Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Things the Pelican Primary School Choir learned at their concert

Last night the Pelican Primary School Choir gave their first public performance under my direction. They were invited to sing at a special Mayor’s Community Function, for the local city hall. They were the only child performers (no other schools were there), and they were the only performance item  – the other musical performers were roving jazz musicians.

They performed beautifully, and were incredibly chuffed with themselves. The entire experience was a positive one, in which lots was learned. I rely on these kinds of experiences to make sense of music learning for the children. They provide context for everything they do with me in class, and provide a strong motivation for working hard in music classes. Here are some of the things I think were learned or revealed last night.

1. This was an authentic performance experience.

They performed to an audience of adults. A sympathetic audience, yes, but not made up of parents or teachers or other members of the school community. These were strangers giving the Pelicans their full attention, who responded with delight to the performance. This was not something just for kids, playing at being a performance. This was a real, serious, important, formal event, at which they were the stars.

2. They have to place their trust in the conductor

Before we performed I gave them the little pep talk I give all the child performers I work with. “Once we are on the stage,” I told them, “I want you to give me your whole focus. Look at me. Other people might be taking photos, or smiling, and you might think it is polite to look at them. But I want you to look at me. After we have finished performing, there will be lots of time for smiling and photos. But while we are singing, I want you to only think about the songs, and to keep your eyes on me.”

I think children need to hear this. They need to be reminded that a performance space is a precious, ephemeral space, that they are in control of. They need permission to look away from the eagerly supportive parent who is urging them to smile for the camera.

They also need to trust me, that I will support them and help them give the best possible performance. I reassure them that if they get out there and feel strange or nervous or unsure, all they need to do is look at me, and I will be able to help them. I will be able to mouth the words, to show them where we are up to. I will be able to smile at them, and help them relax. I will not take my eyes away from them for a second.

3. They learned that I can cover any mistakes, so that this is not a burden or stress they need to carry

One girl had an additional role – she played the metalophone at the start of one of the songs. She was very nervous when the time came, and only looked at me for a second before looking down at her instrument. She started to play before I had counted her in, so I joined in with her. She got confused about the number of repetitions in the chord structure, so began to change chords at random.

I could tell she was confused. I accompanied her, following her irregular changes, but all the while, whenever she got back to the first chord in the progression, whispering the repetition numbers to her (as we had practised them) until she got back on track. Then we repeated the progression a few more times, so that she could hear it was indeed solid and steady and fine.

She also learned that she had to keep going, until she found her way through the confusion. I could help her with this, but she also found the confidence to keep going, rather than to falter and stop. That instrumental section returned three times throughout the piece, and every other time she performed it perfectly. At the end she gave me a tiny smile of relief and, I think, pride.

4. They learned the importance of presenting themselves with poise

We organised ourselves into a line to walk out in. We planned how the children playing instruments would leave their places in the formation, and how they would return to them at the end of the song. We talked about standing with two feet evenly on the ground, hands by sides, looking towards me. They did all of this so beautifully, I think the two teachers from the school who’d come with us were quite taken aback.

I think most people in the audience fell a little bit in love with my soloist on the night. This was a little Grade Two boy, with a bright and confident manner, who sang the opening verse to our final song before being joined by the rest of the choir. I asked him to stand in front of the choir when he sang his solo, and to step back into the line when his solo was finished. I never needed to remind him of this, he did it exactly as I had asked, each time. Very professional!

As he sang, he sang out. He sang in a confident voice. He smiled as he stepped back into line. Hearts melted (although I expect his parents’ hearts swelled with pride).

On reflection, he was the perfect choice as a soloist (and to be honest, I am still new enough in the school that I don’t always know how individuals will react when I pose a challenge for them). He took it seriously, and he never once doubted himself. He never giggled or got self-conscious. He never let himself get distracted by other children in rehearsals trying to distract him. And thus, he created the perfect template for the choir of what it means to do a solo, and what it requires of you.

And of course, when we present ourselves with poise and confidence, we enhance our feelings of confidence. Perhaps, even if only on a subtle level, the students also learned this.

