Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

When the beat in the street makes you feel complete

City Beats 2013 workshops drew to a close last week. We finished off this year’s Landscapes theme by creating music inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the city – City Beats. (It was only after I’d planned the project that I realised this third workshop would have the same name as the whole program).

Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?

It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha

It’s the City Beat.

For this city-focused workshop, the whole-group composition consisted of a short rap linked to a vocal soundscape depicting all sorts of sounds of the city.  I asked the groups to think about words that rhyme – like ‘street’ and ‘beat’ and ‘feet’ – and that would fit well with our theme. The children brainstormed rhyming words, putting them into sentences, and these came together pretty quickly to form the rap. You can see some of their words in the images below.

We created the soundscape using a Grid Score, setting it up over a cycle of ten beats. Why ten? At first I thought I’d do twelve, but then thought that might be too long. So I thought about doing an eight-beat cycle – but eight seemed too square, too solid and grounded. Ten was the perfect cycle length – uneven enough to give the sounds a sense of never quite landing, and short enough to be achievable (and to fit across the width of the white board).

Grid Score, City Beats G. Howell 2013

I brought along a few bells and whistles to get the soundscape started – we had a bicycle bell, a honky horn, a train whistle, and a strange siren-like whoopee whistle (I don’t know what it is called, it is the kind of thing that might accompany a clown act. The children loved it). We chose numbers in the cycle for these sounds to land on and practiced that first.

Bells and Whistles, City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, working in small groups, the children decided on other sounds that they would hear in the city that they could depict with their voices or body percussion, and decided where they should appear in the cycle of ten beats, and how many numbers they should cover. Once all the decisions had been made and the relevant squares on the grid had been filled with appropriate symbols (you can see below why I am a musician and not a visual artist), we rehearsed it until it was memorised and ready to record.

Grid score and Gillian, City Beats 2013 G. Howell

The choices of city sounds varied somewhat between the groups, but it was the children from the English Language School who really created something unique. Their city soundscape was influenced by the cities they knew well – like Quetta, and Kabul, and Bangkok. They included the sounds of goats and sheep bleating, of the loudspeakers on the minarets of city mosques calling the faithful to prayers, and a traditional song/chant that street sellers from Afghanistan sing. All the children from Afghanistan knew this chant (perhaps it embeds itself into the vernacular the way “Mind the Gap” does in London). The child who sang the ‘call to prayer’ sang it into a loudhailer, in imitation of the thin, slightly tinny sound that the minaret speakers can have. Yes indeed, the city soundscape from the Language School children was an evocative and energetic affair!

With the whole-group chorus finished, we divided into groups of 6, each accompanied by a musician from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to create additional sections of music. One group took xylophones and created melodic material based on the rhythms in our rap chorus. Another group extended the chorus with further verses and some drumming.

Drums City Beats ArtPlay 2013

The third group worked with a fabulous array of orchestral percussion and ‘found sounds’ – bass drum, pitched tom-toms, a tam-tam, a suspended cymbal and two suspended brake drums) – to create a rhythmic city groove, working with interlocking patterns, dynamics, and cues.

Brake Drums City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, in the last ten minutes of the workshop, we gathered together again, performed our music to each other, recorded the performances, and said good-bye.

City Beats days are probably some of my favourite days in the year! There is so much to love. The children come along to ArtPlay thinking they will get to learn a bit of music, and they leave at the end of each 2-hour workshop just buzzing with excitement and energy at all the music that they have created with us. Their teachers are constantly amazed at how much they achieve, and how quickly. And the MSO musicians, ArtPlay staff and I get to spend two glorious days a term hanging out with fabulously creative children, composing and playing original music. Everyone leaves at the end of each day with all sorts of infectious earworms buzzing in our heads.

The schools that take part in City Beats each year are ‘disadvantaged’ schools – schools without music specialist teachers, or that have student cohorts from less advantaged circumstances. They may have high numbers of families in receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or who are from refugee backgrounds, or who, because of financial circumstances, never get to take part in any ‘extras’. The program is fully-funded, including travel subsidies, thanks to the generousity of wonderfully supportive and visionary funders, who know that for young people to recognise their talents, they have to have the chance to explore and discover them first.

City Beats was part of the ArtPlay/University of Melbourne’s Mapping Engagement 4-year research project at ArtPlay. You can read/download a report of the City Beats program here.

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Donkeys can’t fly on planes

I went to a book launch on Tuesday night for a beautiful book – Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes: Stories of survival from South Sudanese refugee children living in Australia.

Traralgon_DonkeysCantFly2

This is such a memorable book, filled with powerful, very moving stories written by children about their experiences. Some of the stories describe life before they come to Australia, living in villages with their families, or in large refugee camps like Kakuma, in Kenya. The stories offer us a child’s view of the world there, with snakes that follow you, scorpions that bite, and giraffes that push you over on to the hard ground (“because there is not much grass in Africa”), as well as the story of Steven, the kind and helpful donkey that was a much-loved and valued member of Sunday Garang’s family until they moved to Australia.

