Archive for the ‘City Beats’ 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?

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.

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.

DSC_0027

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.

Desert Music in City Beats

In City Beats this week we created music about The Desert. Four groups from four schools came to ArtPlay over two days, and each group created four sections of music – a song, a melody, a soundscape and a rhythmic groove. At the end of the workshop we discussed how to structure and order the four sections of music, and finished with a recorded performance of the whole piece.

City Beats, ArtPlayThis was our first City Beats project for the year, so we will see the children and their teachers 3 more times across 2013. I see the first workshop as a time for all of us to get to know each other, and for the children and teachers to get a sense of what they will be doing each time they come to ArtPlay for City Beats.  We started the session with introductions, with the MSO musicians introducing ourselves and demonstrating our instruments. Then we did a quick rhythmic warm-up, including a name game in which everyone had to say their name in turn (thus demonstrating to the groups that their voices and contributions mattered), and a fast-clap-around-the-circle, which quickened the group’s responses and got them relaxed and laughing.

Then we brainstormed ideas about the desert (things you might see, hear or find there) and divided into smaller groups to start the composing process. I took charge on the songwriting groups.

Lyrics, Dandenong PS. City Beats 2013There were many memorable and special moments across the two days of workshops. I loved seeing the way the children I worked with took charge of things. In the first group, we made the mistake of setting the pitch of our song much too low for the children’s voices. I waited to see how they might solve the problem. One girl started to sing the song a fifth up – it sounded cool! – then said to me, “We need to change it because it doesn’t… feel -” she hesitated to find the words, so I said, “Because it’s too low? To  make it higher?” “Yes,” she said emphatically. “It needs to be higher.” I got her to sing it on her own, matched her chosen pitches on the clarinet, and we found we had a much more effective melody than the one we’d started with.

I asked a girl in one of my groups to hold my clarinet for me while I wrote lyrics on the whiteboard. “You just have to be careful of the very top of it,” I assured her. “That’s the only bit than can break easily.” She took it from me carefully. As I wrote I could hear the other children in the group whispering to her, “You’re so lucky you get to hold it!” “Can I have a turn?”  I imagined them leaning toward the clarinet to have a closer look. I wondered if the little girl would be warning them off, or examining it for herself. I didn’t turn around to look. When I’d finished writing, I turned to her and she passed the clarinet back to me, holding it at exactly the angle it had been at when I’d passed it to her. I felt truly touched at the care she’d taken. “Thank you for looking after my instrument so carefully and so beautifully,” I told her.

Some children sought out possible rhymes for their lyrics. A good rhyme can make a song catchier and easier to remember, but a forced rhyme can feel very cumbersome and awkward, so I don’t tend to put too much emphasis on rhyming in a fast-paced songwriting session. However, these children initiated the idea. In one song, we had the lyrics:

Rattle, rattle, rattle, the rattlesnake goes

Swish, swish swish the wind blows the palm trees.

One of the group said suddenly, “Can we cross out these words?”, pointing to “the palm trees”. “Sure,” I said, but then realised why – it was so that the line would end with “blows”, in order for it to rhyme with “goes” in the previous line. I hadn’t noticed that possibility. Once we had the shorter line, we realised it needed an extra word to make it scan properly. It was easy to add an adjective at that point.

Lyrics, Dandenong North PS, City Beats 2013

I love the set-up of the verses of the song above – I think the idea of having a ‘sound’ word repeated three times as a way of introducing a feature of the desert is a very 10-year-old approach – and therefore highly appropriate – to lyric-writing! They tried some others – “walk walk walk, the camel goes”, but they weren’t as convincing. If they’d said ‘spit’ or ‘bump’ I may have been persuaded :-).

One of the groups came from an English Language School (an intensive English language-focused school for children who are newly-arrived in Australia; students can spend 6-12 months at language school before transitioning to mainstream school). Their desert song was the only one that featured Australian desert animals like dingos and kangaroos.

