Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Radio feature

‘Thinking about forever…’ was featured on ABC Radio National’s Music Show last Saturday. I loved hearing what the young musicians had to say about their involvement in this project – how they described the processes we used in the workshops, and what it was like to revisit that material via Matthew Hindson’s score. They speak about their initial alarm at seeing the unconventional notation he had used in some parts of the score – despite the fact that this was notating musical ideas that they had already performed!

I’m there too, as is Matthew Hindson, and Steve from the ACO. It’s a very engaging feature, I think, and describes this complex and ambitious project well. You can download the audio or transcript here.

Sharing songs

I am nearly on my way to East Timor. Just a couple of days to go, but my suitcase is packed, my flat is sublet, and I am in the final throes of preparation.

One of the things I am working on is the best way to take songs with me to Timor. Of course, most of them are in my head, but the chords aren’t always! Also, what sometimes happens is that some songs just don’t come to mind as quickly as others. I know so many fantastic, catchy, beautiful songs from all around the world, but I find that the same old favourites are the ones that come to mind most frequently, and they aren’t always the right songs for the groups I am with. Therefore, I don’t want to rely just on my memory.

Packing to go to a developing country means taking things that you wouldn’t normally need to take when travelling or working away from home. Bed sheets, for example. Bed sheets over there tend to have quite high percentage of polyester in the fabric, and they may not have been washed since they were last used (in fact, they may not have been washed in a very long time, due to water shortages and perhaps lower priority placed on bedding… I don’t know why, actually). Also things like surge protectors. Books to read. This means that luggage weight is an issue so bringing hard copies of song pages isn’t a great option.

I thought about scanning them and saving them in my computer as pdfs or jpgs. This could be quite good as it makes it easier to share. But I don’t have a scanner at home so it isn’t a very practical option for me.

At this stage, I’ve decided to record myself singing the songs, and I’ll also call the chord names out as I go. I’ll record into Garageband and then send the tracks over to iTunes, and then I’ll be able to listen on my iPod. So tonight or tomorrow night, I have a charming night ahead of me, where I will sing my way through my various song collections (aided perhaps by some nice wine). Perhaps I can persuade some friends to join me? One jolly little singalong before I head off?

Another group ‘graduates’

Every year, since 2006, I have directed a one-year composing ensemble program for the MSO and ArtPlay. It’s called the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble and I have written about it in numerous posts – it is a project that I feel enormously proud of. I love that the group of children we invite to take part go through a rigorous 2-day composing process not once, but three times throughout the year, and complement this with visits to orchestral concerts and rehearsals. They get incredibly confident in group-devising processes. They explore the music and compositional strategies of great composers, and take inspiration from this for their own pieces. They are aged just 8 to 13 years. They are fun, bright, open, curious and passionate about their music.

Today was the performance day for the last project for 2010. We performed music inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, one of history’s great story-tellers. We focused on the same four stories that Rimsky-Korsakov depicted in his symphonic work, and incorporated the two principal themes that occur throughout that work into each of our compositions.

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:

