Archive for the ‘Playing’ 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.

Nests – all about the interactions

Children with lanterns wait to enter the Nests forest (Gillian Howell)“Adults, just to let you know, everything in here is okay for the little ones.” Quite a few parents gave smiles of recognition and perhaps relief at that point. They were being reassured not to feel anxious about trying to control their child’s (possibly wrong) choices. Rebecca continued, “Okay to explore and touch and –“

Feel?”  asked (or prompted) one little girl, which made me smile.

“Yes, feel too”, Rebecca agreed. “So parents, we’ll let your little people lead the way with the explorations.”

With that, we picked up our lanterns and entered the magical musical forest at ArtPlay. There were many beautiful, child-led interactions that took place across the weekend. Here are just a few:

One very confident little man sat down next to Rebecca at the frog bog, and picking one of the stones there, told her emphatically, “Rocks are my absolute favourite thing!” He had a bit of a gleam in his eye, Rebecca said, but she suspected he must have picked up some telepathic messages from his parents, hovering nearby, because he didn’t express his love of rocks in any particularly alarming way.

child with rocks (Nests 2013, Howell, Russell, Evans)

A little girl came up to me with the instrument she had chosen to play – a pair of blue and green resonant blocks, made of a very durable, robust plastic. She banged them together and looked at me expectantly. I matched the pitch on my clarinet and repeated her rhythm back to her. She smiled in delight, and played again. We jammed awhile, sometimes taking turns and sometimes playing at the same time. We got faster, then slower, we tried sudden stops to see if our playing partner would be able to stop in time. Then she wandered away, and so did I.

Musical interactions, Nests 2013 (Russell, Evans, Howell)

One child delighted in the large autumn leaves we’d scattered throughout the installation. She approached each of us in turn – me, Rebecca, Tony, Eelin our photographer – to present us solemnly with a leaf. She didn’t speak, so nor did we. I tried to fix mine in my hair. I spotted Eelin walking around with a leaf balanced on top of her head. Later, the little girl placed the frogs in the frog bog on leaves, creating a special place for them – like lily pads.

Nests installation (Evans, Howell, Russell 2013)A little boy stood at the edge of a nest, gazing at all the activity in the room. He looked entranced, a smile on his face and his eyes wide. He whispered to his mother every now and then, their faces very close to each other. He had a juju shaker in his hands. His mother was beside him, crouching down, taking it all in with him. Sometimes they played instruments, but they also spent a lot of time just watching everything together. This was a very intimate, imaginative immersion into another world that they could share together.

One of our Nests is filled with instruments made from very organic, natural materials – an African log drum, juju shakers made from large resonant seeds, caxixi made from woven grasses. Tony described later a ‘free jazz improv’ he engaged in with the children in that nest. Again, the patterns of turn-taking and unison changes in volume and tempi emerged, but also, he said, some truly innovative rhythmic licks. These weren’t just random batterings, but expressive utterances and gestures, offered in response to the sonic environment the children found themselves in.

Free jazz improv, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We designed Nests to encourage exactly these kinds of musical interactions, and to immerse children in a visual and aural environment that would encourage them to listen, notice, and respond. This was an un-facilitated experience where the children created their own pathways and directed their own explorations, but there were key elements in place – in the recorded soundscape and the way we’d set up the space to allow for elements of surprise and timely ‘reveals’- that guided the children’s activities and attention. Thus, in the narrative arc of the installation, the children went from individual, self-focused explorations into some truly intense and powerful whole-ensemble experiences.

As they exited the installation, the ArtPlay staff asked children and parents for their impressions. The frogs were consistently cited as the most memorable part of the workshop.

Frog Bog, Nests 2013 (Howell, Evans, Russell)

Many children also talked about the excitement of the big drum that we gathered around, making the sounds of rain and thunder as one big group.

The gathering drum, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We learned that several people were coming to Nests for the second time (impressive, because it sells out very quickly. They must be very organised bookers!) “We haven’t stopped talking about it,” one mum confided. “And this will be all they talk about for ages now. They just love it!”

