I spent most of last week up in Albury (Victoria-New South Wales border) working with the Sartory String Quartet and 23 local children from grades five and six. The project was part of the quartet’s Young Concert Artists residency at the Murray Conservatorium, for the Australian Youth Orchestra.
I led a 2-day composition workshop for the children that took the 3rd movement from Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 as source material; together we created a series of short pieces on the idea of ‘fear’ and things that make us frightened, linked in performance with extracts from the Shostakovich.
We had a wonderfully responsive, bright, switched-on group of young musicians to work with. A great mix of instruments too, including 4 young guys playing electric guitars who made fantastic contributions to the project, and brought a whole new palette of colour to the composition process. The group worked very hard over the two days, and on the second day it was gratifying to see how much they rose to a very focussed, mature, communicative level of performance, with a strong sense of individual ownership and responsibility for the outcome.
Two particular things resonated for me as I drove back to Melbourne on Saturday. One was a reflection on the ideal timing for musical direction in a project. There is a point towards the end of a project where the group is feeling pretty comfortable with the material, and that is the point to bring in smaller details of finesse and refining that can make a huge difference to a performance. Asked for too early, these are the kinds of things that can stress a group out, give them too many things to think about, and make them feel anxious. But once they feel themselves to be on the ‘home stretch’, I find they are absolutely primed for information, they absorb it and digest it like sponges, and remember it without stress or anxiety.
I wonder if this is in fact a piece of knowledge familiar to all directors? It is not something I have been taught or told by someone, but a point that I realise I have been aware of for some time, and am only now able to articulate and identify it as a key point in a project or rehearsal timeline for myself.
The other issue that I pondered on my drive home came from one of the quartet members. During our post-project debrief she asked about behaviour management, in particular of those more rowdy or excitable children who probably get hemmed in a lot by the rules of an environment, and who get told ‘no’ a lot. There was one child in particular in our group that this applied to. The quartet member felt concerned that this kind of child gets told ‘no’ too much, and that “Those are the kinds of children I most want to connect with in a project like this.”
The kind of behaviour that was getting the ‘no’ treatment included picking up instruments belonging to others, playing these when the owner wasn’t around, having lots and lots of energy that translated into lots of noise, lots of the time. Nothing terrible at all, but not always appropriate or well-judged on the part of the young person, and at those times he was given a clear, unjudging request to desist!
Obviously, we want our workshop environment to be a creative one, where there is scope for different kinds of personalities, working styles, and energy levels. It also needs to be safe – for the children, and for the instruments. And I knew what she meant about the sadness of him being told ‘no’, or ‘stop’ so many times… perhaps the balance needs to be in offering him a choice, such as, ‘ask the person the instrument belongs to for permission to play it, and only do so when they are in the room with you’. Or ensuring that positive feedback and encouragement is given whenever appropriate, that good work is noticed and encouraged.
Music is a discipline, that requires the ability to listen and wait, as well as to play. It can be hard to learn that aspect of it – but it is crucial, because no-one has fun for long if it is all chaotic and undisciplined in a room full of instruments. In projects like this, I want the participants to have a sense of the thrill of making music as one of a group, of connecting with others both in terms of ensemble, and expression. To achieve that, there do need to be some basic ground rules about how we will interact and work within the space. Hopefully I set up an environment that then inspires all the participants to work within those boundaries.