I loved the story of Nyawech Ruach. She describes herself as having been “an angry girl” who used to fight with other people a lot. She would hit and slap people until they cried, boys and girls alike. She was clearly a force to be reckoned with. One day her brother came to her with a knife in his hand. He wanted to remove her lower teeth (a custom for people from her tribe). But she kicked and screamed until he gave up. Then, when she came to Australia, she went to see the dentist, and the dentist was very happy that she had been such a tough, fierce-some little girl, because it meant she still had all her teeth!

(A funny postscript to this story is that on the night of the launch, her teacher revealed that Nyawech is actually an incredibly quiet, shy girl, and everyone was completely amazed when they read her story, struggling to believe it could be the same girl).

There are heartbreaking descriptions of hunger and starvation (“I could not cry because I did not have the energy to make the crying sound or to squeeze tears from my eyes”), and of feeling sad and empty when there was no food. But one child also writes about a day when there was a big feast, and the girls got to eat before the boys (“I remember that day well because there was plenty of food for everyone”).

Traralgon_DonkeysCantFly14Other children write about the journey to Australia, including travelling first by horse, before finally getting to the aeroplane. One boy describes how he didn’t want to go to Australia, so he climbed a big tree and refused to come down. He didn’t want to leave his home, his friends and family, the place where he was born where he knows the language and the ways. Someone had to climb the tree in order to get him down.

Some of the children write about danger. They write about terrible things they witnessed or experienced in very matter-of-fact ways. Sometimes, the danger in the story comes completely out of the blue – much as it would have done in the child’s life. One day, life was normal… and then all of a sudden it was very, very dangerous and people had to flee as fast as possible.

This is a book of stories that need to be told, as the publisher, Victoria Ryle from Kids Own Publishing, said in her welcoming speech. In a political climate that hides the human desperation, loss, trauma, grief and hope of the refugee experience behind numbers, fear-mongering, “business models”, and slogans, the stories offer an alternative image. They also demonstrate just how much refugees can contribute to the communities that welcome them, and how filled with potential they are. A perfect example is given at the end of the book, when we learn that proceeds from the sale of this book will go towards building a school in the village of Bor. The Bor Orphanage and Community Education Project has been started by two amazing young men. They are former Lost Boys of Sudan and child soldiers who were fortunate enough to be resettled in Australia. Now they want to give back to their community, and have initiated the BOCEP organisation and school/orphanage project in response to the huge number of orphans in their home village of Bor who have no adults to look after them and who are fending for themselves, older children trying to teach the younger children.

This is a book for everyone, of all ages. If you are a teacher, please consider buying Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes for your students to read. There are many possible activities that could be drawn from this book of stories. I haven’t mentioned the artwork yet – but the collages that illustrate the stories are also very captivating and will inspire other children to create artworks using similar techniques. You can order your copies directly from BOCEP, http://bocep.org.au/.

Lastly, I bought an extra copy of Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes to give to one of my blog readers. If you would like me to send it to you, please post a comment below this blog post, telling me how you will share the stories with others. I will then contact you directly to get your mailing address, and it will be yours!

And lastly, reading this book brought back many memories of my own work with newly-arrived refugee children in Language Schools in Melbourne. I could hear the children’s voices very clearly as I read the book, and could imagine the gentle line of questioning from the teacher that would have helped these stories come out. I created many songs and music pieces with children about their journeys to Australia. Here is just one:

Music in a conflicted world

One of the things that made the post-conflict environment of Bosnia-Herzegovina such an intense and compelling place to be for me in 1998 was the way that music apparently held a position of such tremendous importance in people’s everyday lives. This was a place where music mattered, enormously, and as a newly-arrived musician and music leader, I felt welcomed, valued, and stimulated by the intense creative environment.

BOSNIE-VIOLONCELLISTE

There were many challenges in people’s daily lives. People were surviving on very little, living in makeshift or temporary homes, with few opportunities to earn money. Some younger people hoped to continue their education, but the young adults – people my age, or a bit younger – often felt a strong sense of responsibility to care for the other members of their families, and so to be finding ways to earn an income, however meagre. Some were recently returned to Mostar after living as temporary refugees in other parts of Europe.

Looking back, I can imagine now that because I was based at the Pavarotti Music Centre I was meeting and interacting with people for whom music mattered. Presumably there were others, whose paths I never crossed, for whom music held a place of less significance. But among the people I worked with and hung out with, music was everywhere and everything.

