Piazzolla, syncopation – and a program finishes for the year

It’s school holidays, which for me means ArtPlay projects (ArtPlay being the fantastic children’s arts space in the heart of the city that Melbourne is so lucky to have). In the April and September school holidays I lead two separate ensemble projects at ArtPlay – the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, and City Beats (you can read about the April projects here). It makes for a full-on week straight after the full-on term finishes, but I love these groups. We make some fantastic music together.

The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble always takes inspiration from a piece of music they will hear the MSO perform shortly after completing their workshop days. This project however, had a newly-commissioned piece by Elena Kats-Chernin as its focus, so we decided to work with the same starting points or brief that Elena had been given by the MSO (music of Piazzolla) and take some short pieces of musical material from the score of her piece as well.

Piazzolla’s music is characterised by many things, but one that Elena focused on was his “strange harmonic twists”. Typically in our MSO ArtPlay projects we build pieces around modes, but this time I decided to get the group to work with chord progressions, and to practice adjusting their riffs and melodies to fit across a progression of chords. It wasn’t easy (the group is made up of children aged 8 – 13, and while some are very skilled on their instruments, others are only just getting started), but we took it slowly, chord by chord, and eventually we got the progression (and its accompanying riffs as invented by the group) sorted.

We also focused on syncopated rhythms, which has proved quite a theme for the whole year. In small groups, I asked them to invent a rhythm in 4/4 by establishing a clapped cycle of 8 beats (quavers, or eighth notes), and choosing 1-3 numbers to leave out (ie. not clap). This gave us 4 rhythms, all of which had syncoptated elements.I got them to perform these rhythms on their instruments, not with notes, but with percussive sounds they could make – slapping a cupped hand on the mouthpieces, swiftly dragging a resin-ed cloth over violin strings, tapping keys, etc. Sounded cool!

We also familiarised ourselves with the rhythm you get if you clap just numbers 1, 4 and 7 – the typical tango rhythm. We listened to some different Piazzolla examples – originals with him performing, and arrangements by other composers/orchestras – and the children could recognise this tango rhythm, and also tried counting out cycles of 8 under their breath to try and identify which numbers had been left out in other rhythms they could hear.

This was our last project together for the year, so it was an opportunity to cast my eye arond the group and note the kinds of developments and changes I’d seen over the year:

  • The clarinetist who took on an improvised solo each project, but in this third project was now really listening to what he was playing, slowing down enough to hear the music and have time to hear his ideas in his head before playing them. No more guessing and hoping for the best!
  • The serious young violinist who took part in three try-outs (in previous years) before being offered a place in this year’s ensemble. She is so quiet – one of those students you fear will get overlooked… but in the small groups she always had contributions to make, was always engaged, and locked the music into her memory as it evolved. She played a solo with her small group in this September project – a melodic line that she created herself and played with considerable assurance.
  • The young trumpeter with his somewhat unstable playing (in the tradition of young trumpeters everywhere) whose playing had just soared this project! I commented on it to his mother and she explained that he’d just been given a new trumpet, and was practising all the time. Such a difference a decent instrument makes to young players!
  • The very shy clarinetist whose contributions in the warm-up games became gradually more extrovert as the year went on. She remained quiet, but upon closer attention revealed many original ideas.
  • The flautist who is the youngest member of our group and who I suspect was occassionally a bit overwhelmed by all the boisterous big kids, but who is a lovely player. In this project, a brief explanation I gave her group about sequences in music, and how you can use them to build an improvisation, led to her performing a confident and musical improvised solo with her group, making rich use of sequential material
  • The cellist who plays beautifully but who struggled to make eye contact with any of us at the start of the year, still struggles to make eye contact with any of us! And still plays beautifully.
  • Another young trumpeter who grooved away during our syncopated rhythmic taps, and embellished our whole-ensemble choruses with extra notes, a few more each time. He was having a ball!

We will hopefully see many of these young players again, because now that they have finished their year in the MSO Artplay Ensemble, they become what we call Graduates, who can take part in a big range of creative projects throughout the year. The whole program between MSO and ArtPlay is into its 5th year now, and I am getting the privilege of seeing these young musicians grow and develop into their teenage years. That’s unusual for someone like me who usually works in schools or with groups for finite periods of time – unlike teachers in schools.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] As I did last year, I’ll reflect here on some of the musical journeys that I’ve seen different individuals in the group take over the course of this year: […]


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