Finding yourself (and the bathrooms) in a new environment

Everyone navigates a new space, adults and children alike. The navigation includes getting to know the physical environment, and negotiating your place within the social setting, working out who you are going to be in this group.

Workshop in Iwaki Auditorium (Gillian Howell)

I remember a group of children coming to ArtPlay for a workshop, in one of the first ever City Beats workshops. We called a five minute break in the middle of the workshop, and some of the children went off to the toilet. Then some more went. And some more. The adults among us were bemused. What’s with all the toilet-visiting? After the break it continued. The Director of ArtPlay got it though – “They’re just checking out the toilets. They are in a new place. Everyone likes to check out the toilets when they are in a new place.”

It’s true! Adults do it too – when a group of friends goes to a new restaurant or bar, it’s not unusual for people to head to the bathrooms in pairs, and part of the interest is in the experience of checking out the space (friends and I used to note which bars or restaurants we visited that had particularly nice bathrooms!). It’s part of getting familiar with the environment, and yourself within it.

We convened the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble last week, spending one day working in the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC Studios, and a second day working at ArtPlay. As they arrived, the children settled into the Green Room. They didn’t know each other yet, and sat quietly. Some read. Some got out their instruments, but if they began to play, it was quietly, unobtrusively.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent the first 90 minutes engaged in warm-up activities. I wanted to get the group talking, interacting, relaxed and alert in their bodies, and with spontaneous and playful reactions, so that their natural creative faculties would come to the fore early in the process.

As we progressed through the warm-up, I watched the children jostle, and joke, take on leadership roles, show initiative, or fall into a required role within the team. With some this happened easily. For others, it was a more puzzling process, as they worked out who they were going to be in this group.

One boy, for example, started the warm-up standing next to another boy with a similar cheeky, ‘joker’ energy as his own. They exaggerated every part of the warm-up together, and when we started a movement task, they continued their exaggerations, egging each other on, and not really engaging in the activity itself. At one point, when the group was split up, working across the whole room, I walked over to them, and suggested, smiling but also firm, that they do this one on their own, not with a friend.

When we broke into small instrument groups for composing, I put them in two different groups, hoping to give them a chance to continue these negotiations of ‘self in society’ on their own. One of the two settled, but the other seemed to continue his navigations and negotiations. He is a very bright, imaginative young player – he stood out a mile in the Open Workshop selection process. He has impressive technical skills on his instrument too. But he needed to work out who he was in this group. Was he a bright bubbly leader, right-hand man to the MSO musician leading the group, happy to cooperate, and filled with ideas? Was he going to be more in the background? Was he going to be the joker, the ‘silly boy’ who fools around a lot and is a bit disruptive (this type of character doesn’t always find the necessary allies in the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble – most of the kids in the program really love to play music and be part of the ensemble)?

No-one could help him figure this out, and I was intrigued by my observations of him. He will find his place, I am sure. He seemed to enjoy himself, and that is the key thing at this point.

 

Research and reciprocity

When I lived in rural Timor-Leste (East Timor), I observed a researcher approaching the local people for interviews. She took care to explain to them that she was a pesquisadora, using the Portuguese word for researcher seeing as no such word exists in the national language of Tetun. She had information sheets to give them (as is required by university Human Research Ethics Committees), written succinctly and translated into the local national language.

It was difficult to tell what meaning the research participants drew from her explanation and the subsequent interviews that took place, which were ethnographic interviews related to their experiences and opinions of particular recent events. They may have wondered what was so interesting about this everyday stuff? Moreover, how would this research be of use to them in their lives, after the researcher had completed her research?

Discussion and planning

On Friday last week I attended a seminar about doing ethnographic research and heard a very interesting presentation on doing fieldwork in a remote community in PNG (Papua New Guinea). Working in Development Studies, the researcher was exploring environmental risk, and talking to people about the way their lives had been impacted by a large mine operating near their village lands.

I asked him about how he had explained his work and purpose. What did they understand he was doing there?

In response, he said that there was quite a long history of researchers coming to these small remote villages, usually connected to the mining companies or development organisations. Therefore, the villagers were “used to” research, and familiar with research processes, so they were unfazed by his presence or by the research interview process.

Later, he mentioned that when he was preparing to leave the village at the end of his 3-week fieldwork visit, people began to ask him when he was coming back. It became quite a heated conversation, he said, that took awhile to resolve. He was a self-funding Masters student, and with his fieldwork completed, there was not necessarily any need for him to come back, so he hadn’t made a plan for this.

But if the villagers had a concept of research formed by their prior experiences, where ‘researchers’ generally came to do an assessment or evaluation of some kind, that would be followed up by some kind of material change, it’s not surprising that they associated research with follow-up visits, and tangible outcomes of some kind. In other words, “research” was conceptualised as ‘questions followed by action and outcome’.  What should the researcher have done when this expectation revealed itself?

These questions are of particular interest to me at the moment, as I am preparing to return to Timor-Leste to undertake fieldwork for my PhD. TImor-Leste is a very poor country, where many people live traditional village lifestyles (or are strongly influenced by these traditions) and access to formal education for many people has been extremely limited. I can see that it’s critically important that I am able to communicate what I am researching, why I am doing it, and how I will do it (through interviews and asking about people’s experiences, opinions, and memories) in ways that make sense to the people who I am inviting to participate. It’s also important that I ensure I give back as well as ask for things, in order to acknowledge and reciprocate the time, knowledge, and energy given to me in interviews. I need to do this in some way that is of relevance and value to the research participants.

