Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

Ushering in the Christmas spirit

A Facebook friend recently posted a discussion starter – what’s your favourite Christmas CD? I was horrified by some of the suggestions – there is little I dislike more than faded pop stars and hip young things giving their melismatic and affected performances of classic Christmas carols. What were my friends thinking? My nomination was for Tijuana Christmas (by Tijuana Brass). We had this LP when we were kids and it was our absolute favourite, guaranteed to get us jiving around the lounge room in our pyjamas and getting giddy. It’s still my absolute favourite. A few years back my sister tracked down a copy of the LP and made a CD of it for me. It only lasts for 38 minutes, so it gets a fairly constant rotation on Christmas Day here.

 

Start playing it now! It’s the best. Dig those vibes! (I mean the vibraphone, rather than groovy feeling, man).

I confess I am a Christmas purist. I like it old-style. Tinsel and pine trees, special tree decorations (added to each year with one or two special finds) and nativity sets. Nothing proves this more than the fact that every year, I host a Christmas carol-singing party. I invite everyone I know (and some people I don’t know but that others have told me about) that likes to sing carols in the old-fashioned, ‘Oxford Book of Carols’ way. We gather together, we bring food to share, and we sing through all the carols. Then we hit the streets and go and sing for the neighbours. Sometimes they give us money, and we give this to a charity.

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(Or as one friend put it on Sunday night, “Walk the streets for money – you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right!”). Yep. Indeed.

“You have your own Christmas tradition,” my sister observed this year. It’s quite a long-running tradition now. It first started when I was still a student at the Victorian College of the Arts (waaaay back in the late 80s/early 90s). A group of friends and I decided to form a small group and market ourselves as carol-singers to shops and department stores in the lead-up to Christmas. We got booked to do a few gigs, made some money and had a lot of fun.

A year or two later, living in London as a post-graduate student, another group of friends and I did the same thing. We got a series of gigs in a chain of upmarket pubs (called ‘The Pitcher and Piano’). The deal usually included food as well as cash – always a welcome offer for cash-strapped students in London. The following year we talked about reforming the group and doing it again, but we never quite got organised with the marketing. Suddenly, it was the 20th December… and time had run out! So we got together anyway, and just sang the carols for the fun of it.

I think the carol-singing party tradition started there. Back in Australia, I invited friends around to sing, usually on the last weekend before Christmas, and it always happened that only those that wanted to sing came along. Everyone else stayed away. It meant that I didn’t have to worry about it being a boring or daggy event for people – everyone who was coming along was a bit of a purist like me, it seemed, and a lover of carols sung the old-school, four-part harmony way. No melismatic or faddish soulful renderings to be heard at all.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

The party was usually held wherever I was living at the time. I remember one party in the back yard of a share house in Parkville, where we cooked up a big barbecue and tried to accompany ourselves on my new piano accordion (I couldn’t play it then, and can’t really play it now). Another year, we had it in my top-floor flat in North Melbourne. Somehow I managed to persuade a percussionist friend to bring his vibraphone to accompany the singing. He lugged it up four flights of stairs. He has never come to another carols party. I think I might have used up all of his good will on that night.

More recently, the party has been held in the home of my good friends Simon and Victoria, who are carol-singing regulars. They have a beautiful home with lots of room for people, song-sheets and large platters of food. They have hosted the event for the last few years. I even have a name for the event now – ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’. For some of the regulars, it is one of the only times we see each other each year. Traditions that belong to the carol-singing party have evolved, such as the deliberate mis-singing of Verse 4 of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (“Thus spake the Seraph and forthwith appeared a Shining Thong”). Hehehe. I always giggle.

Carol singing, Dec 13 (Gillian Howell)

Other songs always choke me up. I can’t get through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem without getting a big lump in my throat – awkward when you are the only person on the alto line. It’s the carol I loved best when I was a child. I remember getting a song book from a carols night at Ringwood Lake and being thrilled to be able to learn all the words to this carol off by heart. I practised it until I knew it. It was rarely sung at the carol services we had at church, so I had to sing it on my own at home, to get it out of my system.

These days, Christmas brings more pressure and madness than ever before. We are busier. There are more people to see, more friends and family to connect with. It’s hard to get a sense of Christmas spirit – that feeling that reminds us why we do all these busy things, because in fact these are people we love and care about – when everything feels so rushed.

