Zealand and then realize an excuse to be able to sing the Australian one.
Wow. Well, like people who are listening to this who don't know your music. We will put links in the show notes to everything that you would like us to say on my website and your website. And then people can go have a little search through for all of those things because I think you personally, through your music have done a lot for you know, helping us to do some thing around indigenous perspectives.
Look it's very tricky, we're kind of jumped to that question I have no great advice for anyone I'm in a very unique not very new but an unusual position in that I've got that background feeling very comfortable with the tearing people I maintain those contacts I have relations that I continue to visit to you know, keep in contact with and I have a very special and an easy unique position with the two week people because I've promoted singing in language in in the community in the school and I I love the feedback that I get from them and some of my two songs really mostly the views are the to weed people viewing particularly my song "Yeah, Montana', which is my very dear friend song. That's Tiwi people watching that. So you know Tiwi people watching this white guy singing songs in their languages is a unique position to be in. So when you are not in that position, which isn't everyone, it's tricky if you haven't got connect connection with an elder or the Aboriginal community in your area. So you really have to, you're obliged to at least make some contact through your principal find get some advice, contact someone at least make an approach and ask some advice for whatever it is you want to do. But failing that in a lot of people are again and really obviously, understandably worried about not pronouncing things correctly or what have you. Okay, well, then you get to the thematic stuff like Living in Australia, or who knows this land the best of mine and other songs that you can that are just topical. And do it that way and acknowledge it. And even if you can, if you want to do some language, do some counting just 123 just do something and do some composing to just counting. Plenty of Aboriginal languages don't use much beyond three, they have ways of doing it, but they don't. So they've got specific numbers, or three or whatever it might be. But that's one thing. It's something you can compose with the kids if, if you're Aboriginal communities comfortable with it, or if you are but filing that topical songs. Yeah.
Yeah, I met now one of the questions I like to ask people that I chat to is to tell us about people that have been influential in your life personal or professional.
Sure. The person that springs to mind and is mentioned in my bad biography and on my website is Alex Hood. A folky big, tall folky guy, and I saw him perform when I was the first time I've seen him perform a number of times. When I was still a teacher's college, and he was the guy he wrote the song as huge back in the day with the singer books. Here Comes Brumby Jack.
Oh my goodness, (singing)
Yep, so he also wrote a great little concert song, which I used to use in my concerts called the laughing song.
(Singing) I can't even do it with this throat. And funny laughs, he did it beautifully. he was very pro positive about Aboriginal culture, did a bit of ditch planning played cow bones and did sort of topical Australia and stuff. And it is very, it's very well ran very professional touring shows one man show that he did. And I was inspired by him. I have actually met him a few times. And I helped him out when he was doing a tour up in Northern Territory. And I gave him a translation of that laughing song. And a couple of my Kriol songs, because he'd had an unfortunate issue at the wood Folk Fest in one year with some young Aboriginal guys not liking play the didgeridoo and he's very upset, very shaken by us. And it was just unfortunate all the way around. So he went up there with some of my songs, which was nice. So as sort of repaying the favor, which has been inspiring but then when it comes to just so I did write this down. So apart from Alex hood, I did my music teacher training that did that 300 hour 10 week course with Ann Kaminsky. I got well and truly Kodaly and I could see just such wonderful approaches and exciting that just opened up possibilities of music for me. I still didn't end up in the in as a music teacher until I think it was 1999 when I began at glasshouse mountains, Ann was a big influence and big inspiration. And then of course for me even when I was a Teacher's College, the offshore work stuff spoke to me because of the emphasis on playing and I love the melodic cation aspect to the composition side to it that was very very exciting to me and largely Bethany Ellsworth, I don't know if you know Beth, but wonderful educator. And she's been a big inspiration and through choirs a Queensland or Sjoberg there was a guy that came across from San Francisco, Doug Goodkin and he was responsible for a whole thing that I did my music making with rhymes so Doug's a very incredible Orff-Schulwerk practitioner, amazing, wonderful teacher, just as a teacher, the person that he is and the way he teaches children, and he, they told me all sorts of things like the noise level, you know, with xylophones in the room or chime bots, play with the finger. Play with your finger was a fantastic thing, turning xylophone bars upside down if they're not using the piece, or removing them, obviously, but keeping them there is better when you're performing or it's just means you don't lose them for a start. So just put them upside down I used to put put an X underneath to surface was obviously not gonna play that well. So Doug Goodkin can save a lot of call and response stuff. Beautiful approach is you know, give them a task and wish the kids good luck. And he's just written a book I just ordered it, you can order it through the offshore work association of South Australia is called Teach Like It's Music.
Oh, great title.
I think this is something to aspire to. Yeah, it's a work of art. And I've forgotten what the subtitle of the book is now, whether I can get it written down somewhere. He's just retired after teaching 45 years at the one school at San Francisco alternative school, where they have music twice a week in class for 45 minutes a session. These wonderful jazz players and the kids are steeped in music. 45 minutes twice a week with half a class I think too. I don't think they are full classes. They are really serious about it.
Amazing. The kids just must benefit so much from that.
And someone like Doug there and the team that he's got, but he's just retired, incredible.
That would be have been amazing to go see.
So yeah, Doug was a big influence. So his use of rhymes and call and response blew me away. So in composing, I wrote a whole collection of rhymes, to be used for kids to, to write music to that's cool music making with rhymes, scaffold and composing and primary school here. People can get that through my website, if they're interested, but lovely little structures to work with the kids, you know, if it's open ended, it can be way too huge. And it also go down all sorts of complicated rabbit holes but the scaffolding of the rhymes is a great way to work and call and response too.
That was Doug and there's plenty of good people out there like yourself that just I love the energy that people devote to it. And we're lucky, you know, we're so lucky to be in a job that we're passionate about, that we believe in, and we can clearly see the benefit of and the children can see the benefit of and the families consider them both. If you're delivering something that is musical, it's the best job in the world when it's working well.
Yes, I agree.
It's not easy but it's the best job when it's working well.
But even when it's working well, it's still a big job. It's still got its, you know, it's exhausting.
I think any teaching is, you can't be pretending, you've got to be there with the kids in the moment. And if you're not well, they're gonna call you out. And if you're not genuinely meeting them, you know, interacting with them and sharing with them.
Yes, and forming real relationships. They know if you pretending. I quite like that you can leave your problems behind. Let's just do this joy of music. I love it. Thank you for joining me for this podcast. Don't forget, you'll find the show notes and transcript and all sorts of information on crescendo.com.au. If you've enjoyed the podcast or found it valuable, you might like to rate it on your podcast player and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it if you did. All I couldn't be as the best version of me. All you can do is be the best you until next time, bye.