Video link – ‘Dr Sarmast’s Music School’

If you haven’t heard of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music before, then you might be interested to watch the 2012 documentary by Polly Watkins about the first two years of the school. It illustrates what an extraordinary undertaking the school was at the time, particularly in a climate that remained suspicious and often condemning of music and musicians.

Here is a trailer for the full-length documentary (which is available via iTunes):

But you can also follow this link to see a shorter version of the film screened by AL Jazeera.

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2013/01/201311412401920574.html

It’s a truly wonderful film, very moving at times, and a testament to the persistence and courage that some people must sustain in order to follow their musical desires and dreams. I recommend it to you.

With students from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Dubai

In my last blog post I left you with a cliff-hanger – did the Afghanistan National Institute of Music students make it to Dubai for ChoirFest Middle East or not? Were their visas issued in time?

A very quiet aeroplane for my flight to Dubai

A very quiet aeroplane for my flight to Dubai

I arrived in Dubai to an email that said the group was still waiting on half the visas, and that if the remainder were not issued, then the group was unlikely to travel. I went to sleep feeling disappointed, and more than a little foolish to have travelled all that way and have the group not show.

I awoke in the morning to a new email – half the group had travelled to Dubai! Eleven students was enough for me to gather the data I hoped to gather, and so I was elated! No sign of jetlag – I was energised and ready to get started.

What followed was an intense three-day period of sticking closely to this group of bright and hard-working young people and their delightful teachers, chatting informally, and grabbing opportunities for interviews whenever I could. The group consisted of five instrumentalists in a traditional Afghan ensemble, and 6 singers. The group included two girls.

Lunchtime concert at the Spanish Steps, Dubai International Finance Centre, 12 March 2015 (G. Howell)

Lunchtime concert at the Spanish Steps, Dubai International Finance Centre, 12 March 2015 (G. Howell)

On Thursday the group performed in a lunchtime/early afternoon concert, and this was when we also got to meet and hear some of the other choirs participating in ChoirFest ME – the Tehran Choir, the Ensemble Vivace from Beirut, and Cadence, an a capella quartet from Toronto, who were the headline artists for the festival. Then we travelled by bus to the rehearsal/workshop venue to take part in two rehearsals and workshops.

Vocal workshop with local choirs

Vocal workshop with local choirs

At 6pm, the ANIM group went to Dubai Mall, where we saw the sights and ate some dinner. The ANIM students liked doing the same things that teenagers everywhere like to do – they wanted to check out phone accessories shops, and take photos of themselves in various groupings, in front of various backdrops. Not camera-shy at all!

The great highlight of Thursday was when Dr Sarmast, the school’s director, received a phone call saying that the remaining visas had been issued, and the second group of students – mostly girls from the orphanage with whom ANIM works in close partnership – would be travelling to Dubai the next day, arriving in time for the ChoirFest Gala concert. The group in the restaurant burst into joyous whoops, cheers, clapping, and dancing at this point. Witnessing their delight at the news was quite something. There are obviously very strong bonds between the students, and it must have been very stressful and upsetting for all of them to have half the group sent back home from the airport the previous day. They had prepared for this tour together – now they would get to perform together as planned.

Friday was taken up with more workshops and rehearsals, and an evening Gala concert. The second group of students arrived in the evening, to the delight and warm welcome of the rest of the group. Following the hugs and excited conversations, everyone assembled for a group photograph – the first of many for the whole group.

ANIM students Friday nightOn Saturday morning there was some free time, so we visited Jumeirah beach. None of the group swam, but they paddled up to their knees (some up to their thighs – who cares about wet clothes? They will dry!), played chasing games, wrote names in the sand, built sand castles that Dr Sarmast immediately trampled through, and generally hung out doing beachy things. And took photos.

The rest of the day was spent at the Kempinsky Palm Hotel, where the Choir of the Year competition was held. Rehearsal, sound-checking, hanging around, hanging out… and then performing. I will write a separate post about the whole ChoirFest ME experience.

The second great highlight of the trip was when the ANIM choir won the Best Regional Choir award! The whole group returned to the stage to receive the award. It was a wonderful recognition of all their work, and given the uncertainty of their travel, a particularly sweet success for them and everyone who had worked so hard to get them to Dubai.

Winners of 'Best Regional Choir' Award, ChoirFest ME 2015For my part, I felt privileged to be able to observe the group at work and play. Short of going to Afghanistan (which my university won’t let me do – which means that I wouldn’t be able to use any data I gathered there for my PhD dissertation), this was the best way for me to get to do this. I was also able to interview students about their experiences of being a music student in the midst of a war-affected and volatile environment, and many cultural barriers and obstacles. I chatted with them in English (with those that knew English), in Italian (some of the girls knew Italian), in Russian (one faculty member spoke Russian – mine was very rusty indeed, as I last spoke Russian about 20 years ago), and in Dari with the help of interpreters.

