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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
When I lived in Mostar in 1998, I visited a town called Ljubinje every week. Ljubinje is about 2 hours drive from Mostar, and was in the Serb-governed territory, Republika Srpska. Ljubinje was isolated, a small town on the edge of Republika Srpska, right on the edge of the so-called Inter-Entity Border which divided the Republika Srpska from the Muslim-Croat Federation. This complex organisation of the nation-state of Bosnia & Herzegovina is thanks to the Dayton Accord peace plan that brought an end to the 1992-95 wars but enshrined division along ethnic lines across the land, and wrote these divisions into the Constitution.
To get to Ljubinje, I would drive out of Mostar (Bosniak territory) and almost immediately enter ‘Croatian’ territory. There were no visible borders or demarcation lines between the Bosnian and Croatian territories, but at that time, people of one group didn’t tend to enter the territory of another group – they would feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Car number plates clearly showed which part of the country you came from, including a symbol or shield insignia that left no doubt which ‘ethnic entity’ the car belonged to. Mostar at that time felt like a ghetto to many of the local people, with only one road out of town that did not pass through other entity territory.
Ljubinje and the other towns between it and Mostar are in Eastern Herzegovina, a land of very dramatic landscapes – all looming rocky cliffs, mountains in the distance, and the intense blue waters of the Neretva River carving a rough and jagged path through the landscape. The roads were okay; I can remember one particular point on the journey where three land mines had been placed, equidistant from each other across the middle of the road, and once detonated, had left three neat holes in the road. Driving cleanly between these holes became a weekly goal that took me some time to achieve.
We drove through the town of Stolac. Stolac remains forever etched in my memory from that time for two reasons – the Bogomil tombs and the dynamited houses that we drove past each week.
The Bogomil tombs are tombs from ancient people that dwelled in this region centuries ago. They are striking in the landscape – like standing stones in the UK and Ireland. However, these are tombs, and each stone is etched in stylised designs and symbols. We drove past them every week but never stopped (we were always running late for the Ljubinje workshops). It was only in my last week in Mostar that I made the effort to stop, get out of the car and explore the site in detail.
The dynamited houses were a result of the returns process that was underway at that time. People will remember that a characteristic of the Bosnian wars was the violent expulsion of groups of people from their homes. These people would be forced to leave (often very violently, terrorised and brutalised by the militia groups that expelled them) find shelter in another part of the country, a part that was held by their own ethnic group. By 1998, expelled people were gradually being encouraged (by the international forces, and the terms of the Dayton Accord and peace plan) to return to the homes they had left. But in Stolac, these homes would be dynamited right before the people were due to return. Every week, I would see freshly dynamited houses on the road in and out of Stolac.
During my fieldwork over the last few weeks in Bosnia-Herzegovina I had the opportunity to return to Stolac, and to reconnect with the teacher I used to work with In Ljubinje. I met him with my translator in the evening in a café in Stolac. We arrived a little early so were able to take a walk through the town, alongside the river. The sun was setting, and the colours were golden. Like many other Herzegovinian towns, Stolac is a valley town, surrounded by steep hills. The river cuts its way through the centre of the town.
I was surprised by the hilltop fortress in Stolac.
“I don’t remember it,” I said to my friends. “I’m surprised I never noticed it before.”
“It’s been restored,” they told me. “It was damaged in the war, so it probably wasn’t very noticeable last time you were here.
The walk through the town alongside the river has some nice scenery. As in most of this region, you find ruins sitting alongside reconstructed and brand new buildings, and some older buildings still pockmarked with scars from shelling.
We found a pleasant restaurant where I ate an excellent pljeskavica (local version of hamburger). I also proved delectable prey for a lone mosquito, who bit me up and down my right leg while I sat at the table. The bite marks are only just starting to fade.
It was wonderful to reconnect with Sergej, the teacher we worked with in Ljubinje back in 1998. Sergej had established a drama group for local high school students at that time, and supported them to write and perform their own shows. They created over ten different original shows for the Ljubinje community between 1998 and 2013 – a significant contribution in a town that is isolated in every way. In 1998 I remember we couldn’t even telephone to Ljubinje easily – the Republika Srpska used a different phone system to the Federation.
Sergej remembered me well. We talked about his recollections of the Pavarotti Music Centre musicians coming to Ljubinje and the different workshops that took place. I learned that at that time there were other cultural NGOs coming to Ljubinje too. In fact, other organisations offered a more sustained approach than the PMC program that I was involved in, and worked with students towards public performance outcomes. Nevertheless, the PMC program gave students skills for creating original music for their shows. We also donated some drums to the group, and Sergej described a time many years later, when the drums featured in a local ceremony (the opening of the swimming pool). One of his former students, by that time a member of the police force in town, sat down at one of the drums and “all the rhythms came back to him from years before!”