Lyrics, NPELS, City Beats

The City Beats ‘Desert’ workshop structure felt very effective and time-efficient – I think I may use it as a template for the remaining City Beats workshops. Dividing into 4 small groups gives us a range of musical responses that can be ordered and combined, and it means that over the course of the year, the children will gain skills and confidence in different group-composing approaches.

City Beats – kids making music in the city

Yesterday and today were the last days of the 2012 City Beats program, and all the children from the four disadvantaged schools we’ve worked with this year returned to ArtPlay to compose a final work with me and three Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians. In this year’s program we’ve been using the four classical elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air) to inspire our percussion and vocal compositions.

In each project, I’ve introduced the children to a particular technique for developing original material, and particular instruments that suit the character of the element we are focusing on. We started with Earth in Term 1, and worked with very grounded grooves and riffs, using djembes and xylophones. In Term 2, we shifted the focus to Water, and the children explored very resonant instruments, such as orchestral chimes and tam-tams. We also experimented with water as a percussion instrument, pouring, slapping, splashing, and striking metal instruments like bells before submerging them slowly into water and hearing the pitch change.

For Air, we introduced the children to harmonic whirlies, and wrote songs inspired by their stories of experiencing the air around them. Here is a clip of one such song – this song is a real ear-worm! But don’t let that put you off – press ‘play’ and listen as you read the rest of this article! The melody was created by listening for any fragments of tone patterns that emerged when several children played whirlies at the same time. You can also hear their 8-beat vocal patterns in the introduction.

(Go here to hear other songs created using this process).

In this week’s Fire workshop, we created short stories about ‘fire’ and decided collaboratively what should happen in the beginning, the middle and the end of the narrative. The children then divided into 3 groups, and created a short riff, basing it on a sentence or phrase that summarised their part of the story. They then arranged these riffs into short pieces. We performed these compositions to each other, and then finished the 2-hour workshop with a spontaneous jam, bring back material from the 3 previous workshops.

The beauty of the City Beats program is that the children come back every term, and we get to develop very solid relationships with them. We observe some beautiful learning journeys through the year – such as one girl, who in the first workshop was so self-conscious and resistant that she wouldn’t even say her own name during the warm-up activities. In today’s workshop she was a different person, completely relaxed, enthusiastic, contributing ideas, playing a range of instruments, and just having a great time. All the groups display a wonderful ease with creating their own music now, and are far more aware of the others in the group, many of them locking into grooves and harmonies with little assistance.

City Beats is a program for disadvantaged and under-served schools where the children are unlikely to be able to access any extra-curricular music opportunities. We hope that it serves as a starting point or a pathway for those children who want to do more music – bringing them into the city (for many this is a rarity in itself), introducing them to ArtPlay, to me, and to the MSO, and giving them confidence in their musical skills. We tell them about other workshop opportunities or scholarships that are coming up, and hope that the City Beats experience encourages them to take the next step.

Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.

More thoughts on teaching the ‘pitch’ concept

I find that for many of my students, pitch is the most intangible, hard-to-grasp concept of all the musical elements. I’ve experimented a lot with different ways to help children make sense of it and to get greater satisfaction from working with pitched instruments. Rhythmically the students are usually very strong, but I think that multiple pitches (indeed, multiple sounds) are often very chaotic for them.

Last week, leading workshops for the City Beats program, I worked with students from four different schools. I found it interesting that students from 3 of the 4 schools used the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ to talk about the difference between different string instruments (eg. violin is smaller than double bass and therefore makes a higher sound). The much more culturally-diverse group of the 4th school were more hesitant and unsure about the language to describe those same differences, instead using ‘loud’ or ‘big’ and ‘soft’ or ‘small’. Work I’ve done previously with musical contour has not transferred across to understanding how to find the higher and lower notes on tuned percussion. It’s as if the concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ don’t translate into musical concepts in some cultures and languages. That’s my suspicion; it is based on my own observations. Continue reading

‘Tis the season for… performances

I’ve just today come to the end of a six-week period of “creative project” performance outcomes, which was a pretty intense experience, but one that got me thinking about performances, projects and children – why we perform, who it is for, and what this tells us about the project.