This fieldwork travel was supported by SEMPRE (the Society for Education, Music, and Psychology Research), who awarded me a Gerry Farrell Travelling Scholarship in 2014. I thank them most sincerely for making this travel possible and supporting my research in this way.

Fieldwork in Dubai

This morning I got on a plane to Dubai. I only booked the flight last night. I’m on a fieldwork trip but have no idea if the people I hope to interview and observe will actually be in Dubai or not. It’s nerve-wracking, this not-knowing, but also kind of thrilling to cross your fingers, jump on a plane, and take a punt that everything will work out fine.

My PhD research investigates people’s experiences of music learning in the aftermath of war and violent conflict. I embarked on it in 2013 and have loved every minute so far. I am focusing on music schools and other ‘organised’ or structured initiatives in conflict-affected settings, and I have three case studies – the Pavarotti Music Centre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Hadahur Music School in Timor-Leste, and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music [ANIM]. The first two sites have been easy enough to visit in order to interview students and other participants and observers; however, organising fieldwork in Afghanistan has been challenging. The conflict has intensified and come closer to Kabul in the time since I started my research and my university hasn’t allowed me to travel there.

So why am I going to Dubai? The ANIM Choir has been invited to participate in a 5-day choir festival, called ChoirFest Middle East. Their participation has been on the cards for a while (I first learned of it at the end of January), but the bureaucratic hurdles that must be navigated to get the necessary Afghan government clearances for student travel are considerable, even when every department responds positively and efficiently. The first hurdle was getting government approval for the travel, which then enabled the process for getting their passports released to start. The passports were released mid last week, and that triggered the process of applying for visas to enter the United Arab Emirates. The students are scheduled to fly today (Wednesday) and the school expects the passports to be ready just a few hours before their flight would depart.

I had a choice – wait and find out if they get the visas or not (and risk missing their performance and other data-gathering opportunities, as well as risking flight availability), or fly without knowing for sure that they would travel.

Sometimes you just have to go with your gut. On this occasion, I felt like I’d been waiting on tenterhooks to confirm the travel for so many days, it was a relief just to go. But also, I figure that if I go, I will find something interesting, even if the ANIM group doesn’t arrive. The event itself sounds interesting. There will be choirs from other parts of the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, and maybe even Iraq), and the organisers have been very welcoming of an outside researcher observing the events. I will be staying in the same hotel as all the visiting choirs, so there will be good opportunities for informal conversations and socialising. And I have a good feeling about the ANIM visas, indeed, I am optimistic! This is not their first international travel, nor their first visa application. My gut feeling is that all will be fine.

PS. I wrote this post while I was on the plane. It is now Thursday morning and I am enjoying my buffet breakfast at the hotel in Dubai. I now know whether the ANIM students made it to Dubai or not – but I like the idea of a cliff-hanger, so will keep you waiting until the next post!

Lots of writing, not much blogging

It’s that time of year again.

For many people it is a crazy time, filled with competing work and family demands. For me, there is some of that craziness, but mostly I am feeling the satisfaction of having got through a long period of competing deadlines relatively unscathed.

Over the last three months I’ve completed three book chapters, several conference abstracts, an article for The Conversation, and got to grips with two new software packages that (hopefully, in time) will yield tremendous productivity gains in this PhD adventure! Needless to say, it’s been a lot of screen time. Hence the silence on the blogging front.

I’ve been working on my Bosnia case study. Here’s a bit of a run-down:

For one of the book chapters, I explored an idea that I called “life-space” – the real and imagined boundaries of a quotidian lived experience, and the expansion/contraction of these. The war in Mostar contracted the life-space of many of its young citizens very dramatically. The way they described their experiences of playing and learning music at the Pavarotti Music Centre suggested that it had resulted in expansions of their life-space in a number of dimensions – physical/geographical, personal/emotional, and social. It was an interesting way to analyse the participants’ descriptions of their experiences.

I’ve also developed a framework for understanding the goals and intentions of many music interventions in conflict-affected settings. These kinds of projects are initiated in response to particular needs, such as the need to create dialogue towards conflict resolution or peacebuilding, the need for psychosocial healing, the need for positive and productive activities for young people to supplement limited education and employment opportunities, the need to ensure music education opportunities (either within formal schooling or in addition to it), or the need to address the destruction of cultural knowledge, taking strategic steps to nurture and regenerate it.