This has also been pointed out to me by contacts in Timor-Leste. “We are happy to help you, but we ask all visiting researchers to contribute to our learning environment in some way, with seminars, workshops or trainings”, said one contact in a university. Another, from an arts organisation, was even more direct:

“We have had a few ‘PhD students’ in the past who fly in, ask lots of questions, don’t give anything back (skills, shared experiences etc) and then fly out again… with us (who are very much in need of skills sharing/exposure to international music/arts/whatever) left feeling a little ripped off. Know what I mean?”

I am therefore planning and imagining reciprocal offerings that I can make to the communities where I conduct interviews, and plan to talk about and agree on these early in the negotiations. My research concerns music learning and participation, and my research interviewees are for the most part people with a strong interest in music. I am therefore hoping to share my skills as a music leader with them and their communities by leading workshops or projects, so that the research visit becomes more of a cultural and knowledge exchange, rather than something more one-sided. Reciprocity is a core cultural value in traditional Timorese society, but it also just makes sense as the right way to honour the effort that someone is giving you and giving value in real-world (their world) terms.

Nose rub with village elder

Participatory performance in classical music

How does the post-modern world’s culture of participation and interaction transfer to the world of orchestral music? In recent training workshops I led with one of Australia’s symphony orchestras, we examined the concept of the fourth wall in order to prepare the ground for developing more flexible, interactive, connecting performances.

The ‘fourth wall’ is the invisible wall between artists and audiences, creating a sense of a separate world in which the performance exists. It is created by way the environment is organised – audience seating, the lay-out of the performance space, and presence (or not) of a stage – and the performance style – including the amount of interaction between performers and audience (such as speaking, introducing, eye contact, smiles, etc), the performance dress, and even the behaviour of performers and venue staff. In orchestral concerts, we can see how every aspect of the performance environment and style communicates that the music is the focus.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Such an intensely formal and distancing approach to performance can jar or distract when transferred to community contexts. In community performances, the music is not the only focus. It is the musicians and the music, and the people who are there, and the relationships that form when music is the medium and the reason everyone is there in that space at that time. Of course, the music is the primary attraction for the audience (they probably wouldn’t be there without it), but they are also attracted by the opportunity for proximity, or intimacy, or insights, or the chance to feed an interest and learn new things, or to access something different in their local environment.

Many musicians have told me that interactive performances and workshops feel less important for them as performers than main-stage concert hall performances. The music may be less technically or intellectually demanding. A less formal environment can imply that the qualities of musical performance matter less. Audience interest in the person behind the instrument in some way undermines the importance of the music for the performer. These are important challenges to overcome if the inherent value and quality of what you do is one of the primary ways you derive satisfaction from your work.

Thomas Turino’s distinction between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’ performance approaches is useful to consider at this point. In his book Music as Social Life, Turino suggests performances should be understood as existing on a spectrum between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’. Orchestral concerts – indeed, most concerts – typically fit into a ‘presentational’ approach to performing. ‘Participatory’ approaches are more interactive. The following table sets out some of the primary characteristics:

Presentational Participatory
Clearly-defined artist-audience distinction No distinction – all are participating or are potential participants
Highly skilled group, and assumption that audience does not share similar skills and is not supposed to join in Core group of skilled leaders, but inclusion of wide range of abilities. People participate without judgement
Artist skill and ability determines performance content Inclusion of all abilities can constrain what may take place musically
The music has a set form, which the artists know and work to. Notation and the through-composed nature of the work allows for increased musical complexity. Music is often cyclic or repeated as many times as suits the group. Reliance on memory and direction from within the group rather than notation limits musical complexity.

Turino also argues that the two approaches to performance are so different, they should be considered on their own merits and according to their own values, rather than compared to each other. Therefore, a key step in developing more interactive, or responsive performance formats is one of adjusting mindset and understanding the different values that support these different approaches to performance. Participatory performance is not ‘lesser’ than presentational performance. It is a different approach to performance entirely (even if the musical content remains the same).

There are clear trade-offs that take place when developing a participatory approach to performance. The presentational model allows for lots of predictability, little improvisation, and little risk. The participatory model is more unpredictable, more improvised (although with an overall intention and framework about how the participation will be managed), and riskier.

In other words, by increasing participation and participant-led content, you deepen audience engagement with the music and musicians; however, there will be a corresponding increase in unpredictability (in terms of musical outcomes) that you will want to manage, and an increase in constraints on what can take place musically.

A ‘participatory’ model of musical performance suggests music is more of an activity than an autonomous thing. The way that participatory music practice is enacted implies a belief that musical participation is something that everyone can do (therefore a human behaviour, rather than a special talent), and that participation is an entitlement, or a right. This suggests a belief in the importance of music participation to individual (and collective) thriving and flourishing. Translated into performance contexts, this belief necessitates a level of reflexivity, so that the performance work evolves in response to the participants as they are on that particular day. The emphasis on people and experiences means that process is often as important as the finished ‘product’, even more important sometimes.

