Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

Collaborating by distance

The three-way collaborative creation of ‘Nests’ was for the most part a long-distance relationship (Ken and Rebecca in country Victoria, me in Melbourne).  Our first intensive in-person period of discussions and exploration, when we ran an informal workshop with a group of 3-5 year-olds at the Creswick Playscape, concluded with an agreed idea of what we each saw in mind’s eye when we pictured the installation. We each had differing mental images of the nests, for example, so needed to describe and discuss and establish a shared set of intentions. We looked at pictures of actual nests, and discussed the practicalities of rendering each in a human-size form that could still be packed down to fit in to the back of a car. By the end of the December development period, we each had clear tasks ahead of us, to work on in our respective homes.

Ken's leaf coloursKen set to work designing the nests for the installation, figuring out solutions to the materials needed, the construction process and the visual effect. He explored the idea of woven leaves, taking inspiration (shapes, colours) from the local landscape.

Rebecca and I turned our minds to the soundscape. We discussed an overall ‘narrative’ structure for the 30 minute installation experience that allowed time for children’s discovery and exploration of the instruments, leading to a massed ensemble experience in which everyone would be playing the same thing at the same time. The magical focus and mood that we had witnessed at the Creswick Playscape when we brought the wooden frog guiros out at the end of the session suggested to us that a ‘frog bog’ might be a nice way to draw the experience to a quiet, peaceful close.

We wanted the soundscape to create a sense of the bush or a forest. The installation space was to be theatrically lit, and the soundscape would enhance the children’s sense of entering ‘another world’. We also wanted it to encourage musical interactions between the children, where they might start to engage in patterns, sequences, and conversations. Therefore, it needed to include sounds from the natural world and sounds from the instruments the children would be playing in the nests.

Rebecca set to work recording natural environment sounds.

Ready to record... (Rebecca Russell)These included footsteps in crunchy leaves, all sorts of bird calls, early morning crickets and early evening frogs.

My recording tasks were to source some great storm sounds (I found these at freesound.org, an amazingly comprehensive resource thanks to a dedicated and committed community of sharers), and to record samples of all the instruments we intended to use.

I did this one sunny afternoon in the bathroom and wardrobe of my apartment – these were the quietest, deadest spaces. Here are the instruments all lined up, ready to play:

Recording 'Nests' sounds (G. Howell)

These were our January tasks. We had regular Skype meetings but because we live quite far apart (and because I was away for much of January), we needed to work separately on the assigned tasks, then share outcomes as they were ready.

Endings; and the momentum of the beginning

2012 was a big year for me. I had more freelance projects booked in than ever before, a fairly full load of regular teaching gigs, and three overseas conference presentations . If you take a look at my Project Diary page you can scroll down and see what was on in 2012 – and this list doesn’t include teaching full days in 2 schools and 2 universities (I taught one of the university courses online and in the evenings, as my students were in the USA and Canada). It was a very satisfying year professionally, with a number of new ventures, including the opportunity to work in north-western Australia with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and running my own series of workshops at ArtPlay. But it was a tricky year in terms of finding balance. I felt like I never stopped working!

'Farewell' flowers given to me at the end of term by my two schools.

‘Farewell’ flowers given to me at the end of term by my two schools.

I am looking forward to a different pace and focus in 2013. The big change is that I am starting my PhD this year. Next week I will be heading up to Brisbane to meet with my supervisors and will officially be a student again. To make space for full-time study, I resigned from my two primary schools at the end of 2012. In some ways it was sad to say good-bye – I’d been at the Language School since 2005, and even though students were constantly arriving and leaving (it is a transitional school), I’d developed longterm relationships with the teachers, and built a really lovely, hand-picked collection of instruments. I’d been teaching at Pelican Primary School since 2009 for 2 days a week, and the children who’d been in the younger years when I started were now heading into the senior classes in the school. It is a wonderful thing to observe a cohort of children growing  like this. I’d built relationships with parents as well as with teachers, and it was sad to let those go.

At the same time, I was feeling restless. I’d started the year feeling that I’d “done lots of this before”. I found it more and more difficult to feel patient with the kind of frustrating timetabling issues that arise in primary schools everywhere that can really impact specialist programs. I loved the children, and loved playing music with them, but no longer felt as energised by the teaching work. Moving on at the end of the year therefore felt quite liberating.

