Archive for the ‘Teaching music creatively’ 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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Growing a musical community – Ten years on

Last weekend I worked with graduates of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble to create music for a special event – ArtPlay’s Tenth Birthday.

ArtPlay is Melbourne’s children’s arts centre. Actually, it is probably Australia’s only dedicated arts centre for children. The ArtPlay philosophy sees children and artists as co-creators – it is a space where children get to work and create alongside professional artists in a rich and diverse program of workshops, performances, installations, and exchanges. It’s my favourite place to work, because the staff are all so dedicated to optimum experiences for everyone who comes into the space. There is such impeccable attention to detail, and so much love, care and appreciation – mutually shared, I should add. I’m very proud to have such a long association with ArtPlay.

The colours of the crowd match the colours of the large-scale 'mosaic' sign at ArtPlay's 10th Birthday party

The colours of the crowd match the colours of the large-scale ‘mosaic’ sign at ArtPlay’s 10th Birthday party

The MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble is made up of children from past MSO ArtPlay Ensembles – we create a new Ensemble every year, and have graduates from the first iteration, in 2005, all the way through to 2013. In this particular Graduate Ensemble project many of the older graduates came back to be part of the project – that was pretty special. Some of them are now in university!

In our opening circle on Saturday, as I welcomed them all, I pointed out that every graduate of the Ensemble is part of a musical community, and that with every year that passes, their musical community grows. It includes people they meet from youth orchestra, from university, and it includes me and the MSO musicians they have worked with over the years. We are all part of the same community of Melbourne-based musicians.

Here in the Graduate Ensemble, everyone has shared an experience of working collaboratively as a group and the strategies you can use to get your creative faculties firing. This was immediately evident as we started the warm-up games. We passed a clap around the circle – straight away, it was whizzing its way round, speedy, focused, and committed. “These are my kids,” I thought proudly!

Next, we walked through the space, each person choosing their own path but committing to straight lines in a particular direction, and to focusing their eyes on their chosen destination. With inexperienced players, this task of walking autonomously doesn’t make a lot of sense. But with a group that understands and follows the instructions, it is magic. A focused group is able to ‘read’ each person’s intentions and make small adjustments accordingly. It looks impressive when it works – people walk their chosen path deliberately, and there are no collisions! Even more importantly, it is a very connecting task, which heightens the sense of ensemble. We upped the speed – still no collisions. Yep, I thought. We are all on familiar territory. What’s more, everyone is here because they want to be, because they like what happens in this territory.

We broke off into small groups. Some of the older graduates took on leadership roles in their group. We didn’t ask them to do this – they just did it. I imagine that this may have been in part because they work in Ensembles in other contexts, where older people lead the younger participants. But it was also about familiarity and confidence with the creative processes we use in the Ensemble, and that I use in projects with older kids, which some of them have taken part in as well. It was a cool thing to observe. Again, flushes of pride!

At ArtPlay on the Sunday, we had a beautiful stage to perform on. As always, figuring out the configuration of groups, instrument sections, power leads and sight-lines took a bit of time (it’s the part of these projects I like the least), but our rehearsal went well, and in the last five minutes (nay, three!) we also devised a rhythmic groove to play outside, in order to draw the audience into the ArtPlay building from the playground and performances outside.

It was a lovely event to be part of, a celebratory event for ArtPlay that was also a chance for the staff, the MSO musicians and myself, and all the parents that we have come to know over the years, to reflect on the creative musical community that we share. It will only grow more.

MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble (courtesy MSO/B.Lobb)

Too many bright sparky children

Sometimes it is so hard to choose. This week I needed to make a Final List of offers for the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a composing and improvising ensemble for 28 children and professional musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, working under my direction. We held our annual weekend of try-outs at the start of February.

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

Around 120 children took part in 6 free 1-hour composing workshops. The workshop process is the same each year – it gives children a taste of the strategies we use for collaborative composing in the Ensemble, and shows us who is out there to invite into the Ensemble for 2014. (Read more about the workshop process here).