  • Our young pianist, who is quirky, a bit serious, and very playful (she reminded all of us of Hermione Granger when we first met her), who had loads of creative ideas but often ‘choked’ in performance, getting nervous and stumbling over her part. Today, she had moved past that stage. She had a number of solos and exposed moments to play and she did this with confidence and calm. We saw her rise to the performance challenge this year, and develop sophisticated ensemble skills in the process.
  • The clarinetist, battling all sorts of life challenges, who just grew and grew in confidence with her playing each time we saw her. She always put her hand up to play a solo or improvise a line. In the first project she clamoured for additional support, but by the third project today she was a leader, never faltering in her focus, covering any memory slips with musically-informed improvisations, and holding herself proudly throughout the project. What a transition she has been through with her playing this year!
  • The young percussionist who wears two hearing aids, but has such a strong internal sense of rhythm and is well-disciplined in watching like a hawk for cues. Normally when a young percussionist turns up with a snare drum I start to feel nervous about what havoc they could wreak. But not our boy. He’s very young. And very keen – someone to watch. I hope they stay in touch with us.
  • The cellist who flew down from NSW to take part in the project every holidays. She is such a bright, talented girl – but my goodness, her sudden bursts of tears would take me by surprise! “Oh, she cries at everything,” her mother reassured me. “Reading – all the time. Listening to music. TV. Talking. Playing. All the time. Don’t worry about it.” But for all her occasionally highly-strung emotions, she would head home after each project and start writing her next composition on the back of her boarding pass. One of these won a prize in her local eisteddfod. There’s no program like this in their local area. Dad works for Qantas so they can fly at discounted rates, so they decided to prioritise her participation in this program.
  • In fact we had quite a few non-city participants in the Ensemble this year. Two were travelling from the Geelong/Western Victoria coastal region, and four or five were travelling from Kyneton/Bendigo in regional Victoria. Others were coming from outer suburban Melbourne, beyond Mount Dandenong. It’s a big travel-time commitment to make on the part of both the participants and the parents who get them to us.
  • The three flautists – each with different talents and skills, who all started strongly and have continued to shine. The shy 13-year-old who played his solos so fluidly and eloquently today. The gregarious boy who favours his piccolo over his flute and invents with so little self-consciousness – I would say he prefers improvising to reading from scores, such is his faith in his ability to respond in the moment. The red-haired girl with the beautiful tone and legato who performed her Sheherazade solos with enormous self-assuredness, accompanied by the whole ensemble.
  • The young violinist who put her hand up for every single improvised solo on offer, even though she had only been playing her violin a short time. Such confidence! and willingness to learn by participating and experimenting.

You can’t repeat a year in this one-year ensemble – the intake is too small and demand too high for us to offer a place to someone who has already taken part. Therefore we invite them all to be part of ‘Graduate Ensemble’ projects. The Graduate Ensemble can include anyone who has taken part in a one-year program, so there are well over 100 potential members at this stage, the oldest of whom are in their last year of school.

The program starts again next year. We offer a series of free, one-hour workshops at ArtPlay on a weekend at the start of Term 1. While these workshops are designed to be fun, engaging, and complete within themselves, they 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 reading this and think the program would suit someone you know, please be sure to sign up for one of these workshops via ArtPlay.

On being a facilitator

Thursday last week was the culmination of the Thinking about Forever project, which I worked on back in March with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Parramatta String Players and composer Matthew Hindson. My role was as the workshop facilitator, and I directed the process that led to the young musicians composing their own music material with dancers in mind, and in response to the given theme of ‘sustainability’. Six months on and the music we created over that intensive weekend has been worked into an inspired and deft score by Matthew, the music then recorded by the ACO and choreographed by Kay Armstrong and the YouMove dance company. Last Thursday it was presented at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, to an audience of school students from throughout Western Sydney and a number of invited guests from the Australia Council Executive, and other arts organisations.

The facilitator role is an interesting one. What does it mean to facilitate, and to facilitate well? I think of it as being responsible for establishing the right creative environment for the project initially, and then initiating or provoking a series of responses to a task by the participants. As the group work gets underway, the facilitator role is to guide, scaffold, model and encourage, as necessary. Ultimately, the facilitator’s role includes stepping away and allowing the group to work and present themselves independently. I think about the origins of the word ‘facilitate’ coming from ‘to make easy’. A good facilitator moves participants through a process in a way that makes it easier for them.

It can be quite an invisible role. In some ways, the mark of a good facilitator might be in their capacity to step back at critical point where the group is able to work completely independently, and to have guided them in such a way that when they look back on it, they remember the process as one where they did everything themselves, by themselves. I’m exaggerating slightly – but only slightly!