Firstly, this was the period in which the year-long City Beats percussion composition projects drew to a close. A team of myself plus two musicians travelled to each of the schools, and the children performed the music they’d composed with us to an audience made up of their fellow students, their teachers, and on some occasions, their parents.

The performance outcomes for City Beats were an addition to the original program, and it changed the project focus. It meant that the children’s fourth and final visit to ArtPlay was spent revisiting all the music they’d composed – relearning and re-memorising it, essentially. For one group, made up of children from grades 3-6, their workshop was on a hot Thursday afternoon. They arrived at ArtPlay already quite hot and tired (some had already been swimming in the morning), and while they were all geared up to play some music, the last thing some of them felt like doing was applying themselves to the task of relearning and memorising music that was over and done with, in their minds.

“Is this the right thing to be doing?” I wondered to myself as I determinedly kept us on task, working our way through the music, and repeating sections until they were understood. “What they really want to be doing today is just hanging out and jamming.”

This group is already very free creatively – perhaps for them, jamming and making things up as they go along is already a strength and a preferred way of learning and working. Perhaps the discipline of working on one piece until it is “performance ready” is one that they resist. Repeating things feels counter-intuitive… the capacity to ‘delay gratification’ is one that doesn’t come easily.

Were there other reasons for the City Beats performances, other than celebrating the children’s achievements over the year and sharing them with their own school community? For the children from the bushfire-affected community, there were additional important benefits that the teachers shared with us over a post-performance cup of tea.

“For our children, the fires are their most recent big memory. They don’t remember much of their lives from before the day of the fires – it’s painful to do so. One of the things we are very focused on doing for the children at our school is helping them create new, good memories. This project, and this performance in particular, is one of these. They will remember the music, they’ll remember working with you and all the musicians, and they’ll remember this day when you came to their school and performed their music with them.”

Another project that took place recently was AccessFest, a festival of music performed by people with disabilities and professional musicians, held in Armidale New South Wales. AccessFest was a series of creative music workshops that culminated in a performance. Again, I felt concerned at times that the performance outcome could put undue pressure on the participants, and worked hard to ensure a playful and spontaneous approach in the workshops, allowing for unexpected things to take place within the workshop flow. This carried over into the performance as well.

The AccessFest performance was a chance for the participants to be in the limelight, to be applauded and have their work appreciated. But it was also a chance for their carers and families – whose lives are often very stressful, dealing with the challenges that disabilities can bring – to observe their loved one in a new environment, where different strengths would shine through, or aspects of their personalities or quirks or obsessions become integral parts of the performance. All the performers dressed up in their smartest, most colourful clothes for the performance. There was jewellery, make-up, and flash outfits – this was an event! There would have been many special memories for people to savour at the end of this performance.

Every project needs an outcome of some kind, a way to put a line under the work and declare that point in the process complete. It needn’t be a performance outcome (recorded outcomes in projects or informal ‘sharings’ are also effective). It’s a way of bringing all the creative energy together, channelling and focusing it into one ‘event’ that allows you to draw the project to a close.

City Beats, part three

Last week saw the third instalment of the MSO/ArtPlay ‘City Beats’ program – two days of workshops with students from four different schools. Working with them over the course of the year is giving us lovely insights into the way they are getting comfortable with the musical processes we’re using, and with the MSO musicians (me in particular, as I am the common link between each of their visits to ArtPlay).

In their first visit, we created three-part stories and devised three musical narratives (movements) to depict these stories. In their second visit, we expanded one of the movements into a whole-ensemble piece.

In this third visit, we needed to create whole-ensemble arrangements for the other two movements they’d created back in April. Our first group arrived on Tuesday morning, bounding into the light-filled ArtPlay space. Several came up and hugged me to say hello (in fact, I got hugs from people in each group across the two days – nice!).

With each of the groups we started with a brief warm-up and then watched video footage from the first workshops, focusing on the musical material we needed to arrange that day. I reminded them of the stories they’d created. Then we arranged our chairs in a circle and got started.

These were very directed workshops – the musical material had already been composed, and so our focus was on arranging and perhaps embellishing. This direction notwithstanding, we still came up with some unexpected new material.