Sergej has had a lot of challenges in his life since that time. But despite these, he is still the same lively and engaged person, still thinking about the young people and their needs, and believing in their importance to the town. It must be difficult to be one of only a few open-minded, culturally-oriented people in a small town. He said the internet has made a big difference in people’s lives there, it has opened people up to the wider world.
This region has seen a lot of suffering among the people that live there. I hope that the sense I have of it being a little more open, a little more relaxed, than when I was last here in 1998, is a sign of a shared and welcome progress.
I’ve just returned home from three weeks in Mostar, where I’ve been researching people’s experiences of the Pavarotti Music Centre.
This is a complicated and complex environment, and the Pavarotti Music Centre is a project that many people have experiences of, and have strong opinions about. My approach is to try and gather as many different perspectives as I can, from people with very different experiences (ranging from those who had a lot of involvement, to those who had little, and including community leaders as well as staff members, former participants, and casual onlookers, of all ages), and see what kind of picture emerges about the PMC’s impact on this city.
This is also quite a small city (you can get everywhere on foot, for example. Nothing is extremely far away from any one point). Local people sometimes describe it as “a big village” because of the way they tend to see people they know by chance in the street, every time they leave the house. Everyone knows everyone.
But like any place, large or small, stories have a way of evolving as they change hands and are retold. Speculation can be retold as fact, and can reach such heights that it can be difficult to know what is true, what is exaggeration, and what is pure invention or manipulation. When the stories are about something in which many people may feel invested, or a sense of ownership, and about which opinions are still strong, you can expect to find some contestation of facts. I’ve anticipated this, hence my intention to gather as many ‘witnesses’ as possible, despite the fact that some of my participants would consider other participants to be unreliable.
As an outsider, how likely is it that I can find my way through the different stories towards some kind of ‘truth’? Complexity sciences would warn against the desire to ‘aggregate’ findings; instead, the recommendation is to make a detailed examination of the context, and to ensure that each witness ‘report’ remains embedded within its context. In this way, you can at least position the words within their setting and attempt to understand them, their meaning and motivation within that. It is in isolating details from context, and then drawing them together in aggregates, where conclusions can be drawn that are not in fact an accurate representation of the site and the experiences.
In any case, each person’s experience is theirs and theirs alone. So often, research presents us with aggregated or averaged information – but is this general set of aggregated experiences more true than an individual’s experience and perception of that? When we look at impact, what kind of impact is the most relevant or important – that of the collective, or that of the individual? Changes can be far starker in an individual than in a collective. And if one life is changed for the better, this is important to know, as the impact of that change on a community over time could be significant.
These are some of the the thoughts I have on constant rotation in these weeks as I talk to many different people, seeking out their views and encouraging their opinions. “This is just my opinion,” many of my participants tell me, as a kind of apology, as if there are other more informed voices out there. But I assure them, “that’s fine, that’s exactly what I want. You are a citizen of this city, your opinion is as important as another. Keep talking!”
How many photos of bridges can I get away with taking (and sharing on Facebook)? The Stari Most (Old Bridge) of Mostar is an incredibly photogenic subject. From every angle, at different times of day… it’s easy to get to the end of the day and find that you’ve taken a ridiculous number of photos of just this one site.
A friend of mine – Mostar born and bred by now living in London – says that the bridge is like his muse. He has painted it, created numerous etchings and prints, created stylised versions of its graceful arc, as well as photographed it (along with the intensely aquamarine waters of the Neretva River below) more times than he can probably count. This obsession has endured since his childhood here.
Last Saturday was the twenty-year anniversary of the destruction of the Stari Most. This article gives some interesting historical and contemporary context for what the bridge means for many of the people in Mostar.
When I lived in Mostar in 1998, there was a temporary suspension bridge spanning the Neretva at the place where the Old Bridge had stood. It sometimes felt like a precarious crossing – it would sway in response to people’s weight and movements as they crossed, and frankly, it never felt all that safe. It was easy to imagine slipping through the wide chain-link barriers, although I never heard of that happening to anyone. People would joke about how the sense of swaying increased if you crossed it when drunk, late at night. At that time in Mostar there were many stray dogs that used to hang around in packs (like street gangs of youths – but they were dogs). A friend told me a story about walking home late one night, a bit drunk, and crossing the bridge only to see the pack of dogs waiting for him at the end of the bridge. It was winter time, and the dogs were known to be hungry and aggressive. My friend made a sharp about-face and sprinted back the way he’d come, the bridge swaying relentlessly. He opted to go the long way home, via a different, more stable bridge.
