Archive for the ‘Freelance life’ Category

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.

The values of improvisation

“ I don’t improvise,” the musician told me, the lightness of his tone belying the tension I sensed he was feeling. “Most of us here don’t improvise. It’s the opposite of what we do in this job.”

That’s okay, I thought. We don’t need to call it improvising. We’ll just make stuff up.

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

This interaction came on the first day of a 2-day training project I ran for a symphony orchestra recently, aimed at encouraging the musicians towards performances that moved beyond standard concert formats into more interactive, informal, and responsive models, such as those that are appropriate in many community contexts. I describe it as flexible musicianship, and it involves breaking down the intentions behind a performance, and exploring processes like workshopping, teamwork and collaborative decision-making, composing, and yes, the i-word, improvising.

Why does improvising create such tension for a lot of orchestral musicians? As this man said, and as others have pointed out in many training sessions before this one, improvising is pretty much the complete opposite of what a professional orchestral musician is asked to do musically in his or her daily job. Orchestral rehearsal and performance are about honouring the intentions of the composer whose music sits on the music stand in front of you. The group of 50+ musicians all make that commitment. They place their trust in a conductor whose interpretation of the score will determine the nuances of the performance, and their job is to perform their part accurately, honouring the vision of the conductor and the composer, ahead of their own personal preferences or choices.

By contrast, improvising is all about personal preferences and choice. Of course there are stylistic ‘rules’ or parameters that govern the choices that you may make in any particular context, but there is a trust in the moment and in the work you have done to prepare beforehand. Something that comes out slightly differently to what you’d intended is not necessarily a mistake; it can also be a new path, opening up a serendipitous set of possibilities. This is quite a different mindset to playing and performing in an orchestral context.

What the conversation about improvisation reveals is the way that our musical enculturation establishes within us a set of values and beliefs about music-making. These values and beliefs determine what makes sense and feels comfortable to us.

Orchestral music – performance, and the training that prepares musicians for this work – is underpinned by values such as precision, virtuosity, and accuracy (e.g. there are right and wrong ways of playing this music); expertise; and clear communication of hierarchies (leaders need to act with authority so that players can relax and feel they are in good hands – more a benevolent dictatorship than a collaboration). When the intention is one of honouring the music as a thing that exists autonomously, the finished ‘product’ is the focus, rather than the process or experience of getting to that end goal.

When my non-improvising musician talks about ‘not improvising’, he is revealing his musical enculturation in two ways. One is the discomfort of working musically in a more open-ended or less predictable environment. This jars with the expectation of predictability, and his perceived responsibility for accuracy and ‘correct’ realisation of the music. The other is about the way those values are loaded into a word like ‘improvisation’. In a musical world where music is presented to others, rather than a platform for participation, ‘improvising’ refers to a different musical expertise – that which is developed by a musician who has studied in depth the techniques and language of musical styles that are not dependent on notation. It takes years of dedicated, focused, painstaking work to develop that language in order to improvise with fluency. I can see why he wants to say from the outset that he doesn’t “improvise”.

Therefore, I don’t use the word ‘improvise’ in these contexts, at least, not at the start. It invokes too much immediate resistance and fear. In reality, the improvising you do in a workshopping situation or participatory performance environment, is more about creative thinking, responding spontaneously ‘in the moment’, and seeing your musicianship as a kind of arsenal of possibilities that can be applied in any number of situations, rather than only when particular parameters are in place. We can all do this – extremely specialised and detailed training cannot help but establish this kind of skill base – but we may need to learn to dismantle some of the preconditions our musical enculturation has attached to those skills.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Four minutes of Nests

I made a short promotional video for the Nests music installation project on Sunday. What do you think?

 

One of the great design challenges of Nests was ensuring it remained a portable installation, with a set that could be pulled down and packed up small to fit in the back of a standard stationwagon/estate car. Ken did a masterful job realising this challenge! Our hope now is for the work to travel further afield, to other performing arts centres, theatres, and festivals wanting to offer unique interactive arts experiences for young children. If you are someone working in one of these contexts and like the look of Nests, please get in touch to talk about how we could bring this beautiful installation to your venue!