For example, these song lyrics (from the group whose story was about going into the city and getting caught in a terrible storm):

Happy to be together

After the storm

Everyone’s safe, let’s celebrate

Good grief it’s excellent! (Ow!)

The ‘Ow’ is Michael Jackson-style. ‘Good Grief’ was an unexpected offer – I don’t think I’ve ever written a song with that expression in it before!

I loved seeing how much the group from the bushfire-affected school has blossomed over the year. They were careful and thoughtful in their first couple of visits, but this time there was a delightful sense of confidence and playfulness in their approach to the workshop. Also a sense of the possibility of mastery – one boy, for example, asked if he could play the thumb piano (kalimba) again, and added, “Last time, one of the others had a different one that had a card that told you what all the notes were.”

“That’s right – I think we’ve got that one here,” I said, and found it for him. He sat down with the xylophone group and was from then on completely absorbed by his new instrument, working out all the melodies note by note, and finding substitutes for the pitches that were missing on his instrument.

One of the groups comes from the outer western suburbs, and each time they come along, I am struck by two things – how tall they all are(!) and how naturally they groove together. There is a lot of innate musicality in this group – the music tends to sit together really well, without a great deal of ‘containing’ from me. We created two new sections of music with them. I particularly enjoyed our musical depiction of the words Flat. Gravel. Slower travel, with lots of dry, scratching, scraping sounds from a range of percussion instruments.

Our fourth group comes from the outer southern suburbs, and created the story about the Beatbusters. For this visit, they brought along three guitars, and we created a delightful little piece to open the narrative with, that placed one simple riff on the xylophones and accompanied it with a progression of four chords on the guitars. It was one of the charmed pieces of music – so simple, and yet so poignant and effective. Could’ve played it all day. Ah!

From small groups and stories to large-scale ensemble

This week saw the second instalment of the City Beats project, a music program from students from schools with high levels of ESL and financial disadvantage. I’ve been working with four different groups of students aged 8 to 12, from four different schools. In their first visit, they wrote a short, three-part story and composed music to depict those stories, organised into three sections (you can read about that first set of projects here). This week’s visit was their second to the City Beats project, and the focus was now on building up their compositions for percussion instruments, section by section, into whole-ensemble pieces, with strong structural coherence and a student-composed part for each child.

It was an intense and noisy couple of days! I realised at the end of the first day that we were asking them to do something far more challenging than we had the first time round.  No more break-out groups. Fewer opportunities for lots of individual attention. Instead, the focus was on arranging, and working together as a large ensemble of players, learning your part,  only playing when you need to, and so on. Sure, there was still room for surprises and further creative additions to the music, and some new ideas and developments definitely came forward. But mostly, this second workshop was about being part of a group, and playing your part.

Some of the groups found this pretty challenging. This is an exciting project for them, and they come in ready to PLAY! The process sounded confusing to them when I first explained it, I suspect. They needed to experience just how we would put the pieces together in order to understand the process. And the process works. By the end of each session, we had completed a five-minute arrangement of one of their compositions, some with quite complex structures and section transitions, in which everyone had an instrument and a part to play.

It was particularly satisfying seeing the students start to ‘get it’. One grade 5 boy caught my attention in the final workshop of the two days. He hadn’t seemed that engaged, and, along with his group of friends, had to be reminded to stay on task. However, by the end of the workshop, as we started to put all the layers of music together, his demeanour completely changed. Suddenly, he could make sense of what we were planning to do with all this music, all these riffs. He understood how it all fitted together now. From then on, he was the first to respond when I raised my hand for quiet. He gestured sternly to people in his section when they started playing their part at the wrong time. He kept his eyes glued to me – absolutely glued. A transformation of understanding and meaning had taken place for him in the two hours we worked together.

There were others like him, in each group. And at the end of their two hours, despite having worked incredibly hard, and with considerable focus required of them, the buzz from the groups was that they didn’t want to leave! I imagine that, when we see them again in Term 3, ready to arrange another section of music from their Term 1 compositions, they will have a much clearer understanding of the creative and collaborative process that we’re using.