There is a great momentum that comes with being at the beginning of something. I’m excited about my PhD topic (looking at music education and participation in post-conflict countries around the world), and about starting a new research project, which I find stimulating and inspiring in similar ways to creative project development (I’ve blogged about the commonalities here). And even though all of those who have already been through the PhD journey or know someone who has, shake their heads and say things like, “I hope you survive, it’s a lot of work!”, I feel undeterred. In fact, I feel relieved to think that no matter how much work it is, it will at least be just one big project, rather than the many multiples of projects I had in my head in 2012, all unrelated to each other, each needing their own amount of space and time. Having one thing to focus on for the next 3-4 years seems like a really straightforward proposition at this point. (Though perhaps I should revisit the optimism of this notion in 6 months time!).

 

A (musical) jam with hundreds and thousands

Gillian's jazz gig, Fed Square,  April 2010 065Last night I put the finishing touches on the score for this weekend’s ‘Gypsy Jam’ at the Myer Music Bowl with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] and graduates from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. This participatory music jam will take place before a free outdoor orchestral concert, one of a series of four free concerts that the MSO puts on every year as part of Melbourne summer festivities.

This year I’ve created a ‘Gypsy Jam’ in order to tie into the concert program which features Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. Bartok = Hungarian = Gypsy… purists will know the link is somewhat tenuous, but for our purposes, it’s going to work very well indeed! The jam acts like a pre-concert ‘aperitif’ (after all, people bring a picnic with them to the free Myer Bowl concerts so if the concert proper is the main course then the pre-concert jam could be an aperitif or amuse-bouche), and people can elect to come down to the stage to join in (we’ll have lots of percussion instruments available for them to play, or they can bring their own instrument with them), or join in from their picnic spot on the grass.

Thousands of people attend these free Myer Bowl concerts, so that means there might end up being thousands of people jamming. Everyone is welcome, so if you are in Melbourne, pack your picnic basket, grab your horn of choice and head down to the Myer Music Bowl, ready for a 6pm jam start. Gates open at 4pm. Here’s what it looked like last year, when our theme was Mexican (to tie in with the concert performance of Copland’s El Salon Mexico). Olé!

 

 

Making ‘Nests’

I am working on a very beautiful collaborative project at the moment. Called ‘Nests’, it’s a theatrical music installation that invites children aged 3-5 years of age to discover and explore a big range of very unusual, exotic percussion instruments from around the world, and draws them into musical interactions with each other and the adults around them. These explorations take place in gigantic nests that the children can enter and sit in.

Image for NESTS by Ken Evans, GIllian Howell, Rebecca RussellNests is special to me for a number of reasons. One is because it is the first time I am getting to work with two artists I’ve admired for a long time, theatre designer Ken Evans and visual theatre director Rebecca Russell. We’ve been friends for a long time, and have always had many wonderful and inspiring conversations about making work with and for children, but this is the first time we have developed a project together.

Another reason it is special is because the idea has grown quite slowly and organically for me over a period of time. I first put musical instruments in nests in the  jam for 0-5 year olds that I created for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival in 2011 (I didn’t blog about that project at the time, sadly – had too many projects going on!). The idea of getting to sit in a nest really seemed to resonate with children and parents alike, and I kept it in the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to take it further. I knew Rebecca and Ken were the perfect artists to develop it with, and we developed the concept for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab pitching process back in July 2012 and were invited to develop and present Nests as an installation in 2013.

We gave ourselves two specific challenges to explore with the project. One was that it be an installation, rather than a facilitated or led workshop experience. I love seeing children in this age group choosing their own ‘pathways’ through new experiences and learning through their own creative play, but this doesn’t often happen in music workshops, because children of this age often explore things quite independently and with instruments in hand this leads to very chaotic, noisy environments! Music experiences are therefore usually facilitated or led, and everyone is usually engaged in doing the same thing at the same time. For Nests, we wanted to create an environment (aural and physical) that would foster and draw on the children’s natural love of self-guided exploration, but that would also encourage them to listen and respond to each other’s musical sounds.