The other two chapters laid out this framework, explaining the contexts that lead to these areas becoming priorities, and the ways that music interventions can offer meaningful and purposeful responses. One of the chapters used the Pavarotti Music Centre as a case study, to see how these different goals and intentions are realised through community-based cultural action.

Relevant to my research, although somewhat peripheral, are discussions surrounding the next set of development goals, and so I’ve been following these fairy closely. The Millennium Development Goals have set the global development agenda since 2000, but they expire at the end of 2014, and a new set of what are called Sustainable Development Goals will be adopted by the United Nations Member States in September 2015. There is a lot of discussion and debate about what the SDGs should be (they will basically set the agenda for the next 15 years, and I added my voice to the argument for the inclusion of culture in an article for the online daily, The Conversation. You can read it here.

I was then invited to update the article for publication in the Media Asia Journal, and that print publication will come out in January, I believe.

This week, with the last of the book chapters at the final stages of editing (trying to get the word count down), I’m happily able to return my attention to my raw data. It feels like ages since I’ve been able ‘hang out’ in the transcripts, thinking and exploring, and following lines of thought that arise as I read and make links with the literature that I’m constantly exploring. What a luxury! I am a pig in s**t these days, as the saying goes.

So, lots of writing going on. Not as much playing and singing and just thinking in music as I’d like, so that is a balance I’d like redress next year. But coming up is my annual Christmas carol-singing party, so in the spirit of that, please enjoy this Christmas classic! Not quite a carol, but a number we’ll definitely be including this year.

Not as much blogging going on either. Thanks for hanging in there, subscribers! Back in the saddle now.

Evolving a new work – Beethoven’s Big Day Out

I’ve just got home from leading family workshops for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival. I led two projects – Beethoven’s Big Day Out, and a Jam on the Ode to Joy.

Jams for families on big orchestral works are a core part of my creative work and musical direction, but I was particularly thrilled to get to present Beethoven’s Big Day Out for WASO. It’s a project that has developed through a number of other projects, and it’s interesting to reflect how it evolved through these influences.

Preparing the participants for Beethoven's Big Day Out

Preparing the participants for Beethoven’s Big Day Out

Beethoven’s Big Day Out has its origins in a Jam for Juniors I led for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2011, but that project employed ideas that I’d begun exploring in response to the very beautiful, detailed, and insightful work for pre-school children by Pocketfool Productions, and in particular a project that Jennifer Anderson from Pocketfool and I developed together for ArtPlay earlier in 2011 – the Camel Caravan (read about it here).

Working with Jen really changed my thinking about approaches to creative music work with under-5s. When we were developing our workshop, Jen talked about how she wanted to try and create language and opportunities around listening, and deliberate choices about sounds. We discussed how transformative that shift from a very self-focused, blocking-out-others way of playing to a more alert, aware, connected experience could be, even for very young players.

It was a beautiful project, with a big range of musical experiences for the children. In one lovely activity, children could “buy” sounds in a musical market place. They had to think about what kind of sound (a big sound, a shiny sound, etc) that they wanted, and then, after paying their money, they would play an instrument that made that sound.

This idea of careful, considered listening and choices then became central to the planning for the first Jam for Juniors with the MSO. I was a bit skeptical about the whole Jams for Juniors concept at first. There would be 50 little children, with their parents, in a large open space, with instruments. How could we get them all creating as well as playing, while ensuring musical integrity and variety, and not have everyone leave at the end of the 30 minute jam feeling assaulted by the cacophony?

The idea of a “journey”, which we’d used in the Camel Caravan, was a useful frame, so I utilised it here. Journeys require us to undertake different tasks. There is a sense of adventure and imperative about the different stages of the journey too. A journey through an imaginary environment gets the children’s creativity firing from the outset.

That first Jam for Juniors was strong. It involved way too many props to be practical (we changed multiple instruments and props five times in the half-hour workshop), but it offered a big variety of ways of engaging with music and instruments, all while introducing the music of Beethoven to the children and their parents, using themes from Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony.

Two further projects grew out of that Jam for Juniors experience, and both have become ‘flagship” projects for me in my stable of projects to offer to orchestras and arts centres around Australia and internationally. One is Nests (which I’ve written about here) and the other is Beethoven’s Big Day Out.

So what has changed in this most recent evolutionary phase? The bones of the original Jam for Juniors are still there. It is still a jam for under-5s, although we’ve narrowed it to an age range of 2-5 years. I’ve incorporated more opportunities for the children to get “up close” to the musicians from the orchestra and their instruments, so that they can feel the physicality and voice of the instruments, and the air vibrating in response. I’ve adjusted the language I use to introduce the different stages of the journey (adjusting and refining language is an ongoing process. It’s an aspect of workshop leading and facilitating that constantly fascinates me). And I removed quite a lot of the props! (Now we only have three changeovers).

