Workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids

Yesterday I was at ArtPlay, leading the first day of workshops for the ensemble of child and adult musicians that I direct for the Orchestra. We have two days of Open Workshops at the start of the year. These are free, and last for just an hour, and about 15 kids, aged 8 to 13 years,  take part in each session, with me and two other professional orchestral musicians.

It’s a useful process in two ways. Firstly, it acts as ‘taster’ for the year-long Ensemble program. The participants can see how they like our process and our approach, and get to take part in what we hope is a fun music workshop. We get to make contact with them and their families, add them to our email list, and then can invite them to future events and workshops.

Secondly, it is a kind of audition – though we don’t ever describe it as this. The workshop is designed to be a kind of diagnostic tool, a way for us to assess the children and how well we feel they would be suited to the Ensemble program.

Our criteria for participants in the Ensemble is very much about personalities, rather than musical skill or years of experience on an instrument. We are looking for bright sparks, who like working in groups, like working with adults, like to invent things, like to be challenged, are comfortable working in new ways, and of course, love their music. If they are invited to become part of the Ensemble they will have lots of opportunities to attend concerts and rehearsals, meet soloists and conductors, and take part in additional performances and conerts along the way. But we expect them to be committed to the full workshop program – two days every school holidays throughout the year. It means families need to take these dates into account when planning holidays and other activities. It is a significant commitment, but an incredibly rich musical experience for the participants.

We saw two groups of young people yesterday, and there were some very bright sparks among them. I love meeting these new people – it is really exciting to imagine them in the program and all the benefit they will get from it. I love meeting the parents too, and seeing the way these young kids are supported in their music learning.

The workshop process I’ve designed for these workshops is very simple, but it really does give a pretty good indication of the strengths of each participant. Here is an outline:

Warming up (12 mins)

  • Stretch, isolate body parts, big circles, shapes. (Are they comfortable with this physical start to the workshop? How do they respond to the direction? Can they be encouraged to to take part more fully, or does the encouragement make them shyer?)
  • Pass the Clap. An oldie but a goody. Pass a clap (or any sound that can be performed easily by all) around the circle one by one, aiming to get it moving very swiftly around the group, with people ready to go but not anticipating by clapping too early, or at the same time as the person before them. (A good ice-breaker, fun, simple, easy for all to see its purpose and aims. Do they get into the playfulness of the task?)
  • Names – I clap a very simple 4/4 pattern with two beats clapped, two beats rest. This is a Call-and-Response task, in which each person one by one sys their name in the two-beat space. In the next space, the rest of the group repeats their name. (Can they place their name in the space? Are they comfortable speaking on their own? Where are their eyes looking?)
  • Rhythmic Call-and-Response. I clap a rhythm, the group copies it back to me in unison. I keep it fairly simple, but briskly-paced. (Can they imitate rhythms accurately? If it is a more difficult one, do they improve with repetition? How is their physical coordination?)
  • Accumulative rhythms. A simple rhythm is passed around the circle one by one, with each person continuing to clap it after they have passed it on. Once the group is familiar with the need to wait for it to come to them, I start up a new rhythm, which is then copied by the person next to me. In this way, we can have multiple rhythms taking place at the same time and it challenges the participants’ listening, focus and rhythmic skills. (How do those at the end of the circle – next to me, but the last to receive my rhythms – cope with being the last to change patterns? Which participants are quick to learn new rhythms? What tactics do they employ when they find it hard to understand a rhythm – eg. looking further back along the line for a clear guide? Are they able to stay on task and focused during this longer exercise?)

Group Planning (3 minutes)
We sit on the floor in a circle. The group knows that by the end of the hourlong workshop we will have composed a piece of music together. We ask them what they would like to compose a piece about – to suggest a theme or topic.

My tactic is to take the first idea that is offered. We only have an hour – not enough time to deliberate for long. Also, I want to demonstrate that all ideas are welcome and accepted. Nothing gets knocked back. It is our job to make all the ideas work. But by taking the first idea, I also don’t end up with a dozen unconnected ideas to try and fit together in one small piece!

At the end of this process we divide into three groups – each one led by one of the three adult musicians.