Hiding the music at the Arts Centre

On Friday I met with the Arts Centre production staff to make plans for the forthcoming Hidden Music workshops and performance at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

In Hidden Music children aged 9-13 compose music for specific locations, then perform their compositions for members of the public. However, there is a twist – the performances are hidden and the members of the public have to follow clues in order to find the performances. The children have to perform every time someone finds them.

ArtPlay - Gillian Howell Hidden Music WorkshopThe first Hidden Music project was at ArtPlay in 2012 (thanks City of Melbourne, for funding the project!). Children hid their performances on a stairway, in a book cubby, in an old shipping container, and in a clump of trees on the side of a hill (just behind the ArtPlay building). See some video footage here.

The Arts Centre Melbourne is presenting Hidden Music in the September school holidays. We will be in the Hamer Hall building, and have six glorious levels of formal rooms, stairways, escalators, cupboards, storage rooms, nooks and crannies from which to select our performances spaces.

Here are some of the options on Levels 5, 6 and 7 (Level 6 is street level):

Some of these spaces will take audience members into parts of the Hamer Hall that they don’t normally get to access. If we choose some of these stairwells, however, we’ll need to make sure the performers actually get found – there will be no chance of audible clues, as these are sound-locked spaces. I don’t want anyone languishing in cupboards, waiting to to get found so that they can play…

Here are some of the options on the lower levels:

I get pretty excited when I see rows of escalators and think of the ways these could be used in a site-specific composition – all that gliding and slow, gradual progression! I also love the thought of what a group of 9-13 year old musicians might make of the space-age green room with the gilt edges and white leather couches. To me it is very Barbarella. What clues will they give people to help them find the performance? And what music will they make to depict this fabulous space?

You’ll have to come along to the Hidden Music performances to find out. The performances are free and open to everyone, but places in the composition workshop are filling up fast, so please book your child in, and/or share this post with any one you think the project would interest!

A month of workshops

What a month it’s been! I’ve just finished what will probably be my most densely and diversely-packed 4-week stretch for the year, with about 34 workshop calls, 5 media calls and a grant application completed, all up. It’s been exhilarating – one of those times when all the projects you’ve been nurturing start to come to fruition. It can feel a bit crazy, but it’s wonderful too and the best thing to do is to stay focused, keep planning, and just enjoy all those incredibly opportunities to play music with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Firstly, of course, there was my residency with Tura New Music in the north-west of Australia. Lucky me, I was invited to go there as the lead artist for short residencies in three different schools. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite magical, and quite remote. I loved the workshops, and communities and children we met there. I also loved being in a part of my own country that felt like a different world. North-west Australia is famed for its consistently jaw-droppingly, staggeringly beautiful sunsets, and we were also there at the time of the Super Full Moon a couple of weeks ago. Here are some of my efforts to capture these:

And a couple of sunrises:

Getting ready for Gillian Howell's Jam, Fed Square, June 2013Once back in Melbourne, I went straight into a Jam with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (you can see the pre-jam set-up on the left here). These jams link to the MSO’s repertoire, so I planned this one around Copland’s Appalachian Spring. We explored some of his rhythmic ideas, created a square dance inspired by the ‘hoe-down’ section of the piece, and finished with a rendition of the Shaker melody and song ‘Simple Gifts’. It all came together well, with some lovely singing (including a solo by a young girl named Elizabeth, who had a very sweet, true voice, and sang into the microphone with great confidence), and some inspired improvising from different participants.

I spent any spare time on the weekend putting the finishing touches on my application to the Australia Endeavour Awards, to support my PhD research. No need to say too much about that – it is like any application. You put in as much work as you can, taking care, shaping and sculpting it and trying to bring the word count down… and then you submit it. Lots of work. Fingers crossed.