One of the nice things about this project was that my role in drawing the young musicians’ compositional ideas from them, and guiding them to build these into a larger structure, was very much acknowledged, alongside that of Matthew’s work as the composer who drew those ideas into a fully-realised, through-composed score, and Kay Armstrong the choreographer. It’s an acknowledgment that everyone in a creative team brings something to the project, that if one of the group hadn’t been there, the outcome would have been very different. Thinking about Forever has been a very satisfying project to work on – a great collaboration between a large number of creative minds, from the very young, to the seasoned professionals.

Another Academy community project

My, I have a had a busy couple of weeks! The week before I went to Armidale, I led a composition project for a small group of Academy musicians with the orchestra at Elwood Primary School, one of the primary schools that is in the Academy’s local area, and a school with a very interesting instrumental music program. The school orchestra includes drum kit, electric bass and saxophones, recorders, flutes, clarinets, and some truly gun trumpeters. Quite an eclectic mix of instruments for a primary school. Lots of the initial comments among the Academy students was, “what a fantastic music program they have here! What cool stuff they are getting to do!” Etc.

One of the pieces the primary students already knew was Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, so I proposed to the Academy students that we use this piece as our compositional starting, and as a ‘way in’ to establish some playing alongside the kids.

We had 1 and a half days at the school. First we jammed on Chameleon, and got the kids working in sections and inventing new riffs to add to their arrangement. Then we split off into small groups, mixing all the instruments, and each group created a short piece that included a ‘chameleon-like transformation’ of some kind in the music. This was a deliberately ambiguous task. I choose these in order to set a task that is as open-ended as possible, so that we reduce the likelihood of students trying to ‘get it right’ and come up with the ‘right’ or ‘desired’ musical response. What does a chameleon-like transformation in a piece of music sound like? There are loads of possible answers.

Towards the end of the first day all the small groups came back together and played their pieces to each other. As we listened, we found various points in the pieces where we could include other instruments and players from other small groups. We developed each small-group piece in this way, and created a structure so that we could segue from one piece to the next without a gap, and arranged the pieces so that the whole ensemble played at critical points in each piece, adding tension, drama or complexity.

On our second morning, we focused again on Hancock’s Chameleon. We used my ‘paper-score’ method to arrange all the ideas we had explored in our jamming the previous day, and created a unique arrangement of the piece that included Hancock ideas, the music teacher’s ideas from his classroom arrangement, and the students’ riffs that they had invented the previous day. We laid the paper score out on the floor in front of the players and they read from this for the performance.

I only got one photo from the event as my camera ran out of battery. But if you look closely you can see pages from the paper score at my feet.

Happy Elwood students, happy Academy students. Lots of comments from the musicians I travelled with about the benefits to young players that come from inventing their own music and getting to participate in such a creative, open process.

Trust, comfort zones and challenges

The day after the Sound Safari workshop, I was up in Armidale NSW, working with the Sydney Wind Collective – this year’s AYO Wind Quintet, who were in residence at the New England Conservatorium of Music. We worked with 15 young woodwind players – a group of musicians aged 10 to 19, playing flutes clarinets, saxophones, and even three French Horns – a wonderful palette of colours! We composed music inspired by Ross Edwards’ wind quintet Incantations.

I had an interesting experience on this project that led me to reflect on how much project facilitators should push or challenge individual participants. When you are working with young people that you are meeting for the first time in the project, you need to assess this on the spot.

In this project, we had a young flautist who was studying music as a second-year at the local university. A pretty serious player. In the same group, we had some fairly inexperienced musicians. “We need to ensure that we offer these more experienced players suitable challenges,” I reminded the AYO players who were leading that particular group of participants.

Later that day, I was observing where they were up to with their piece. “I think it needs a solo,” I suggested to the group. “Annabel” – I turned to the flautist from the university – “would you like to do a solo in this section?”