There were lots of shining eyes and excited children. Many looked like they were holding the joy of the experience tightly inside them, not necessarily wanting to talk about it yet. I don’t think they would know exactly why they had enjoyed the last half-hour so much. It is more than just the chance to play lots of different instruments. These 3-5 year olds were having a significant early experience of the tremendous sense of well-being and pleasure that playing music with other people can bring. It is a sense of being heard, of having a voice, of being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s the reason I play music, and lead music-making with other people, and it is a big motivation for continuing to seek out group music-making experiences in your life. I’m very pleased to think we may have instilled some of that motivation into these little people and their parents.

This was the third and final stage of our creative development of Nests, and we are grateful for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab funding for supporting this idea and enabling us to realise it and present it in the beautiful ArtPlay space. The next installation of Nests will be in July at Chapel off Chapel, as part of the City of Stonnington’s children’s arts festival Roola Boola.

Nests by Gillian Howell, Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans, 2013

Playing informally

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about those opportunities that arise from time to time to play informally with others and how we respond to them. I went through a classical music training. Improvisation and composing came later to me, after I had finished my undergrad studies. I tend to think of myself as someone who was “classically-trained” and know that I have worked at letting go of a lot of rigidity and baggage that can go along with that training.

Recently there was another gathering of the ArtPlay Senior Artists (you can read the blog and forum that is responding to those sessions here) at which we discussed the pedagogy and thinking that underpins the MSO ArtPlay Ensembles that I direct. After the session one of the other artists began to tell me about her own music performance experiences, and how unable she had always felt to just pick up her instrument and play whatever… she felt she had to have something prepared, or time to rehearse, before every playing in front of anyone. “Then I went to art college, in the 1980s,” she told me. “And of course everyone was joining and forming bands. They ‘d ask me to play too, but I couldn’t, I just didn’t feel I could play in that way, and I wished that I could.”

The funny thing is, I told her, despite all the work I do with improvisation, and in encouraging people to play, I too still can feel crippled by exactly the same feelings. I was at a party recently where there were many musicians (quite a contemporary, avant-garde experimental crowd) and after dinner the music started. Tony (my boyfriend) played (brilliantly, as always), the host and his son performed, some other guests (each of whom were electronic music people) performed using various bits of equipment. I had brought my clarinet with me, but when the time came, I shrank away from playing. I surprised myself, but I knew I didn’t want to play. I felt like I needed to have prepared something. I didn’t feel comfortable to just get up and improvise, for some reason, even though I know I could have done that.

By contrast, there was another party recently, when Nico and Martin were here from Ireland, and when the music started there you just couldn’t stop me. Someone lent me a saxophone (I hadn’t brought an instrument with me) and I played all night. I passed it to Tony, seeing as he is the resident expert saxophonist, but the mouthpiece/reed set-up was wrong for him and he was happier just jamming on the guitar. We sang, we played, we rolled out as many songs as we all could think of. No shyness or reluctance on my part at all.

It was a very different crowd at the second party – people I know very well, whereas at the first party I was a bit of a newcomer to that group – they are Tony’s friends who I am only just getting to know. When he and I discussed this barrier to playing informally he didn’t agree that it was a legacy of a “classical music training”. He had felt similarly reluctant at the second party, he said, as I had at the first, where he knew fewer people and where the music environment was one based around familiar songs. I know heaps of songs – I’ve always sung and been around people who sing – but he doesn’t, and hasn’t.  So he felt less comfortable playing, despite being a seasoned, veteran improviser!

Therefore, perhaps the ‘barriers’ are set up more in response to the environment or people present, than they are to our training or abilities. However, I do think the “classical music” training does little to prepare musicians to engage informally and spontaneously with their instruments (I am thinking about a comment an MSO player made to me years ago, when I first started running training projects there, that even to play Happy Birthday at a celebratory gathering felt stressful). And it is crazy, in a way, to think there are any barriers for people playing music who already know how to play. There are enough for those who’ve had little experience or exposure!

All of these questions are going to be put in a completely new context when I go to East Timor, I suspect. More on that later.

The Big Jam – a big success!

The Big Jam opened the Melbourne International Jazz Festival on 1 May with a big glorious sound. Federation Square was packed with people, many of whom came along with instruments – including saxophones, trumpets, violins, and even a sousaphone! For people further up the back the on-stage action could be viewed on the big screen above the stage. Here are some photos from the event:

Members of the Signal Art Ensemble positioned themselves among the crowd, to act as ‘ideal participants’ and give some leads to other people with instruments.

