Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page


At the Language School, the Lower Primary class are showing a growing interest in conducting and leading sounds. It started last week, when they first met Ryan, a young musician and fledgling workshop leader I am mentoring this term. Ryan is a virtuosic recorder player, and we invited the Lower Primary students to “conduct” improvisations with him, showing with their hands and limbs what they’d like him to play. As you can see in the video, they started things in a fairly contained way, but ended up with some very flamboyant, whole body conducting!

In this week’s class, we wrote a song together, and as we sang it through at the conclusion of the lesson, one of the boys leapt and vigorously pointed to each word in the song, bouncing his finger along in time to the music, and indicating when we should sing. He then moved on to the other words I had written up from student suggestions that weren’t yet included in the song lyrics, indicating that I should sing them too. I improvised my way through another verse from these words, and he was delighted.

Next week we’ll explore conducting further, and give each child an instrument – perhaps a range of chime bars, different pitches – and invite one person to point to the instrument they want to hear. This could be random, or we could fix it. Today we played a warm-up game that involved the children rolling a ball from one person to the next, and remembering the order that it went from child to child. We could apply the same principle to a circle of instruments, with an individual conductor making the initial choice about who plays when, but the order would then become fixed.

This could also be a way of creating new melodic material.

Why is conducting so engaging for these children? I think they are intrigued by the power of it, the idea that they can create a series of sounds with their gestures. They also enjoy the physicality of shaping the sounds – as is evident in the last child conducting in the video above. When you are newly-arrived in a country and you can’t understand much of what is going on, you don’t have a lot of power or choice – at least, not if you are motivated to try and fit in. You spend a lot of time copying others and trying to get things right. The Lower Primary children quickly worked out that with this kind of improvisation, they didn’t need to worry about it being “right”. They instinctively understood the freedom that they had, and they revelled in it.

Who really wrote the Bach cello suites?

I spent this weekend down at ArtPlay, leading the MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops, which take place at the start of every year. These are fast-paced, one-hour composing workshops for children aged 8-13, and we promise parents that when they return to pick up their kids in an hour, we will have a new piece of music to perform for them.

We build the compositions around stories which the children create at the start of the workshop. The stories tend to be larger-than-life and go on remarkable flights of fancy and imagination. This year, aliens and outer space featured prominently. Here are a couple of that ilk:

Bach is sitting at his pianoforte, composing. Suddenly, aliens take over his piano. He realises that it is playing by itself, and he understands the code that the notes are spelling out. The code says, “We come in peace”. However, Bach is not convinced by this declaration of peace; rather, he is freaked out by his piano being taken over by aliens so he burns his piano. His (many) children help him remove the keys and throw them on the fire. Then, the aliens arrive in his house, and explain that they really mean him no harm. What happens next? Do they take over his body? Or do they work side-by-side and co-compose all of Bach’s celebrated works? Just WHO really wrote the cello suites in the end?

We are a band. We are the first band to be invited to play in outer space. We’re going to perform a concert for some NASA astronauts who are sitting in their space station, bored of all their CDs. We’re nervous as the rocket blasts off. We decide to rehearse. But while our clarinettist is putting their instrument together, the bell flies off (zero gravity) and lands in the engine of the rocket. Things get out of control and we crash land on Mars. Some Martians greet us. At first they are not particularly nice, but we play for them and they are so impressed they help us out by zapping us over the NASA space station with their zapping tool.

This particular workshop process has been in place for some time now and is well-honed and very effective. The creative twists of the stories the children invent (and the subsequent music they inspire) are a result of the group creative process, I believe. One idea sparks another, and the stories take on a life of their own, bouyed along by the energy of the group. The questions I ask are deliberately open-ended, aiming to provoke unexpected possibilities. You can read more about the Open Workshop process here (the “Workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids” – one of my most popular posts), and about some of the stories from last year here. The Open Workshops double as a try-out for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, which brings 28 young players (ages 8-13) and 4 MSO musicians together every school holidays to compose a new piece of music under my direction.

How to be a kind, helpful friend

A project that is underway in the Lower Primary classroom at the ‘Melbourne’ English Language School is focused on social skills – being a kind person, and a good friend. We are using drama as well as music to develop their oral language, and using real-life scenarios from the children’s own experiences in the school playground.

