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!

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