City beats, different drums
This week I led the first two days of a bi-monthly project for primary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s a music composing and performing project for primary school students, and four schools are taking part in 2011.
The aim is to give the students a rich, intensive music-making experience. They will play percussion instruments, invent their own music, and develop performance and ensemble skills in an inclusive, encouraging, collaborative environment. The program acts as a pathway to bring new young people from diverse backgrounds toward other programs for young musicians at ArtPlay and with the MSO. In general, the MSO/ArtPlay programs attract a fairly middle-class, educated cohort of participants (a generalisation I know, but not an unreasonable claim). We wanted to ensure that talented and enthusiastic young musicians from less well-resourced backgrounds could also access the program and so the City Beats program was developed.
This week’s projects were focused on musical story-telling. We asked each of the groups to invent a story, which was then retold in music. I found it fascinating the way that the stories they created were so reflective of their environments.
School A is a school from a bushfire-affected area – survivors of the devastating firestorms that swept through parts of Victoria in February 2009. Lots of post-trauma responses are playing out in the school at the moment. These children were a serious, subdued group, and very gentle with each other and with themselves. They were careful in the warm-up games, only gradually letting down their guards and increasing their eye contact, or offering more extrovert gestures into the circle games. They invented a story characterised by tentative expectations. A group of children were heading to a city venue to perform in a competition, but they got lost. Passers-by offered a series of convoluted directions ut there were no lucky breaks – the group of students had to construct their own ‘map’ that combined all these directions, and they found the venue just in time. They went on stage to perform, reminding themselves not to get their hopes up, that “winning isn’t everything”. However, it turned out that they “ended up winning a great big prize!”
School B is from the outer south-eastern suburbs, with high level ESL student numbers. The school is noted for its bold approach to curriculum, and its architecturally-designed open-plan school. Apparently the prep classroom has a giant dinasaur in it. These children wrote an extraordinarily imaginative story, taking musical notions like ‘beats’ and turning them into characters. There were the BeatBusters, the Fun Police, and at the heart of it a young musician who just wanted to play a solo. At every turn in the story, they made something unexpected happen. I loved their unfettered, confident approach to imaginative story-telling.
Another school arrived at the workshop with a detailed list of all the different sounds they had heard on their bus journey into town. We teased these out to make a rhythmic, driving depiction of their trip from the outer western suburbs, over the Westgate Bridge and into the city. This group was perhaps the most innately musical of the 2 days (or perhaps by then we adults were remembering to get out of their way and just let them play!) – they grooved together with confidence and great listening. One boy in my group wanted to count everyone in at the start of our piece, and he took on board every piece of advice that was offered – ‘make sure everyone is looking at you and is ready, before you count in.’ ‘Count in at the speed you want us to play.’ When our group performed I saw the other MSO musicians smile in delight at the self-assured way he performed this role.
Four stories, four groups, and lots of musical ideas – we will meet the groups again in two months time and develop their pieces further.