‘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.

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