Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

New York Jazz Club

The projects are rolling out thick and fast at the moment! It’s a couple of weeks ago now that I led the New York Jazz Club project for the Australian Art Orchestra at Signal. We had a very productive and focused two days of workshops, generating about 30 minutes worth of new material with a group of 13 talented teenagers.

Here are some photos from the weekend:

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“But I want it to be good!”

I was talking ‘community participation’ project design with one of my young music performance students recently, and brainstorming the possibility of his community project having a performance outcome as part of one of his own gigs. I was enthusing about the benefits of this kind of model – the boost to audience numbers and increased support for his music, the impact that a larger-scale number can have in a smaller band’s gig, and so on – but I could see he was wrestling with the idea. Eventually he raised his hands, shrugged, and said,

“Yeah, but I want it to be good!”

I was surprised – it hadn’t occurred to me that the outcome wouldn’t be good. “Surely that is up to you,” I countered. “You will have the musical challenge of working out what it is that this group will be able to do so that it does sound good – just as you would do for any group that you lead.”

So much of what takes place in a community music project (or a creative music project) is built upon the musicianship and communication skills of the musical leader. But you also have to believe in the group, and what is possible for them to achieve, why they might want to achieve it, and how to help them get there so that it is an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

One of the skills that comes with experience is knowing the right questions to ask, or what to give your attention to. Even very young children are capable of playing a sound all together, in perfect unison. It isn’t easy – it requires all of them to be giving the task all of their focus at the same time… but they can do it. The musical leader has to work out what will motivate them to do it – what questions, or what kind of environment you need to create for them to inspire that response.

Sometimes it comes down to time and space. If you have enough time you can give attention to everything that you want! It can be frustrating, as a project leader, to have to focus on some musical elements and not others, due to restrictions of time and space. However, this frustration is not exclusive to community settings – it is also the case with professional ensembles. They just get better at working quickly – there is a base level of competence that can be assumed so that attention can go straight to other areas.

I hope my student will just try it out. Perhaps a performance outcome is too risky an idea for him to take on at this time, but I hope he will gather a group of amateurs and start to lead them in some ensemble work. I have a feeling he will be pleasantly surprised by what they are capable of, and what he can facilitate with them.

Learning journeys of young musicians

The first week of September always marks the last get-together of that year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a group that I direct every school holidays that is made up of 28 young musicians (aged 8-13 when they start, usually 9-14 by this time of year). Each time we meet, we compose a new piece of music using collaborative strategies and improvisation, taking inspiration from a core piece of orchestral repertoire.

Then the last project for the year is over (in this case, Elgar’s Cello Concerto Re-imagined), and I can reflect on the musical and developmental journeys that I’ve seen some of the young participants take.

Sullen violin girl

One girl came to us at the start of the year flanked by her sister and a friend. The three of them took part in the Open Workshops audition with a certain amount of eye-rolling and cynicism. I took a punt on the older of the two sisters being ready to branch out on her own and offered her a place in the ensemble. In the first project, she barely moved her bow. She and another girl, similar in age, joined forces and giggled their way through the project, offering little to the creative process. The musician leading that small group was infuriated.

The next project, we put her in a different group, and her musician leader gave her a lot of musical responsibility. She jollied her along, creating a shorter name for her (in a gesture of jovial friendliness) and insisted, in an encouraging, positive way, that she be the one to play a solo in her group. Sullen Violin Girl was sullen no more after that project.

Fast forward to September and the project we have just completed, and this violinist was a different person to how she’d been at the start of the year. When I asked at one point for volunteers to play a solo – an improvised solo – she was the first to raise her hand. “Great sound!” I enthused at one point, and she happily told the whole group that this was her new instrument. (That’s a topic for a whole other post, the wonderful momentum that cam come when a young player starts to play on a decent instrument). She was obviously very proud, but also so much more confident. Her’s was a very positive journey, from insecure, shy, sullen teenager to someone who was really starting to blossom.

Hard-to-stay-focused boy

This boy was one of the younger members of the group. He’d impressed us all at the auditions with his vibrant imagination. He wasn’t a strong player, but he obviously loved inventing his own music. Once in the large group however, he floundered. He found it difficult to stay on task as long as the others in the group, needed a lot of personalised attention, and would frequently raise his hand to ask when we’d be taking a break.

In the second project it all got too much for him and there were tears. “Just because I’m the youngest doesn’t mean I always have to play the easy stuff,” he wailed. I sat with him and listened, and explained how we were happy for him to make the music harder for himself. If his part was too boring he could change it to make it more challenging. But, I told him, he has to try and do this by himself. His musician-leader would help him, but he’d need to take the initiative. He cheered up with that information, and went off to eat his lunch.