Sax and the City

One hundred and forty saxophonists.

Lining the rooftops and balconies of central Sydney.

Playing toe-tappin’, finger-clickin’ tunes.

Pretty damn good fun.

I took part in the Sax and The City event as part of Sydney Festival’s First Night event, last Saturday night. I’m really a clarinet player, but played sax when I was at school… and anyway, it is not that hard to play the sax (as I like to tell Tony).

The event was directed/composed by Sydney saxophonist Sandy Evans – legend. Tony was invited to be one of the group leaders. I was in his group, and held my own most adequately :-). Look carefully in the group performance shot, taken when we were on the balcony of the Mint Building. You’ll see me there playing the alto sax, looking like a pro.

Last one here shows Tony in walking action, heading up Martin Place.

Directed or creative?

My teaching style usually emphasises creative projects with children where they are actively engaged in inventing music, and seeking out solutions to musical problems or challenges. However, it needs to be said that this approach (which I believe to be far richer pedagogically, leading to deep musical understanding among children) can be very demanding on the teacher:

  • It requires you to think on your feet, constantly ready to respond to the music as it emerges from the children’s efforts;
  • My creative projects often span several weeks, if not the whole term, so there can be quite a lot of planning and developing that needs to take place between each lesson;
  • When children get over-excited through the freedom of the process (which can happen, and is quite an issue at Pelican PS), then a huge amount of energy needs go into simply containing them and keeping the process on track. It is this last point that I think I find the most debilitating sometimes.

By the time Term 4 started, I knew I was feeling pretty weary. It has been a busy year of projects! The children were too, so I decided to develop a number of ‘directed’ projects for us all, projects that would involve playing and singing, but primarily through learning material, rather than inventing it.

It has proved a good tactic. At the Language School, the Middle Primary class with its very particular group of demanding, narcissistic boys has really benefited from learning specific, pre-existing material. There had been too much hijacking of creative tasks in previous terms, in terms of disruptive behaviour, and tantrums when collaborative processes didn’t go their way, and things felt much calmer this term.

Here’s a rundown of the kinds of things we’ve done:

Lower Primary – Learning the song Ho ho watanay and developing accompaniments (some learned, some invented). Lots of instruments, and detailed structure to memorise.

Middle Primary – Learning the song Ah ya zahn (traditional song in Arabic from Lebanon) with various learned instrumental accompaniments. This song introduced the children to thefull chromatic glockenspiels, and they learned to play the melody, with its wonderfully twisting, middle-eastern mode.

Upper Primary – Learning the song Sakura form Japan (both in Japanese and in the English translation that I wrote some years ago). The UP students also created new melodic material on glockenspiels, using a Japanese mode (take off all the Gs and Ds so that you are left with F-A-B-C-E). I asked them to think of a flower or plant that is special to the country they come from. From these suggestions we developed three spoken phrases, with rhythms implied by the syllables of the words. Then, working in teams, they selected notes from the mode in order to make a melody to this rhythm. Their words included:

Hababa flower, many colours (from Ethiopia, Oromo people)

Some big, some small, pink, purple, white and blue

Yellow sunflower, follows the sun (suggested by an Assyrian boy from Iraq)

Shishke on the Christmas tree, all the year round (from a Russian girl)

At Pelican Primary School, things have been similarly structured:

Preps and Grade Ones have invented their own simple version of the song Driving in my car (originally by the UK pop group Madness). These are very cute songs. We’re trying to add instruments, and on a good day, it all comes together.

Grade ones and Twos are singing The Earth is our mother and have created several melodic phrases inspired by sentences that describe ways to keep the planet healthy.

Grades 3 and 4 have learned to sing Ah Ya Zahn and developed similar accompaniments to those that I’ve taught at the Language School.

However, my Pelican Primary School experiences are making me re-think a lot of the creative work that I do. These children have so much creative energy, but zero internal discipline (as a group) to hold their focus long enough to make something work. In my experience, this kind of constant distraction, or distractedness, is quite common in schools where there are high numbers of refugee-background students. These kids have so much to gain from well-managed, clearly-structured creative processes. However, many of the tactics I have developed at the Language School have been proving too loose for the children at Pelican PS.