Why is it useful to unpack and discuss the values that underpin performance traditions? It’s important for musicians to feel good about the work they do in community settings. If they don’t, they will be less inclined to initiate or take part in these performances, and our communities will be far poorer as a result! Furthermore, many orchestras and classical music organisations are under pressure from funding bodies to engage more directly and meaningfully with communities – that means being responsive to what communities would like from them. Putting on a free concert in your normal venue then shrugging and saying, “well, we’ve done our bit” doesn’t really cut it any more.

Examination of underpinning values helps performers to position the meaning of the work in a larger social context. Armed with this understanding, and of the different elements that make up a perception of a ‘fourth wall’, performers can begin considering and playing with these, making them less rigid or less distinct. In this way, performances become an invitation to connect and share in something in which everyone has a stake.

Growing a musical community – Ten years on

Last weekend I worked with graduates of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble to create music for a special event – ArtPlay’s Tenth Birthday.

ArtPlay is Melbourne’s children’s arts centre. Actually, it is probably Australia’s only dedicated arts centre for children. The ArtPlay philosophy sees children and artists as co-creators – it is a space where children get to work and create alongside professional artists in a rich and diverse program of workshops, performances, installations, and exchanges. It’s my favourite place to work, because the staff are all so dedicated to optimum experiences for everyone who comes into the space. There is such impeccable attention to detail, and so much love, care and appreciation – mutually shared, I should add. I’m very proud to have such a long association with ArtPlay.

The colours of the crowd match the colours of the large-scale 'mosaic' sign at ArtPlay's 10th Birthday party

The colours of the crowd match the colours of the large-scale ‘mosaic’ sign at ArtPlay’s 10th Birthday party

The MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble is made up of children from past MSO ArtPlay Ensembles – we create a new Ensemble every year, and have graduates from the first iteration, in 2005, all the way through to 2013. In this particular Graduate Ensemble project many of the older graduates came back to be part of the project – that was pretty special. Some of them are now in university!

In our opening circle on Saturday, as I welcomed them all, I pointed out that every graduate of the Ensemble is part of a musical community, and that with every year that passes, their musical community grows. It includes people they meet from youth orchestra, from university, and it includes me and the MSO musicians they have worked with over the years. We are all part of the same community of Melbourne-based musicians.

Here in the Graduate Ensemble, everyone has shared an experience of working collaboratively as a group and the strategies you can use to get your creative faculties firing. This was immediately evident as we started the warm-up games. We passed a clap around the circle – straight away, it was whizzing its way round, speedy, focused, and committed. “These are my kids,” I thought proudly!

Next, we walked through the space, each person choosing their own path but committing to straight lines in a particular direction, and to focusing their eyes on their chosen destination. With inexperienced players, this task of walking autonomously doesn’t make a lot of sense. But with a group that understands and follows the instructions, it is magic. A focused group is able to ‘read’ each person’s intentions and make small adjustments accordingly. It looks impressive when it works – people walk their chosen path deliberately, and there are no collisions! Even more importantly, it is a very connecting task, which heightens the sense of ensemble. We upped the speed – still no collisions. Yep, I thought. We are all on familiar territory. What’s more, everyone is here because they want to be, because they like what happens in this territory.

We broke off into small groups. Some of the older graduates took on leadership roles in their group. We didn’t ask them to do this – they just did it. I imagine that this may have been in part because they work in Ensembles in other contexts, where older people lead the younger participants. But it was also about familiarity and confidence with the creative processes we use in the Ensemble, and that I use in projects with older kids, which some of them have taken part in as well. It was a cool thing to observe. Again, flushes of pride!

At ArtPlay on the Sunday, we had a beautiful stage to perform on. As always, figuring out the configuration of groups, instrument sections, power leads and sight-lines took a bit of time (it’s the part of these projects I like the least), but our rehearsal went well, and in the last five minutes (nay, three!) we also devised a rhythmic groove to play outside, in order to draw the audience into the ArtPlay building from the playground and performances outside.

It was a lovely event to be part of, a celebratory event for ArtPlay that was also a chance for the staff, the MSO musicians and myself, and all the parents that we have come to know over the years, to reflect on the creative musical community that we share. It will only grow more.

MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble (courtesy MSO/B.Lobb)

The values of improvisation

“ I don’t improvise,” the musician told me, the lightness of his tone belying the tension I sensed he was feeling. “Most of us here don’t improvise. It’s the opposite of what we do in this job.”

That’s okay, I thought. We don’t need to call it improvising. We’ll just make stuff up.

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

This interaction came on the first day of a 2-day training project I ran for a symphony orchestra recently, aimed at encouraging the musicians towards performances that moved beyond standard concert formats into more interactive, informal, and responsive models, such as those that are appropriate in many community contexts. I describe it as flexible musicianship, and it involves breaking down the intentions behind a performance, and exploring processes like workshopping, teamwork and collaborative decision-making, composing, and yes, the i-word, improvising.

Why does improvising create such tension for a lot of orchestral musicians? As this man said, and as others have pointed out in many training sessions before this one, improvising is pretty much the complete opposite of what a professional orchestral musician is asked to do musically in his or her daily job. Orchestral rehearsal and performance are about honouring the intentions of the composer whose music sits on the music stand in front of you. The group of 50+ musicians all make that commitment. They place their trust in a conductor whose interpretation of the score will determine the nuances of the performance, and their job is to perform their part accurately, honouring the vision of the conductor and the composer, ahead of their own personal preferences or choices.

