Musician’s Toolkit

Last weekend Tony Hicks and I led a 3-hour workshop on free improvisation as part of the KEY program (the Australian Art Orchestra’s program of workshops at Signal in Melbourne). We call this series of short workshops the ‘Musician’s Toolkit’, because it focuses on skills and techniques that are useful for all musicians, playing in any genre. The KEY program is geared towards teenage musicians.

Here’s some footage and sound from the workshop – read on for a description of what we did to get to this point.

Getting started

Free improv is a big topic to tackle in just 3 hours! We started by discussing roles that you can take in an ensemble – assertive and passive, or foreground and background, for example. This led to our first whole-group improvisations, which were characterised by fairly homogenous playing, traditional sounds and tonalities, and very little space, and opened up dialogue about the importance of shape, structure, endings, and having both a macro and a micro view of the work.

Duos – switching roles

We then divided the group into duos and trios and asked them to develop together a short improvisation, in which all the players switched roles (ie. started in the foreground, but the move to the background, or vice versa).

Fast and loud

The performances that the duos and trios came back with highlighted the carefulness with which most of them played. To encourage a freer approach to sound and technique, Tony led a short, intense loud group improvisation, cueing the group as a whole or individuals to play loud and fast – as loud and fast as possible. The group visibly relaxed and became more animated during this task. They took more risks and exerted themselves far more.

Personal challenges

By now, we knew quite a bit about the roles and musical vocabularies each student tended to veer towards. We wanted to challenge these, and push them to discover some new possibilities for themselves and for the ensemble. We sat in a circle and Tony gave each person an individual ‘challenge’ or ‘project’ to focus on for the rest of the session. These included things like:

  • Singing and playing
  • Multiphonics
  • Incredibly fast, finger movements while exploring the full harmonic series (overblowing) on the instrument
  • Percussive articulations on wind instruments
  • Extremities of pitch, and playing for longer periods of time on the oboe
  • Inventing a scale (as a way of pushing people away from familiar tonalities)

Each person then spent 7 minutes (we were short on time at this point) getting to grips with this personal assignment. They then teamed up with 3-4 other players (of ‘like’ instrument or assignment, where appropriate), and worked together to incorporate these new ideas and sounds into small group improvisations.

Whole-group improvisations, second time around

We listened to the latest improvisations from the small ‘assignment’ groups, then drew everyone together again for some final whole-group improvisations. We’d heard some wonderfully inventive sounds from each of the sections.

“Let’s aim to have no more than 2 sections playing at a time,” suggested Tony, “until such time as the music demands more. Aim to maintain some space in the music…”

The difference between these improvisations and our earlier whole-group efforts was impressive – the young players now demonstrated a much greater sense of adventure, and a more acute awareness of the playing going on around them. They worked together in sections far more than earlier, and (generally) left a bit of space for other instruments. No-one played all the time.

Handing over responsibility, with a bit of information to get things started

I think that for this age group of young musicians, the range of tasks is key. They are motivated and engaged and will listen to explanations and ‘teacher-talk’; however, their independent work is really impressive. They get straight to task, work incredibly cooperatively, and generate some truly original material. It’s one of those situations where I think the challenge for the adults is to remember to get out of the way! The young people love to get input, but they also thrive on the independence and ownership of the task.

This was the first Toolkit workshop for the KEY program. We have another coming up in two weeks time, and more planned for next year. Each one is led by an Art Orchestra musician on a topic of their own choosing and in their particular area of expertise. As the workshops roll out, I will be logging what approaches and workshop structures are most effective with this age group. Today, the small group work opportunities gave the workshop a particular buoyancy and momentum.


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