The Christmas carols party is proving to be a way for many of us to usher in our own sense of Christmas spirit. The songs that get played in the supermarkets and department stores don’t do it for  us. Singing the songs ourselves, in the glorious, beautiful harmonies that we first learned years ago (and in some cases are still getting right), is what will get the eyes shining and the mouths smiling, and the goodwill and good cheer flowing. Traditions are important. They keep us grounded and connected. I’m happy to find that without ever really planning it to be so, I’ve created a Christmas tradition of my own that is important to many people other than myself.

 

 

 

 

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Constructing sounds in the Music Construction Site 2013

The last workshop for 2013 was Music Construction Site at ArtPlay. The Music Construction Site starts with lots of free (and noisy) exploration of instruments…

I love this ten minute block. The instruments are arranged around the room, and children and parents can roam freely, trying out all the things they want. I encourage them to try everything that they are curious about, and I bring in some of my favourite things – like crotales, and a spiral cymbal, thumb pianos, dipping gongs, and wah-wah tubes – for them to try.

I watched one little girl sit down at the djembe, her mother observing her but leaving her to make her own discoveries. Her little face lit up with excitement as she tapped it the first couple of times. The djembe is quite heavy, so I helped her fasten the waist strap around her back, to make the drum more stable. She began to hit it more boldly. She and her mother exchanged many glances of delight, but mostly, this was her own magical, thrilling experience. It was like she had discovered a new side to herself, as well as a new possibility in the world. It was gorgeous to witness, and an important reminder of just how significant some of these workshop experiences can be for participants.

After everyone’s curiousity and exploratory spirit has been sated, we gather to discuss the qualities and characteristics of the sounds that the different instruments make and then everyone sets to work drawing their preferred sound. Not a picture of the instrument, mind, but an image of what you think that sound looks like. Interesting! You learn a lot about how people hear, and what they hear, when they start to draw their sounds.

Drawing sounds, Music Construction Site, Nov 13 (Gillian Howell)

These pictures become part of a giant graphic score – a series of images that depict what we are to play. I stick them up on the wall using blu-tack (in a fairly random, arbitrary order) along a big stretch of wall. Then we play through this first version of the score.

Constructing the score, Music Constructions Site, Nov 2013 (Gillian Howell)

Finally, we experiment with structure. We move the individual images around, making decisions about how to begin, how to end, and where to put a few surprises or unexpected moments. The children know about these kinds of musical conventions. They might not know how to name them, but they recognise what we are trying to do and offer all sorts of thoughtful and creative suggestions. The more I move the images around, and follow their instructions and suggestions, the greater ownership they feel over the piece.

At the end of the Construction process, we perform the piece from beginning to end, no stopping. This is a workshop for 5-8 year olds, which is not an age group often associated with sitting quietly, instrument in hand, waiting for the right time to play, for extended periods of time. But in this workshop, with the strong visual cues coming from the giant graphic score, they do. The piece usually lasts around 10-12 minutes – no small achievement for these very young players and their parents!

After we’d performed our piece and said our good-byes, children came up to me to say thank you, to share a particular experience of the workshop with me, and to collect their pictures from the wall. I love these moments of more personal interaction. I asked one child, “Would you like to take your picture home with you?” She considered this, then asked, “Can I take the blu-tack too?” “Of course you can!” I said, and chuckled a little at the excited expression on her face. We forget, as adults, don’t we? Blu-tack can be just as important as all the other discoveries in a workshop like this.

 

 

Teaching music for well-being

I’ve given five presentations over the last couple of months and many of these have discussed my ideas about teaching music for well-being, rather than simply for excellence. A striving for excellence is in fact part of well-being, so rather than being alternative approaches, a focus on well-being is simply a broader, more inclusive understanding of education.

The first presentation I gave, right before I left Melbourne for five weeks in Singapore, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brisbane, was as guest speaker for the Scotch College Music Auxiliary Annual Luncheon. Scotch College is one of Melbourne’s most privileged private boys school, with a superb track record of training young musicians, and with some of the best resources and infrastructure (eg. a state-of-the-art, purpose-built music school) for music in the country. I was asked to speak about my music work with refugee children and in post-conflict countries – environments that are typically very poorly resourced in comparison to the Scotch College facilities!

