Archive for the ‘Programs’ Category

Building an effective warm-up sequence

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

You can use warm-ups to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding yourself (and the bathrooms) in a new environment

Everyone navigates a new space, adults and children alike. The navigation includes getting to know the physical environment, and negotiating your place within the social setting, working out who you are going to be in this group.

Workshop in Iwaki Auditorium (Gillian Howell)

I remember a group of children coming to ArtPlay for a workshop, in one of the first ever City Beats workshops. We called a five minute break in the middle of the workshop, and some of the children went off to the toilet. Then some more went. And some more. The adults among us were bemused. What’s with all the toilet-visiting? After the break it continued. The Director of ArtPlay got it though – “They’re just checking out the toilets. They are in a new place. Everyone likes to check out the toilets when they are in a new place.”

It’s true! Adults do it too – when a group of friends goes to a new restaurant or bar, it’s not unusual for people to head to the bathrooms in pairs, and part of the interest is in the experience of checking out the space (friends and I used to note which bars or restaurants we visited that had particularly nice bathrooms!). It’s part of getting familiar with the environment, and yourself within it.

We convened the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble last week, spending one day working in the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC Studios, and a second day working at ArtPlay. As they arrived, the children settled into the Green Room. They didn’t know each other yet, and sat quietly. Some read. Some got out their instruments, but if they began to play, it was quietly, unobtrusively.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent the first 90 minutes engaged in warm-up activities. I wanted to get the group talking, interacting, relaxed and alert in their bodies, and with spontaneous and playful reactions, so that their natural creative faculties would come to the fore early in the process.

As we progressed through the warm-up, I watched the children jostle, and joke, take on leadership roles, show initiative, or fall into a required role within the team. With some this happened easily. For others, it was a more puzzling process, as they worked out who they were going to be in this group.

One boy, for example, started the warm-up standing next to another boy with a similar cheeky, ‘joker’ energy as his own. They exaggerated every part of the warm-up together, and when we started a movement task, they continued their exaggerations, egging each other on, and not really engaging in the activity itself. At one point, when the group was split up, working across the whole room, I walked over to them, and suggested, smiling but also firm, that they do this one on their own, not with a friend.

When we broke into small instrument groups for composing, I put them in two different groups, hoping to give them a chance to continue these negotiations of ‘self in society’ on their own. One of the two settled, but the other seemed to continue his navigations and negotiations. He is a very bright, imaginative young player – he stood out a mile in the Open Workshop selection process. He has impressive technical skills on his instrument too. But he needed to work out who he was in this group. Was he a bright bubbly leader, right-hand man to the MSO musician leading the group, happy to cooperate, and filled with ideas? Was he going to be more in the background? Was he going to be the joker, the ‘silly boy’ who fools around a lot and is a bit disruptive (this type of character doesn’t always find the necessary allies in the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble – most of the kids in the program really love to play music and be part of the ensemble)?

No-one could help him figure this out, and I was intrigued by my observations of him. He will find his place, I am sure. He seemed to enjoy himself, and that is the key thing at this point.

 

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!

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

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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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”.

Four rainforests in two days

Last week was a City Beats week, which means two joy-filled, action-packed days of composing with some very imaginative, lively, sparky children. The four schools that are taking part in the 2013 City Beats program came to ArtPlay for their second workshop, this time creating music inspired by rainforests. (Our theme for 2013 is ‘Landscapes’. In the first workshop, back in March, we created Desert Music).

For Rainforests, I wanted to get the children exploring the musical potential of very resonant sounds – things like bowed crotales, heavy Federation Handbells tuned to specific pitches, the tam-tam, a suspended cymbal, as well some smaller instruments like Indian bells, finger cymbals, an energy chime, and a kalimba. I think of these as being ‘wet’ sounds (as opposed to dry, scratchy sounds that very short, squat sound envelopes). In this project I also introduced two pre-composed pieces of material, as a way of locating our rainforest firmly in our own region, the Asia-Pacific. The first was a melody, Rorogwela, recorded in the Solomon Islands in the 1970s. (Go here to read about the melody and how it became well-known around the world in the 1990s thanks to a band called Deep Forest). The second is a version of a Balinese Kecak (monkey-chanting), that I learned through working with the Melbourne-based gamelan group Byar (for more about Byar read here).

We began by sitting quietly in a circle and tapping two fingers against the palm of the hand. “Close your eyes,” I suggested, “and listen to the sound that this makes when all of us do it together.” We closed our eyes and listened. “Can you hear the rain?” I asked. “Can you hear the sound of the rain hitting the big thick green leaves of the rainforest trees?” The children nodded and gave little smiles of recognition, eyes still closed as they tapped their palms and listened intently.

Next, we brainstormed words about rainforests (birds! snakes! rain! trees! coconuts! etc), then listened to an arrangement I’d written of Rorogwela (for my assisting trio of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians, playing trumpet, xylophone and double bass). The children learned to sing the trumpet melody by humming along with it, then we selected words from the brainstorm list, organised them into phrases or sentences with me specifying how many syllables each line of music could accommodate, then we sang through the completed song, accompanied by the MSO players.