We’ve started with imitating happy and sad faces. The first week I demonstrated these, and in the second week I asked them to list some different emotions and reactions (sad, happy, surprised, scared, etc) and we drew faces matching these emotions on the whiteboard.

We then role-played some different scenarios that could happen in the playground during recess. Most of these ended up with me falling on the floor clutching my leg and crying noisily, with anxious children fluttering around me, trying to help me get up.

“What can you say?” their teacher and I asked them. “What do you say to your friend who is hurt?”

It took the class awhile to come up with responses. “What happened?” they asked. “Why are you crying?”

Then we brainstormed possible answers:

“People are being mean to me.”

“I have a sore tummy.”

“The big boys kicked me/bumped me/threw a ball at my head.” (The “big boys” were the most oft-cited offenders in these role-plays; these children share the playground with students all the way up to Year 12, so they are very aware of the “big boys” and how dangerous their games can be for little people).

The class began to throw themselves into this game with a great deal of melodrama, and took it in turns to be the victim and the friendly helper.

Things progressed this week, as we turned their “helping” sentences and words into lyrics for a song.

What do you do when somebody starts to cry, outside in the playground?

What do you do to be a good friend, outside in the playground?

I wrote the melody and the opening questions in order to give the children a very clear framework and scenario into which to put their suggestions. We came up with one verse today, after brainstorming all the things a good friend might say:

Are you okay? Are you fine?

Tell me why you are crying.

How can I help you? Let’s go to the teacher.

We can go together.

They are a very funny bunch in this class – there was lots of laughing as we tried to get the song happening. At first, as I attempted to elicit some “friend’s” responses, the children couldn’t understand what I meant.

Gillian – “What can they say, this kind friendly person who wants to help?”

Student – “Sorry.”

Gillian – “But you haven’t done anything to hurt them. You are the friend! You are helping!”

Student, insisting: “I’m sorry.”

At which point his teacher looked wryly at me and said, “He thinks that ‘sorry’ is always the right thing to say when someone is crying!”

Another moment in which we all collapsed laughing was an ambulatory moment when I role-played falling over and hurting my leg (I’m getting quite good at this role now). The children decided to pick me up by the arms and legs – sharing my weight between them – and carry me off. I don’t know where they were planning to take me – we hadn’t got to that part of the scenario yet. Ryan stood by, mildly suggesting, “I think you might be hurting her more”. Meanwhile, I wondered how long my clothes would bear the weight of my body.

A great moment in oral language terms was when one of the children offered the line, “Let’s go to the teacher”. Everyone cheered, and his teacher high-fived him. Clearly, telling the teacher on duty when there is a problem is a concept they’ve been putting a bit of work into.

There is much that is empowering for the children in this work. After all, they can only speak to each other in English as few of them share a language. This project is not only acknowledging some of the things that can happen at school that upset or frighten them, but is giving them tools to respond, in particular the words and responses that one friend can offer another.

Mexican Sunday

In preparation for next Saturday’s Jam on El Salon Mexico at the Myer Music Bowl (see the last paragraph of this post to read all about it), I’ve spent today working up a flexible arrangement of El Palo Verde, inspired by this fantastic version:

It’s wild! It reminds me a bit of brass bands from the Balkans – same kind of anarchic, high-velocity playing. I had fun transcribing the tuba part this afternoon. I don’t think we’ll be doing it quite this fast. Still developing ideas of how the crowd’s picnic utensils will come into it…


Ole! The Jam was indeed a wild Mexican Saturday. I got the audience involved in all sorts of ways and a small number of children came down the front with their picnic paraphernalia in order to play solos. Here is some footage from the event:

Planning, scoping, sequencing

Last week I presented a Teaching Artist professional learning seminar on planning, scoping and sequencing a new music project. Teaching artists frequently work in partnership with a classroom or specialist teacher, so planning tends to be collaborative. However, teachers and artists often approach project planning in different ways. I drew upon my own experiences and talked about:

The importance of learning as much as you can about the class

This includes what are they working on in class, but also some of the additional goals of the classroom. At the Melbourne English Language School (where I’ve worked as a teaching artist since 2005), these goals often include things like social skills, rules of personal hygiene or some of the cultural practices of school in Australia (like being able to line up before entering the classroom). These non-arts, non-music goals and themes can often provide fertile ground for a music or creative arts project.