These are the notes from that talk, with some of the videos I played to illustrate my ideas. I note here the huge influence that music therapy researcher Even Rudd’s ideas on qualities of well-being supported by music participation have had on my thinking. They have allowed me to condense what for me have been quite broad, detailed, and endless ideas of music’s beneficial impact under four neat headings.

Scotch College presentation notes

We are all here because we believe music is important. The reasons why we think music is important might be very varied across this group –because beliefs about what music is and why it matters are usually culturally-constructed, informed by the environments we have grown up in and our life experiences thus far.

I believe music is important because of what it can to contribute to human well-being. I see music as an important part of human flourishing, and that everyone has the right to engage in musical participation and development, and to express themselves freely in music. Music is an essential and universal part of being human. It’s not just for the talented!

My work as a music leader, educator, and facilitator is about drawing people together to make music, and I do this is all sorts of contexts using improvisation, composition and other creative approaches – with symphony orchestras, with arts centres and community centres and music academies that want to engage with communities in creative and participatory ways and build flexible musicianship among their professional musicians.

What I want to talk about today is the experiences I have had in working to bring people together through music who have been through some of the most extreme human experiences. I’m talking about children and young people who have been through experiences of war and conflict, and how music participation can support them to increase their sense of wellbeing in body and in mind.

I believe that music participation contributes to wellbeing in four key ways, and each of these four ways are in great deficit in conflict-affected communities:

Bonding and belonging – music brings people together in order to play, and the act of sharing music together can create experiences of social connection that can be very enduring. Music participation can therefore increase experiences of social connectedness, and create social networks.

Vitality and pleasure – music makes people feel happy and relaxed, in their bodies and their emotions. Playing music allows people to ‘lose themselves’ in a state of flow, where time passes without them really noticing. People forget their worries. Dopamine fires up, oxytocin is released, and the body is flooded with feel-good hormones.

Agency – this is to do with a sense of oneself as valuable, as having the capacity to contribute and develop, having a voice and being able influence others even in small ways. The idea of mastery and excellence is contained within this quality of agency – the sense of achievement and therefore pride that can come through developing new skills and learning to do something difficult that takes time, patience and focus. It also includes a sense of recognition and visibility – important when many of life’s choices have been taken away from you.

Meaning and hope – this quality refers to the sense of identity, empowerment and transcendence that can come through participating in music. The meaning of the music experience has resonance and relevance beyond the musical act itself. Committing oneself to learning new skills, and the investment of time and focus that learning an instrument or being in an ensemble requires is a hopeful act. The act of hoping is a health-promoting process in itself. In “Musicking” (1998) Christopher Small talks about the act of making music as a kind of ritual in which we enact a version of the world as we want it to be.

There are three main places I’m going to talking about – post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I worked in 1998 as a musician in a large community music therapy and education centre; in Melbourne with newly-arrived refugee children; and in rural Timor-Leste.

When I worked in schools and kindergartens in post-war Bosnia, children were extremely traumatised. They had experienced many deprivations and traumatic events, had trouble sleeping, maintaining concentration, with temper, and anxiety.

Music in such a fragile situation is a very secure, friendly, self-regulating activity. People participate if they choose and at the level that is comfortable for them. We learned to recognise all kinds of levels of participation – from heads down, eyes shut, to extremely hyperactive participation. Shared group music-making could bring those extremes together into safer, healthier expressions, through emotional entrainment, and energetic or rhythmic entrainment. Music helped children to feel a little safer, more relaxed, and less on alert.

(This video shows Professor Nigel Osborne and some of his team of musicians at work in Mostar in 1996)

When I returned to Australia, I began working as an artist-in-residence with English Language Schools in Melbourne, which have quite high intakes of refugees and humanitarian entrants. These are schools for new arrivals, and support them to learn English and prepare for classroom learning in mainstream schools.

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

Many of the children arriving in Australia from refugee backgrounds had had little or no access to schooling. They had finely honed survival skills but had very little experience in manage themselves in a classroom or group learning situation. Their experiences had taught them to be very self-focused, to be alert to opportunities, and to push others out of the way if necessary, in order to not miss out. Skills like taking turns, or making lines, or not fighting to solve problems, need to be learned, as do looking at the teacher, focusing attention for longer periods of time, and listening.