I’ve spoken about this with some of the other teachers, and they confirm that this lack of capacity to engage well with creative tasks occurs in other classes too. “Even just having a discussion about something with the class is very difficult in this school,” one teacher admitted. The disciplines of listening to each other, taking turns, not interrupting or shouting another person down, aren’t really present.

In music too, more open tasks make many of the students feel uncertain about what is expected of them, and this uncertainty (coupled perhaps with general insecurities, and the abstract nature of music in the first place) sees them go off-task very quickly, and just make random noise.

I’ve written before (see here) about the way the Pelican students seem to respond to noise in general, and specifically to multiple sources of sound in music. Little by little I am realising that the strategies I’ve been developing for ESL/ELL students in the Language School can’t be transferred here automatically. The students in the Language School have a far greater capacity to focus and remain engaged.  Perhaps the length of general classroom focus is always determined by the shortest attention span – or the shortest attention span among the more dominant class members!

There are lots of children from refugee backgrounds at Pelican Primary School. If we think about survival skills – being able to stand up for yourself, and get what you need for you and your family, making sure your voice is heard over the top of many other voices, making sure you are never at the end of a line, no matter what, being quick to react to any new potential threats around you, and learning to respond to a constantly chaotic environment – then we can see a kind of progression from those survival tactics to the common strategies employed by many students in the school. Lots of shouting over each other, interrupting conversations (often not noticing if said conversation is even taking place!), turning heads to watch whatever is taking place elsewhere in the room, and so on.

I feel very sure that music can offer these children opportunities  and motivation to break some of these patterns, and to experience themselves as learners in a different way. Creative music-making offers the additional benefit of a sense of ownership over the music, a validation and endorsement of one’s own contributions to the process, a deep understanding of the music from the inside out, and a powerful means of self-expression and individual voice. But I do need to figure out some new and powerful ways into creative music that scaffold each of the smallest of steps, and offer tangible experiences of success and delight to the students in as short a period of time as possible, due to those peskily short attention spans. Those experiences of success and delight are the key to their motivation to continue working cooperatively with me and with each other.

ESL students in performance

Last week the upper primary students performed their original song for the Language School’s opening ceremony for the new library. It was a lovely event – the whole school assembled outside, the two student leaders from the secondary school acted as MCs, our local member of parliament was there to do the ‘official’ thing – ribbon-cutting and so on.

My students performed really well. They were quite nervous, I’d say, but they sang confidently, with strong voices (but not shouting – we’d spent quite a few weeks learning that distinction). The words were not memorised, so we wrote them out and put them on a low, free-standing easel that they could look at while they performed. So as they sang, their eyes were glued to these words, and their faces deadly serious (despite the fact that the song is quite humourous). Afterward, I reflected on how I could have better supported them to raise their eyes from the words – not just in terms of their memorisation, but in terms of their understanding of performances, and their role as performers.

I think that it is important to prepare all students for performance experiences, but particularly new arrivals, who can be so critical of themselves, and so unsure of the validity or ‘right-ness’ of what they perform. I prepare them as much as possible for what the experience will look like (the environment), and what it may feel like (the emotions  and reactions they may experience).

Preparing vocab and the environment

To start with, especially with the youngest students, I give them an understanding of the audience (“the people looking”, or “the mums and dads”, or “the other children and the teachers”). Sometimes we draw faces on the white board (everyone gets to draw faces), so that we can talk about what the faces (ie. the audience) can see, to try and build awareness of how the students should position themselves on stage. We migh also learn the words ‘audience’, and ‘concert’.

Discussing feelings

I find that new arrivals sometimes feel that the feelings they experience are because they are new/foreign/don’t understand/don’t know anything/aren’t good enough. Therefore, I try to discuss how they might feel when they perform their music with people watching them, and that these feelings (of shyness, embarassment, fear… these are the words they volunteer) are normal, and are part of the whole experience.

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I have acquired a cello

… a cello.

Perhaps you will recall in my list of Things To Do once the Masters is finished… learning to play a cello was on that list. That led to me acquiring one through a friend who was going overseas. How serendipitous!

I am yet to have a lesson, but as experienced eyes may note from the photo below, I show excellent natural technique. Note for example the bow-hold – faultless. Hmmm…. after so many years watching MSO musicians explain to workshop participants how to hold the bow, I thought I’d have some idea, but no, it clearly didn’t get absorbed as deeply as it might have done.