The next thing I’d like to create is a ‘travelling’ version of Beethoven’s Big Day Out, where the participant group moves through different sites (such as a series of foyer spaces in a large performing arts centre) as part of the journey. If that sounds like something you’d like to present, let me know! But regardless of the site, Beethoven’s Big Day Out is a very imaginative, movement-filled, multi-sensory experience of a symphony orchestra, its music, and its sounds, that involves all of the children as participants in the music-making in many different, creative, and exhilarating ways. The singing, chattering voices, and bouncing little bodies in the foyer afterwards, and the smiles on parents’ and musicians’ faces, were testament to that.

And just another thing…

More on the joy of managerial speak. Weird Al Yankovic says/sings it better than anyone else. And the video is one of those wonderful live drawing efforts – an excellent asset in anyone’s communication tool box to facilitate engagement and maximise outcomes going forward.

When is a teacher not a teacher?

A friend told me that his job had recently been retitled. Employed as a salaried Head of Strings at a well-to-do private school, he and his colleagues, once known as instrumental music teachers, were now to be called Music Tuition Service Providers.

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Photo Credit: nadia_the_witch via Compfight cc

Needless to say, he was bemused by the weasel words of the title. He thought service providers were companies, operating in multiple sites.

“The maintenance company that cares for the gardens – that’s a service provider!” he pointed out. “Someone handing out food at a catered event – that’s a service provider. One person can substitute for another without any real difference in output being noticed. The same isn’t true for one-on-one instrumental music tuition or ensemble direction.”

The adoption of new, multi-word, pompous albeit empty titles seems like bureaucracy gone mad, or smacks of someone wanting to be seen to be creating change. All bemusement aside though, my friend was also angry about the subtext, which he perceived as an undermining and devaluing of a skilled group of professionals, and reducing their status within the school structure. The downgrading of skilled positions in schools is a real problem, and part of a contemporary context in which ‘teacher-blaming’ and ‘school-bashing’ is rife. Despite the fact that my friend, and many of his colleagues, are trained and qualified teachers as well as highly-skilled professional musicians, “teachers” are increasingly understood as only being those that stand in front of a classroom, chalk in hand, working with large and predictable groups of students.

I would also be curious to know what other curriculum areas were having specialist teachers’ jobs retitled. I suspect that this decision may also reflect a downgrading of the value of arts education within this particular school, and within school education in general.

Some might say, what’s in a name? Nothing much at all – until that job title is what is used to exclude people from organisational dialogue, or to determine what people are paid. Can you see “Service providers” sitting at the same level as “teachers” on the school’s organisational map? During the next round of Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, can you imagine “service providers” being paid the same as “teachers”? I can’t.

We brainstormed some more weasel word retitling:

Schools become Education Service Providers

Students become Education Recipients (or maybe Education Service Recipients)

Parents become Education Recipient Support Workers

That last one is my favourite. Please share any other new titles you think of in the comments!

In the end, we wondered if he should just call himself an “expert consultant”, and charge accordingly.

Art retelling life in Timor-Leste

Q&ALast night I attended a screening of Timor-Leste’s first feature film, A Guerra Da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War). The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s co-director Luigi Acquisto, and co-producer Lurdes Pires.

It’s a very moving film. It presents a retelling of the old French tale of Martin Guerre, set against a backdrop of Timor-Leste’s recent history of conflict, with the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesians, the brutality of life lived under occupation, and of the early months of independence. In this tale, a man disappears during a war, returning many years later to his wife. All the others in their village believe he is who he says he is; his wife Beatriz realises that he is an imposter, but falls in love with this new man nonetheless. (I hope that’s not a spoiler; it’s a pretty well-known story).

The Q&A session offered some fascinating insights into the making of the film. The story is set alongside a number of real events that occurred during the years of Indonesian occupation. One of these is the massacre in the town of Kraras in 1983, when Indonesian forces killed all the men and male boys (including babies) in retaliation to an ambush on Indonesia soldiers by the Timorese resistance fighters. They filmed this part of the movie in the actual town of Kraras, and many of the members of the cast were members of the Kraras community. The female extras were women who had witnessed the massacre and lost their menfolk. The male extras included people who had been young boys at the time of the massacre who had survived the killing. Read more »

Engaging with Quality at ArtPlay

Last weekend ArtPlay presented and hosted a wonderfully stimulating 2-day event – Engaging with Quality, a ‘learning exchange’ for Teaching Artists (artists who work with young people and communities, often in informal or non-formal contexts) that examined diverse approaches to practice.

