Archive for the ‘MSO ArtPlay Ensemble’ Category

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.

 

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Growing a musical community – Ten years on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many bright sparky children

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

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

“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.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to arts participation

ArtPlay music workshop (Gillian Howell)This weekend I am leading a series of free workshops at ArtPlay on behalf of ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] for children aged 8-13. The workshops are held at the start of every school year and we always get a pretty strong showing of participants – with 5 workshops across the weekend fully booked, or close to full. Children come with their instruments and take part in a fast-paced 1-hour composing workshop. At the end of the hour we perform the newly composed pieces of music to an audience of their parents and siblings.

The workshops are a fun experience in themselves but they also function as a ‘taster’ session of what is on offer in the year-long MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, and we use them as a kind of audition, enabling us to identify which children most strongly responded to the open-ended, creative and collaborative way that we work. 25 of these children are then offered a place in the year-long program.

Fully-booked workshops means no obvious barriers to participation, presumably? Not necessarily. Every year, we approach this program strongly aware that simply by virtue of it being a music program, it is going to attract the attention of a certain demographic – those whose children are learning to play an instrument, and to a lesser extent, those who regularly participate in creative arts workshops in centers like ArtPlay and who prioritise those experiences, but who may not been involved in learning to play an instrument. In Australia, learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking, rarely offered at primary schools without passing the cost of the lessons and instruments on to the parents.

Every year therefore, I consider the projects I have led in disadvantaged schools and try and identify particular children that I know would thrive in a program like this – children who demonstrate musical talent and vibrant creative imaginations. There are a small number of scholarships (ie. fully-subsidised places in the year-long program) available for children who might not be able to accept an offered place due to financial constraints.

But there are many reasons children may not take part in programs like this and they are not all financial. Children of this age-group generally need a parent or adult to accompany them to the workshop venue and to pick them up, but in some households this is a huge barrier because parents are working, or caring for younger children, or don’t have transport options, or can’t afford public transport… or they may not assume that kind of involvement in their children’s lives and rarely take them anywhere. Similarly, they might make a plan for their child’s travel to and from the venue, but when the workshop day comes, decide they need that child to stay at home that day – there are other things that take priority over the workshop in their family.

There may also be psychological barriers about going to a new, unfamiliar place (for the child and the parent). The venues for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble are all in the city centre – but many families (especially those who are new to Australia, or from refugee backgrounds as are many of the children I work with) may find the idea of going into the city centre quite intimidating and even frightening, as it is unfamiliar, busy, and perhaps unpredictable. Similarly, buildings can be psychologically intimidating places to enter, even if they are ‘public’ spaces. People may instinctively sense that they are “not welcome”, or that this place is “not for their type”, and therefore reluctant to cross the threshold.

As an artist or arts worker in participatory projects like workshops, these barriers can be very tricky to overcome. With the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, we have tried a number of ways to encourage a more diverse group of participants into the program. One year, I identified a talented young Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in Australia, as someone who would benefit from and contribute lots to the Ensemble. She lived quite far from the city so we arranged for her to travel in a taxi to and from the workshop venue each day, in addition to offering the fully-subsidised place. Sometimes an older cousin travelled with her, and by about the 3rd workshop in the year, they had decided that May would travel home on the train by herself. Her cousin had shown her how to get to the station. She also asked me if I could accompany May to the station at the end of the workshop, but I had a meeting with the orchestral management team immediately after the workshop, so they decided that May could go by herself rather than wait.

About 40 minutes into my meeting that afternoon, the receptionist came to find me, to ask me to go to the front desk. May was there, sobbing and sobbing, in quite a state. She had tried to go to the station but had got lost. She’d come back to the workshop venue to find me (the only person she knew) but I couldn’t be located by the security staff because I was in this meeting. May felt overwhelmed by the entire situation (and perhaps by the effort of trying to make herself understood in English) and began to cry. Of course at that point I stayed with her, and travelled home with her, but after that day, she didn’t return to the program. I spoke to her cousin on the phone who told me she didn’t want to come back.

This year, I approached the mother of two very bright children I had been working with at Pelican Primary School. They were siblings, both sang in the choir, and had very natural, instinctive skills on the marimba and other percussion instruments in the school. I described the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program to their mother, who I have chatted to before and know to be very friendly, warm, approachable and keen to support her children in different learning opportunities. The family comes from a refugee background, but has been in Australia for some time and seem pretty well-settled, organised and functional :-). She was very excited to hear about the program and scholarship opportunity and said several times, “Yes, I would support them to do this.”