5. They learned what they have to offer

This is a school where many students struggle. They may struggle with life skills, or academically, or socially, or because they are under-nourished, or because they don’t get much attention in their big chaotic families. Taking part in this concert, and being applauded, showed them that they have much to offer, especially when they work together. The music for this concert – four songs, all with actions or arrangements to be memorised – was worked on over many weeks. I fervently, strenuously hope that they might now recognise how all of those weeks was a progression towards this kind of outcome, and how great outcomes like this are completely within their reach, when they put in the work.

6. They learned that I have expectations of them…

… and that I won’t accept less. That this is what being in an ensemble means, and that we are only going to do it in an authentic, meaningful way. That the fun comes while you’re working hard. And that I am very proud of them.

They also will soon learn that these kinds of performances bring further rewards. The local council paid us a performance fee and we are going to put that towards some new instruments. Today I talked with one of the local music stores about bringing a selection of instruments up to the school during choir time so that the choir people can help select what we buy with that money. This way, they will get to enjoy the material contribution they have made to the school through their hard word too. I’m planning to put together a price check-list for them, and let them circle the instruments they think we should buy (up to the maximum money we have to spend). I’ll then make the final decision.


Chocolate hunger

On reflection (and upon pondering the additional ‘winter coat’ I seem to have gained around my middle over the last few months) I realise that I have been craving a lot more sweet things this year – in particular chocolate.

Why could this be? I’m no longer dealing with the humungus amounts of stress that I used to have to cope with (related to the orchestra, where I no longer work). I do lots of exercise – swimming or running most days, travelling everywhere by bike – so I should be chocablock full of endorphin-things. I eat healthy food for all my meals. I used to crave apples when I wanted a sugar hit, for goodness sake!

Can I blame the supermarkets, who have developed an annoying tendency to offer significant discounts for multiple purchases of Lindt chocolate (my favourite)? It means I end up with chocolate in the fridge which I’d never normally have.

I commented on this phenomenon to another teacher at Pelican PS, as we unlocked our bikes at the end of another fairly highly-strung day and she laughed, and told me that for her, the entire ride home is consumed with thoughts of the bottle of Coke in the fridge.

So maybe that is the new factor – Pelican Primary School. Perhaps the highly-charged, slightly volatile (while at the same time filled with creative energy and humour) atmosphere of the school is depleting me of some essential nutrient that chocolate seems to fill, and so I hunger for it when I get home from school.

Well – no more! It has to stop! I shall go back to being the person who doesn’t have a chocolate hunger.

I’ll just finish those last few pieces of the last block in my fridge.

Thoughts on concert-going

It’s occurred to me recently that going to a concert is no longer the huge attraction it once was. In the past, concerts were opportunities for connection with other performers, with friends and colleagues (both on the stage and in the audience), and to be moved or transfixed by the music.

Nowadays, I feel more reticent to head out. Perhaps this is a result of too many Melbourne Festival tickets bought for performances that failed to please. Perhaps it is a delayed reaction to the many, many orchestral concerts I went to, in the days that I worked for an orchestra. Mostly though, I have to confess that it is a response to the growing sense that I often have after going to a concert (or any other performance) of a kind of blankness, when I wake up the next day and have absolutely no reaction to it. It is simply…. nothing, really. An experience that hasn’t really impacted on me (in the true sense of the word) in any way. It isn’t about ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.

It seems a ridiculously tall order, but I want my performance-going to be life-changing. I want to come home and have it rolling over in my head, again and again. Questions, or issues, or ideas, or challenges, or puzzles to ponder. Or delights, or a remembered experience of connection with the music and the expression of the artists.

It has become a kind of assessment tool, in a way, prior to buying tickets. “Will it be worth it?” by which I mean the investment of effort and the time on my part, rather than the actual cost.

Last week I went to the Melbourne Recital Centre to hear the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra perform three works under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner. Andrew Marriner (his son) played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

How was this concert for me, given the above criteria? Well, I know that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the company I was with, and I very much enjoyed the orchestra’s playing, as I haven’t heard them for quite a few years.

