Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page
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:
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.
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!