Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Forever Young in Fataluku

Here is another video from my four months in East Timor. One of the enduring songs during my time in Lospalos was the pop song Forever Young. Initially I decided to translate the song in the local Fataluku language (with the help of local people of course) as a gift for the teenage girl who cooked all my meals for me, because she liked the song so much and wanted to know what the words meant. Later, the song took hold with the group of young people who used to gather on the veranda each afternoon for a jam session.

I created a simple accompaniment on the chime bars for the song, and a teenage boy volunteered to be our Chief Guitarist. We ended up performing our version of this song live on local radio one evening.

This video shows the progression towards that performance:

Inclusive and participatory

How often are the hurdles to playing music in a group – like having a full chromatic scale under your fingers, or being able to read music – removed so that ensemble music experiences are truly inclusive and participatory?

“The aim of the jams,” I told my new orchestral musician recruits, “is to get everyone playing, with as little delay as possible.”

Yesterday’s Jams on Prokofiev, held at Federation Square, were a wonderful success. We had over 150 people take part across the two sessions, including lots of parents, and several adults taking part without children in tow, and the music was received with great delight.

I had two first-timers among the team of MSO musicians taking part, so I talked them through the process and in doing so, reminded myself of some of the things we have learned about these workshops that make them such a positive, affirming experience of ensemble playing for all the participants.

  • Be in the space fifteen minutes before start time, when the first people arrive. Say hello, gather a section of like instruments around you. Find out their names, encourage them to get out their instrument and start playing.
  • Give out a page of music at the registration table. This can be very simple (see my Noteflight score for an example of the pared-back music I give out). This gives the participants something to get busy doing as soon as they arrive – they can start checking out the part, and you (the group leader) will get a sense of their strengths and confidence as a player. Find out what they know, and what they might be able to learn from you in the session.
  • Watch the key signatures. Stick to keys that allow beginner string players to play on open strings only, and that transpose into simple keys for the transposing instruments. D major may be wonderful for strings, but it is awkward for beginner clarinets!
  • Some kids come along feeling very unsure that they will know enough to ‘jam with the MSO’. It’s often better to assess their playing by playing with them, rather than by asking them what grades they have done in their music exams!
  • I like to start with a groove – something rhythmically strong that encourages full commitment from everyone and hooks the youngest participants into a catchy rhythm.
  • Each time the group leader sets up an ‘inventing task’, turn to your group and ask for their input. Some groups will have participants who make lots of offers. Others will work more slowly. You can encourage input by asking very specific questions (“Which of these notes do you think we should start on?”) but also make your own offers, in order to keep the group energy flowing and engaged.
  • Get everyone playing as much as possible. Move through different sections of music so as to engage with the imagination and different skill bases, but aim to have as little ‘talk time’ as possible.
  • Finish with a final performance. It gives the participants a sense of how far they have come in just an hour.

More songwriting in East Timor

I’ve just finished editing another video from my East Timor residency. This one shows clips from the songwriting workshop I led at the local English language classes in Lospalos. About 40 students took part, and elected to write a love song.

Songwriting can be a very engaging and interesting way to encourage people to use the English that they know. They discover that they know more words than they expect, and they also learn new words very quickly, because they use them in context straight away, and attach them to music (which helps embed them in the memory).

I loved the sentiment of this song. Favourite line?

I’m happy because I found another love.

We met at the market, buying some bananas.

Of course! What better place to chat up a new love interest than at the banana stall? You can read more about this project here – it’s the post I wrote at the time of doing the project.

Doorways in

Renowned music educator Jackie Wiggins (author of Teaching for Musical Understanding) talks about ‘doorways in’ in creative music work – the initial points of entry for young people that get them engaging and connecting with musical ideas.

Usually, when I build a project on a piece of orchestral repertoire, I select fragments or quotes from the score – melodies, rhythms, accompanying figures, chord progressions, structural characteristics – to act as ‘doorways in’. The groups take inspiration from these, and also aim to incorporate them in some way in their own pieces. They act as a creative starting point, but also give the children a kind of listening pathway, when they later hear the orchestral work in performance.

In planning this week’s workshop on Beggars and Angels, I decided to try two new ‘doorways in’. Rather than quotes from the musical material, I selected 28 performance directions from the score. Brett Dean is an Australian composer, so he writes his performance directions in English. Many of them are quite detailed. Each child in the group had one direction.