I loved Andrew Marriner’s performance of the clarinet concerto. It’s a piece I know very, very well, and it was truly a delight to hear such familiar lines being performed so well. There is a delightful fluency, or lightness, in the writing. (I know, it is silly to comment on the delicious craft of Mozart’s writing as we all know he was a genius… but truly, this is such a wonderful piece, and as I listened to it I was reminded of this again, and again, and again…). I enjoyed noticing some of the interpretive decisions Marriner made – his choices in articulation, or in cadenza. I know that he studied with the same teacher I studied with for a year, so I listened for ‘Hans-isms’ in his playing too.

But here is the life-changing bit: it made me want to go straight home and dig out my well-loved score of the concerto, and my Music Minus One CDs, and play it again! I think this is a fine concert experience to have. It reminded me of how I loved playing this piece, way back in my classical performing days, how much I love its phrases, harmonies and structures still, and that these are still there for me to return to, whenever I want.

I haven’t yet had time to get my clarinet out, but I shall, very soon. And I am looking forward to revisiting the Mozart Concerto when I do.

On another note, I realised that night that the traditional concert length no longer suits me. I would have been happy to go home after the Mozart, as there was so much to digest and process from the experience of the first half of the concert. This is absolutely not meant as a disparaging comment on what took place in the second half. The second half of the program was a new work by the Melbourne-based composer (and virtuoso organist) Calvin Bowman. He wrote a song cycle, English in tone and turn, with echoes of Finzi, Delius and even Michael Head and Warlock (to my ears) which was absolutely gorgeous, filled with light and shade and colour. We had the treat of hearing the songs performed by a lovely soprano, Jacqueline Porter… so really, it was all quite delightful.

However, as we walked to the car, I commented to John my companion that the first half of the concert now felt like a distant memory, our heads were so full of the most recent piece we had heard.

Thus, I find myself fully in favour of shorter concerts that allow patrons adequate time for reflection and digestion. Or perhaps concerts with a dinner break between the first and second halves.

Air guitar

It’s End-Of-Year Concert time at Pelican Primary School so I am busy working with each class to prepare an item. With one class  I offered them a choice- we could either learn a song by Green Day, or we could write a song together. They chose to write a song together (though the following week told me that, really, this has been their teacher’s choice, and they had really wanted to do the Green Day song. But by then it was too late, our song was written).

The song we’ve written is a classic rock song called Long Summer Holiday. It has two verses, two pre-chorus ‘ramps’ that build up our energy, a rockin’ out chorus that most of us need to sing in a seventies falsetto, and a raging guitar solo in the instrumental break.

The best thing is, it’s going to be an air guitar solo. This started out as a joke, a bit of hamming up by one of the students. But then I thought, why not? It will be vocal improvising, it will be theatrical, and it will be a fabulously original piece of content in the concert.

Yesterday, we made a rough recording of the song so that they could keep the CD in their classroom and start working on some staging ideas (backing singers, drum kits, dancers, etc). I recorded the air guitar solos too. Two boys wanted to have a try, so I got them to take it in turns. I was surprised by how well it worked (oh ye of little faith, G) – they had an excellent feel for the kind of melodic and rhythmic motifs that could be used, they both ended up on their knees, and they got the hang of tag-teaming the solos so that there were no gaps in between.

Go home and google ‘air guitar’ I suggested at the end of the class. “I bet you’ll be able to find some great clips of people…. watch what they do with their hands and face and body… and listen to how they use their voice.” Study these to get more ideas, I suggested to the boys.

Without a doubt though, the real enthusiasm for this rock song project came about when their teacher suggested they could dress up, put gel in their hair, make mohawks, etc. That’s when they started to grab hold of the project with both hands.

I’m really delighted with this air guitar thing. Of course, it could all go horribly wrong. Pelican students aren’t known for their ability to recognise the fine line between funny performance and just being silly (‘being giddy’, my mother used to call it, that level of giggling silliness that kids get into and have difficulty breaking out of). So I need to be quite stern and serious, to make sure they instill it with some performance discipline so that they don’t crack up laughing when they are in front of their peers, and some strong musical qualities.

I think they’ll get there. The two boys who’ve volunteered are pretty committed to the whole idea, with one following up on the google idea the moment he got home.

Directed or creative?

