Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

Counting the good stuff

Some weeks, it feels like you are just putting stuff out there, but nothing comes back, nothing gets resolved, and you end the week wondering if you actually made any tangible progress. Other weeks, you put stuff out there, and your efforts yield all sorts of interesting and valuable returns. This has been one of those weeks.

Last Friday night I went along to the monthly gathering of the Melbourne East Timor Activity Centre. I met lots of new people – Timorese PHD scholars, Australian supporters and longtime activists for Timorese independence – who offered me suggestions and contacts for my fieldwork in Timor-Leste, which starts in 10 days. I spent the week following up these contacts, and its been very satisfying to find myself running out of room in my diary in the ‘phone numbers’ section.

Saturday, I went shopping for a new mouthpiece to go with my new soprano saxophone. That was fun, especially because I found one I liked as much as the one I’ve been using up until now (and that I’d been reluctant to return to its owner).

On Sunday evening, Yumeros Cuban Salsa Band did a gig – our first for the year, and the first in Melbourne since Tony Hicks and I joined the group last year. Lots of fun – the venue was packed with dancers and listeners. It was also the first outing for my new soprano saxophone. I love playing in this band.  Things took a slightly dodgy turn on Sunday night when I realised that in the changeover to the new sax, the box of reeds had been forgotten. But alto sax player Susie came to the rescue with a couple of alto sax reeds, which worked on the new mouthpiece… in fact, they sounded pretty damn good!

On Monday I gave my last lecture for this semester, talking to first-year Music and Culture students at NMIT about the early days of the Pavarotti Music Centre. Talking to an interested audience about a subject I care a great deal for – it’s not exactly a tough gig! Nevertheless, the preparation took a long time, and I was pleased that it was well-received by the students and tutors.

From then on, the week was basically spent emailing – I sent emails in all directions, for hours and hours on end. Then replies came in – and I replied in turn, for hours and hours. Intense! But satisfying because I could see my East Timor trip starting to come together, where a few weeks ago I had been questioning whether I had enough contacts to justify going over. I also interviewed one of my Australia-based researchparticipants via Skype, which was an incredibly informative and free-flowing conversation. I hope all my interview participants have this much to tell me!

On Thursday I taught my young clarinet student, who had clearly done a lot of focused practice. Brilliant! I hope he was also satisfied with himself – we teachers always try to impress upon our students the difference that frequent, regular practice makes (as opposed to isolated but long practice sessions), but we need the students to actually do it in order to appreciate this difference!

Now it’s the end of the week – I have my Dili accommodation sorted out, I have a number of projects to go and observe, people happy to be interviewed, good students here in Melbourne, a new instrument that I love playing… tonight I will get to catch up with teachers and students from Pelican Primary School, where I used to teach, and who I still think about with great fondness… tomorrow I going to see the new film by Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic, For those that can tell no tales in the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival… and next week is shaping up to be filled with more interesting people. Life is good!

Later addition: Oh! I forgot to add an extra piece of niceness – I got a grant to support my fieldwork in Timor-Leste! Yes, it was indeed a good week.

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Risking creativity

This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.

One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.

Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.

Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.

Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.

Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?

Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.

Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.

In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.

This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.

*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.

Building an effective warm-up sequence

Workshop circle (Gillian Howell)Warm-up activities in workshops and classes serve multiple functions. They help bring the group together into the space with a shared focus, and appropriate energy level for the work we are about to do together. When people arrive in a workshop, they may come in with baggage from the outside world – bad traffic, arguments or tension with others, problems that are hanging around, yet to be solved. They may also bring anxieties about the workshop with them – Will I know anyone? Will everyone be better than me? Will it be too easy/too difficult? I’m shy to play on my own. I’m scared to improvise/sightread/work in a group.

You can use warm-ups to:

  • ‘Break the ice’ (people may not know each other and feel shy or reserved)
  • Learn names (you may not know people in the group)
  • Delineate this session as distinct and different to whatever has happened before it
  • Establish and build communal focus
  • Give you, as the leader, some insights into the skills, strengths, and responses of the group
  • ‘Calibrate’ or establish a shared energy level and workshop tone for the session, including moving people towards playful, spontaneous responses that encourage people to remain present and ‘in the moment’, with the inner critics suspended.