They divided into working groups of seven. “Think of your music as depicting a journey of some kind,” I asked them. “Dean’s music has been described by some as being like a journey. Consider all your performance directions, and decide the order they should be in, to best depict the kind of journey you are taking us on. Then create a piece with sections of music for each”

Things like:

Lively, insistent

Slightly slower, becoming increasingly vague and distant… slowing further, as if losing consciousness

Uncoordinated with other instruments

Restless, but very quiet.

The material that eventually developed was truly interesting, and quite beautiful in many places – evocative, somewhat timeless, and free, and with great use of chromaticism in the melodic and harmonic writing. The performance directions meant that they thought about their compositions in terms of sections, and this meant that later, we were able to juxtapose sections from different groups, in order to create some of the huge sudden contrasts of texture, dynamics, and tempi that so characterise the Beggars and Angels score.

Say yes

This week I’ve been leading a project based on Brett Dean’s orchestral work Beggars and Angels, with young musicians aged 8 to 13.  Brett Dean’s music is always incredibly evocative and visual, and this work was in fact inspired by an art exhibition in Potsdam in 1994, created by artist (and Dean’s wife) Heather Betts.

Rich material indeed. I showed the children some scanned images from that exhibition, but I’d also asked them to create their own art work, inspired by the idea of ‘beggars and angels’, and influenced by their impressions of Dean’s orchestral work. I think that visual art is a powerful way for children this age to approach an intense, contemporary, esoteric piece like Beggars and Angels.

They responded immediately to this request – one parent later told me that, as soon as she had read my email request out to her eight-year-old son, he got straight to work, and was absorbed for hours.

A ten-year-old boy said to me at the end of our first day of workshopping, “Gillian, can it be something other than a painting?”

“Yes,” I answered. “What sort of thing? Are you thinking of a photo or something?”

“No,” he replied. “A sculpture.”

“Absolutely!” I said. “Of course! That would be wonderful if you wanted to make a sculpture.”

Minutes later, as we were packing up, he approached me with a bag in his hand. “I have to unwrap it,” he said self-consciously, taking an object out of the bag and unwrapping the wads of bubble wrap that protected it. He had created a weighty, intricate beggar, its sturdy body studded with one- and two-cent coins, bolts and screws and scraps of cloth. Its feet wore make-shift shoes from thin pieces of cork. Its hands were large outlines made of wire, and its head was a champagne bottle cork, with white hair made from cotton wool. It was extraordinary in its detail and use of symbol.

Imagine if I’d said No, I thought to myself later! If I’d misinterpreted his careful question about whether a non-painting was acceptable, and said No, to keep the instruction simple. I had no idea he’d already made his artwork. Always say Yes, in workshops. Where there’s doubt or ambiguity, say yes, so that you find out more.

Jam on Prokofiev

The Jam I am leading for the MSO next week is now a Jam on Prokofiev – specifically, the Romance from Lieutenant Kije by Prokofiev. If you are thinking of coming along (or don’t know this theme – made famous by Sting in his song Russians) you can see the notation and listen to a playthrough  by going here. Note though, this is not the original key.

Details of the Jam on Prokofiev are:

Tuesday 19 April

11.30am and 1.30pm (60 minute duration)

BMW Edge at Federation Square, Melbourne

Musical Futures

I attended David Price’s Musical Futures workshop at the University of Melbourne this week. Musical Futures is a UK program that brings non-formal and informal learning approaches into the more formal context of schools, and gets young people engaged in making the music that they like and choose, and are most engaged by.

The approach includes the kinds of creative workshops – social, spontaneous and creative musical experiences that develop aural and inventive skills – that I focus on in my practice as a music leader and educator, and taps into the worlds of popular, rock, classical and world music in its content. It embeds theory and notation into the act of music-making, so that those particular skills and techniques are developed in context, as required.

However, the characterising element of the Musical Futures approach is not one of content, but one of teaching and learning – the level of responsibility that the students are asked to take for their own learning is all-encompassing. The students direct many – probably the majority – of their choices of what to play, what to work on, what skills they need to develop, what help they need from the teacher. Extra-curricular options quickly become part of the program as the students’ interests and engagement expands beyond the confines of the timetable.