My teaching style usually emphasises creative projects with children where they are actively engaged in inventing music, and seeking out solutions to musical problems or challenges. However, it needs to be said that this approach (which I believe to be far richer pedagogically, leading to deep musical understanding among children) can be very demanding on the teacher:

  • It requires you to think on your feet, constantly ready to respond to the music as it emerges from the children’s efforts;
  • My creative projects often span several weeks, if not the whole term, so there can be quite a lot of planning and developing that needs to take place between each lesson;
  • When children get over-excited through the freedom of the process (which can happen, and is quite an issue at Pelican PS), then a huge amount of energy needs go into simply containing them and keeping the process on track. It is this last point that I think I find the most debilitating sometimes.

By the time Term 4 started, I knew I was feeling pretty weary. It has been a busy year of projects! The children were too, so I decided to develop a number of ‘directed’ projects for us all, projects that would involve playing and singing, but primarily through learning material, rather than inventing it.

It has proved a good tactic. At the Language School, the Middle Primary class with its very particular group of demanding, narcissistic boys has really benefited from learning specific, pre-existing material. There had been too much hijacking of creative tasks in previous terms, in terms of disruptive behaviour, and tantrums when collaborative processes didn’t go their way, and things felt much calmer this term.

Here’s a rundown of the kinds of things we’ve done:

Lower Primary – Learning the song Ho ho watanay and developing accompaniments (some learned, some invented). Lots of instruments, and detailed structure to memorise.

Middle Primary – Learning the song Ah ya zahn (traditional song in Arabic from Lebanon) with various learned instrumental accompaniments. This song introduced the children to thefull chromatic glockenspiels, and they learned to play the melody, with its wonderfully twisting, middle-eastern mode.

Upper Primary – Learning the song Sakura form Japan (both in Japanese and in the English translation that I wrote some years ago). The UP students also created new melodic material on glockenspiels, using a Japanese mode (take off all the Gs and Ds so that you are left with F-A-B-C-E). I asked them to think of a flower or plant that is special to the country they come from. From these suggestions we developed three spoken phrases, with rhythms implied by the syllables of the words. Then, working in teams, they selected notes from the mode in order to make a melody to this rhythm. Their words included:

Hababa flower, many colours (from Ethiopia, Oromo people)

Some big, some small, pink, purple, white and blue

Yellow sunflower, follows the sun (suggested by an Assyrian boy from Iraq)

Shishke on the Christmas tree, all the year round (from a Russian girl)

At Pelican Primary School, things have been similarly structured:

Preps and Grade Ones have invented their own simple version of the song Driving in my car (originally by the UK pop group Madness). These are very cute songs. We’re trying to add instruments, and on a good day, it all comes together.

Grade ones and Twos are singing The Earth is our mother and have created several melodic phrases inspired by sentences that describe ways to keep the planet healthy.

Grades 3 and 4 have learned to sing Ah Ya Zahn and developed similar accompaniments to those that I’ve taught at the Language School.

However, my Pelican Primary School experiences are making me re-think a lot of the creative work that I do. These children have so much creative energy, but zero internal discipline (as a group) to hold their focus long enough to make something work. In my experience, this kind of constant distraction, or distractedness, is quite common in schools where there are high numbers of refugee-background students. These kids have so much to gain from well-managed, clearly-structured creative processes. However, many of the tactics I have developed at the Language School have been proving too loose for the children at Pelican PS.

I’ve spoken about this with some of the other teachers, and they confirm that this lack of capacity to engage well with creative tasks occurs in other classes too. “Even just having a discussion about something with the class is very difficult in this school,” one teacher admitted. The disciplines of listening to each other, taking turns, not interrupting or shouting another person down, aren’t really present.

In music too, more open tasks make many of the students feel uncertain about what is expected of them, and this uncertainty (coupled perhaps with general insecurities, and the abstract nature of music in the first place) sees them go off-task very quickly, and just make random noise.

I’ve written before (see here) about the way the Pelican students seem to respond to noise in general, and specifically to multiple sources of sound in music. Little by little I am realising that the strategies I’ve been developing for ESL/ELL students in the Language School can’t be transferred here automatically. The students in the Language School have a far greater capacity to focus and remain engaged.  Perhaps the length of general classroom focus is always determined by the shortest attention span – or the shortest attention span among the more dominant class members!