Music can help with all of these skills, as well as with establishing and reinforcing language and important vocabulary. The opportunity to play music created lots of excitement and happiness. No matter how little English a child knew, they could participate meaningfully in music, because it is not language-dependent. They can participate by looking and listening, and copying what they see others do. Children who struggled in academic subjects like developing literacy would often shine in music, often because they had been exposed to lots of music in their communities.

Playing music was the motivation for learning to work as a team. In music the children discovered the intense joy and satisfaction of making sounds in a simultaneous way. I would construct the composition work slowly over many weeks, using strategies that got children creating all their musical ideas and then weaving these into a larger structure. Hearing the music take shape in this structure was the motivation to take turns, or listen carefully. And without effort, they would find themselves concentrating for long periods of time.
Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 227
Most importantly, music made the children feel happy and relaxed. Class teachers often reported seeing a new student smile for the first time in the school when they were in a music session. Creative music workshops were also social experiences – I use lots of games and playful tasks to get the children to experiment and take creative risks, so there would be lots of laughing and interaction.

In 2010 and 2011 I had the opportunity to return to a post-conflict country to work as a musician – I was invited to spend four months as a visiting artist in a rural town in Timor-Leste. I developed a program of community music projects that evolved very organically, on the veranda of the house I was renting.

We made instruments out of local materials and according to traditional design, and over the weeks we learned how to play together and connect with each other through music.

This video shows one of the short projects that I led there, in the last week of my residency. These clips come from a series of consecutive days, and lead to a live performance on local radio. You can see the sense of agency, mastery, vitality, bonding, and personal meaning that is taking place here.

This year I’ve embarked on the next stage of my journey in exploring the relationships between children and music in conflict-affected society. I’ve started PhD research into post-conflict music interventions – schools like the one I worked with in Bosnia that were set up as part of post-conflict recovery. Next week I fly back to Bosnia to interview former participants of the music projects I worked on. They are young adults now. Next year I will similar research in Timor-Leste, and in Afghanistan, where an amazing institution of music has been inaugurated.

Finally, I urge everyone here to remember the importance of music to each of us – not just for a well-rounded education, or the mental discipline that may stand us in good stead for future challenges, but because it contributes so deeply to the wellbeing of all people, and can play a profound role in the journey back to wellness for people who’ve gone through major traumatic life experiences.

Something for everyone: The community in community music

Back in October I travelled to Singapore to take part in a music education conference. While I was there I made contact with a number of organisations working with music and communities, and was invited to experience the opening of a community singing festival supported by PassionArts, the arts and cultural team behind the People’s Association. The People’s Association works on behalf of all of Singapore’s residents living in public housing (which is most people).

The singing festival was a big event. It was on the banks of a river, with seating arranged on either side for participants, and performers located on barges and small boats as well as on the river banks. There was festoon lighting in the trees and on the footbridge connecting the two sides. I arrived quite early and sat on one of the benches on the footbridge. There were other early-birds nearby who greeted me and shared the songbook program with me. One older man gave me a plastic flashing light stick, and showed me how to switch it on by pulling out a small plastic tag in the handle. Cool!

Singapore song festival 2013 (G. Howell)

The songs in the songbook represented the principal languages and cultures of Singapore – Mandarin, Tamil, Malay and English. I saw that later in the night we would be singing a massed rendition of “Top of the World”. Early in the program were some patriotic songs, praising Singapore as the land of many united peoples and cultures.

Songbook in foreground (G. Howell)

The people around me were mostly elderly Chinese, or parents with young children. Many people were crossing the bridge too. There was a space on the bench beside me, and life got interesting when three young boys bounced up, filled with excitement, and asked me if it was free and could they sit there. “Yes, of course!” I said, and they clamoured in. The oldest of the three was probably about nine years old. The other two were younger, aged maybe five and six, that sort of age. A fourth boy joined them not long after and tried to climb into the bench space as well. As you can imagine, they began to laugh and push and climb on each other. They were filled with energy and cheekiness and boisterousness, and had little concern for maintaining a low profile or subduing themselves in the presence of all these older people. They reminded me of the boys in Timor-Leste that used to come to my house everyday to play music.

They asked if they could see my light stick. I showed it to them. “How do you make the light work?” asked one. “It’s a secret, see if you can figure it out” I replied, wanting to give them permission to play with it and figure it out. Of course they found the plastic tab quickly and the light stick was duly waved in the air for a while, before being politely given back to me.