Monday and Tuesday were spent with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. I love this little group – every school holidays we get together to make a new piece of music over two intensive days, and every time I am blown away by how hard everyone is prepared to work, how focused they are, and how much ownership they feel over the music. This is our second project for the year and we are working towards a performance outcome in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Russian Festival’ in August, so we get a bit more time to refine our composition further when we come together for that event.

On Thursday I presented a new children’s workshop at the Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival in the City of Stonnington in Melbourne. I called the workshop Wet Watery Soundworld. It builds on two of my workshops from last year – the ‘Water’ workshop that I led for City Beats, and the Music Construction Site workshops that I led at ArtPlay. In the Wet Watery Soundworld, children were invited to explore a big range of musical sounds created in some way by water, as well as sounds that have long resonance and sustained tones (I call these ‘wet’ sounds as opposed to dry, less long-ringing sounds). I had some very captivating instruments for the children to try in this very splashy workshop. They loved the cups and the wooden bowls in particular. One of my musicians (a professional percussionist) said to me later, “That workshop reminded of just how much I love percussion!”

Also on Thursday I led a Family Jam at the Roola Boola Festival with a fabulous new children’s band called Lah-Lah’s Big Live Band. I chose one of their songs to use as the jam focus, a song with a laid-back, bluesy feel that was a great vehicle for improvised vocal lines, scat singing, percussion beats and some xylophone licks using the D minor blues scale. Lots of fun, with about 30+ kids and their parents taking part.

Nests June 2013 G. HowellToday, Friday, saw a remount of Nests, the theatrical music installation that I’ve created this year with visual theatre and design specialists Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. Tony Hicks and I are the musicians on the show, and now that we are into our tenth or more installation-performances of this work, things are really starting to settle and flourish. The music that we play throughout – freely improvised in response to, and in dialogue with, the children as well as each other – provides a very strong musical foundation and framework for the children’s experience. It has taken time for this to develop, as we become used to the shapes and events that occur in each show – even though each version is unique, as it is created anew each time by the children and the choices they make with the instruments.

Today’s Nests episodes were our first for the 6-8 year old age group. We wondered if they would be expecting a more directed experience, so we took a moment to ‘prime’ them before they entered the space, suggesting that they listen and look for opportunities to engage in ‘musical conversations’ with each other and with us.

We found that this age group were eminently suited to the ambiguity and open-ended nature of musical conversations! They initiated conversations, and responded to those initiated by others. They hardly talked in the space at all, even though many of them had come in a group and knew each other.

I felt that Nests experiences at Roola Boola confirmed that we really have made something quite special here. It is incredibly free for the children – they wander and play whatever they like – yet at the same time it is a very musically and visually engaging experience, filled with interactions. The soundscape directs the action, but only implicitly. The children engage and follow the suggestions of the soundscape because they have responded to the invitation to enter into this environment fully, with their minds and imaginations ready to accept and invent. It’s a joy to be part of, each time we do it!

Nests, June 2013, Gillian Howell

Nests brought my month of workshops to a close. From here I return my focus to my PhD. Things will be ramping up a notch with that work in this half of the year, as I move towards completing an early draft of my literature review and methodology (which I need for confirmation, planned for November), an application to the Human Research Ethics board of the university, several conferences, and hopefully some fieldwork in Bosnia. The funding for the latter was confirmed just this week. I am still pinching myself, and can’t quite believe I will be travelling to that part of the world again. Which is why I use the word “hopefully”.

Navigating cross-cultural worlds in songwriting

Working creatively within a different cultural environment to your own can be many things – intriguing, inspiring, surprising, and provoking are just a few words that come to mind. As a project leader, you can’t predict all the responses, or the challenges that might arise. I think that’s why I am attracted to these kinds of projects. I like the creative immediacy of thinking on your feet, and being surprised by unexpected turns. This story is about a song that provoked such turns.