Workshop group (G. Howell)At the end of each workshop, the two MSO musicians and I discuss each participant, noting how they responded and the sorts of strengths and preferences they showed. We look for “bright, sparky kids” – children who like the idea of making things up on their instrument, who are open, who feel comfortable working in a group made up of adults and other children, and who are happy to try out other people’s ideas as well their own. They need to be comfortable on their instrument, but high-level skills are not a primary criterion.

We score each child with a Yes, No, Maybe/Yes, or Maybe/No. Usually the Ensemble is made up of children on the ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists. Other ‘Maybes’ go on the Reserve list in case someone doesn’t take up their place.

By the end of the weekend I had 41 ‘Yeses’. There are only 28 places in the group… I had to take a deep breath, and steel myself to do a Big Cull. It hurt! While it is great that we are attracting so many children who are such a good match for the program, it’s tough to know that there were children – fabulously imaginative, perceptive, inventive kids, with a deep connection to and love for their instrument – who would be awesome contributors to this Ensemble, that I couldn’t offer a place to this year.

Choosing is always difficult, especially in an education context, where the goal is one of supporting each child’s development, rather than just finding the best players. There are always children that we see who, for whatever reason – maybe shyness, or self-consciousness with the shift away from notation and right/wrong notes into this inventive and open-ended process – don’t shine as brightly on the day as others but who we believe have great potential and would benefit from participating in the Ensemble. Finding the right balance of personalities, potential, and instrumentation is important.

I think the process we use is a good one, and a fair one. There is space for children to come in and just be themselves – every ensemble benefits from a mix of extrovert leaders as well as quieter, rock-steady leaders, and section players. We get a lot of quirky children coming to us – their out-of-the-box thinking is such an asset in creative projects like this, and they often thrive in a social environment with lots of other non-conformist thinkers.

Nevertheless, there is no ‘perfect’ choice. The choices I make will create the Ensemble that we get – a different set of choices will create a different Ensemble. By choosing, I am also laying the ground for a set of experiences and relationships for those children, and for me. The first MSO ArtPlay Ensemble was formed in 2006, and that year, there was no selection process. We just accepted everyone who applied. That group is now finishing school, some are even at university. Quite a few have kept in touch over the years, letting me know what they are up to with their music. They are making choices now that will see them becoming the next generation of orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, music therapists – I’m sure. I’m not suggesting those choices are due to their experience of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble! But I believe that if you experience yourself as musical and creative in your formative playing years, this creates a strong foundation for seeking and trying out new musical ventures as you mature.

Being the one to choose is both a privilege and a responsibility, because choices open as well as close… and set new things in motion. Ah well… I’m looking forward to this year’s journey, despite the challenge of choosing!

Constructing sounds in the Music Construction Site 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Teaching music for well-being

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

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

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

Scotch College presentation notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding and adapting with Beethoven

In the September school holidays, the 2013 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble got together for its final composition project for 2013. This time our focus was Beethoven’s 1st symphony, and we explored some of its rhythmic language, orchestrating this in a very 21st century way, given our Ensemble included electric guitar, drum kit and djembe, along with more usual orchestral instruments.

(Press play and listen while you read!)

This year’s group has been an interesting one. For the first year ever, we have an ensemble dominated by boys – 18 boys to 10 girls. They were bright, smart, very creative boys, mostly aged 11 and 12 (there were a few 9-10 year olds as well). We found that the male majority brought quite a different energy and dynamic to the group than we’d had in previous years. They engaged differently in the group. I think that this took me slightly by surprise each time we re-convened in each school holiday period – I’d start the warm-up using my usual approach and within five minutes be thinking, “Oh that’s right! This group needs something different from me.”

MSO ArtPlay Ensemble 2013

This is part of the facilitator’s art – to think on one’s feet, and be ready to adapt and respond. Lately I’ve been reading about “complex adaptive systems”, and realising that the creative workshop process is a micro complex system of human interaction, response and constant adaptation. The alternative to this responsive adaptation is imposing a system – and this can work effectively too, of course! But it also entails an assertion of power, and therefore the potential for power struggle. It offers less room for creativity and shared ownership, which are foundational values in my work.