The many ways to your intended goal

The more input students have in a creative project, the more ownership they will feel towards it and the more engaged they will be by the process. I encouraged my colleagues to listen out for offers and suggestions that could take the project off into a new or unexpected direction. Sometimes these offers are made in jest, or with great sarcasm – this is often a protection on the part of the child and it’s important to look beyond it to the idea being expressed. Sometimes, suggestions will be unconscious, occurring when the child is daydreaming, or retreating into their own head for a moment, but with an instrument in their hands. Tapping fingers can provide insights into a child’s previous musical experiences, knowledge and culture. It’s important to leave space in the classroom environment for these offers to slip into, as well as space in the evolving creative work.

Communicating with your teaching partner

There are often points in a creative project where work is emerging but you, the artist, are not clear exactly where it is going to go, or how it will all fit together. This happens to me in many projects and I’ve learned that it is part of my process, so it doesn’t worry me. However, teachers have very different planning and reporting obligations to teaching artists, and work that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere specific can create concern for teachers who want to know there is a sequence and plan underpinning everything.

I think that each one of us – teachers and teaching artists alike – has a different tolerance of ‘risk’ or unknowns in a creative project. It’s therefore important to keep lines of communication open. Teaching artists may need to talk through those parts of their process that are more open-ended, or where you have simply opened up an experience to the students in order to see what material emerges in their response, but you are confident that it will yield something important for the project outcome.

What does this look like in practice?

In tandem with my consideration of these different points in the planning and sequencing process, I described a 10-week project that I’d led in 2008 (I chose it because I’d documented it particularly thoroughly). I shared my notebook from that project with my teaching artist colleagues (complete with all my random musings, sketches, shorthand music notations, and margin doodles) pointing out those days where material had been developed and locked in, those days where things went off in a different direction, and when I’d developed material without knowing how it would ultimately be used in the performance. We ended by watching a video of the project’s final performance, so that we could see what had resulted from the lessons that were detailed in the notebook.

When I was first asked to lead this session, I was a bit hesitant. I often think my approach is quite freeform, and trying to anticipate exactly what will happen throughout the term feels very counter-intuitive. But once I started to dig into it, I could see there were key steps that I take in developing each project, and a number of golden, guiding values that inform all the choices I make. When you start to write these down, a plan and a sequence definitely emerges!

Wah-wah tubes

At the end of 2011 the Language School acquired a bit of extra funding for new instruments and invited my input as to what they should buy. I felt we were well supplied with hand-drums and wooden sounds (xylophones, wood blocks, etc), so suggested a number of metal instruments with very resonant, beautiful tones.

They bought an alto metalaphone (Optimum Percussion brand, with a very well-designed dampening bar), a set of 8 alto chime bars (same as the ones I used in Timor-Leste), and a set of 5 wah-wah tubes.

Last Tuesday was my first day back at the Language School, and we got to unwrap the wah-wah tubes from their packaging and try them out, as you can see in this short clip.

They are very effective, aren’t they? I love the fact that the mallets are quite small – no matter how strenuously the children try to whack the tubes, the sound remains gentle, and the rubber head of the mallet just bounces gently off the metal, no stress, no strain. After a while, they stop trying to beat it so hard and just get absorbed in the warm, shimmering sounds.


A number of years ago now, I developed the ‘jam’ large-scale workshop format. I wanted to create something that could take place in a public space (ie. open to the public), that could cater for all ages and all levels of playing ability, to which anyone could turn up on the day and participate. I particularly wanted it to be the kind of event that whole families – parents, teenagers and children learning to play an instrument, younger siblings who just loved banging things, grandparents – could take part in together rather than the instrument-learning child being dropped off while parents take the younger sibling(s) off for an hour.

Jams have continued to evolve since then and these days it is one of the workshop formats that new clients often ask me to create for them. It has also developed along some different strands – such as the massed music-making scale of the Big Jams I’ve created and co-led for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival the last two years. This clip is from the 2011 Big Jam, co-presented with Rusty Rich (purple suit) and Mal Webb (orange suit). The dress code was ‘colourful’, which I think we acquitted pretty well!