David Wilson, British journalist and humanitarian, was the director of the Pavarotti Music Centre at the time. He has written about his experiences in war-time Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Sarajevo and in Mostar. In these articles he describes sitting in underground bars near the frontlines in Sarajevo during the height of the siege there, where music-making was an act of defiance – especially by young people – against those determined to shoot and shell them to smithereens. The louder the gunfire, the louder the music.

He describes places where there was frequently no power, but where people would sing and play in order to have music. If a generator could be found, playing loud music was a high priority. In a city where people had little food and faced death every day, acts of music and other creative endeavours dotted the city. These creative acts allowed people to maintain their humanity in an inhumane situation, to reclaim dignity and an element of control over their environment, and to integrate something about their current experiences with their whole selves.

Recently I have been considering, “Why music, in this context? What might music offer people existing in one of the most extreme of human experiences – war and conflict – that playing sport (for example) does not offer?” The epistemology of music interventions in conflict-affected areas is not well-established in scholarly literature, but there is definitely a consistency in the reports of people like Wilson that correlates with empirical knowledge from other areas of music research.

For example, music therapists know that when we make music, we are connecting with the part of ourselves that remains whole, undamaged by illness or injury, even while our bodies and minds may be battling all kinds of debilitating challenges. Music invites, and accepts.

Music also creates beneficial social outcomes. When people play music together, they connect their ideas and ideals in some way. They engage with others, and connect in ways that are not dependent on words or conversation. You can take part in musicking without uttering a word. You can be fully present in the music, and yet still protecting those parts of yourself that require protection. Musicking also takes place in a kind of liminal space – it allows participants to experiment and explore alternatives responses, alternative patterns, or to experience alternative versions of others, without fully committing to that alternative.

Nigel Osborne, an inspiring and charismatic musician, composer, and music leader that I had the privilege of working alongside in Bosnia in 1998, describes some of the physical benefits that participation in music-making can offer people suffering from the traumatic effects of war and conflict. Physical coordination, respiratory systems, and neuroendocrine systems all move towards optimal functioning when people engage in music-making over repeated occasions or extended periods of time (Osborne 2009).

Christopher Small, in ‘Musicking’ (1998) suggests that when people “music”, they are engaging in a kind of ritual, and human rituals are a way for us to experience our world as we wish it to be. It is an idealised representation that is deeply satisfying. Rituals are created in particular for those aspects of our lived experience over which we have less control (such as the weather necessary for crops and food security), or life points that are transitions from one stage of life to another (such as the rituals marking birth, death, marriage, child-birth, or the transition from childhood to adulthood). Shared rituals for these significant life events create a sense of unity, self-efficacy, and courage. It is much easier to face life’s challenges if you feel you have the strength of a community behind you; furthermore, the social bonds that are created through the shared ritual experience make people more effective and functional in what they do after.

Stige (2012) sees musicking as a form of interaction ritual and that its benefits are similar to those experienced in shared human rituals the world over. Interaction rituals (as termed by Collins, 2004) have characteristics of mutual focus of attention and emotional entrainment, rather than formal procedure and stereotyped actions. Entrainment of emotions, along with the entrainment of pulse and rhythm achieved through shared music-making, encourages greater social cooperation and a deep sense of connectedness with others.

Ellen Dissanayake examines why humans make art. Why is it that art-making – “making special”, she calls it, or “artifying” – is a cultural universal, observed in human cultures around the world, throughout the ages? She too, sees the link between art-making and human ritual to be of great importance. Rituals involve the formalisation and embellishment of everyday gestures, and are traditionally arts-rich, multi-modal, participatory endeavours that generate a shared sense of well-being and burden.

Because music is a social activity, action, emotion and cognition intertwine. Researchers such as Wallin et al (2000), Cross (2003), Cross and Morley (2009), have established the psychobiological foundation for musical participation. This foundation is supported by the social-musical motivation system described by Dissanayake (2000), Trevarthen (2000), and Trevarthen and Malloch (2009), suggesting that human evolution has provided us with a basic protomusicality, “a psychobiological capacity for relating to sounds, rhythms, and movements” (Stige, 2012, p. 189). Malloch and Trevarthen call this communicative musicality.

It is communicative musicality that enables, even compels the infant to seek out, engage in, and prolong interactions with other humans. These interactions are pleasurable for both parties, making helpless infants infinitely attractive to their mothers, which ensured the high level of care that ancestral human babies needed to thrive, survive and perpetuate the species. Today, human’s communicative musicality is an innate capacity that begins the journey of cultural learning and meaning-making. This supports Dissanayake’s hypothesis that participation in music is a human need related to the experience of meaning. Through the early shared experiences of sounds and gestures, musicking and musicianship develop.