That’s not to say I didn’t use some coercive tactics of my own, especially to get us through the rehearsing stage. Wandering attention needed to be brought back to task if we were going to be ready for the performance of our newly-composed piece by 3pm on the 2nd workshop day.

I loved the final piece – it has a confidence and upfront quality that felt very characteristic of this group. In the recording above you will hear some of Beethoven’s rhythmic motifs woven into a rock groove (opening movement), a minuet and trio in ternary form (and in miniature), and an extended rondo form. Sadly we were missing a couple of key members of the group for this final workshop, due to illness, but I think they were with us in spirit!

MSO artPlay Ensemble 2013

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)

When the beat in the street makes you feel complete

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

Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?

It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha

It’s the City Beat.

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

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

Grid Score, City Beats G. Howell 2013

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

Bells and Whistles, City Beats G. Howell 2013

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

Grid score and Gillian, City Beats 2013 G. Howell

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

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

Drums City Beats ArtPlay 2013

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

Brake Drums City Beats G. Howell 2013

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

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

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

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

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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Drawing a bit of space into music workshops

Music workshops can be very leader-focused, even when the creative content is child-generated, and the process is child-centred. There is a practical reason for this – music-making is noisy, and to facilitate group music-making you need the group to be working together for much of the time. It would be lovely to be able to give everyone time to do their own free explorations – as can happen in a visual arts workshop or lesson – but realistically, this requires lots of separate work spaces, or distance between each of the individuals. Otherwise, everyone would soon find themselves exhausted by the effort of blocking out other people’s sounds in order to focus on their own. And that kind of exhaustion makes people cranky. Or wired. Or both.

Quiet time to explore (One Arm Point, G. Howell)

We all know that taking a bit of quiet, self-focused time is a beautiful way to retreat from the demands of the world and recharge energy. When I worked as a music workshop artist at the English Language School I saw how the children were often at their most contented and peaceful during drawing and construction activities. Being able to focus on their own creative efforts meant they could retreat into their own thoughts – in their own language! Keeping up with a whole day of lessons in English could be very exhausting for the students, especially the most recently-arrived children, and the refugee children who had had limited prior schooling. Teachers also reported that art activities were the times that some students  would quietly disclose troubling thoughts or worries. Children felt safe and acknowledged during the art activities, and responded to the opportunity to process their thoughts while giving their outward attention to the tactile, personal experience of creating marks and visual gestures.

Therefore, I often used drawing tasks as a way of starting creative projects at the Language School. Children would draw as a way of exploring a particular topic and sharing their knowledge and experiences in a non-verbal way. Drawing seemed like a meditation for many of the children.

In my recent composition workshops at the remote community schools on Dampier Peninsula we began by inviting the children to draw ‘maps of the heart’. These maps showed the things in the children’s lives that were most important to them. They also established some other principles – the importance of each person’s contributions, the importance of having time to develop your thoughts, and the importance sharing only what you want to share. We did this drawing activity towards the end of the first workshop day, having spent the morning drumming, singing, and working with rhythms and counting. It served two functions – providing possible content for the development of musical content, and giving the individuals a bit of ‘time out’ from the noise and intense group focus of music-making.

At One Arm Point Community School, we also turned to drawing at the end of the second-last workshop day. We’d been working hard and everyone was ready for a break. And we wanted to spread the word about our concert the next day among people in the town who might not hear about it through the school. So we gathered up some paper and textas and made some posters.

People sat with their friends. Two of the older girls sang quietly away to themselves while they drew. Other children gathered around Tony and me, checking spelling and getting our input on things to include on their posters (some included sponsor messages!), or ways of drawing particular instruments. One or two were less engaged by the drawing task, and they wandered around the room, playing instruments occasionally, but also organising things (putting things away, tidying the space), and enjoying the quiet time.

Sometimes in a creative music workshop, we can feel so time-poor that we give all the available time over to the music. This is important, but I urge people never to overlook the importance of a little bit of space for individuals to retreat into their own heads for a while. Drawing is a way of doing this, while still developing project content and maintaining a sense of group ownership over the work.

Poster in the Community Shop, One Arm Point (G. Howell)