Observing musical leadership
As the person who is usually the project leader, I’ve loved just being a member of the full ensemble for last week’s Beethoven project, leading a small group, playing my instrument (bass clarinet that week) and watching another person lead the overall process. It has been an opportunity to observe someone with a very similar process to my own (which means I have some insights into where he is taking the group with the different tasks he sets) shape and guide the musical content as it evolves.
Firstly, it’s been interesting to be on the receiving end. I’ve needed to receive and interpret instructions, to respond to tasks without knowing how the material would be used in the overall composition – all the things that participants in my projects experience and respond to. I’ve noticed different things about the group energy and about the leader’s energy that I can use in my own projects, through participating in someone else’s project.
I’ve loved observing the way that Fraser asks questions and sets tasks for the group. I think that the skill of asking questions (or setting tasks) in a creative project is one of the most important skills, and it is a subtle art in itself. The way that tasks are given – the words that are used, the clarity of the starting point, the restrictions or essential criteria that inform how all the different groups’ creations will fit together in the larger piece – makes a huge difference to what each of the groups come up with in response. Some of Fraser’s questions or tasks are similar to ones I like to use, but others are different, and it’s been valuable to be able to hear these, and observe the ways groups have responded.
We started each day with a warm-up. I know that for me, a good warm-up has always been a cornerstone of a project, a powerful way to assert the spirit of a project and build a cohesive sense of the group. However, sometimes of late, I’ve begun to question the efficacy of warm-up activities with some groups. For example, at Pelican PS I’ve learned that warm-ups really throw the older students off. They find them too confusing, too unrelated. Lessons at Pelican work better if we jump straight into the day’s work with no preamble or easing-in. Similarly, I find that the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble children often arrive on the second day of a project ready to work. They need very little group warm-up at all, and I’ve wondered if the workshop really benefits from the process.
There was one day this week where I arrived feeling incredibly tired and lacklustre. As Fraser got the workshop started I decided to observe myself in the warm-up, and compare how I felt at the end of it to how I felt at the beginning. I wanted to monitor its effectiveness on me.
That morning, Fraser taught us the Chair game. (The children loved this game. They wanted to present it to their parents at the end of the week. One of the MSO players said he wanted to play it all day. Fraser expressed amazement at the oddly frenzied way our group played it – unlike any other group he’d ever played it with, he said). By the end of the game, I realised that I did indeed feel more relaxed, awake, alive, and definitely ready to work. So, I shall persevere with my warm-up investigation for my projects.
It was also interesting to see Fraser teach another warm-up game that I often teach here. It is one I learned in England during my studies there, and I always loved it, always found it incredibly fun, energy-building, focus-generating, playful… However, it has never really worked here. It involves people using their voices and physical gestures. I’ve never been able to get a group in Australia to generate the kind of energy that the game needs to work its magic. It wasn’t all that different for Fraser either, and we talked about this later – the game was fun, but it never quite worked. Perhaps it is just a game that doesn’t suit the Australian psyche or energy, or the way we use our voices… or our relationship with our voices. Interesting.