Dad and baby engage with music (Nests 2013)

Then there are the neurotransmitters and hormones that start firing up when we engage in communal music-making. Brain imaging research has shown that music listening and participation is linked to the section of the brain associated with reward, motivation and emotion. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released, triggering production of  oxytocin (apparently known as the ‘cuddle chemical’) which in turn reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Oxytocin is associated with social bonding, mother-infant bonding, and orgasm. In other words, it’s a powerful natural drug that makes people like each other and feel good physically and emotionally. And we get it every time we sing or play with others!

I find these ideas fascinating, but ultimately, no amount of science or evolutionary hypothesis can substitute for the reports of those who have lived through war and conflict and made the choice to turn to music when the rest of their lived experience was marked by deprivation, fear, and violence. In a few months time I will be embarking on my first period of fieldwork, returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the city of Mostar for the first time since 2007, and meeting up with some of the people who took part in music projects at the Pavarotti Music Centre from its opening in 1997. By collaboratively exploring the question of why they were drawn towards music-making at that time in their lives, I hope to be able to add their voices and understanding to David Wilson’s observations, and my own experience, of that intense human hunger that music seemed in some way to nourish.

Works cited in this post:
Dissanayake, Ellen. What is Art For (1988), Home Aestheticus (1992), Art and Intimacy (2001)
Osborne, Nigel. (2009). Music for children in zones of conflict and post-conflict: A psychobiological approach. In S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Communicative Musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship (pp. 331-356). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Small, Christopher. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Stige, Brynjulf. (2012). Health musicking: A perspective on music and health as action and performance. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 183-195). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, David. (2000). Music and war: Some comments on the Pavarotti Music Centre and Its work. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 15(1), 147-152.

Learning to play together

I just completed a remount performance of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble’s Petrushka-inspired composition on the weekend. We created the music in the July school holidays workshops, and then reworked it and performed on Saturday night at the Hamer Hall as part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Stravinsky Festival.

MSO ArtPlay Ensemble August 2013

The focus for the Ensemble in this project became about ensemble – playing together. It occurred to me, watching the group rehearse on Friday night when everyone very tired and not very focused (it was the end of the school week, middle of the year –tiredness before we even started the rehearsal was understandable!), that some in the group only have vague understanding of what it is to play as one of a group. When the energy is in sync and entrained throughout the group, it will carry everyone along with great forward momentum. But when the energy is more scattered, we need to be able to call upon people’s learned ensemble playing skills. If they aren’t well-established across the group, then that sense of ensemble and togetherness never quite locks in.

Ensemble skills are nuanced, and subtle. They involve great alertness to small changes in other people’s playing, an ability to imitate and match, to lead clearly and to follow exactly. Good ensemble players can establish a strong ‘flow’ within the group and maintain this, through focus and attention. Ensemble skills also encompass behavioural norms – understanding the social rules and patterns that govern a particular group and how it communicates and organises itself.

These are learned skills. They are the reason why an amazing soloist does not necessarily make an amazing orchestral musician. Children can learn these skills. Typically they are skills that are often learned over time through multiple experiences of playing with a group, a tacit knowledge that individuals may not realise they already know.  But they can also be taught, and highlighted in the rehearsal process.

Building an ensemble focus with warm-up tasks

We rehearsed again on Saturday afternoon, before the Saturday evening performance. We stood in a circle and I led a warm-up that focused people on imitating – copying very slow hand gestures, aiming to have all of use appearing to move in the same way at the same time. We also built up our physical awareness – our composition required everyone to move to other places in the performance space, so we practiced walking slowly, quietly, and with awareness, to new points in the circle, and then making small adjustments so that the circle was perfectly round and evenly spaced once again.

We played/performed the Plasticine Man, a light-hearted task that links a simple narrative to story-telling hand gestures, and vocal sound effects. It is a fun vocal warm-up that encourages people to use their voices freely and unselfconsciously. Children can embellish the story, adding elements and sounds and further dramatic events. However, for our purposes on Saturday, the focus was one of performing each of the vocal sounds accurately together. To do this, they had to watch for my breath cue, and maintain their focus in the silence that preceded it.

We tested our ability to respond quickly and work as a team. Everyone held hands and sent a fast, sharp hand squeeze around the circle one by one. We timed ourselves with a stop-watch, with the goal of improving our time with each reiteration of the game. We got faster each time, so the energy created by the game itself was enhanced by the positive energy that came from achieving a goal.

With my language too, I emphasised ensemble. Some children in the group have a tendency to hear an instruction, and then start playing immediately. “Wait,” I reminded them. “We are going to do it together. Watch for the cue.” And the looking began to happen more automatically. The focus was held. Tempos were steadied. Individuals became less self-focused and more group-focused. And they were having fun.

Fun, of course, is the magic of good ensemble experiences. It can be exhilarating to play music together when each person is right inside the sound, fully present with the group! And when it is your own music that they you are playing and sharing with an audience in a high-stakes event, it only adds to the sense of satisfaction and delight.

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