Annabel agreed – not with any particular enthusiasm or delight, it must be said. But she is a quiet girl, and not easy to read. Was she happy to be asked and offered this role but reacting in a reluctant way because she was not the type to push herself forward? Or was she horrified by the suggestion and hiding her reaction out of politeness?

Annabel’s solo became a focus for the group in that next working session. It was an opportunity to model to the AYO players as well as the other participants in the group some ways that you can set about inventing your own melody. However, Annabel found it a truly challenging experience, I think. It was an experience she did not withdraw from exactly, but perhaps it highlighted lots of insecurities she had about her own musical ideas, or about her ability to work away from the printed notes that someone else had written for her.

“I just hate improvising,” she told us at one point, half-smiling in a slightly self-deprecating way as she said it. We had discussed that this was improvising in order to help us – her – come up with a unique solo to include in her group’s piece. She wouldn’t be improvising in the concert, we assured her. But despite her reluctance, whenever I, or one of the AYO players, suggested another possible tactic or inventing strategy, she went along with it. Again I wondered, was this out of politeness, or a deeply-felt hope that we would stick with her while she crossed a big emotional hurdle?

Improvising and inventing can feel an enormous emotional hurdle to many young classically-trained musicians. You spend you whole playing life learning to play the notes right, to accurate reproduce the music that is printed on the page. You read, and you memorise, but you rarely get asked to create your own part. Your musical success (and therefore confidence) is nearly always tied up in your ability to play the right notes.

It was a slow process, inventing melodic ideas that could take Annabel from bar 1 to 16, following the shape of the accompanying harmonic progression and keeping a given rhythmic figure as her central anchoring idea. We included a repeating figure that she’d experimented with in an earlier improvisation and some tension-building long notes, and after quite an intense, focused, but also somewhat cajoled process we created a very satisfying solo melody together.

I couldn’t really tell how she felt about the work we had just done. It wasn’t clear to me if she was unhappy, excruciated, relieved, or even secretly pleased with herself. She’d told us she hated improvising, but I’d kept her at it regardless, as it was only through trying out some ideas that she would be able to invent a melody of her own to play. I hoped she felt it was worth it.

This all happened at the end of the first day. That evening, I wrote Annabel’s solo out for her on manuscript paper. I gave it to her the next morning, and hoped that it clarified for her the process we had been through – improvising yes, but as a means to an end.

She was genuinely pleased the next day when she saw her solo written out in notation. It made her ideas concrete, I think, and substantial. It took the pressure off her to remember everything she’d come up with, and she played it beautifully. At first she started it with it on a music stand, but later moved it to the floor. By that stage she was only glancing at it occasionally – I think she had almost memorised it by the time of the performance in the afternoon of the second day.

At the end of the performance Annabel came and thanked me, and said how much she’d enjoyed the project. She seemed genuinely happy and appreciative. It seemed to me that despite (or because of) the challenges I had put her through, she trusted me. I felt that she should feel particularly proud of herself and told her so. It’s not easy to step into new things in music where you are completely out of your comfort zone, I told her. I know it! So she had been courageous, and that makes her success in performance even sweeter.

But I’m telling this story because, despite her success, I’m not sure I’d play it the same way next time. I wouldn’t want such a situation to end up as some kind of power struggle, with me suggesting ideas and the young person just blocking and refusing them (I don’t think I’d let that happen… but it’s important to consider it as an unintended possible consequence). It’s true that as an outsider, a visitor to a group, you have to work with your instincts and trust in the responses you have to the environment and people. Instincts in workshops are informed by all your past experiences and the way you have processed and reflected on these. But is it the role of an outsider to offer these kinds of challenges when they are not going to be able to sustain their support and interest, simply because they won’t be around for long? It may be that the visitor is the ideal person to assert these kinds of challenges. Fresh ideas, a different energy, a special context for the ideas – visiting artists can invite new responses from participants than they normally feel able to give, and can inspire freedom from habitual response patterns. It’s an intense responsibility at times!