Later that year, a new, sturdier temporary bridge was built. This was in preparation for the reconstruction of the Stari Most, using stones that had been salvaged from the river when it was destroyed in shell fire in 1993, as well as new stones from the quarry that had provided stones for the original Stari Most in Ottoman times. This new wooden bridge was wider, and a couple of metres further upriver, so that the reconstructed bridge could be built in the original place, using the original mounts and towers.
But many people said they missed the dodgy, wobbly suspension bridge. Perhaps it represented that time after the war had first ended, when people could come out of their basements and move a little more freely, and the optimism and relief that accompanied that time. The suspension bridge also represented something of the toughness and hardiness of the people. It was a solution, a place to cross the river, a kind of defiance.
The reconstructed bridge opened in summer 2004. Local people have described to me how so many of the people that had left Mostar to escape the war returned for that occasion. The bridge is not just a beautiful piece of architecture and engineering, nor is it just a landmark. The bridge represents something about that emotional sense of belonging, and of protection, perhaps. The bridge is Mostar, Mostar is the bridge. Something like that, maybe. In any case, perhaps this is the reason that so many of us seem to experience a kind of insatiable appetite for images of this bridge that we can take away with us, and share with others.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” my research participant asked me as we settled in our seats and got ready to begin the interview. I had to laugh. “If I minded anyone smoking,” I said, “I wouldn’t really be able to do fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina!”
Really, everyone smokes here. It’s amazing to me how quickly I have become accustomed to being in smoky environments. They seem normal. Every now and then a wisp of smoke enters my mouth or nostrils in an unexpected way and makes me cough, and every now and then I need to brush the smoke away from me, but in general, I’ve stopped noticing it pretty quickly.
I’ve never smoked. As a teenager, I could never really see the point. I’m not sure what that says about me – I think I had my own ways of rebelling and the idea of putting a little bit of foam and paper rolled around brown bits of dried leaves, setting it on fire, putting it into my mouth, and breathing in was simply never appealing. I had friends who smoked; sometimes they looked so relaxed when they lit up and inhaled the first lungful that I felt curious to try, but I never bothered.
Whereas here, I don’t know that it is related to coolness or rebellion. It is just something that everyone does. One of my interview participants told me that most people start around the age of twelve. I suppose parents can hardly advise their children not to start smoking, given that every adult around them lights up whenever they wish. Perhaps it is a kind of rite of passage into adulthood. The other day, when I was visiting some band rehearsals at the Mostar Rock School, I noticed how when the break was called, tutors and young musicians alike went out to the bar or atrium area to smoke together. It looked like a nice, social moment that reinforced the lack of hierarchy or status between the teachers and students, a quality that is very evident at the Rock School.
Of course, everyone knows it’s not good for their health. But that in itself does not seem a strong motivation to quit for many people here. And let’s face it, it would be really difficult to be a non-smoker in an environment where everyone else smokes, especially if you have been a smoker yourself. It’s much easier for someone like me who has never smoked and holds a rather pragmatic bewilderment about the whole ritual!
There do seem to be some non-smoking spaces around – a cevapcici shop I went to was non-smoking inside; and the kindergartens I visited didn’t have adults smoking in the children’s rooms (although lighting up in offices was more likely to be on the cards). Full power to those who do decide to quit! I’d love to think there could be a secret, subversive underground movement of non-smokers here, standing their ground, tolerating the smoke of others but not partaking themselves. I’d love to see some kind of health-food café or even movement here – imagine! a café that doubled as a food co-op, smoke-free, where like-minded people could gather and take strength in their growing numbers. Could it happen? I’d go there!
After nearly three weeks of fieldwork interviews in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I think I am suffering from an ailment that could be called ‘fieldwork neck’. It’s a result of sitting to interview people in noisy cafes with unrelenting background music playing. In order to hear the conversation, I lean forward and inevitably, my head goes further forward than my neck and shoulders. And I hunch, dropping down into my shoulders. Then, because the topics under discussion in my interviews are fairly involved, and because I am thinking hard and making connections between what people are describing and what I have learned from earlier interviews, I sit in this position with quite a large amount of tension for extended periods of time. Sometimes, people lower their voices, or lean back in their chairs, and so I lean further forward. One fairly shy woman sat with her head bent forward, but as the interview progressed, lowered her head closer and closer to the table. I of course followed suit, as did my interpreter. Intense conversations lead to intense experiences of fieldwork neck!
