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’?

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