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We learned to perform the Kecak (three interlocking rhythms, one bar of 4/4 each – see the rhythms in the photo above, along with the words we used to help us learn and remember the rhythms), performing it with words, with clapping, and with a loud, explosive CHAK! sound. It’s a high-energy activity, exhilirating and exhausting!

Then we broke into small groups to create three more sections of music – a dreamy, floating soundscape that featured many of our highly resonant instruments and bowed metal sounds, and that ended in a ‘dawn chorus’ of bird sounds (courtesy of a collection of whistles I brought along from home); a carefully-crafted gamelan-inspired piece featuring the handbells playing hocketed melodies invented by the children, and featuring the tam-tam and bass drum as structural markers throughout; and a very rhythmic, groove-based piece for xylophones and djembes that included Kecak rhythms and new melodies and rhythms composed by the children, arranged into an instrumental piece.

We recorded all of our music in the last 10 minutes of the 2-hour workshop. Later in the year, the children will return to ArtPlay to paint what they hear in their recordings from each of the City Beats workshops.

I shall close this post with a very beautiful arrangement of Rorogwela by Jan Garbarek. It is a sublime performance – but note that Garbarek called this a Pygmy Lullaby… He got the origins of the music quite wrong, attributing them to Africa rather than the Asia-Pacific region. I think Deep Forest may have had something to do with that. Nevertheless, enjoy this beautiful playing. I will post the recordings created by the City Beats children when they are ready.

“I loved it so much I forgot to eat my chocolate!”

Last week we had the first of this year’s 2-day workshops for the 2013 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. Twenty-seven children aged between 8 and 13 gathered at 10am on Monday morning, and by 3pm Tuesday afternoon we had created our first group composition. Have a listen to our music while you read the rest of the post:

This year’s Ensemble is full of characters (every year’s Ensemble is actually – read here to learn about our selection process), and lots of talent. We spent the first hour of the first day getting the group’s energy up and flowing. I allow quite a lot of time for warm-up games on the first day, because no-one knows anyone else and it is important to get everyone relaxed and bouncing ideas off each other. We played a few old favourites – the Chair Game, a game of strategy and forward-thinking that involves a lot of very rapid switching of chairs; Introductions, which involves memory work and listening; and Shape-Making, which gets people working collaboratively and to time limits.

A group plans their compositionOur music focus was the British composer Thomas Ades, and in particular, his Four Scenes from The Tempest. We used short extracts from the libretto to create four musical scenes of our own, depicting Ariel’s very rhythmic, fast-paced description of the shipwreck, an argument between Ariel and Prospero in which Ariel is denied his request for freedom, a very simple, beautiful interpretation of ‘Full fathom five’ (re-written as Five Fathoms Deep by Ades’ librettist) with eery, shimmering sounds from bowed crotales and submerged bells, and a sweet romantic theme, growing in intensity, depicting the love between Ferdinand and Miranda.

It always interesting to see the mix of children that we meet in the Open Workshops settle into becoming an Ensemble, experimenting, being courageous, and learning from each other. Some older children start the project with a certain amount of shyness or self-consciousness but then blossom into peer leaders. In this project I saw two of the older members of the group, both violinists, take on a task of making up their own bluegrass-style melody with a certain amount of trepidation and shyness. The melody they came up with was infectious, and pretty soon, other violinists were clamoring to learn it. I saw the two older children grow in stature and confidence as they saw the group respond so positively to their music, and they became unofficial leaders of the violin section.

There is always space for children to take up the challenge of improvising a short solo. The points in the music where these solos happen are often only chosen halfway through the second day. In this project, we had two improvised solos – one from a saxophonist who did a wild, savage squawking solo, using all the side keys and trill keys on his instrument and playing as loudly as possible; and one from a flautist who traded short riffs with the MSO cellist who was working on the project. Every person who takes on a solo is modeling this role for the other players, giving them an idea of how this ‘territory’ works.

We have an incredibly strong percussion section in this year’s Ensemble. One of the three boys is particularly interesting. He is intensely musical – ideas just burst out of him constantly – but I wasn’t sure (from the Open Workshop experience) how he’d go working in a group this size, with such long stretches of waiting in silence or standing by. Well, he did just great. I could see it was hard work for him at times, but it is for all the children in different ways, and it was lovely to see how much joy he was getting from being part of the group, and how much he was contributing to the music we were creating. I am so happy to know that we have created an Ensemble where there is a lot of space for the children to simply be themselves. The focus on creating our own work means that everyone’s different skill levels, strengths, personality quirks and interests can be accommodated as the music comes together.

One of the things that the children work out in this first 2-day workshop is that I say ‘Yes’ a lot. When a child says, “Can I play that melody?” or “I’ve had an idea – can I play it like this?” I say “Yes, sure!” By asking questions like this, the children start to learn that this music really is theirs to shape. After a while, they ask less, and just play their ideas, trying them out and seeing how they sound. For some, the speed with which new ideas may be introduced can make things feel quite confusing.  As one boy said, “It’s good, but it’s also a bit weird when you are doing it [making up a piece in a group] for the first time. It takes getting used to.”

My favourite comment from the project was sent to me by one of the children’s mothers. Her daughter told her at the end of the first day, “”I loved it SO much today, that I completely forgot to eat the chocolate in my lunchbox!”

Sounds like a definite vote of confidence to me. I am really looking forward to working with this group of children this year.