I first observed fieldwork neck in my interpreter, because I sit next to her in the interviews and can see her. Then I realised that I had been waking up each morning with a kind of tenderness at the base of my neck for the last couple of weeks. I’d put this down to using a different pillow to the one I’m used to, but now I think it is caused by my head position in interviews.
Of course, I am also spending a lot of time at my laptop, typing up notes, writing emails, and going through the photographs I’ve been taking. I do most of this kind of work sitting on my bed, late at night. So all in all, this has been tough going for my neck and spine, and given that tough treatment, it is probably holding up quite well, all things considered.
Despite the neck issues, this has been an incredibly fruitful trip. Today is my last day in Mostar. The majority of my interviews have been here, because the music centre that I am focusing on as a case study for my PhD is in this town. Tomorrow morning I’ll catch the train to Sarajevo, and meet with a few more people before flying back to Australia (via Istanbul and Singapore) on Friday night.
In the September school holidays, the 2013 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble got together for its final composition project for 2013. This time our focus was Beethoven’s 1st symphony, and we explored some of its rhythmic language, orchestrating this in a very 21st century way, given our Ensemble included electric guitar, drum kit and djembe, along with more usual orchestral instruments.
(Press play and listen while you read!)
This year’s group has been an interesting one. For the first year ever, we have an ensemble dominated by boys – 18 boys to 10 girls. They were bright, smart, very creative boys, mostly aged 11 and 12 (there were a few 9-10 year olds as well). We found that the male majority brought quite a different energy and dynamic to the group than we’d had in previous years. They engaged differently in the group. I think that this took me slightly by surprise each time we re-convened in each school holiday period – I’d start the warm-up using my usual approach and within five minutes be thinking, “Oh that’s right! This group needs something different from me.”
This is part of the facilitator’s art – to think on one’s feet, and be ready to adapt and respond. Lately I’ve been reading about “complex adaptive systems”, and realising that the creative workshop process is a micro complex system of human interaction, response and constant adaptation. The alternative to this responsive adaptation is imposing a system – and this can work effectively too, of course! But it also entails an assertion of power, and therefore the potential for power struggle. It offers less room for creativity and shared ownership, which are foundational values in my work.
That’s not to say I didn’t use some coercive tactics of my own, especially to get us through the rehearsing stage. Wandering attention needed to be brought back to task if we were going to be ready for the performance of our newly-composed piece by 3pm on the 2nd workshop day.
I loved the final piece – it has a confidence and upfront quality that felt very characteristic of this group. In the recording above you will hear some of Beethoven’s rhythmic motifs woven into a rock groove (opening movement), a minuet and trio in ternary form (and in miniature), and an extended rondo form. Sadly we were missing a couple of key members of the group for this final workshop, due to illness, but I think they were with us in spirit!
Recently I led this year’s Jump on the Bandwagon project at ArtPlay. Jump on the Bandwagon is a family jam – an all ages, all abilities, get-your-hands-on-an-instrument-and-play event that is about getting large groups of people playing together and sounding great.
Regular readers will know that I lead lots of jams with orchestras, and these usually take pieces of orchestral music as their starting points for improvisation and jamming. In Jump on the Bandwagon, we focus on grooves and riffs with a more contemporary edge. Often I use a melodic idea that’s emerged in an earlier workshop with young people – some of these can be very enduring and an ideal starting point for a big range of musical interests!
This year I used a short melody created by some students from Preston Girls Secondary College in a workshop with the MSO a few years ago. We started that workshop by asking them to brainstorm “what’s important?” One group wrote these words, and hooked them up to a really catchy melody:
Money does buy food
Money does not buy family, friends or love.
We always get a crowd of participants – this year we capped the registrations at 100, and most were these were under-8s, including one 7 year-old violinist, filled with ideas and no qualms at all about being the only violinist there, a little girl who opted to play the keyboard but had brought her own ceremonial trumpet along, and a 2 year old who spent the whole time struggling with his mum to have control of the drumstick and being massively overstimulated by the whole event, but ended the session by helping gather up all the instruments, hugging me good-bye, and not wanting to leave. I hope we get to see him again!
But some of the most memorable participants were the adults. I asked one dad to play the autoharp and showed him how it worked, pushing down buttons for particular chords, and strumming across the strings in time. One of the other musicians in the Bandwagon team told me later, “He loved it! He absolutely loved it and said, ‘It’s my first time EVER playing music, and I think I’ve found my instrument!’” That’s a great outcome, and just as important as any younger child having their first experience playing music.