There are lots of children from refugee backgrounds at Pelican Primary School. If we think about survival skills – being able to stand up for yourself, and get what you need for you and your family, making sure your voice is heard over the top of many other voices, making sure you are never at the end of a line, no matter what, being quick to react to any new potential threats around you, and learning to respond to a constantly chaotic environment – then we can see a kind of progression from those survival tactics to the common strategies employed by many students in the school. Lots of shouting over each other, interrupting conversations (often not noticing if said conversation is even taking place!), turning heads to watch whatever is taking place elsewhere in the room, and so on.

I feel very sure that music can offer these children opportunities  and motivation to break some of these patterns, and to experience themselves as learners in a different way. Creative music-making offers the additional benefit of a sense of ownership over the music, a validation and endorsement of one’s own contributions to the process, a deep understanding of the music from the inside out, and a powerful means of self-expression and individual voice. But I do need to figure out some new and powerful ways into creative music that scaffold each of the smallest of steps, and offer tangible experiences of success and delight to the students in as short a period of time as possible, due to those peskily short attention spans. Those experiences of success and delight are the key to their motivation to continue working cooperatively with me and with each other.

Learning lyrics in a new language

The Lower Primary class I teach at the Melbourne English Language School is very sweet – lots of energy and goodwill, and an impressive ability to focus as a group and make some coherent music together. This term we have been with two traditional songs from Canada (Iroquois, I belive) – Ho ho watanay and Canoe song.

Both these songs can be accompanied with a simple 2-chord pattern. I tend to play them in D minor, with the second chord being C. The chord progression is Dmin | Dmin | C | Dmin.

It’s been a lovely project. We’ve worked out some accompanying patterns on glockenspiels, which they’ve invented themselves, and we’ve added in some drums. We’ve tried singing both Ho ho watanay and The Canoe Song as partner songs, and we’ve tried them as rounds.

For these young English learners, Ho ho watanay is the simpler of the two, as the lyrics are repetitive, and are just a series of simple sounds to be memorised:

Ho ho watanay, ho ho watanay

Ho ho watanay, kee-o-ka-na kee-o-ka-na

The Canoe song is more complicated, with lots of unfamiliar English words:

My paddle’s clean and bright, flashing with silver

Follow the wild goose flight, Dip, dip and swing.

They picked up on the ‘Dip, dip and swing’ line first and have always sung that with gusto. However, they struggle with ‘Follow the wild goose flight’ – lots of words, lots of syllables, a d-ending followed by a g- beginning… and other similar challenges. Last week I devised some simple warm-up games to get them to repeat this line and become more confident with it:

  1. Pass The Sound – this is a Game we play every week, where a single sound (usually a clap, a ssshh, or other vocal or body percussion sounds) gets passed one by one around the circle. It’s like Chinese Whispers except the intention is for the sound to copied accurately every time. To bring the focus on the lyrics, I passed around single words like ‘follow’ or ‘goose’ or ‘wild’. Then I strung two words together, such as ‘wild goose’ and ‘goose flight’. Then we moved onto three-word strings – ‘wild goose flight’ or ‘follow the wild’. Lastly we sent the whole phrase ‘follow the wild goose flight’ around the circle. The children enjoyed the predictability of this game, but it also gave them a chance to hear their own voice pronouncing these unfamiliar sounds (and to hear that others in the group were also struggling).
  2. How Many Words? – I know that when I am learning a new language it helps if I can visualise how the sounds separate into different words. I asked the Lower Primary children to tell me how many words were in each line of the song (particularly this difficult line) by counting on their fingers as they said the line aloud.
  3. Hocketting– Lastly we said the line one word at a time, around the circle. Then we tried saying the whole song like this.

The children remained engaged throughout all these tactics. It gave me a chance to hear and assist the children who are often very silent during singing tasks, and to encourage them to try these words aloud, and in the context of the song. The singing of the song became much more confident. I’ll have to wait until next Tuesday to find out how much has been retained!