Two Fridays ago I co-led an all-day professional learning workshop for teachers on composing in the classroom for Musica Viva. Called Sound Safari, the course takes teachers through a range of possible musical starting points for interesting composition work.

We had a box of instruments to help us explore some of the tasks, and for the first time, I found myself enjoying boomwhackers and the possibilities they offer. If you aren’t familiar with boomwhackers, they are tubes of plastic cut to particular lengths so that when you bang them on the floor/your hand/your knee/your shoe etc, a specific pitch is sounded.

I’m not a big fan of them because – like any set of instruments that comes in different sizes, the students are completely focused on getting the biggest one. I don’t find the sound they make particularly inspiring. Young students also aren’t often immediately drawn to the sound, only to the size and the action of hitting it on something.

In our workshop, however, we explored using them in pairs. We were doing a composing task with words that use the letters of the musical alphabet (A-G). One of the teachers and I decided to play out the words CAGE and FEED.

We sat facing each other. We had 3 boomwhackers each – I had C, G and D, she had A, E and F.

We played the words as straight crotchets. We held one boomwhacker in each hand, and had the third pitch on the floor in front of us. After playing CAGE we had to put one boomwhacker down and pick up our third – once we got the hang of the coordination it was quite a good spectacle, I think!

I played (using ‘|’ to indicate a crotchet rest):

C | G |

| | | D

And swapped the G for the D after I’d played it. My partner played:

| A | E

F E E |

And swapped the A for the F after she’d played it.

It took us sometime to work out the best way to coordinate the boomwhacker swap. This kind of work in pairs has heaps of possibilities for extension in classrooms. After students have worked out how to coordinate the notes of two words between them, can they add a third word? Can they at some stage in their performance swap letters so that they reverse their roles (like jugglers?) Could they start to incorporate more interesting rhythms than just straight crotchets? Could they add some body percussion, claps or patsching? Can they go on to harmonise their words?

I wouldn’t say I’m converted completely to the boomwhacker cult, and I don’t know if the Pelican students would have the patience to figure out a routine like this without a great deal of adult support… but I can see that they offer some very engaging creative outcomes, and have quite a unique timbre that definitely has a place. Worth experimenting with!

Last week’s concert project

I posted earlier last week about the schools concert project that I have been working on with the Academy musicians. The project was completed last week and was a great success. We tried to create an experience for the young people that would be memorable and highly engaging, and that invited them to participate in some way in the concert event. But equally importantly, I wanted this to be a project that the Academy musicians would benefit from, that they would find inspiring and enjoyable, and not a burden that felt far removed from their usual performance work at the Academy.

Here are some of the things that we got right, that I feel are significant. If we were to put together a template for successful children’s concerts, these would be included:

1. The Academy students felt a strong sense of ownership over the concert.

The whole idea for this concert was developed in consultation with three elected student body representatives, with decisions about repertoire and programming themes involving all the participating musicians. We considered how the timeframe for the project would best work (keeping it all in one week, and allowing individual practice time on each of the days where there would be project contact time required); preferred audience size; and ways of creating strong engagement with the music. They were involved in selecting repertoire, and were responsible for choosing the extracts of the pieces that they would perform in the concert. We had a meeting/rehearsal prior to undertaking the classroom visits to all the students attending the concert, and after discussing some general ideas, the students divided into teams of 2 or 3 and developed their own plans of what they’d like to include in their visits to the classrooms.

As part of their overall brief, I asked them to include points of reference about what the children could expect in the concert – what they would be invited to do as part of their participation. The Academy students included this in their plans, and through their descriptions also enhanced their own commitment to these ideals and the format we had devised.

2. The children attending all had a personal relationship with many of the musicians performing in the concert.

They knew their names, and had learned about the different instruments. They had had the opportunity to ask questions, and learn unusual bits of information from the Academy musicians. As different performers appeared in the performance space you could hear the children whispering their names to each other: “It’s Anna! It’s Chris!” and smiling at them in recognition.