The other challenge was to create an installation that could be packed up and used again. We’ve designed Nests to be portable, because we want to be able to tour it to other settings in Australia and beyond. So right from the start, Ken had the complex design challenge of working out how to build something that looked like a nest, was robust and sturdy enough to be climbed on and sat in by children, and that could be put together and packed up relatively quickly, and easily transported in the back of a standard car, and light-weight enough to take on a plane.

Music in the Playscape cubby (Gillian Howell)We’re developing Nests in stages. The first stage was a 3-day creative development in December 2012. We spent a lot of time talking in the studio, but also ran an informal music exploration session at the Playscape in Creswick (in regional Victoria, Rebecca and Ken’s neck of the woods). This session with local children gave us the opportunity to see how they responded to the different instruments I’d started to gather, to see what most appealed to them, what didn’t hold their interest, and whether 3-5 year old fingers would be dextrous enough for some of the instruments I’d chosen.

We learned that the more resonant instruments, such as the energy chime, thumb piano and gas bottle instrument you can see in the image above, really held the children’s attention. They played together for quite extended periods of time on these instruments and were very absorbed. And I was very happy to see that all of them could play the wah-wah tubes (which involves moving the thumb on and off a small hole in the metal tube) without difficulty. Instruments like the caxixi or the ‘waterfall’ (a bundle of tiny wooden bells that make a sweet, gurgling – but quite piercing for young ears – rattling sound) held very little interest. Short clacking sounds like the set of sprung castanet-like clackers that I bought in Vietnam were attractive but often put down quite quickly in order to play something else.

'Frog Bog' at Creswick Playscape (Gillian Howell & Rebecca Russell)At the end of the session we drew everyone together to sit in a circle and I brought out my collection of frog guiros. (I have 11 of them – I bought them in Thailand, one each day. I couldn’t resist them. Tony would say, “Gillian, I think you have enough frogs now” whenever the roving salesmen would approach us in the restaurant or on the beach, but I am very glad now that I ignored his comments and bought the frogs). We created a magical, almost meditative ‘frog bog’, listening to each of the frogs in turn and having frog conversations with each other. (They are all different sizes. I call the biggest frog ‘Big Nana’ because I didn’t want the biggest frog to be male, but I wanted it to be the frog that all the other frogs listened to. Nanas often have an important, loving authority in little people’s lives, and the children love expressing this authority with the Big Nana frog).

We took the learning from that early exploration session into the next Nests phase, deciding on the sets of instruments to place in each nest, designing the environment and building a kind of narrative structure for the 30 minute installation experiences at ArtPlay. More on that in the next post.

Barriers to arts participation

ArtPlay music workshop (Gillian Howell)This weekend I am leading a series of free workshops at ArtPlay on behalf of ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] for children aged 8-13. The workshops are held at the start of every school year and we always get a pretty strong showing of participants – with 5 workshops across the weekend fully booked, or close to full. Children come with their instruments and take part in a fast-paced 1-hour composing workshop. At the end of the hour we perform the newly composed pieces of music to an audience of their parents and siblings.

The workshops are a fun experience in themselves but they also function as a ‘taster’ session of what is on offer in the year-long MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, and we use them as a kind of audition, enabling us to identify which children most strongly responded to the open-ended, creative and collaborative way that we work. 25 of these children are then offered a place in the year-long program.

Fully-booked workshops means no obvious barriers to participation, presumably? Not necessarily. Every year, we approach this program strongly aware that simply by virtue of it being a music program, it is going to attract the attention of a certain demographic – those whose children are learning to play an instrument, and to a lesser extent, those who regularly participate in creative arts workshops in centers like ArtPlay and who prioritise those experiences, but who may not been involved in learning to play an instrument. In Australia, learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking, rarely offered at primary schools without passing the cost of the lessons and instruments on to the parents.

Every year therefore, I consider the projects I have led in disadvantaged schools and try and identify particular children that I know would thrive in a program like this – children who demonstrate musical talent and vibrant creative imaginations. There are a small number of scholarships (ie. fully-subsidised places in the year-long program) available for children who might not be able to accept an offered place due to financial constraints.

