Project wrap-up – May

I’ve come to the end of my crazy-busy month of May. I think it will prove to be my busiest month of the year, in terms of the range of projects I’ve done. Here’s a bit of a run-down/wrap-up:

Jam with MSO in Ballarat

Five musicians and I took the Tarrago up the Western Highway to Ballarat for the afternoon. We did a one-hour Jam with a group of children and parents. The kids were aged from about 3 upwards, I’d say.

As is often the case with the Jams, we had very little knowledge beforehand of who would be turning up, and what instruments might be there. Fortunately, this project took place in a music shop, and the store manager was very easy-going about letting us use a big range of percussion instruments from the floor stock. We shared these out among the participants and started by asking for ideas of ‘words’, or themes that we could base some improvisations around. In the end, we had the words ‘love’ and ‘machinery’ (“Love machinery?” suggested one of the MSO musicians with a bit of a devilish glint in his eye. Only one of the parents giggled along with me… so we decided to drop that particular emphasis and treat them as two separate words. Ahem).

Other inspiration came from the group of young guitarists taking part. The one thing they all seemed to agree on was Smoke on the Water. We try and build the Jams around original material, rather than pre-existing stuff, so I asked him to disguise the riff in some way so that its ‘smoke on the water‘-ness was hidden. That worked… in the end we had a very rhythmic improvisation on the idea of ‘machinery’ and some quite sublime, meditative, hypnotic music on the theme of ‘love’. We bridged the two ideas with some ‘spooky sounds’ that our young beginner violinist was particularly keen on, and then performed the two pieces in succession, with great focus and commitment. The hour passed by quickly and we left with many exhortations to return.

Alphabet Dance

I’ve already written about this project – I kicked May off in style with a two-hour workshop with Song Room Teaching Artists, inventing an alphabet of dance moves, and then compiling them into an ‘Astronomy’ theme. That was another joyous workshop.

MTeach students at Melbourne University

I did a couple of guest lectures at Melbourne University, presenting the ideas I’ve been developing as part of my Masters research that look at music pedagogy in an ESL context. I’m going to be presenting a one-hour workshop as part of the ASME (Australian Society of Music Educators) conference in Tasmania in July on the same topic, so I was able to use these lectures as a bit of a trial run.

I started with a powerpoint presentation that gives a bit of a rundown of the Language School environment in which I work. The idea was to move through that pretty swiftly, so that we could get on to some more hands-on tasks; however, the background and context is important, because the pedagogy only really began to emerge and consolidate when I had a better understanding of the nuances of the school environment and the particular needs of the students.

Focus on warm-up games…

We then did a practical workshop looking at a typical warm-up series of activities. I see the warm-up games I do as being very much a foundation on which key skills can be learned, while at the same time creating a playful, creative, and non-judging environment. I introduced them to the name games I use, turn-taking and sound-invention games, the Clap/Sssh/HiYa! game that I have described in earlier posts, and the stick passing game (also written about earlier) with song added.

What surprised me with both the student groups was that these games were clearly new to them. I was amazed to think that they would never have come across some of these quite straight-forward, simple (yet effective) music games before. Such a gap in a music teacher’s knowledge! The games I use in my warm-ups are essential. I’d be a poorer teacher without them, I’m sure.

Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra project

This last weekend I was up in the Shoalhaven region (just south of Sydney, a very beautiful part of the world). The Orava string quartet is in residence at Bundanon (the artists’ residency/retreat on the property that belonged to Arthur Boyd and that he gave to the Australian people), as part of their Australian Youth Orchestra Regional Residency, and I went up to lead an education project with them and young local musicians from the Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra.

I devised a project around the Shoalhaven River, historical events that were connected with the river, and artworks by Arthur Boyd that connected with the river and the local region in some way. As a whole group, we created a rolling, anthemic piece of ‘river music’, and used this to link four separate movements, created by smaller groups of SYO players led by a member of the Orava Quartet.

I listened to the recordings today. I’m feeling very satisfied with this project, I must say! Musically it has a strong, clear shape. The writing is lovely and very effective in terms of its story-telling and use of tone colour and texture. The playing is also strong – I feel like we created a project that had challenges for all the players, regardless of their level of experience on their instrument. Our starting points for the compositions were:

  • The dramatic double-drowning fatality that occurred on the Bundanon property around 1902. Two members of the Mackenzie family (resident at Bundanon) lost their lives in the river, and it was because of this that they eventually left the area, and the property fell into disrepair for many years.
  • The iconic rock formations that line the Shoalhaven in its stretch in Bundanon (a photo I took of the Pulpit Rock, one of these ‘icons’, is below).
  • The image of Hanging Rock and Bathers that shows two rocks jutting out above a soaring landscape, with a naked sunbather on each. There is a wonderful sense of them being suspended above the landscape and I asked the group to explore that idea of ‘suspension’ and air.
  • The creative energy of fire – Boyd’s Nebuchadnezzar series, in which his return to paint as a medium was fuelled by an intense ‘fire’ of inspiration, and ideas, and fervour.

Pulpit Rock

If you’ve seen the foyer of Melbourne’s State Theatre in the Arts Centre, you’ll recognise this rock formation – it appears throughout the foyer in the series of paintings Boyd was commissioned to create for the building’s opening.

Teacher Professional Development sessions

The other project I’ve had running this month is leading PD sessions with teachers for the Musica Viva in Schools (MVIS) program. MVIS sends small ensembles of musicians – all different musical genres – into schools throughout Australia. My role was to lead the session that introduces the accompanying teaching resources to the teachers, and with the help of the group, to inspire them and give them confidence to incorporate these materials into their teaching programs as much as possible.

This month I’ve worked with Southa Australian group The Rhythm Works, and Melbourne-based gamelan ensemble Byar. I’ve worked with Byar for a number of years now, but this was my first time working with The Rhythm Works and their Teaching Kit.

And we had good fun! Both groups have a lot of lively music, and there are some very engaging creative tasks that we veer off into. With The Rhythm Works, we explored graphic scores and improvisation. With Byar we get into Balinese monkey chanting, angklungs, and created a ‘vocal gamelan’. We went to Ararat and Benalla, as well as presenting in the metropolitan area.


Despite all those projects being so interesting, I’m gald to have the month of May coming to an end. It occurred to me this year that May is a busy month every year. I think May is the month of choice for these kinds of projects (that involve a bit of negotiation, additional coordination of outside people) because it gives schools and arts organisations a good chance to get settled into the year’s program after the summer holidays – anything earlier in the year will feel rushed. Later on in the year, other tasks will be more to the fore.

I think in previous years, it has taken me months to recover from May. This year, I’m hoping that, having identified the change of pace before it got started, I’ll have built in some defensive, protective mechanisms for myself. Like meditation and yoga each day. And taking it easier in my other teaching work, and my thesis.

Ah, the thesis…! Finishing that little baby is the focus for the month of June. Just edits and formatting remain to be done. I hope to submit it…. well, soon. Celebratory party to follow soon after.

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