What else? Well, I don’t think I have the position of the cello quite right as the bow keeps knocking into my knees when I bow either outer string. That can’t be right. Or perhaps that’s the reason so many cellists sway about a lot when they play. Maybe it’s in order to avoid their knees.

Also, the strings seem to be a fair distance away from the fingerboard. Holding them down is quite hard work. Perhaps there’s a secret to it. Perhaps it has something to do with the way string players seem to have quite a number of fingers all bunched up on the fingerboard in certain positions. They make it look so effortless, of course! (I suspect trying to play the cello will make me appreciate the clarinet a little more).

Anyway, I am having fun trying to do vibrato and tremolos and other such cool sounds. I am tempted to try the ‘icebergs cracking’ sound we used in a project last year, that involves twisting the bow hair against the back of the cello. It sounds horrendous, though is apparently quite safe, but I think I’ll steer clear of it for the time being.

Definitely the next thing I need to acquire is a teacher.


A band comes to visit…

Last Wednesday we had a great music-filled day at the Language School. My friend TTG arranged for his band of young musicians – the Jazz Band from Melbourne Girls College – to come to the Language School to give a concert.

They are a young band – I think they’ve been playing together about a year or so, with a number in the group being relatively new to their instruments, playing alongside some older students who are very skilled. This was a performance opportunity for them, because they have worked up a very slick program over the last year, but also a wonderful chance for the Language School students to have an up-close concert experience.

MGC jazz band

We were treated to classic hits like Tuxedo Junction and Louie Louie. And my favourite for audience participation – Tequila.  We brought out some of the hand percussion that I use in music classes and distributed it among the students. TTG taught them some rhythms and they played along. As the closing number, TTG had also written an arrangement for the band of a song we knew – Kavisha Mazzella’s As I Walk This Country.  Everyone sang their hearts out, and it was a beautiful, moving point of connection.

playing along

Then, at lunchtime, the MGC girls and teachers hung around the playground. Some went off to join various soccer and other ball games. But others got out their instruments, some spare mouthpieces, and some antiseptic wipes (naturally!) and let any of the Language School students who wanted to, have a turn. They formed a long line (I’d like to say orderly, but that doesn’t happen…. lining up takes a lot of practise!) and one by one had a try of the sax, the trombone, or the guitar. The sounds echoed around the surrounding streets.

trying the sax

The sky initially threatened rain, but in the end, it was sunny enough for sunglasses and sunhats! Students from the secondary school came and joined in as well, so it was a whole-school event. I’ll finish this post with a photo of one of the teachers doing the Twist with one of the students – it was a great way for everyone to let their hair down at the end of a very full school year.

dancing teacher, dancing student

It was a such a great day, for everyone involved. And so worthwhile – TTG and I agreed we should do this kind of project again. Of course it is great for students to go and see professional performers – orchestras and the like. But it is also incredibly valuable for them to see people their own age playing and performing. It lets them imagine and see possibilities, and recognise that these start with small steps, and gradual progression. There are many things that make instrument learning inaccessible to many students – finances and family support being two major ones. But sometimes, too, that sense of something being out of reach for you, can be challenged by mind-seeds getting planted and watered, and by the desire being invited, and encouraged. I think this concert would have planted seeds in students’ minds. Many of the Language School teachers also spoke about this with me, at the end of the day.

This week’s flowers

Yellow roses… lovely! I love having flowers in the house. They are beautiful to focus on when I raise my gaze away from my qualitative data analysis books to think for a moment.

They were a gift. Lucky me…


What does this weekend hold? I went to my Italian class this morning – the first Saturday class I have been able to get to all term, and it was lots of fun. The teacher and I chatted about the Shonberg Ensemble’s concert, at which I glimpsed him, across the foyer. He loved the concert too.

Then home to do some clearing up – clearing the way for a weekend of study and data analysis (in case you hadn’t guessed… I don’t read those tomes for fun). But soon this afternoon I shall head off to the wonderful Mr Franzke’s Prahran studio to do some playing for him. He needs some clarinet tones, so I shall happily oblige. Nice to play… it’s for a film project I think.