But there are many reasons children may not take part in programs like this and they are not all financial. Children of this age-group generally need a parent or adult to accompany them to the workshop venue and to pick them up, but in some households this is a huge barrier because parents are working, or caring for younger children, or don’t have transport options, or can’t afford public transport… or they may not assume that kind of involvement in their children’s lives and rarely take them anywhere. Similarly, they might make a plan for their child’s travel to and from the venue, but when the workshop day comes, decide they need that child to stay at home that day – there are other things that take priority over the workshop in their family.

There may also be psychological barriers about going to a new, unfamiliar place (for the child and the parent). The venues for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble are all in the city centre – but many families (especially those who are new to Australia, or from refugee backgrounds as are many of the children I work with) may find the idea of going into the city centre quite intimidating and even frightening, as it is unfamiliar, busy, and perhaps unpredictable. Similarly, buildings can be psychologically intimidating places to enter, even if they are ‘public’ spaces. People may instinctively sense that they are “not welcome”, or that this place is “not for their type”, and therefore reluctant to cross the threshold.

As an artist or arts worker in participatory projects like workshops, these barriers can be very tricky to overcome. With the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, we have tried a number of ways to encourage a more diverse group of participants into the program. One year, I identified a talented young Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in Australia, as someone who would benefit from and contribute lots to the Ensemble. She lived quite far from the city so we arranged for her to travel in a taxi to and from the workshop venue each day, in addition to offering the fully-subsidised place. Sometimes an older cousin travelled with her, and by about the 3rd workshop in the year, they had decided that May would travel home on the train by herself. Her cousin had shown her how to get to the station. She also asked me if I could accompany May to the station at the end of the workshop, but I had a meeting with the orchestral management team immediately after the workshop, so they decided that May could go by herself rather than wait.

About 40 minutes into my meeting that afternoon, the receptionist came to find me, to ask me to go to the front desk. May was there, sobbing and sobbing, in quite a state. She had tried to go to the station but had got lost. She’d come back to the workshop venue to find me (the only person she knew) but I couldn’t be located by the security staff because I was in this meeting. May felt overwhelmed by the entire situation (and perhaps by the effort of trying to make herself understood in English) and began to cry. Of course at that point I stayed with her, and travelled home with her, but after that day, she didn’t return to the program. I spoke to her cousin on the phone who told me she didn’t want to come back.

This year, I approached the mother of two very bright children I had been working with at Pelican Primary School. They were siblings, both sang in the choir, and had very natural, instinctive skills on the marimba and other percussion instruments in the school. I described the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program to their mother, who I have chatted to before and know to be very friendly, warm, approachable and keen to support her children in different learning opportunities. The family comes from a refugee background, but has been in Australia for some time and seem pretty well-settled, organised and functional :-). She was very excited to hear about the program and scholarship opportunity and said several times, “Yes, I would support them to do this.”

That was at the end of last year, December 2012. I no longer teach at that school, and so when the school term resumed this week, I got in touch with the school to see if I could get a message to the family to remind them about the workshops this weekend. I had given the mother my phone number and all the information about the program the previous year, but I hoped to give an additional reminder. The school is not legally allowed to give me the family’s contact details, but they first mentioned the music opportunity to the children’s father one day and suggested he or his wife should contact me. He apparently looked at the message-giver rather blankly! So the next day, the principal approached the older of the two children with a note for their mum, asking her to call me about the music opportunity and giving her my number. That was on Thursday. She didn’t call.

My other idea had been to try and get to the school at either drop-off or pick-up time to see if I could catch up with the mum there, but my work schedule didn’t allow that on Friday. In any case, I began to wonder if I was pushing something at them that they didn’t want to do. I thought about all the barriers that that might be stopping mum from calling me (such as no phone credit, or feeling unconfident speaking to me on the phone in English, or not wanting to say ‘No’ outright to me). But I also thought about how I would love for those two children to have the experience of going into ArtPlay, being greeted so warmly by the staff there, meeting the MSO musicians, playing music with me in this different context, feeling the thrill of being in such a beautiful space, purpose-built for art-making and young imaginations… and then after the workshop playing in the playground and feeling excited by what they had achieved and experienced.

Who knows, perhaps she has already registered the children for the workshops this weekend! I’ll find out when I get there I suppose. And if not this year, maybe I will be able to encourage them to come along next year. And if not them, someone else.