In the community school of One Arm Point, the  ‘maps of the heart’ drawn by students on the first day suggested that culture and cultural learning were important parts of the children’s lives. Their maps included particular skills (such as spearing fish, or knowing the local language of the Bardi Jaawi), as well as the lore and laws of the traditional society, which, they explained, were often taught through stories.

Songwriting moments, One Arm Point school (G. Howell)

We loved the song we wrote! It was dramatic, it had flair and punch, and it described a situation that the children spoke about with great eagerness. It felt like it had strong currency for them and therefore for the community. We completed it the day before our concert, and sang through it several times to start committing the lyrics to memory.

When we arrived at the school the next morning, the day of the concert, several concerned faces greeted us. “I sang the song to my mum yesterday, and she said it wasn’t appropriate,” said one of the girls.

“We’re not allowed to sing that song,” others confirmed, looking anxious. “I don’t want to sing it,” another stated emphatically. I got the sense that their song had caused quite a bit of discussion in their homes. “Maybe we can change some of the words,” I suggested, looking at the lyrics on the whiteboard. But the children still looked uncomfortable, so I went to seek further advice.

In remote community schools, there are Aboriginal Teaching Assistants employed as well as teachers. Some of the teachers are also Aboriginal. I asked the principal if there was a community elder among the staff who could advise us on the best thing to do. He directed me towards two women on the teaching staff who came to the music room to see the lyrics of the song. I watched as they read the words, exchanging glances with each other but not saying anything until they had read everything and had time to think.

“Yes… I can see why there are concerns,” said one of the teachers.

“It’s a good song,” said the other. “But it wouldn’t be okay for the children to sing it.”

“Is it possible just to change some words?” I asked.

“No, it would be better to find a new story,” the teacher replied. “Maybe you could use one of the stories from the ‘Our World’ book, because they are already published, so have approval.”
Our World‘Our World’ is a beautiful book, created by the children and Cultural Program teaching staff at One Arm Point. It describes community life at One Arm Point – called Ardiyooloon in the local language – and all the traditional cultural skills and knowledge that the children develop in the Culture Program. Fortunately, I’d bought myself a copy of this book in the local shop the day before. Even more fortunately, it was in the car! I ran to get it, and the teacher-elders looked through it, and suggested one of the stories that we could use as an alternative.

I decided not to get started on writing a new song straight away. This was our concert day, and we’d started it with a very unsettling problem to solve that had distracted the children and disrupted the positive, excited momentum that is an important part of working towards a performance in a short project like this. We began our workshop with one of our familiar warm-up games, aiming to shift the slightly gloomy, deflated cloud that was hanging over lots of people’s heads, then we rehearsed one of our other performance pieces and recorded it.

The elders then returned, with the one of the community’s most senior decision-makers and elders. He too read the song lyrics, then without making comment, looked at the ‘Our World’ book. He turned some pages, discussed with the two teachers, and they then turned to me and said, “This is a good story to base the song on.”

The story they suggested was a different one again, about Kangaroo and Hermit Crab having a race, which Kangaroo is confident he will win. It is very like the Aesop Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, but with a small twist, because Hermit Crab plays a trick on Kangaroo in order to win the race.

This was clearly a safe option! We thanked the elders for their help in solving this challenge, and set about creating the new song. We split into two groups. One group went off with Tony to play guitar (writing lyrics can be a slow and painstaking process and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), and a small group stayed with me to figure out how to retell this new story in the structure and melody of the original song.

Here’s what we came up with (red words are verse 1, black/blue words are verse 2, and the audio of the song is on the Soundcloud player below):

New song lyrics, conert day, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

I am not going to share the lyrics of the original song. It is not my story to share. This is something that became very clear in our discussions with the children, the elders, and others in the community later on. Stories may be heard, but hearing a story does not mean you are the right person to re-tell that story. The story in our original song was one that the children knew a lot about, but it wasn’t a story for children. It wasn’t appropriate that they should sing about this story, nor was it acceptable for them to sing it in a public concert. Moreover, children are given stories. The stories are passed on to them according to traditions or decisions or community/adult choices that are underpinned by thinking that we, as outsiders to the community, are not party to, and should not make assumptions about.