By contrast, improvising is all about personal preferences and choice. Of course there are stylistic ‘rules’ or parameters that govern the choices that you may make in any particular context, but there is a trust in the moment and in the work you have done to prepare beforehand. Something that comes out slightly differently to what you’d intended is not necessarily a mistake; it can also be a new path, opening up a serendipitous set of possibilities. This is quite a different mindset to playing and performing in an orchestral context.

What the conversation about improvisation reveals is the way that our musical enculturation establishes within us a set of values and beliefs about music-making. These values and beliefs determine what makes sense and feels comfortable to us.

Orchestral music – performance, and the training that prepares musicians for this work – is underpinned by values such as precision, virtuosity, and accuracy (e.g. there are right and wrong ways of playing this music); expertise; and clear communication of hierarchies (leaders need to act with authority so that players can relax and feel they are in good hands – more a benevolent dictatorship than a collaboration). When the intention is one of honouring the music as a thing that exists autonomously, the finished ‘product’ is the focus, rather than the process or experience of getting to that end goal.

When my non-improvising musician talks about ‘not improvising’, he is revealing his musical enculturation in two ways. One is the discomfort of working musically in a more open-ended or less predictable environment. This jars with the expectation of predictability, and his perceived responsibility for accuracy and ‘correct’ realisation of the music. The other is about the way those values are loaded into a word like ‘improvisation’. In a musical world where music is presented to others, rather than a platform for participation, ‘improvising’ refers to a different musical expertise – that which is developed by a musician who has studied in depth the techniques and language of musical styles that are not dependent on notation. It takes years of dedicated, focused, painstaking work to develop that language in order to improvise with fluency. I can see why he wants to say from the outset that he doesn’t “improvise”.

Therefore, I don’t use the word ‘improvise’ in these contexts, at least, not at the start. It invokes too much immediate resistance and fear. In reality, the improvising you do in a workshopping situation or participatory performance environment, is more about creative thinking, responding spontaneously ‘in the moment’, and seeing your musicianship as a kind of arsenal of possibilities that can be applied in any number of situations, rather than only when particular parameters are in place. We can all do this – extremely specialised and detailed training cannot help but establish this kind of skill base – but we may need to learn to dismantle some of the preconditions our musical enculturation has attached to those skills.

Too many bright sparky children

Sometimes it is so hard to choose. This week I needed to make a Final List of offers for the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a composing and improvising ensemble for 28 children and professional musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, working under my direction. We held our annual weekend of try-outs at the start of February.

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

Around 120 children took part in 6 free 1-hour composing workshops. The workshop process is the same each year – it gives children a taste of the strategies we use for collaborative composing in the Ensemble, and shows us who is out there to invite into the Ensemble for 2014. (Read more about the workshop process here).

Workshop group (G. Howell)At the end of each workshop, the two MSO musicians and I discuss each participant, noting how they responded and the sorts of strengths and preferences they showed. We look for “bright, sparky kids” – children who like the idea of making things up on their instrument, who are open, who feel comfortable working in a group made up of adults and other children, and who are happy to try out other people’s ideas as well their own. They need to be comfortable on their instrument, but high-level skills are not a primary criterion.

We score each child with a Yes, No, Maybe/Yes, or Maybe/No. Usually the Ensemble is made up of children on the ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists. Other ‘Maybes’ go on the Reserve list in case someone doesn’t take up their place.

By the end of the weekend I had 41 ‘Yeses’. There are only 28 places in the group… I had to take a deep breath, and steel myself to do a Big Cull. It hurt! While it is great that we are attracting so many children who are such a good match for the program, it’s tough to know that there were children – fabulously imaginative, perceptive, inventive kids, with a deep connection to and love for their instrument – who would be awesome contributors to this Ensemble, that I couldn’t offer a place to this year.

Choosing is always difficult, especially in an education context, where the goal is one of supporting each child’s development, rather than just finding the best players. There are always children that we see who, for whatever reason – maybe shyness, or self-consciousness with the shift away from notation and right/wrong notes into this inventive and open-ended process – don’t shine as brightly on the day as others but who we believe have great potential and would benefit from participating in the Ensemble. Finding the right balance of personalities, potential, and instrumentation is important.

I think the process we use is a good one, and a fair one. There is space for children to come in and just be themselves – every ensemble benefits from a mix of extrovert leaders as well as quieter, rock-steady leaders, and section players. We get a lot of quirky children coming to us – their out-of-the-box thinking is such an asset in creative projects like this, and they often thrive in a social environment with lots of other non-conformist thinkers.

Nevertheless, there is no ‘perfect’ choice. The choices I make will create the Ensemble that we get – a different set of choices will create a different Ensemble. By choosing, I am also laying the ground for a set of experiences and relationships for those children, and for me. The first MSO ArtPlay Ensemble was formed in 2006, and that year, there was no selection process. We just accepted everyone who applied. That group is now finishing school, some are even at university. Quite a few have kept in touch over the years, letting me know what they are up to with their music. They are making choices now that will see them becoming the next generation of orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, music therapists – I’m sure. I’m not suggesting those choices are due to their experience of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble! But I believe that if you experience yourself as musical and creative in your formative playing years, this creates a strong foundation for seeking and trying out new musical ventures as you mature.

Being the one to choose is both a privilege and a responsibility, because choices open as well as close… and set new things in motion. Ah well… I’m looking forward to this year’s journey, despite the challenge of choosing!