ArtPlay and playground

One approach was through demonstration and observation. Another was through hands-on experiences of artist workshops, accompanied by explanation of the thinking behind the approach. The weekend also included group discussions and presentations, including a summary of a potential framework, called ‘The Qualities of Quality” that could inform planning, reflection, and evaluation of projects.

We were invited to present Nests as part of the two-day program. Parents booked tickets for their 3-5 year olds in the usual way, and delegates sat around the edge of the darkened Nests space, and observed the 30 minute ‘immersion experience’ that the young children and their parents have when they explore the Nests and play the instruments that they find.

Following each session there was a discussion with the delegates about what they’d noticed – noticed in the children’s responses, in the parents’ responses, in the musicians’ responses, and in the way the entire environment worked in sympathy (or not) with the participants. We were deeply gratified and moved by people’s responses – we were given so much extremely positive feedback about Nests! It has been a beautiful project to develop, and the three of us in the creative team have felt confident that we have created something very special; nevertheless, it was wonderful to get so much positive feedback, and have all those people’s experiences of Nests reflected back to us.

I also got to take part in other artists’ workshops. It was very difficult to choose which workshops I wanted to do – I opted for a stencil-making workshop with Daniel from Junkyprojects first. This was so much fun. I have long been fascinated by stencil art and print-making, as I love the idea of creating something that is reproducible, and that is accessible art, easily shared. I created my first ever stencil. What to draw? As you can (hopefully) decipher below, I created an image of an alien, peering over the top of a brick wall. I have no idea why this was the image I thought of. But there you go. Figuring out which bits to cut out (“windows”), and which bits would be the “bridges” that made sure the stencil would hold together with all of its detail, was an interestingly abstract mental process. I could feel my brain going into momentary ‘hangs’ and ‘freezes’ as it picked its way through this.

Next I took part in Briony Barr’s ‘Drawing and Undrawing’ workshop. Briony is interested in art that is created by following rules, an interest that is underpinned by her understanding of complexity and systems theories, and the importance to these systems of emergence – those properties that emerge when the rules are being followed by everyone in the space, but according to their own whims and choices.

We worked with coloured electrical tape, and created a wonderfully intricate group work on the floor of ArtPlay’s main space.

The ‘Undrawing’ part of the workshop involved us making another set of works, by ripping up (“undrawing”) the tape from the floor, and using it to create something else. I created a ball, that I then painstakingly sawed in half with a hacksaw. The interior of my ball looked like a beautifully multi-coloured cabbage. Or perhaps a large colourful crystal. It is now sitting on a shelf in my home.

Taking part in other artists’ workshops is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get to engage with their ideas and approaches to practice – which is always inspiring, and gets you thinking about your own processes and choices afresh – you become a learner yourself. You place yourself once again in the hands of someone else, trusting them to guide you, but also aware that you will gain the most from the process by making your own decisions and jumping with both feet into the process, ignoring any lingering reservations you may have. It’s good to feel those moments of vulnerability mixed with anticipation and even excitement – they are a very real part of the workshop experience for many participants.

Maulelo – witnessing the enactment of an ancient ceremony

“Want to help save a music tradition?”

This was how a friend shared a recent Kickstarter campaign on social media. The campaign was in support of an enactment of a traditional music-theatre ceremony in Timor-Leste that hadn’t been performed in over a decade. The knowledge about this ceremony – how to perform it, the musical material and how it is structured, the rules and protocols surrounding its performance – was in danger of being lost. The two elders (cultural custodians) who knew it in detail were ageing – if a performance didn’t take place soon it was possible that they could pass away without their knowledge having been passed on to a younger generation.

Maulelo in rehearsal (G. Howell 2014)

The ceremony isn’t performed very often because it is really big and requires a huge amount of preparation and logistical planning. It can involve 80-100 performers, who need to travel and stay overnight (possibly for multiple days in a row) and set aside their other day-to-day work and responsibilities in order to take part.

The event is called Maulelo, and while I was Timor-Leste I was able to travel to the site and observe the final day of rehearsals. The setting was halfway up a mountain, near the small town of Hatubuiliko, and in the foothills of Mount Ramelau, Timor-Leste’s highest mountain and a sacred site of pilgrimage and Timorese national identity. To get there, we walked for a while out of Hatubuiliko town, and then at a critical point we left the path and scrambled our way up a steep, narrow, twisting goat track. This took us above the clouds that had descended upon the town to a clearing on a narrow saddle, ringed by pin-straight, narrow eucalypts, reaching toward the sky.

Read more »

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