We performed our new song at the concert that afternoon. It was received extremely well. The children listening recognised the story (and I introduced it as coming from the ‘Our World’ book). We taught the audience our two-part chorus and invited them to sing with us.

Walking back to school after the concert with the music group, I asked one of them if she was happy with the concert. “Yes,” she said. “I liked all of it. And I liked the new song. I think it’s better than the first one we wrote.”

That’s an ideal outcome. I think all the children felt safer with the new lyrics. No-one had seemed uncomfortable with the original song the previous day when we’d composed it. But they were happier to sing the new song. For Tony and I, it was the opposite – we liked the original song better!

We were fortunate to have people in the school who were able to help us solve the problem quickly. It was also significant that we – Tony and I – are attuned to the challenges of working in cross-cultural situations. Like the experience of the burglary in East Timor, we instinctively handed the problem over to the community leaders to solve for us. We knew that we needed their advice and endorsement, and that they had the knowledge and authority to solve this quickly and calmly. There was no anger towards us – people knew we had not tried to provoke discussion about controversial things or inappropriate topics, that these had simply emerged through the openness and trust we had engendered in the workshops. Rather, it was approached as something that needed to be solved, and people stopped what they were doing that morning in order to help us solve it.

Culture is so much more than artefacts or tangible products. It is also about the way things are done. Our original song strayed into the wrong territory, and the community leaders were the right people to guide it back and ensure a positive, welcome outcome for everyone. Had it gone the other way, had we stood our ground and cajoled the children into singing the song that we thought was musically stronger, it would have undermined all sorts of trusts and authority. Firstly, we would have been putting the children in an uncomfortable, even untenable position. They had told us with their voices and their faces that the original song was no longer okay for them. We needed to respect this. And had we gone ahead with a performance of the original song, we would have been undermining, and positioning ourselves beyond or above, the authority of the community and its elders. This could have had far bigger repercussions for ourselves and Tura New Music who run these Remote Residencies each year. We might never have been allowed back!

Intangible culture, like the ways to solve problems, or the knowledge of where a boundary has been crossed, is part of the glue that keeps communities strong. Interestingly, this was a line that came up in our original song! When the structures that support the way that things are done get weakened, many other parts of that culture will also be weakened.

So the most imperative advice for an artist working in these kinds of settings is always “Ask. Don’t assume. And accept the advice and decisions of the elders”.

Musicians in the community

We have been made very welcome here in Djarindjin-Lombadina, a small and remote Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite remote as it is only connected to Broome by 200km of unsealed, sandy road. There are two little shops, selling a small range of groceries and fishing gear. There is lots of green grass and many handsome trees.

On Saturday evening we took part in a community jam in the school hall with a couple of musicians from the Aboriginal community, three of the teachers (a pianist, a percussionist, and a singer-guitarist), and a crowd of kids. We jammed on various popular hits (Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson – those universal classics). We also played around with a 12-bar blues, inventing lyrics, getting the kids to sing, taking turns with the microphone.

The jam group

Saturday night Jam, Djarindjin-Lombadina (Gillian Howell)

It was a magic evening. I gave my camera to the children and they took photo after photo of themselves, doing hip poses and pulling silly faces. Lots of photos!

Posing for the camera, Djarindjin-LombadinaLittle boy Djarindjin-Lombadina

Where's the drummer gone?I asked one little girl to take a photo of the drummer for me. She came back with this photo, showing it to me on the screen at the back of the camera. “But where’s Willie?” I asked, showing her the photo. And she looked at it again and started giggling. I think Willie must have decided to duck down when she took the photo. She would have been standing in front of him for a while, taking care to set up her photo. Such a teaser! Yep. It was a fun night.