Ushering in the Christmas spirit

A Facebook friend recently posted a discussion starter – what’s your favourite Christmas CD? I was horrified by some of the suggestions – there is little I dislike more than faded pop stars and hip young things giving their melismatic and affected performances of classic Christmas carols. What were my friends thinking? My nomination was for Tijuana Christmas (by Tijuana Brass). We had this LP when we were kids and it was our absolute favourite, guaranteed to get us jiving around the lounge room in our pyjamas and getting giddy. It’s still my absolute favourite. A few years back my sister tracked down a copy of the LP and made a CD of it for me. It only lasts for 38 minutes, so it gets a fairly constant rotation on Christmas Day here.

 

Start playing it now! It’s the best. Dig those vibes! (I mean the vibraphone, rather than groovy feeling, man).

I confess I am a Christmas purist. I like it old-style. Tinsel and pine trees, special tree decorations (added to each year with one or two special finds) and nativity sets. Nothing proves this more than the fact that every year, I host a Christmas carol-singing party. I invite everyone I know (and some people I don’t know but that others have told me about) that likes to sing carols in the old-fashioned, ‘Oxford Book of Carols’ way. We gather together, we bring food to share, and we sing through all the carols. Then we hit the streets and go and sing for the neighbours. Sometimes they give us money, and we give this to a charity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Or as one friend put it on Sunday night, “Walk the streets for money – you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right!”). Yep. Indeed.

“You have your own Christmas tradition,” my sister observed this year. It’s quite a long-running tradition now. It first started when I was still a student at the Victorian College of the Arts (waaaay back in the late 80s/early 90s). A group of friends and I decided to form a small group and market ourselves as carol-singers to shops and department stores in the lead-up to Christmas. We got booked to do a few gigs, made some money and had a lot of fun.

A year or two later, living in London as a post-graduate student, another group of friends and I did the same thing. We got a series of gigs in a chain of upmarket pubs (called ‘The Pitcher and Piano’). The deal usually included food as well as cash – always a welcome offer for cash-strapped students in London. The following year we talked about reforming the group and doing it again, but we never quite got organised with the marketing. Suddenly, it was the 20th December… and time had run out! So we got together anyway, and just sang the carols for the fun of it.

I think the carol-singing party tradition started there. Back in Australia, I invited friends around to sing, usually on the last weekend before Christmas, and it always happened that only those that wanted to sing came along. Everyone else stayed away. It meant that I didn’t have to worry about it being a boring or daggy event for people – everyone who was coming along was a bit of a purist like me, it seemed, and a lover of carols sung the old-school, four-part harmony way. No melismatic or faddish soulful renderings to be heard at all.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

The party was usually held wherever I was living at the time. I remember one party in the back yard of a share house in Parkville, where we cooked up a big barbecue and tried to accompany ourselves on my new piano accordion (I couldn’t play it then, and can’t really play it now). Another year, we had it in my top-floor flat in North Melbourne. Somehow I managed to persuade a percussionist friend to bring his vibraphone to accompany the singing. He lugged it up four flights of stairs. He has never come to another carols party. I think I might have used up all of his good will on that night.

More recently, the party has been held in the home of my good friends Simon and Victoria, who are carol-singing regulars. They have a beautiful home with lots of room for people, song-sheets and large platters of food. They have hosted the event for the last few years. I even have a name for the event now – ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’. For some of the regulars, it is one of the only times we see each other each year. Traditions that belong to the carol-singing party have evolved, such as the deliberate mis-singing of Verse 4 of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (“Thus spake the Seraph and forthwith appeared a Shining Thong”). Hehehe. I always giggle.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

Other songs always choke me up. I can’t get through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem without getting a big lump in my throat – awkward when you are the only person on the alto line. It’s the carol I loved best when I was a child. I remember getting a song book from a carols night at Ringwood Lake and being thrilled to be able to learn all the words to this carol off by heart. I practised it until I knew it. It was rarely sung at the carol services we had at church, so I had to sing it on my own at home, to get it out of my system.

These days, Christmas brings more pressure and madness than ever before. We are busier. There are more people to see, more friends and family to connect with. It’s hard to get a sense of Christmas spirit – that feeling that reminds us why we do all these busy things, because in fact these are people we love and care about – when everything feels so rushed.

The Christmas carols party is proving to be a way for many of us to usher in our own sense of Christmas spirit. The songs that get played in the supermarkets and department stores don’t do it for  us. Singing the songs ourselves, in the glorious, beautiful harmonies that we first learned years ago (and in some cases are still getting right), is what will get the eyes shining and the mouths smiling, and the goodwill and good cheer flowing. Traditions are important. They keep us grounded and connected. I’m happy to find that without ever really planning it to be so, I’ve created a Christmas tradition of my own that is important to many people other than myself.

 

 

 

 

Constructing sounds in the Music Construction Site 2013

The last workshop for 2013 was Music Construction Site at ArtPlay. The Music Construction Site starts with lots of free (and noisy) exploration of instruments…

I love this ten minute block. The instruments are arranged around the room, and children and parents can roam freely, trying out all the things they want. I encourage them to try everything that they are curious about, and I bring in some of my favourite things – like crotales, and a spiral cymbal, thumb pianos, dipping gongs, and wah-wah tubes – for them to try.

