Archive for the ‘Jams and large-scale events’ Category

Evolving a new work – Beethoven’s Big Day Out

I’ve just got home from leading family workshops for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival. I led two projects – Beethoven’s Big Day Out, and a Jam on the Ode to Joy.

Jams for families on big orchestral works are a core part of my creative work and musical direction, but I was particularly thrilled to get to present Beethoven’s Big Day Out for WASO. It’s a project that has developed through a number of other projects, and it’s interesting to reflect how it evolved through these influences.

Preparing the participants for Beethoven's Big Day Out

Preparing the participants for Beethoven’s Big Day Out

Beethoven’s Big Day Out has its origins in a Jam for Juniors I led for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2011, but that project employed ideas that I’d begun exploring in response to the very beautiful, detailed, and insightful work for pre-school children by Pocketfool Productions, and in particular a project that Jennifer Anderson from Pocketfool and I developed together for ArtPlay earlier in 2011 – the Camel Caravan (read about it here).

Working with Jen really changed my thinking about approaches to creative music work with under-5s. When we were developing our workshop, Jen talked about how she wanted to try and create language and opportunities around listening, and deliberate choices about sounds. We discussed how transformative that shift from a very self-focused, blocking-out-others way of playing to a more alert, aware, connected experience could be, even for very young players.

It was a beautiful project, with a big range of musical experiences for the children. In one lovely activity, children could “buy” sounds in a musical market place. They had to think about what kind of sound (a big sound, a shiny sound, etc) that they wanted, and then, after paying their money, they would play an instrument that made that sound.

This idea of careful, considered listening and choices then became central to the planning for the first Jam for Juniors with the MSO. I was a bit skeptical about the whole Jams for Juniors concept at first. There would be 50 little children, with their parents, in a large open space, with instruments. How could we get them all creating as well as playing, while ensuring musical integrity and variety, and not have everyone leave at the end of the 30 minute jam feeling assaulted by the cacophony?

The idea of a “journey”, which we’d used in the Camel Caravan, was a useful frame, so I utilised it here. Journeys require us to undertake different tasks. There is a sense of adventure and imperative about the different stages of the journey too. A journey through an imaginary environment gets the children’s creativity firing from the outset.

That first Jam for Juniors was strong. It involved way too many props to be practical (we changed multiple instruments and props five times in the half-hour workshop), but it offered a big variety of ways of engaging with music and instruments, all while introducing the music of Beethoven to the children and their parents, using themes from Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony.

Two further projects grew out of that Jam for Juniors experience, and both have become ‘flagship” projects for me in my stable of projects to offer to orchestras and arts centres around Australia and internationally. One is Nests (which I’ve written about here) and the other is Beethoven’s Big Day Out.

So what has changed in this most recent evolutionary phase? The bones of the original Jam for Juniors are still there. It is still a jam for under-5s, although we’ve narrowed it to an age range of 2-5 years. I’ve incorporated more opportunities for the children to get “up close” to the musicians from the orchestra and their instruments, so that they can feel the physicality and voice of the instruments, and the air vibrating in response. I’ve adjusted the language I use to introduce the different stages of the journey (adjusting and refining language is an ongoing process. It’s an aspect of workshop leading and facilitating that constantly fascinates me). And I removed quite a lot of the props! (Now we only have three changeovers).

The next thing I’d like to create is a ‘travelling’ version of Beethoven’s Big Day Out, where the participant group moves through different sites (such as a series of foyer spaces in a large performing arts centre) as part of the journey. If that sounds like something you’d like to present, let me know! But regardless of the site, Beethoven’s Big Day Out is a very imaginative, movement-filled, multi-sensory experience of a symphony orchestra, its music, and its sounds, that involves all of the children as participants in the music-making in many different, creative, and exhilarating ways. The singing, chattering voices, and bouncing little bodies in the foyer afterwards, and the smiles on parents’ and musicians’ faces, were testament to that.

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Maulelo – witnessing the enactment of an ancient ceremony

“Want to help save a music tradition?”

This was how a friend shared a recent Kickstarter campaign on social media. The campaign was in support of an enactment of a traditional music-theatre ceremony in Timor-Leste that hadn’t been performed in over a decade. The knowledge about this ceremony – how to perform it, the musical material and how it is structured, the rules and protocols surrounding its performance – was in danger of being lost. The two elders (cultural custodians) who knew it in detail were ageing – if a performance didn’t take place soon it was possible that they could pass away without their knowledge having been passed on to a younger generation.

Maulelo in rehearsal (G. Howell 2014)

The ceremony isn’t performed very often because it is really big and requires a huge amount of preparation and logistical planning. It can involve 80-100 performers, who need to travel and stay overnight (possibly for multiple days in a row) and set aside their other day-to-day work and responsibilities in order to take part.