Skills Development – inventing rhythms and arranging them (10 mins)

It is likely that few if any of these participants have taken part in a creative music workshop before, or in a group composing process. Thus I want to ensure they have one effective, reliable strategy for coming up with musical content.

Working with the theme we have chosen, we explore it together a little further to find three ways of depicting it, or an element of it. Our first ‘theme’ yesterday was in fact a story, so we divided that into three clear sections, and assigned one to each group. The second workshop chose ‘birthdays’ as its theme. Not the most inspiring topic in my opinion, but it was what they came up with! Together we brainstormed different ‘aspects’ of birthdays (parties, presents, cake, candles, The Queen’s Birthday) and then the small groups each chose one aspect to depict further.

This Skills Development period is the first ‘composing’ task of the workshop. Each group has to come up with a sentence or phrase, related to what they need to depict. They then find a way to say this phrase rhythmically, using the syllables of the words to generate a rhythm, and then practising it as a group so that all are in agreement and can perform it in unison.

The groups then try clapping their rhythm, and if this goes well, arranging it in some way using different body percussion sounds.

The groups then perform to each other before recieving the next task.

Composing instrumental pieces (20 mins)

The three groups go off into separate spaces with their instruments. The task is to create a short piece together, using the rhythm they have just invented and applying it to an instrument, or group of instruments, playing it on one note, or on a series of different notes, and building a piece up from that idea. the adult musicians will field the process, but look to the young musicians for ideas, notes, content.

One of my tactics is to ask the young players for their ‘favourite note’, or ‘favourite scale’. It is quite possible that they don’t have a favourite, but I find that this line of questioning means that they offer suggestions for pitches that they feel comfortable playing, that will not tax them unduly, or make them feel anxious. In the composing process we want to keep away from the stress that comes from technically difficult things – we want to get the music happening first, and worry about technique later.

I find the participants often have lots of ideas for structuring ideas.  It is good to throw this part of the process open to them. ‘What should we start with?” “What happens next?” “How should we finish this section?”

Rehearsing (10 mins)

Ideally in a project, more time would be allowed for rehearsing, but in these speedy one-hour ‘taster’ workshops we skimp somewhat. The three groups return and play their compositions to each other.

As director, I decide an order for performance. i am also listening out for other possibilities. For example, a cool little groove set up by one of the groups worked beautifully as an extra layer to the song that another group had written to end their piece. In our rehearsal time, we were able to try putting these two elements together, teaching the chorus of the song to the third group so that they could sing it too, and then talking through a plan for this change with everyone so that all understood how it would work.

Performance (5 mins)

We invite the waiting parents and family members back into the space to hear what has been created. We perform the music from each group without pausing for applause in between, so that we maintain a flow of music and encourage a focus from both participants and audience beyond each child’s own group performance.

Post-workshop discussion…

The musicians and I work through the list of participants and note the strengths of each one.  We will take 24 young musicians into the year-long Ensemble program this year. We have another day of workshops next Saturday.

It is always likely that some great candidates will miss out simply through being at the younger end of the age bracket. (Because we don’t allow children to be part of the year-long program for more than one year, and because we have an upper age limit, if we are trying to decide between two ideal candidates and one is older than the other, the older will probably get in, simply because the younger one has more opportunities in future years). We steer all those that miss out, particularly the younger ones, towards the Saturday Jam program as a way of keeping in touch with the Outreach workshop program and maintaining contact with the Orchestra’s activities.

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6 comments so far

  1. […] also act as a way of ‘auditioning’ possible candidates for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble (read about this process here). In 2011 they will be on 5-6 February, just after I get back from Timor Leste. So if you are […]

  2. […] day after getting home I did two days of workshops at ArtPlay, as part of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble year-long program of activities. These workshops were focused […]

  3. […] This one, the “workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids” that I use to kick off the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program at the start of each year […]

  4. […] aiming to provoke unexpected possibilities. You can read more about the Open Workshop process here (the “Workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids” – one of my most popular […]

  5. […] Read here to learn more about how children are selected to be part of the program each year. Workshops for the 2013 Ensemble will take place at ArtPlay on 2-3 February 2013. […]

  6. […] 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). […]


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