I watched one little girl sit down at the djembe, her mother observing her but leaving her to make her own discoveries. Her little face lit up with excitement as she tapped it the first couple of times. The djembe is quite heavy, so I helped her fasten the waist strap around her back, to make the drum more stable. She began to hit it more boldly. She and her mother exchanged many glances of delight, but mostly, this was her own magical, thrilling experience. It was like she had discovered a new side to herself, as well as a new possibility in the world. It was gorgeous to witness, and an important reminder of just how significant some of these workshop experiences can be for participants.

After everyone’s curiousity and exploratory spirit has been sated, we gather to discuss the qualities and characteristics of the sounds that the different instruments make and then everyone sets to work drawing their preferred sound. Not a picture of the instrument, mind, but an image of what you think that sound looks like. Interesting! You learn a lot about how people hear, and what they hear, when they start to draw their sounds.

Drawing sounds, Music Construction Site, Nov 13 (Gillian Howell)

These pictures become part of a giant graphic score – a series of images that depict what we are to play. I stick them up on the wall using blu-tack (in a fairly random, arbitrary order) along a big stretch of wall. Then we play through this first version of the score.

Constructing the score, Music Constructions Site, Nov 2013 (Gillian Howell)

Finally, we experiment with structure. We move the individual images around, making decisions about how to begin, how to end, and where to put a few surprises or unexpected moments. The children know about these kinds of musical conventions. They might not know how to name them, but they recognise what we are trying to do and offer all sorts of thoughtful and creative suggestions. The more I move the images around, and follow their instructions and suggestions, the greater ownership they feel over the piece.

At the end of the Construction process, we perform the piece from beginning to end, no stopping. This is a workshop for 5-8 year olds, which is not an age group often associated with sitting quietly, instrument in hand, waiting for the right time to play, for extended periods of time. But in this workshop, with the strong visual cues coming from the giant graphic score, they do. The piece usually lasts around 10-12 minutes – no small achievement for these very young players and their parents!

After we’d performed our piece and said our good-byes, children came up to me to say thank you, to share a particular experience of the workshop with me, and to collect their pictures from the wall. I love these moments of more personal interaction. I asked one child, “Would you like to take your picture home with you?” She considered this, then asked, “Can I take the blu-tack too?” “Of course you can!” I said, and chuckled a little at the excited expression on her face. We forget, as adults, don’t we? Blu-tack can be just as important as all the other discoveries in a workshop like this.

 

 

Teaching music for well-being

I’ve given five presentations over the last couple of months and many of these have discussed my ideas about teaching music for well-being, rather than simply for excellence. A striving for excellence is in fact part of well-being, so rather than being alternative approaches, a focus on well-being is simply a broader, more inclusive understanding of education.

The first presentation I gave, right before I left Melbourne for five weeks in Singapore, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brisbane, was as guest speaker for the Scotch College Music Auxiliary Annual Luncheon. Scotch College is one of Melbourne’s most privileged private boys school, with a superb track record of training young musicians, and with some of the best resources and infrastructure (eg. a state-of-the-art, purpose-built music school) for music in the country. I was asked to speak about my music work with refugee children and in post-conflict countries – environments that are typically very poorly resourced in comparison to the Scotch College facilities!

These are the notes from that talk, with some of the videos I played to illustrate my ideas. I note here the huge influence that music therapy researcher Even Rudd’s ideas on qualities of well-being supported by music participation have had on my thinking. They have allowed me to condense what for me have been quite broad, detailed, and endless ideas of music’s beneficial impact under four neat headings.

Scotch College presentation notes

We are all here because we believe music is important. The reasons why we think music is important might be very varied across this group –because beliefs about what music is and why it matters are usually culturally-constructed, informed by the environments we have grown up in and our life experiences thus far.

I believe music is important because of what it can to contribute to human well-being. I see music as an important part of human flourishing, and that everyone has the right to engage in musical participation and development, and to express themselves freely in music. Music is an essential and universal part of being human. It’s not just for the talented!

My work as a music leader, educator, and facilitator is about drawing people together to make music, and I do this is all sorts of contexts using improvisation, composition and other creative approaches – with symphony orchestras, with arts centres and community centres and music academies that want to engage with communities in creative and participatory ways and build flexible musicianship among their professional musicians.

What I want to talk about today is the experiences I have had in working to bring people together through music who have been through some of the most extreme human experiences. I’m talking about children and young people who have been through experiences of war and conflict, and how music participation can support them to increase their sense of wellbeing in body and in mind.

I believe that music participation contributes to wellbeing in four key ways, and each of these four ways are in great deficit in conflict-affected communities:

Bonding and belonging – music brings people together in order to play, and the act of sharing music together can create experiences of social connection that can be very enduring. Music participation can therefore increase experiences of social connectedness, and create social networks.

Vitality and pleasure – music makes people feel happy and relaxed, in their bodies and their emotions. Playing music allows people to ‘lose themselves’ in a state of flow, where time passes without them really noticing. People forget their worries. Dopamine fires up, oxytocin is released, and the body is flooded with feel-good hormones.

Agency – this is to do with a sense of oneself as valuable, as having the capacity to contribute and develop, having a voice and being able influence others even in small ways. The idea of mastery and excellence is contained within this quality of agency – the sense of achievement and therefore pride that can come through developing new skills and learning to do something difficult that takes time, patience and focus. It also includes a sense of recognition and visibility – important when many of life’s choices have been taken away from you.