Composing with the musical alphabet (again)

For the first four weeks of term I took on some extra classes at MELS (the Language School), teaching three of the secondary classes. With one, I decided to revisit a project I have done before, where the students and I brainstorm all the words we can spell with the letters A to G (the white notes of the musical alphabet – see here for a comprehensive list of possible words). I then asked them to string two or three of the words together to make a melodic phrase. This is an interesting task for English Language Learners, as they get to transfer their emerging written-language knowledge into the music classroom.

I then helped them arrange these different melodic phrases into a structure, worked out some suitable accompanying chords on the guitar, their class teacher wrote some (nonsensical, but fun) lyrics, and we had a song!

Here is some of our brainstorming:


Ringing the Changes

One of my favourite performances in this year’s Melbourne Festival was the music/performance piece by Strange Fruit, Ringing the Changes. It was created especially for the bell field of Federation Bells at Birrarung Marr. Each of the bells in the field has a specific pitch and sits at the top of a tall pole, and Strange Fruit perform mesmerising dance/visual/physical theatre pieces atop long bendy poles, so really, this was a match made in heaven. Composer Graeme Leak was commissioned to write the work, taking into account which bells the different performers would be able to reach within the radius afforded by their bendy pole.

The whole piece was masterfully conducted by Timothy Phillips. Here are a couple of photos:



I like the way Tim appears to be suspended in midair. It was quite a feat to conduct the work (including several sections of audience participation, which required him to swivel around to face the audience instead of the performers) without losing his centre of balance. I also like the iconic view of the MCG and its ring of lights, in the background of this photo.

The City Beats children were involved in the first performance, taking part in the audience participation sections which required them to play on tin cans with chopsticks and teaspoons. They were so thrilled by the whole event.

Winding back…

The Armidale project marked the end of a very busy few months of projects – between now and January 30th I have no more ‘special projects’ to lead. I still have my usual teaching load in schools, and I have some papers to mark for the university, and some minor additions to make to my Masters thesis before get the final binding done, but I don’t need to plan for any more big projects for a while now. Lots of plans to put in place for 2010, however – the year is looking very full already, which is incredibly gratifying. I’ve received some fabulous invitations to work with different organisations and people around the country.

The last couple of months have been focused on:

  • Writing papers and articles – I wrote three academic papers between October and November and submitted them for forthcoming conferences in 2010. I think I have a journal article left in me now – probably something a bit more substantial, around 5000 words perhaps. Not sure when I’ll write this – maybe when I get stuck into my thesis corrections.
  • Leading Jams with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – the last of these was on October 31st. We jammed on the Lebanese song Ah Ya Zahn, a song I first learned to sing in Bosnian, while working at the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar 1998 (where we called it Ah Ya Ti. I like the Bosnian words better!)
  • Leading a collaborative project between the MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble and the Chordwainers, an ensemble of performers who play on the leather instruments of Garry Greenwood. A very successful, interesting project with a great musical outcome.
  • Teaching the last classes for the year at Melbourne Uni – the Bachelor of Ed students and the MTeach students. Some very interesting sessions, and lots learned by all.
  • Continuing my usual primary (elementary) school teaching load at Pelican Primary and the Melbourne English Language School for new arrivals (these are both pseudoynms). It has been a bit hard-going this term. The students are tired. I am tired. And the Pelicans in particular get incredibly unfocussed and distracted when they are tired. And there are a few tricky, subversive student elements at MELS that I find rather testing this term. But we are getting there… we will get there…!
  • I also got to have a few days away with Tony at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival. He was playing (and played fabulously, as always)…. I sat in the shade, grooved along while drinking local wine, and chilled out, basically. The day after the festival we stayed in the area and went off to Mount Buffalo for a walk up to the Cathedral and Hump, where we perched awhile on a rock, before heading back down.

So it has been a busy term (we are now up to Week 6 of an eleven-week term). I’m happy to be winding back a little bit now, in terms of inventing new projects and coming up with innovative and imaginative ideas. My brain is looking forward to a bit more open creative space.