3. The concert reflected the performance values that are characteristic of all ANAM’s concerts.

We configured the space in innovative ways that kept the children intrigued by where the music might come from next. The music we presented was diverse and often challenging, ranging from Haydn and Brahms, to contemporary works by Mary Finsterer and Andrew Ford. This was not a typical concert program for young children, but then, I am certain that children can be engaged by far more unflinching repertoire than is often offered to them. We had faith in this in the concert program we developed. Lastly, we invited the children to experience something of the life at ANAM, ushering them through working spaces on their way into and out of the concert venue, and drawing them into this world.

4. The children were active participants

In between the different numbers, the children were led by one of the musicians to make soundscapes using body percussion and other sounds. These were chosen to create a musical link to the next piece of repertoire. Some were particular effective, such as getting all the children to make incredibly quiet whistle sounds, over which the solo flute piece (Ether by Mary Finsterer, which starts with whistle tones on amplified flute) – and flautist – gradually emerged.

Here are some photos from the classroom visits, that give an idea of the different ways the Academy musicians built engagement and rapport with their young audience.

Establishing a dialogue

Classroom performance

One of the players invited a child from the class to assemble her clarinet. The volunteer assembler approached it with great care and thought, as though it were a kind of jigsaw puzzle.

Changing dynamics according to the height of the clarinet

This week’s projects

I’m in the middle of a somewhat prolific period at the moment, rolling out project after project.

ANAM/Elwood Primary School

I’m taking a small group of Academy musicians to Elwood Primary School to work with their school orchestra for a day and a half. We are going to create compositions around the idea of chameleons. I’ll ask them to create musical depictions of chameleon-like qualities – how can you depict transformations in music? I think music lends itself beautifully to this kind of task.

We’ll warm ourselves into the task by jamming on Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon (which the school students already know). At the end of the project, we’ll perform all the music we’ve created to the rest of the school, and include some instrument demonstrations and discussion by the Academy musicians as part of that concert.

Sound Safari

On Friday my colleague Nicole Alexander and I will be presenting the Sound Safari Professional Development course for teachers in Melbourne at the Abbotsford Convent. The course is one that is offered by Musica Viva, and it utilises music and ideas for activities from a huge range of Australian-based groups who all perform within the Musica Viva In Schools stable. The course is very hands-on and participatory, and it focuses on composing using percussion instruments. Nicole and I presented it a few weeks ago in Horsham (regional Victoria), and the music created there was beautiful. For me, the highlight was the soundscape/composition that we created together inspired by a poem about drought. The teachers explored all sorts of evocative sounds on the instruments, and the music that resulted had a powerful emotional intensity.

AYO Wind Quintet/Armidale

Then on Friday night I jump on a plane and head to Armidale, New South Wales, for a weekend of work with an ensemble from the Australian Youth Orchestra. This year, the AYO Ensemble-in-Residence is a wind quintet, and we will be working with local young musicians who all play woodwind instruments. Some of them are very recent players, with only a few months of playing under their belts. We are going to compose music inspired by a piece for wind quintet by Australian composer Ross Edwards, called Incantations. There will be sections of the Edwards intersecting the student compositions, and the student works will all be responding to the idea of magic spells, incantations, and conjuring chants. Ross Edwards’ music connects strongly with the natural environment, so the local New England landscape and features will be a point of reference for our compositions as well.

The projects in Armidale are always a delight. That city has an extraordinary amount of musical activity available for young people, generated out of the New England Conservatorium of Music. This is my third – maybe fourth? – time working there.

These intensive project periods can feel very full-on in the lead-up to them, as I’m building up my ideas for each one, delving into scores and listening intensively to recordings of the music I’ve chosen to focus on. But I love the weeks when they roll out, one after the other. It’s such a delight to create music like this, to think on your feet and be almost surprised, sometimes, at the turns your imagination takes.