Apparently, this is the first time that this kind of music-making has taken place between the teacher community and the indigenous community, and the teachers were so, so pleased. I don’t know that we can take credit for it happening, due to our presence or influence – I have the impression that the local elders were already planning to have a bit of a jam around now, because they have a gig coming up next week. I think we were just very lucky that it happened on our first weekend. It was a wonderful way to get to know some of the children and just hang out. Music provides the meeting ground. We build rapport and some shared experiences, and hopefully we’ll be able to extend these when our project starts in earnest next week.

In any case, being musicians in a community isn’t just about working with the kids. It’s about contributing wherever we can or wherever it is wanted. We went along to Mass this morning (the school is a Catholic school, and the mission is an old Catholic mission, so those traditions are still maintained in the community) and played music for the start of the service. Neither of us are regular mass-goers, but it is an authentic and appreciated way for us to contribute to community life. It’s a very beautiful church, by the way. It has a roof thatch made from paperbark – one of the only remaining examples of this style – and it is 100 years old.

Lombadina paperbark church (Gillian Howell)

We have also talked with the teachers about their musical interests, and there are ways that we may be able to support the music projects that are part of their non-teaching lives here in Lombadina. At this stage, it is looking like the 12-bar blues could feature strongly in our end-of-residency concert, with solos for each teacher and a song created by the kids.

Djarindjin-Lombadina remote community

Gillian and Tony on air at Goolarri Radio, BroomeThursday morning we did another media call, then checked out of the hotel and hit the supermarket, stocking up on supplies that we wouldn’t be able to buy in the remote community shops. Then we hit the road.

To get to the Dampier Peninsula drive to the outskirts of Broome, then turn left on Cape Leveque Road. This road is unsealed for most of the way, and was closed all of last week due to heavy rains (unseasonal rains – this is supposed to be the Dry Season). The road runs long and straight for kilometres at a time. Low scrub covers either side of the road.

Cape Leveque Road, out of Broome

We passed a few vehicles – this is not as remote as many other communities, and the road is quite well-trafficked. Still, I wouldn’t want to drive it every day. Thick soft red sand is the surface in some parts, and there were some sudden pot-hole surprises where the road surface had washed away. It’s not an easy drive and you can imagine it wouldn’t take much to roll your car if you weren’t familiar with the conditions, or taking things carefully.

Gum and paperbark church, LombadinaDjarindjin-Lombadina is a very pretty community. Lots of green grass and graceful, majestic white gum trees. The roads throughout the community are unsealed, and curve their way around the different dwellings. This was an old church mission, and the local church is made of paper-bark – one of the last remaining examples of its kind. It celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year.

We led a workshop on Friday morning with the senior class in the community school – students from years 7-10. It was a small group on Friday, around 8 kids, and after doing some rhythmic warm-up tasks we moved quickly onto the instruments for a jam. I’d brought a set of alto chime bars with me, and two members of the group used these to create some melodic material that acted as an ‘anchor’ for the improvisation.

School on Friday ends with a whole-school assembly, so this was the perfect chance for Tony and I to be introduced to everyone in the school. We played a short improvised duet on the clarinet and saxophone, demonstrating our instruments and the sorts of sounds they can make, as well as the idea of improvisation and creating our own music (which is the primary intention of these residencies). Then I taught a song to everyone, a spiritual that I learned quite recently. It has three parts – we learned the melody today, but I have plans to get the whole school singing in three parts by the end of our residency.

In the evening, some of the teachers from the school invited us to join them at the beach to watch the sunset. It’s a drive there over the dunes (if you look up Darindjin-Lombadina on Google maps you will see a whole lot of white stuff – that’s all the sand dunes that you have to cross to get to the beach). Sunsets are legendary in this part of the world. Every night it is an extraordinary display of colours, offset by shimmering ocean, so we joined the teachers in what appears to be a regular ritual of Friday night fishing (none of us caught anything, but it was a great way to watch the sunset) and star-gazing.