Another strand is the ‘Jam on a Classic’, which can involve hundreds (rather than thousands) of participants. This video shows the Jam on The Rite of Spring that I created in 2010. It’s a good example of the way I extract a few ideas and themes from a big orchestral work and use them as the basis for a large group improvisation.


The next big jam I’ll be leading is on February 18th at the Myer Music Bowl, a large covered amphitheatre surrounded by grass-covered slopes in the heart of Melbourne. Every February the MSO presents a series of free symphony orchestra concerts at the Bowl and Melburnians pack a picnic and attend in the thousands. This year, I’ve been asked to create a pre-concert jam that will entice the picnickers – parents and children – to examine their picnic baskets for possible soundmakers (cutlery? Salad bowls? Tupperware?) and join in a jam on themes from Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico (the first piece that will be performed in that evening’s concert). A team of MSO musicians and young players from the MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble will be on hand to lend support and give us a solid musical foundation to lock into!

Myer Bowl Jam

Saturday 18 February, 5-5.30pm

Followed by a free orchestral concert at 7pm

All welcome!

Artists inviting possibility

I am often approached by young musicians who want to develop workshop skills and get some more experience working with groups of children. This year, I’ve got a formal mentoring relationship set up. Ryan, a young recorder soloist and highly creative individual (based on our conversations thus far!), approached me at the end of last year to see if I could work with him to develop a workshop program for children that he could deliver as part of a broader touring and performance program.

Good on him! So far, we’ve mapped out a plan of action that includes developing a 2-hour workshop for primary school children that gets them to create their own music and embed it within a larger, contemporary solo work for recorder. Ryan is also going to spend some time in other workshops with me throughout the year, shadowing me and developing a repertoire of approaches and strategies for developing compositions with children.

At our first meeting, we focused on WHAT  – what is Ryan’s main aim? Is it a workshop that lasts a day? A few hours? Is it a longer residency? Is it a tailored approach, or an ‘off-the-shelf’ framework that he can adapt as he goes? Is it something that can link to his performance skills and concert-giving?

Ryan emphasised the importance of ‘being able to leave something behind’. He was well-aware of the weaknesses of the ‘parachute’ model (where the glamorous, charismatic visiting artist parachutes in, does their arts project, then leaves just as swiftly, with little of substance left in their wake). At the same time, I countered, a visiting artist has to be realistic about what is possible. You are a visitor. You are only there for a short time – a matter of hours, usually. Anything sustainable is going to require the buy-in and efforts of the class teacher. You have no control over what they do or don’t do in the classroom with relation to your visit, no matter how valuable such input might be.

Perhaps therefore, the artist’s visit is about inviting possibility for individual participants, with tangible skills and tools being part of the outcomes for the participants, but also the intangibles of inspiration, example and possibility. The next steps that individuals may take after a workshop experience – such as re-producing and re-experiencing their workshop outcome with you without your guidance, or furthering their skills and concepts through independent research, or simply the motivation to seek out further opportunities – are essential to a sustained ‘legacy’ from a workshop, given that music itself doesn’t result in any kind of physical artefact. How to plant the strongest, most potent and robust seeds, then, is the next big challenge for the artist! We’ll start looking at content in our next meeting together; meanwhile, Ryan is going to get busy reading Keith Johnstone, Graeme Leak and others on inspiring creative outcomes in groups.

What I did on my holidays

I got to do a bit of travelling over the January break (summer holidays here in Australia). Our stay on the quiet, peaceful island of Siboya, in Southern Thailand, coincided with Children’s Day, an annual Thai Festival when all the children are given presents (the younger ones tend to cry if they don’t like the one they’re given) and spend the day playing games, having races, and doing other special activities. Tony and I led a short music workshop for the children in the village of Klong Tor. It felt a lot like the old, Timor times.

I have definitely got some good value out of Funge Alafia this last year!

Siboya was just what we needed after the frantic right-up-til-Christmas unrelenting pace of 2011. They have electricity on the island (as of 2009), but at the Siboya Bungalows resort there was no background music being played, no TVs in the corner of the room, no need to see a screen at all. We had a total digital detox – bliss!