The event is called Maulelo, and while I was Timor-Leste I was able to travel to the site and observe the final day of rehearsals. The setting was halfway up a mountain, near the small town of Hatubuiliko, and in the foothills of Mount Ramelau, Timor-Leste’s highest mountain and a sacred site of pilgrimage and Timorese national identity. To get there, we walked for a while out of Hatubuiliko town, and then at a critical point we left the path and scrambled our way up a steep, narrow, twisting goat track. This took us above the clouds that had descended upon the town to a clearing on a narrow saddle, ringed by pin-straight, narrow eucalypts, reaching toward the sky.

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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.

Jump on the Bandwagon 2013

Recently I led this year’s Jump on the Bandwagon project at ArtPlay. Jump on the Bandwagon is a family jam – an all ages, all abilities, get-your-hands-on-an-instrument-and-play event that is about getting large groups of people playing together and sounding great.

Regular readers will know that I lead lots of jams with orchestras, and these usually take pieces of orchestral music as their starting points for improvisation and jamming. In Jump on the Bandwagon, we focus on grooves and riffs with a more contemporary edge. Often I use a melodic idea that’s emerged in an earlier workshop with young people – some of these can be very enduring and an ideal starting point for a big range of musical interests!

This year I used a short melody created by some students from Preston Girls Secondary College in a workshop with the MSO a few years ago. We started that workshop by asking them to brainstorm “what’s important?” One group wrote these words, and hooked them up to a really catchy melody:

Money does buy food

Money does not buy family, friends or love.

We always get a crowd of participants – this year we capped the registrations at 100, and most were these were under-8s, including one 7 year-old violinist, filled with ideas and no qualms at all about being the only violinist there, a little girl who opted to play the keyboard but had brought her own ceremonial trumpet along, and a 2 year old who spent the whole time struggling with his mum to have control of the drumstick and being massively overstimulated by the whole event, but ended the session by helping gather up all the instruments, hugging me good-bye, and not wanting to leave. I hope we get to see him again!

But some of the most memorable participants were the adults. I asked one dad to play the autoharp and showed him how it worked, pushing down buttons for particular chords, and strumming across the strings in time. One of the other musicians in the Bandwagon team told me later, “He loved it! He absolutely loved it and said, ‘It’s my first time EVER playing music, and I think I’ve found my instrument!'” That’s a great outcome, and just as important as any younger child having their first experience playing music.

Research shows that the music experiences children share within their families are way more powerful and potent than any music experiences they may have in school, in terms of impacts their later choices to participate in music experiences as adults. That’s why I emphasise all-ages with the jams I lead. Of course they are for the children. But they are also for the adults. And if that man goes off and buys himself an autoharp of his own then that will be one of the best outcomes of a jam that I can think of.

COmments board at the end of Jump on the Bandwagon, 2013, ArtPlay (G. Howell)

Learning to play together

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

MSO ArtPlay Ensemble August 2013

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

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

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

Building an ensemble focus with warm-up tasks

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

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

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

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

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

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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”.

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.

New video – jamming on gypsy music in Melbourne

New video to share this week – here are some highlights from the Gypsy Jam I led for a crowd of thousands at an outdoor concert venue called the Myer Music Bowl a few weeks back. The footage gives a sense of the fun, fast-pace and heat of the evening!

What’s coming up? I’m taking a bit of time away from my PhD reading this week; I’ve started the week by writing a couple of lectures (one on music, power, and social change, the other on informal learning and Musical Futures), which I need to present in a couple of weeks. Then, for the rest of this week I will be in at ArtPlay, one of my favourite places in Melbourne. I have two days of City Beats workshops (City Beats is a longterm project that I direct for ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), and then the second series of Nests workshops. More about these projects when they are finished!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A (musical) jam with hundreds and thousands

Gillian's jazz gig, Fed Square,  April 2010 065Last night I put the finishing touches on the score for this weekend’s ‘Gypsy Jam’ at the Myer Music Bowl with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] and graduates from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. This participatory music jam will take place before a free outdoor orchestral concert, one of a series of four free concerts that the MSO puts on every year as part of Melbourne summer festivities.

This year I’ve created a ‘Gypsy Jam’ in order to tie into the concert program which features Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite. Bartok = Hungarian = Gypsy… purists will know the link is somewhat tenuous, but for our purposes, it’s going to work very well indeed! The jam acts like a pre-concert ‘aperitif’ (after all, people bring a picnic with them to the free Myer Bowl concerts so if the concert proper is the main course then the pre-concert jam could be an aperitif or amuse-bouche), and people can elect to come down to the stage to join in (we’ll have lots of percussion instruments available for them to play, or they can bring their own instrument with them), or join in from their picnic spot on the grass.

Thousands of people attend these free Myer Bowl concerts, so that means there might end up being thousands of people jamming. Everyone is welcome, so if you are in Melbourne, pack your picnic basket, grab your horn of choice and head down to the Myer Music Bowl, ready for a 6pm jam start. Gates open at 4pm. Here’s what it looked like last year, when our theme was Mexican (to tie in with the concert performance of Copland’s El Salon Mexico). Olé!