Research shows that the music experiences children share within their families are way more powerful and potent than any music experiences they may have in school, in terms of impacts their later choices to participate in music experiences as adults. That’s why I emphasise all-ages with the jams I lead. Of course they are for the children. But they are also for the adults. And if that man goes off and buys himself an autoharp of his own then that will be one of the best outcomes of a jam that I can think of.
City Beats 2013 workshops drew to a close last week. We finished off this year’s Landscapes theme by creating music inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the city – City Beats. (It was only after I’d planned the project that I realised this third workshop would have the same name as the whole program).
Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?
It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha
It’s the City Beat.
For this city-focused workshop, the whole-group composition consisted of a short rap linked to a vocal soundscape depicting all sorts of sounds of the city. I asked the groups to think about words that rhyme – like ‘street’ and ‘beat’ and ‘feet’ – and that would fit well with our theme. The children brainstormed rhyming words, putting them into sentences, and these came together pretty quickly to form the rap. You can see some of their words in the images below.
We created the soundscape using a Grid Score, setting it up over a cycle of ten beats. Why ten? At first I thought I’d do twelve, but then thought that might be too long. So I thought about doing an eight-beat cycle – but eight seemed too square, too solid and grounded. Ten was the perfect cycle length – uneven enough to give the sounds a sense of never quite landing, and short enough to be achievable (and to fit across the width of the white board).
I brought along a few bells and whistles to get the soundscape started – we had a bicycle bell, a honky horn, a train whistle, and a strange siren-like whoopee whistle (I don’t know what it is called, it is the kind of thing that might accompany a clown act. The children loved it). We chose numbers in the cycle for these sounds to land on and practiced that first.
Then, working in small groups, the children decided on other sounds that they would hear in the city that they could depict with their voices or body percussion, and decided where they should appear in the cycle of ten beats, and how many numbers they should cover. Once all the decisions had been made and the relevant squares on the grid had been filled with appropriate symbols (you can see below why I am a musician and not a visual artist), we rehearsed it until it was memorised and ready to record.
The choices of city sounds varied somewhat between the groups, but it was the children from the English Language School who really created something unique. Their city soundscape was influenced by the cities they knew well – like Quetta, and Kabul, and Bangkok. They included the sounds of goats and sheep bleating, of the loudspeakers on the minarets of city mosques calling the faithful to prayers, and a traditional song/chant that street sellers from Afghanistan sing. All the children from Afghanistan knew this chant (perhaps it embeds itself into the vernacular the way “Mind the Gap” does in London). The child who sang the ‘call to prayer’ sang it into a loudhailer, in imitation of the thin, slightly tinny sound that the minaret speakers can have. Yes indeed, the city soundscape from the Language School children was an evocative and energetic affair!
With the whole-group chorus finished, we divided into groups of 6, each accompanied by a musician from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to create additional sections of music. One group took xylophones and created melodic material based on the rhythms in our rap chorus. Another group extended the chorus with further verses and some drumming.
The third group worked with a fabulous array of orchestral percussion and ‘found sounds’ – bass drum, pitched tom-toms, a tam-tam, a suspended cymbal and two suspended brake drums) – to create a rhythmic city groove, working with interlocking patterns, dynamics, and cues.
Then, in the last ten minutes of the workshop, we gathered together again, performed our music to each other, recorded the performances, and said good-bye.
City Beats days are probably some of my favourite days in the year! There is so much to love. The children come along to ArtPlay thinking they will get to learn a bit of music, and they leave at the end of each 2-hour workshop just buzzing with excitement and energy at all the music that they have created with us. Their teachers are constantly amazed at how much they achieve, and how quickly. And the MSO musicians, ArtPlay staff and I get to spend two glorious days a term hanging out with fabulously creative children, composing and playing original music. Everyone leaves at the end of each day with all sorts of infectious earworms buzzing in our heads.
The schools that take part in City Beats each year are ‘disadvantaged’ schools – schools without music specialist teachers, or that have student cohorts from less advantaged circumstances. They may have high numbers of families in receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or who are from refugee backgrounds, or who, because of financial circumstances, never get to take part in any ‘extras’. The program is fully-funded, including travel subsidies, thanks to the generousity of wonderfully supportive and visionary funders, who know that for young people to recognise their talents, they have to have the chance to explore and discover them first.
City Beats was part of the ArtPlay/University of Melbourne’s Mapping Engagement 4-year research project at ArtPlay. You can read/download a report of the City Beats program here.