It seems to me that Musical Futures offers teachers a comprehensive, well-documented, backed-by-research approach to teaching and learning that gives them ‘permission’ to approach classroom music in a different, less formal way, or legitimises the creative, informal work they have already been doing. For those teachers already using many of these techniques and approaches, the support that a network of like-minded teachers and industry allies can offer them may be of particular benefit. Or, the suggestions in the resource materials (notes, content ideas, DVDs with video examples – all available online) may encourage them to develop their approach further, try some new ideas, hand even greater control over to students, make bolder choices about content. The references to the research into how popular musicians learn (by Professor Lucy Green) ground this approach in thoroughly documented outcomes, and so can support teachers to advocate for greater access to funds and resources in their school.

If you are not a familiar with Musical Futures, it’s a really interesting program, worth getting to know. The ten schools that have been part of the pilot programs in Australia have declared that it has transformed their teaching, and had greater impact than they’d ever have anticipated. Something is going on here that is pretty exciting, I’d say. – heaps of ideas, free downloads of publications, case studies, and more. – a safe music sharing community that schools can join for free. Students can upload and share their music (you don’t have to be a Musical Futures school to sign up with NUMU); the most-listened-to music ends up in the NUMU charts.


Falling a little bit in love…

I keep returning to this YouTube clip, ever since I found it last Friday:

The expression and feeling that the PS22 Chorus sings with is just delightful. I love watching their faces, and the pleasure they take in the tightness of their ensemble. They are great performers. The solo singer reminded me of Michael Jackson singing I Want You Back, singing his heart out and putting every ounce of energy he had into the performance. This girl does the same.

It’s an infinitely better version of Firework too! Less disco, more emotion and conviction. How long do I have to wait before I watch it again?

Three-course musical feast

I finished the term at the Language School with a concert on Thursday afternoon – all three classes performed their ‘food-inspired’ compositions to each other and to their parents and teachers, and sang two learned songs with excellent blending of their voices.

The food theme felt a little stodgy and uninspired early on in the term, but it eventually resulted in some highly original concoctions. Lower Primary worked on their percussion skills (in particularly playing accurately, all together, without speeding up, and watching me for their unison cues). We embedded these skills in their song ‘These are all good everyday foods’, which listed sensible ‘everyday’ things to eat for breakfast and to bring to school for lunch.

Middle Primary made a ‘fruit salad’ song in 5/4, listing various fruits, playing the rhythms from these fruity lists on glockenpiels and xylophones, and singing a happy, light-hearted chorus ‘Big fat fruit – one piece to eat in your lunchbox’.

Upper Primary wrote a song with three verses and a chorus that warned of the dangers of additives, and too much oil, fat, salt, sugar and MSG. The irony was that at the end-of-term party, held that morning at 10am, each of those ingredients frighteningly well-represented! Oh well. They all felt sick for the rest of the day… it is all learning!

We opened and closed the concert with two massed singing items. There was a strong sense of lightness and joy through the whole event – many people commented. This was my first term back since June last year, and two of the class teachers were first-timers, so it was a suitably celebratory end to a term of new beginnings.

Jam on the great classics

This week I’m hunting for Great Classical Riffs.

What are the pieces of classical music you’ve always wanted to jam along with? What are the riffs, melodies, rhythms and chord progressions that you’ve always wanted to pull out of an orchestral piece to turn into loops for improvising over?

I’m creating a Jam on three great classics for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on the 19th April. I’m still choosing the ‘moments’ of music to use. One definite is the Romance from Lietenant Kije, by Prokofiev. You probably know the tune – Sting borrowed it for the song ‘Russians’. It’s a lovely, solemn Russian melody in Aeloian mode.

Other ‘moments’ I’m thinking of including is the driving, rhythmic opening of the Dances of the Young Girls from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… but I’ve done a whole jam on The Rite of Spring before, so it’s not a new idea. There are some funky syncopated rhythms from The Soldier’s Tale (also by Stravinsky) that could work well…

A friend suggested the 6-8/3-4 rhythm of ‘America’ from West Side Story. I like the idea of this very much. A quote that is purely rhythmic could be teamed with a harmonic or melodic idea from another piece.

Music for jamming needs to be in a key that can be played on open strings by beginner string players… and also be in a key signature that doesn’t transpose into a tricky multiple-sharps key signature for the Bb instruments! It needs to be simple enough to be memorised quickly, and have sufficient interest to be looped so that people can solo and riff over the top of it.

What favourite musical ‘moments’ do other people have, from the classical music world?