Warm-ups need to have ‘low-stakes’ outcomes, even when they may require high-level skills to achieve! In this way, the pressure is off. People can relax, and feel free to simply explore and follow their curiosity. This is why games play an essential part of many warm-up routines.

I like to include physical elements in my workshop warm-up sequences. Physical warm-ups can do all of the above, but they also get people moving. They draw people out of their heads and into their bodies. They loosen up tight muscles, encourage deeper, more relaxed breathing, and improve posture – all important things to establish when playing music, as the body can be harmed through the repetitive movements and tense focus that can be part of instrumental music-making for some kids. It’s not about physically exhausting people or testing their strength or fitness, but about positive embodied experiences.

This week I was leading 2-hour music workshops for primary school children as part of ArtPlay and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s City Beats program. I needed a succinct warm-up routine, that would lead us into the instrumental music-making early in the session. The following sequence of activities worked really well, moving each group to where I wanted them to be for the creative and collaborative focus of the workshop.

  1. Make a circle. Stretch up one arm, high in the air. Stretch out your fingers. Stretch the other arm down, so that you are stretching your arms in opposite directions and feeling it across your body. Take a breath in. Release it together, in a sigh, and shake the arms out. Repeat on the other side of the body.
  2. Wriggle the shoulders. Make circles forwards, backwards, and in opposite directions. Wriggle the elbows, the wrists, the rib cage, the stomach (I try to include circles with body parts that I myself am not sure how to execute – just to throw in some fun challenges!). Continue these wriggles, shakes and circles all the way down to the toes – wriggling the toes inside your shoes, and drumming your heels on the floor – with floorboards this makes a satisfying sound.
  3. Shift the energy that’s been building into a strong shared focus now. Ask everyone to rock on their feet forwards (towards the toes) and backwards (towards the heels). Some will wobble, lose their balance – but this is a good thing. Ask them to find their ‘edge’ – the edge of their balance at which they still have control over the movement.
  4. Next, pour all your weight into one leg. When you do this, it becomes full, and the leg that is empty can float up off the ground. Maintain your balance with this leg in the air. Stretch it out in front of you. Bend it again, then pick up the foot, and place it across your thigh, making a Number 4 shape. Now cross your arms. Now sink down, “sitting in an imaginary chair”. It’s not an easy move, but some kids will be able to do it. For those that wobble, they have another leg to try it on, and now that they know the moves required, their focus will be stronger. They will have a goal. They will also get a good stretch!
  5. Next I shift the pace again. We passed a clap around the circle, focusing on speed and strong eye contact (looking in the direction that you are passing the clap to). If the group gets this going well, suggest that they now change the direction of the clap whenever they choose. This builds in a very playful element, as individuals ‘challenge’ each other, and are pushed to remain alert and present.
  6. Following this game, the energy is very positive and lifted, and the group has a strong shred focus. We say our names in turn around the circle, repeating each name as it is said. Then we set up a four-beat clapping pattern – Ta Ta (Rest) (Rest) – with the two beats of rest creating a space or silence. I say my name in the first space, the group echoes my name in the next space, then the person on my left says their name in the next space, the group repeats it in the next… and so on, around the whole circle. Each person speaks. Each person is heard. And musician-facilitators in the room get to learn the children’s names.

circle gameThis warm-up routine took about ten minutes and by its conclusion, the groups were always ready to start on their creative collaborative work. It built focus and positive energy, reduced inhibitions and shyness, and established a playful but exacting tone for the work that followed.

How do you warm up your groups? Do you start an ensemble rehearsal the same way you might start a creative workshop? Does your warm-up routine establish foundations for the learning session, or simply delineate the session? Do you have any great resources that you turn to again and again?

The Dripolator

This is a beautiful installation (or is it an instrument?) that I think more people should see! The Dripolator was created by Graeme Leak, one of the most innovative creative musicians/composers/inventors you could ever hope to meet. It’s visually and aurally stunning, and so, so clever, as this video attests. When the Dripolator was installed at the Melbourne Recital Centre, people raved about it. They still rave about it, actually. So if you are someone who programs a festival, or an arts space, or a community space, anywhere in the world, you should consider getting The Dripolator and Graeme in residence.