I loved observing these boys. They were clearly so excited to be there. They spoke to each other in Malay, with only the oldest being confident in English. They pushed and jostled and laughed and joked, all the while responding to the developments further down on the river bank, where things seemed to be in the final stages of preparations. However, their boisterous energy drew some frowns from my neighbours. People admonished them to sit still and be quiet. They looked over at me the top of the boys’ heads, shaking their heads and frowning slightly.

Then the younger boys decided they wanted to go somewhere else. They scampered away as quickly and nimbly as they’d arrived. The older boy lingered slightly and said, “We’ll come back. Can you mind this place for us?” “For sure,” I agreed, and put my bag on the seat.

At first I did a good job of protecting the seat. Other people nearby seemed to think it was unnecessary, but the boys had asked me to do this and I had agreed, so I wanted to be true to my word. “They should be with their parents,” one person muttered. Another shook his head and said, “Well, they haven’t paid”. (It was a free event, but paying $2 bought you a show bag with the songbook and light stick in it. I hadn’t done this either).

The boys came back after a short time, squeezing in beside me again, and I felt pleased that I had done as I promised and kept their seat for them. I fell into conversation with the oldest boy again. But within ten minutes or so, he and his friends got up to leave again, and once again, they asked me to save their seat.

During this second absence, there was a lot more demand for seats on the bench. An older woman, with a younger woman and a baby in a pram, asked if this space was available. I explained that some younger boys had been sitting there and had asked me to save the spot for them, but the other people around me began shaking their heads and saying words to the effect of, No, this space is not for them. I didn’t like to see the older woman standing, nor the younger woman and the small child. So I relinquished the space.

The singing began and people around me joined in with huge enthusiasm and an impressive and undeniable commitment. This event was not just a fun pastime, it felt like it was important to them on another level – important to sing together, important to contribute their voices to the overall sound.

The time came for me to go. The young boys hadn’t come back, so I said good-bye to my neighbours, and offered the light stick and songbook back to them. “No, no, take it with you,” they told me. But I was about to get on an aeroplane to Europe – I knew that was not a practical option.

I climbed off the bench with my big bag, and that was when I saw that the oldest of the three boys was standing behind me. He must have returned, but seen immediately that the space for him to sit in was no longer there, so just stayed standing behind. I wondered if he felt I’d let him down. I was really pleased to see him and greeted him. I gave him my light stick and told him to sit in my place. I didn’t see whether he decided to do this or not.

I loved the way that this boy in particular was so interested in the community singing festival event. It attracted him. He was drawn to the pageantry, I think, and to the fact that something like this was happening. He was wide-eyed and engaged, and excited by what was going on.

But it didn’t seem straightforward for him to be there. He wasn’t a natural fit with the rest of the audience-participants. This made me think about the reality of community events – ostensibly they are for everyone, but will usually become dominated by a particular group – whether that be an age group, a social class group, an ethnic group, and so on.

This is one of the tensions inherent in organised community events. They are about social bonding and shared experiences, but they are also about inclusion. People will be bonded as a group, but the group must at the same time always remain open to newcomers. It is a commitment that the group makes (asserted and reinforced constantly by the group leader or organiser) at the foundations of it its very existence.

The contradiction inherent in the unconditional welcome when coupled with bonding through shared experiences is a challenging quality to program for and manage. The larger the event, the less control the management team will have over this characteristic being maintained. Perhaps this was something of what I observed on the footbridge at the community singing festival.

I thought about the boy for a long time as I made my way back to my accommodation and got ready to go to the airport. He moved me enormously. I thought about how precious that spark of curiousity is in a young person, and how filled it is with promise and potential. It can also be easily extinguished, through lack of nurturing – being blocked outright, or left alone to dwindle away.

I hope that this young boy is already someone who is engaged in organised and participatory activities in his community, that his curiousity and openness has been identified and is being nurtured and encouraged. So many people – young and old – live in a way that is confined by the rules and expectations of their social group. They conform. The small number of people who, from a young age, are seekers of new experiences, curious about what else is out there, and prepared to take calculated risks in order to learn and grow, are important to nurture in our communities. They can be catalysts and leaders, or simply the people that proffer an alternative point of view, through having the courage to hold their own convictions.