Meaning and hope – this quality refers to the sense of identity, empowerment and transcendence that can come through participating in music. The meaning of the music experience has resonance and relevance beyond the musical act itself. Committing oneself to learning new skills, and the investment of time and focus that learning an instrument or being in an ensemble requires is a hopeful act. The act of hoping is a health-promoting process in itself. In “Musicking” (1998) Christopher Small talks about the act of making music as a kind of ritual in which we enact a version of the world as we want it to be.

There are three main places I’m going to talking about – post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I worked in 1998 as a musician in a large community music therapy and education centre; in Melbourne with newly-arrived refugee children; and in rural Timor-Leste.

When I worked in schools and kindergartens in post-war Bosnia, children were extremely traumatised. They had experienced many deprivations and traumatic events, had trouble sleeping, maintaining concentration, with temper, and anxiety.

Music in such a fragile situation is a very secure, friendly, self-regulating activity. People participate if they choose and at the level that is comfortable for them. We learned to recognise all kinds of levels of participation – from heads down, eyes shut, to extremely hyperactive participation. Shared group music-making could bring those extremes together into safer, healthier expressions, through emotional entrainment, and energetic or rhythmic entrainment. Music helped children to feel a little safer, more relaxed, and less on alert.

(This video shows Professor Nigel Osborne and some of his team of musicians at work in Mostar in 1996)

When I returned to Australia, I began working as an artist-in-residence with English Language Schools in Melbourne, which have quite high intakes of refugees and humanitarian entrants. These are schools for new arrivals, and support them to learn English and prepare for classroom learning in mainstream schools.

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

Many of the children arriving in Australia from refugee backgrounds had had little or no access to schooling. They had finely honed survival skills but had very little experience in manage themselves in a classroom or group learning situation. Their experiences had taught them to be very self-focused, to be alert to opportunities, and to push others out of the way if necessary, in order to not miss out. Skills like taking turns, or making lines, or not fighting to solve problems, need to be learned, as do looking at the teacher, focusing attention for longer periods of time, and listening.

Music can help with all of these skills, as well as with establishing and reinforcing language and important vocabulary. The opportunity to play music created lots of excitement and happiness. No matter how little English a child knew, they could participate meaningfully in music, because it is not language-dependent. They can participate by looking and listening, and copying what they see others do. Children who struggled in academic subjects like developing literacy would often shine in music, often because they had been exposed to lots of music in their communities.

Playing music was the motivation for learning to work as a team. In music the children discovered the intense joy and satisfaction of making sounds in a simultaneous way. I would construct the composition work slowly over many weeks, using strategies that got children creating all their musical ideas and then weaving these into a larger structure. Hearing the music take shape in this structure was the motivation to take turns, or listen carefully. And without effort, they would find themselves concentrating for long periods of time.
Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 227
Most importantly, music made the children feel happy and relaxed. Class teachers often reported seeing a new student smile for the first time in the school when they were in a music session. Creative music workshops were also social experiences – I use lots of games and playful tasks to get the children to experiment and take creative risks, so there would be lots of laughing and interaction.

In 2010 and 2011 I had the opportunity to return to a post-conflict country to work as a musician – I was invited to spend four months as a visiting artist in a rural town in Timor-Leste. I developed a program of community music projects that evolved very organically, on the veranda of the house I was renting.

We made instruments out of local materials and according to traditional design, and over the weeks we learned how to play together and connect with each other through music.

This video shows one of the short projects that I led there, in the last week of my residency. These clips come from a series of consecutive days, and lead to a live performance on local radio. You can see the sense of agency, mastery, vitality, bonding, and personal meaning that is taking place here.

This year I’ve embarked on the next stage of my journey in exploring the relationships between children and music in conflict-affected society. I’ve started PhD research into post-conflict music interventions – schools like the one I worked with in Bosnia that were set up as part of post-conflict recovery. Next week I fly back to Bosnia to interview former participants of the music projects I worked on. They are young adults now. Next year I will similar research in Timor-Leste, and in Afghanistan, where an amazing institution of music has been inaugurated.

Finally, I urge everyone here to remember the importance of music to each of us – not just for a well-rounded education, or the mental discipline that may stand us in good stead for future challenges, but because it contributes so deeply to the wellbeing of all people, and can play a profound role in the journey back to wellness for people who’ve gone through major traumatic life experiences.

Something for everyone: The community in community music

Back in October I travelled to Singapore to take part in a music education conference. While I was there I made contact with a number of organisations working with music and communities, and was invited to experience the opening of a community singing festival supported by PassionArts, the arts and cultural team behind the People’s Association. The People’s Association works on behalf of all of Singapore’s residents living in public housing (which is most people).

The singing festival was a big event. It was on the banks of a river, with seating arranged on either side for participants, and performers located on barges and small boats as well as on the river banks. There was festoon lighting in the trees and on the footbridge connecting the two sides. I arrived quite early and sat on one of the benches on the footbridge. There were other early-birds nearby who greeted me and shared the songbook program with me. One older man gave me a plastic flashing light stick, and showed me how to switch it on by pulling out a small plastic tag in the handle. Cool!

Singapore song festival 2013 (G. Howell)

The songs in the songbook represented the principal languages and cultures of Singapore – Mandarin, Tamil, Malay and English. I saw that later in the night we would be singing a massed rendition of “Top of the World”. Early in the program were some patriotic songs, praising Singapore as the land of many united peoples and cultures.

