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.

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