First thought, best thought! In praise of the fast and messy workshop

Gypsy Jam at Myer Music BowlThere is a joyful immediacy and momentum in workshops that are fast-paced and focused on making and doing, and getting the creations out there. Real, tangible outcomes, ready for presentation or sharing, but not necessarily highly polished.

Two weeks ago I led the ‘Gypsy Jam’ (so-called because we were playing music inspired by Hungarian gypsy music) at the Myer Music Bowl for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. There were about 6000 people in the crowd when the jam took place, along with 50 young musicians providing the musical backbone, and around 100 young children and families who came down to the stage area to join in on percussion. It was definitely a jam for hundreds and thousands, as I predicted on this blog beforehand.

Creating a music experience for that many people was a complex task – complex, and kind of messy! There were many different needs and agendas to consider:

  • The needs of the young musicians from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, experienced in fast-paced music creation and who were there to have fun, perform, and be challenged;
  • The needs of the young children and their parents who responded to the invitation to bring an instrument and join in;
  • The needs of the larger MSO outdoor concert audience, including lots of elderly people who arrived at the gates long before they opened in order to get one of the few, much-coveted, undercover seats (rather than listen to the concert sitting on a picnic blanket on the grass)
  • The needs of the MSO, to be offering a fun and engaging participatory experience that wouldn’t prove too annoying for those in its audience that weren’t looking for participation and unorthodox pre-concert entertainment (remember, audiences for classical music are not always the most open-minded – they can be quite risk-averse and particular about what they want from the experience).

All to be catered for in a jam lasting just 20 minutes!

Conducting the Gypsy Jam (G. Howell)The Gypsy Jam wasn’t a particularly polished outcome – how could it be? We rehearsed the music with the young musicians for just 75 minutes beforehand. They also created some sections of music themselves, and spent some of their rehearsal getting used to the outdoor setting and doing soundchecks. There was a wide range of experiences and abilities in the group too – some were very strong players but others were still quite new to their instruments.

Fast and messy workshops like these (‘messy’ is not be taken literally – I am using it in the sense of ‘not quite orderly, somewhat unpredictable’) make up for what they lack in finesse and refinement with an abundance of shared creative energy that is instinctive, responsive, ‘in-the-moment’, and, probably, risky. They are intensely focused and driven, but short in timeframe. (And a sidenote, the emphasis on quick responses and spontaneity does not equate with being unplanned. As a music leader, I find the planning for these kinds of events needs to be incredibly exacting, because it is crucial to make effective use of the limited time available).

Fast, messy workshops can be exhilarating, because they have tremendous forward momentum. They can also be frustrating because there isn’t time to deliberate, reconsider, trial the options, dig into the detail, or even erase and start again. They push everyone in the group to trust their instincts, and trust in the process.

It is not the most ‘composerly’ way, perhaps. But it is a good way nonetheless, with a powerful creative energy. It reminds me of poet Allan Ginsberg’s dictum of “first thought, best thought”, compelling his fellow writers to be fearless and spontaneous, to let go of the inner critic and express themselves with unfettered honesty and immediacy.

Like Ginsberg’s spontaneous writing, the fast and messy music workshop also brings to the fore the amazing, strange, surprising, unexpected ideas that individuals may have floating around in their heads. Such ideas are not always easy to access if you are constantly conditioned to trust other people’s material more than your own. Processes that give you the opportunity to engage with your own ideas make you practised at accessing them in the future.

The young musicians who took part in the Gypsy Jam had all been members of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, an annual, year-long composing and performing program I’ve been directing since 2005. Recently, one of the first graduates of the program sent me a card. She enclosed a DVD and CD recording of her end-of-year recital – she is now a full-time music student at a university. In her card she wrote:

I have spoken to a few past members of the 2006 Ensemble. They want to say thank you for giving them confidence in performing originals and using different ideas to turn it into one. There are a lot of us still playing our own music thanks to our experiences with you.

I am sure that for this young player, her current compositions evolve through far more detailed and exacting processes than those we employed in the fast-paced, 2-day MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops. The important point is that through her fast and messy experiences, she had faced any fear, reluctance, or self-consciousness, and was practised at accessing her creative ideas. Even more importantly, she had confidence in them, so the ideas could flow.

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6 comments so far

  1. frockfarie on

    It was a fantastic evening. You continue to amaze me with how you are able to bring out the best in these young performers in such a short amount of time. Bravo!

  2. Gillian Howell on

    That one was crazy short even for me! I remember looking at my watch and realising I had 3 minutes left to bring it all to a close. Lots of fun – but definitely fast-paced 🙂

  3. Nicole Alexander on

    Allan Ginsberg learned the idea of “first thought best thought” from a meditation teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who founded the Shambhala group I’m part of! He wrote a whole book called “True Perceptions” about meditation and the artistic experience. 🙂

  4. Gillian Howell on

    True! I came across the ‘first thought best thought’ phrase when I was at the Guildhall, the director of the program I was in lent me a book of poems, one of which had that phrase in the title or body of one of the poems. When I was writing this post I googled the phrase and found the link to Chogyam and Ginsberg. Another line I remember clearly was about ‘licking honey from a razor blade’ which I’ve now discovered is from one of the Buddha’s teachings. Thanks for adding the extra detail here Nicole. I love that there is a direct link to your Shambhala group. A perfect ‘small world’ connection.

  5. Marshall Marcus on

    And as the ‘Ginsberg-esque’ saying goes in the world of Venezuela’s El Sistema: ‘passion first … then refinement’. I think what characterises all of these approaches is living in a ‘process-present’, rather than a ‘desired results driven-future’. In the West we are very good at deferred pleasure. Over the last few centuries it has brought us a lot. Arguably too much. Maybe it’s time now to swing in the opposite direction a little.

  6. […] video to share this week – here are some highlights from the Gypsy Jam I led for a crowd of thousands at an outdoor concert venue called the Myer Music Bowl a few weeks […]


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