Songbook in foreground (G. Howell)

The people around me were mostly elderly Chinese, or parents with young children. Many people were crossing the bridge too. There was a space on the bench beside me, and life got interesting when three young boys bounced up, filled with excitement, and asked me if it was free and could they sit there. “Yes, of course!” I said, and they clamoured in. The oldest of the three was probably about nine years old. The other two were younger, aged maybe five and six, that sort of age. A fourth boy joined them not long after and tried to climb into the bench space as well. As you can imagine, they began to laugh and push and climb on each other. They were filled with energy and cheekiness and boisterousness, and had little concern for maintaining a low profile or subduing themselves in the presence of all these older people. They reminded me of the boys in Timor-Leste that used to come to my house everyday to play music.

They asked if they could see my light stick. I showed it to them. “How do you make the light work?” asked one. “It’s a secret, see if you can figure it out” I replied, wanting to give them permission to play with it and figure it out. Of course they found the plastic tab quickly and the light stick was duly waved in the air for a while, before being politely given back to me.

I loved observing these boys. They were clearly so excited to be there. They spoke to each other in Malay, with only the oldest being confident in English. They pushed and jostled and laughed and joked, all the while responding to the developments further down on the river bank, where things seemed to be in the final stages of preparations. However, their boisterous energy drew some frowns from my neighbours. People admonished them to sit still and be quiet. They looked over at me the top of the boys’ heads, shaking their heads and frowning slightly.

Then the younger boys decided they wanted to go somewhere else. They scampered away as quickly and nimbly as they’d arrived. The older boy lingered slightly and said, “We’ll come back. Can you mind this place for us?” “For sure,” I agreed, and put my bag on the seat.

At first I did a good job of protecting the seat. Other people nearby seemed to think it was unnecessary, but the boys had asked me to do this and I had agreed, so I wanted to be true to my word. “They should be with their parents,” one person muttered. Another shook his head and said, “Well, they haven’t paid”. (It was a free event, but paying $2 bought you a show bag with the songbook and light stick in it. I hadn’t done this either).

The boys came back after a short time, squeezing in beside me again, and I felt pleased that I had done as I promised and kept their seat for them. I fell into conversation with the oldest boy again. But within ten minutes or so, he and his friends got up to leave again, and once again, they asked me to save their seat.

During this second absence, there was a lot more demand for seats on the bench. An older woman, with a younger woman and a baby in a pram, asked if this space was available. I explained that some younger boys had been sitting there and had asked me to save the spot for them, but the other people around me began shaking their heads and saying words to the effect of, No, this space is not for them. I didn’t like to see the older woman standing, nor the younger woman and the small child. So I relinquished the space.

The singing began and people around me joined in with huge enthusiasm and an impressive and undeniable commitment. This event was not just a fun pastime, it felt like it was important to them on another level – important to sing together, important to contribute their voices to the overall sound.

The time came for me to go. The young boys hadn’t come back, so I said good-bye to my neighbours, and offered the light stick and songbook back to them. “No, no, take it with you,” they told me. But I was about to get on an aeroplane to Europe – I knew that was not a practical option.

I climbed off the bench with my big bag, and that was when I saw that the oldest of the three boys was standing behind me. He must have returned, but seen immediately that the space for him to sit in was no longer there, so just stayed standing behind. I wondered if he felt I’d let him down. I was really pleased to see him and greeted him. I gave him my light stick and told him to sit in my place. I didn’t see whether he decided to do this or not.

I loved the way that this boy in particular was so interested in the community singing festival event. It attracted him. He was drawn to the pageantry, I think, and to the fact that something like this was happening. He was wide-eyed and engaged, and excited by what was going on.

But it didn’t seem straightforward for him to be there. He wasn’t a natural fit with the rest of the audience-participants. This made me think about the reality of community events – ostensibly they are for everyone, but will usually become dominated by a particular group – whether that be an age group, a social class group, an ethnic group, and so on.

This is one of the tensions inherent in organised community events. They are about social bonding and shared experiences, but they are also about inclusion. People will be bonded as a group, but the group must at the same time always remain open to newcomers. It is a commitment that the group makes (asserted and reinforced constantly by the group leader or organiser) at the foundations of it its very existence.

The contradiction inherent in the unconditional welcome when coupled with bonding through shared experiences is a challenging quality to program for and manage. The larger the event, the less control the management team will have over this characteristic being maintained. Perhaps this was something of what I observed on the footbridge at the community singing festival.

I thought about the boy for a long time as I made my way back to my accommodation and got ready to go to the airport. He moved me enormously. I thought about how precious that spark of curiousity is in a young person, and how filled it is with promise and potential. It can also be easily extinguished, through lack of nurturing – being blocked outright, or left alone to dwindle away.

I hope that this young boy is already someone who is engaged in organised and participatory activities in his community, that his curiousity and openness has been identified and is being nurtured and encouraged. So many people – young and old – live in a way that is confined by the rules and expectations of their social group. They conform. The small number of people who, from a young age, are seekers of new experiences, curious about what else is out there, and prepared to take calculated risks in order to learn and grow, are important to nurture in our communities. They can be catalysts and leaders, or simply the people that proffer an alternative point of view, through having the courage to hold their own convictions.

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