In the September project, he was still energetic and twitchy, but I got the sense that he’d settled into our routine now. When we did body percussion in our warm-ups he didn’t – as in previous warm-ups – start to jitter his feet and legs like an out-of-control Irish dancer, but managed to stay more or less in one place. At one point he came and showed me his bag of rice crackers. “I don’t want to get hungry! I’m always hungry here!” he told me. He still raised his hand and asked for breaks at inopportune moments, but I too had learned how to respond to this, and would tell him he should take a break if he needed one, but that I needed to keep the rehearsal going a bit longer. “Oh… alright then. I’ll stay too,” he said, sighing.

He played a solo, in a section where I had asked each of the soloists to play very slowly. “You could change notes just at the start of each bar,” I suggested. His eyes never left me during that section, waiting for his cue. He played his improvisation just as I’d asked, one note, changing at the start of each bar. Slow and solid. I think he knew how good it sounded.

I didn’t get to catch up with his parents at the end of the project. After the tears in the middle of the year his dad had said, “This is so good for him! Being part of a group, having to work with others… he isn’t good at these things, and he is just getting so much out of it.”

The quiet ones

After the project had ended in September and I was back home, I found myself thinking about the quieter members of the group. They were among the less confident players. One was a cellist, one of the oldest in the group, and quite a beginner. Initially we’d had two older beginner cellist girls in the group (I try to ensure the older kids have someone else their own age in the Ensemble – I can well remember the self-consciousness I felt as a teenager taking part in activities where I seemed to be the oldest and the tallest) but the other girl never came back after the first project. This girl didn’t get to blossom the way the Sullen Violin Girl did. She never put her hand up to play a solo and would shake her head in horror if asked to do so directly. I don’t think she liked playing alongside the other two cellists who were both younger than she.

Two other girls who didn’t ever want to play a solo were sisters. They had learned to play their instruments (piano and violin) in a very stern, traditional, schooled fashion, and the creativity of the Ensemble was a very new experience for them. I think the younger sister got a lot out of it – as a violinist she was often a section player and so not necessarily being asked to invent things for her instrument. The older sister was the main pianist/percussionist in the group, and by September I realised she was not offering her musician-leaders anything. Everything she played was suggested to her by someone else.

In a fast-paced 2-day project like the ArtPlay Ensemble projects, there isn’t a lot of time to coax individuals. You can make suggestions and encourage them to try, but if they don’t respond, time demands that you move on. In this way, I think the project wasn’t as good for some as it was for others. Was it the wrong project for them? Were we wrong to offer a place? Or was there a small sense of hope inside them that something in this project would unlock the kernel of potential that they know is there, but that they cannot voice due to the greater fear of sounding ‘wrong’?

Playing by ear

I’ve led two composition projects recently that worked with just a limited range of pitches, and it’s interesting to see how this restriction helps the participants hone in their aural skills and pitch awareness.

The first project was with teenagers at Signal. Linked to the Australian Art Orchestra’s ongoing collaboration with musicians from South India, we developed an original composition that took inspiration from one of the AAO’s movements of the work Into The Fire, borrowing a mode, a tala (like a time signature), some melodic phrases, and some structural ideas and rhythmic patterns.

The mode had 6 pitches ascending and 5 pitches descending. We learned it aurally, slowly, and got the participants to improvise on it and invent short patterns and phrases. Later, when we began to teach melodic material that was taken directly from the original (again, aurally), I was impressed by how quickly the group found the pitches and memorised the phrases. They were already becoming sensitive to the ‘taste’ of the different pitches within the mode, and their relationships with each other. Or if they weren’t, they were getting better at making more accurate educated guesses as to which note in the 5-6-note mode was being played.

That group was a jazz and improvisation group so perhaps their ears were more ready to be put to use. The following week, with a group of classically-trained younger musicians at ArtPlay (aged 9-14 years), we were creating short sections of music using only the notes of the Aeolian mode (A to A on the white notes of the piano, A natural minor). The group was tired, and uncertain how to proceed. I reminded them, “We’re only using these 7 notes! You don’t need to guess, just notice if it is going up or down from where you already are, and if it moves by step or by leap. Then find the note. And listen for its flavour!”

A little while later, I felt a shift in the group. We’d reached a section in the music where I wanted everyone to create a short riff, working in instrument sections. I wanted them to do this quickly, there and then, as we were short on time. What I felt was a shift in energy, where enough of the participants suddenly understood that every one of those 7 notes would sound “good” and “right” and that all they had to do was arrange some of them in a rhythm. Suddenly, we had riffs bursting out all over the group. One player would invent something, and the others in that section would learn it from them, on the spot.

“That’s the idea!” I thought to myself. There is something really liberating about the discovery that you can figure out how to play something by listening to it. Some young players instinctively understand this, but others are filled with trepidation. It takes courage to blow or bow those first tentative notes, trying to match pitches or play by ear – but how thrilling the energy rush is that you get when you realise it worked!