A couple of shots of Tony in action at Wang:

Tiny 2


‘Excursions’ in Armidale

I’ve just got back to Melbourne from Armidale, NSW, where I had the privilege of working once again with the wonderful staff and students of the New England Conservatorium of Music. I was up at NECOM last year, leading a composition project for the Australian Youth Orchestra and the Armidale Youth String Orchestra. This year’s project was with the AYSO again (who get new players each year, so only some had worked with me on last year’s project) and four fabulous musician-teachers.

I called the project “Excursions” and our starting point was a pile of brochures and tourist information from the Armidale Tourist Information Centre. The AYSO members grabbed random sentences and phrases from the brochures, turned these into spoken riffs, developed short vocal pieces using these riffs, and then transferred the pieces to their instruments, each group sticking to a mode of their choosing.

I use a similar project model to that which I’ve developed for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble – 2 intensive days of creating, then rehearsing, finishing with a performance at the end of the second day. We created nearly 15 minutes of original music in Armidale this year. The process goes a bit like this:

  • The children work in a small group of 5 or 6, and are supported by one of the musician-teachers. They work on their own unique piece, using the riffs they have already developed, and the mode they have chosen. I go from group to group, monitoring how things are going, offering suggestions or guidance if needed. This takes up the main part of the first day.
  • Then we bring all the small groups together and hear each others’ pieces. I take notes about the structure and content of each of the pieces, listening out for sections that might enhanced by having the whole ensemble play them, or for elements that might benefit from the stabilising influence of a bass-line, or something percussive or vocal, or having a musician from one of the other groups join in.
  • We spend most of the second day all together, and go through each of the pieces in detail. I stop and start things, getting the small group members to teach their music to the rest of the ensemble, in the places that I’ve already identified. In this way, we start to create one large, seamless piece, rather than four discrete short pieces. We figure out musical ways to transition from one piece the the next, and create moments in each piece where the whole ensemble will be playing. As you can imagine, this process is very demanding of the young players. They essentially have to sit there, listening as the different groups play, and ready to join in, and learn a new part – from memory – at any point! These are young players aged 8 to 13! It is demanding and I always warn them about this. But I think for many of them, it also proves to be an important learning environment, because they are engaged in a very authentic music-creating task, and can offer their own solutions to some of the musical problems I raise.
  • Once we have worked through each of the small group pieces and planned the transitions, we play through the work. We generally need three play-throughs before a performance. In the first one, we will just be recalling all the decisions we have made, and mapping out the work in our heads or on paper as we go. The second play-through tends to be much more cohesive – the music sticks together more, and a critical mass of players usually remembers enough to keep the transitions flowing. However, the second play-through also tends to highlight those sections that we haven’t quite got around to fixing yet – a messy finish, for example, or an awkward section transition where this is still a bit of doubt in the group. The third play-through is usually very fluent, and I tend to record these, in addition to the performances.

In Armidale this year we didn’t get to do a third play-through. I think we all felt this in the performance – the piece felt a little ‘fragile’, with a couple of hesitant moments. However, I’ve just finished listening to the recording I made of the performance (just using my MacBook’s built-in mic and Garageband) and it sounds really, really impressive! We had made a very complex piece, and in fact it hangs together extremely well.

There is usually an incredible intensity to the way young players perform a piece like this. That is in part due to the fact that it is entirely memorised, and they have learned it in a fairly segemented way, for the most part. If they allow themselves to get distracted even for a moment, they find it very difficult to drop back into their part. Also, the music becomes a kind of journey for them, I think. They have been so intimately involved in all the decisions leading to its creation, so there is much to hold their attention. And because they are not reading from a part, they need to keep up their intensive listening and engagement while they are not playing, in order to know where to come in again. There isn’t a set number of beats rest to keep count of – rather, they are waiting for musical and visual cues.

I end up with multiple themes from the music buzzing around in my head for days. Yesterday, on the plane home, it was D’s cello solo, that she had invented, and that had caused her a certain amount of stress. Today, it is the perky riff that C played to go with the vocal riff “Tickle the tamest trout”. (Presumably that phrase came from a tourist brochure for a trout farm experience…). Big thanks and congratulations to all the musicians – young and less-young – who were part of this project.