That was at the end of last year, December 2012. I no longer teach at that school, and so when the school term resumed this week, I got in touch with the school to see if I could get a message to the family to remind them about the workshops this weekend. I had given the mother my phone number and all the information about the program the previous year, but I hoped to give an additional reminder. The school is not legally allowed to give me the family’s contact details, but they first mentioned the music opportunity to the children’s father one day and suggested he or his wife should contact me. He apparently looked at the message-giver rather blankly! So the next day, the principal approached the older of the two children with a note for their mum, asking her to call me about the music opportunity and giving her my number. That was on Thursday. She didn’t call.

My other idea had been to try and get to the school at either drop-off or pick-up time to see if I could catch up with the mum there, but my work schedule didn’t allow that on Friday. In any case, I began to wonder if I was pushing something at them that they didn’t want to do. I thought about all the barriers that that might be stopping mum from calling me (such as no phone credit, or feeling unconfident speaking to me on the phone in English, or not wanting to say ‘No’ outright to me). But I also thought about how I would love for those two children to have the experience of going into ArtPlay, being greeted so warmly by the staff there, meeting the MSO musicians, playing music with me in this different context, feeling the thrill of being in such a beautiful space, purpose-built for art-making and young imaginations… and then after the workshop playing in the playground and feeling excited by what they had achieved and experienced.

Who knows, perhaps she has already registered the children for the workshops this weekend! I’ll find out when I get there I suppose. And if not this year, maybe I will be able to encourage them to come along next year. And if not them, someone else.

Joyful learning and creating

Today I want to share and celebrate some of the joyful musical learning that is a hallmark of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program. Our last  workshop for 2012 took place recently, and as always, the combination of playful exploration, creative invention, links to orchestral repertoire, and carefully-chosen musical challenges revealed just how exciting it can be to be a young beginning musician with a big imagination.

Before you read any further, click ‘play’ on this Soundcloud file, so that you have last week’s creation playing in the background as you read:

(If the embedded file is not working for you, you can start the recording in a new page/tab here).

Let’s look at some of the learning that goes on:

Before the third and final workshop period for 2012, the children had attended 3 different MSO concerts, exposing them to the visual and aural intensity of a large orchestral piece being performed live. For this last project, the focus was on Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and at the concert, I asked the children to pay particular attention to the second movement, a “lopsided waltz” in 5/4.

Learning 1 – Focused, thoughtful listening to unfamiliar music

At the start of the workshop, the children reported on the 5/4 time signature (I’d asked them to work out what meter they thought it was in). They also noticed the structure (“in the middle it was a different melody, and then the first melody came back again”) – ternary form.

We then used these observations in our composing, for example, asking each group to work in 5/4 or to make a “feature of 5” (interpreting that instruction however they wanted, not necessarily in the time signature), and to use ternary form. One young cellist noticed in the concert that Tchaikovsky gave the cellos the melody first, so his small group also opted to give the cellos the melody first, before re-stating it in other instruments.

Composing music makes children stronger and more focused listeners. Their experience in making musical choices gives them insights into what those choices are, and makes them listen out for decisions the composer has made. It becomes a reflexive loop – the more they listen to new music in this way, the more ideas they get for their next composition experience, which feeds into the way they listen, which feeds into the way they compose… and so on.

Learning 2: Taking responsibility for the notes

Each child works out their own part in the composing process. I remind the MSO musicians to not “problem-solve” for the children, rather, to give them parameters from which to make their own choices. The music is memorised rather than written down (yes, the music you are listening was performed by the Ensemble from memory), which means that each children needs to remember their own part – their MSO musician won’t necessarily remember what everyone in the group was playing.

This might seem a risky way of doing it but the fact that the children are actively involved in making their own choices about what to play means that the memorisation process starts immediately the choice is made. If they forget their part, they can always create a new one, I remind them. So it is no great pressure, but it is their responsibility. It means too, that the music is theirs. It is not imposed, or someone else’s idea. They become invested in the music and take ownership of it, and this is reflected in the way that they play it.

Learning 3: Acute ensemble awareness

Freed from reading their part from a score or page, the children’s eyes and ears are wide open. The musical structure progresses through various cues – musical cues and conductor cues – all of which are worked out and learned together. This is the focus of the second workshop day – while the first day of a 2-day project is spent in small groups, composing and inventing, the second day is spent as a whole ensemble, working through each of the small group creations and  drawing them together into one large composition.

The second day is intense and hard work. We go through each piece in detail, finding sections of music that would benefit from having more players join (eg. in order to enhance a dramatic crescendo), and then teach the children in the other groups the part (or get them to create their own according to given parameters). More memorisation, more choices! And lots of sitting quietly and listening.

The benefit is that the children are involved in deciding the inner workings of the music, and play an active role throughout the piece. They observe me and the MSO musicians, and individuals among the children, problem-solve as we figure out the best way to deliver the different cues that we need.

The result is an incredibly focused, tuned-in, alert group of performers who remain inside the music for the whole piece. The intensity of their focus is a characteristic of the Ensemble that is always commented on by audience members. It means that they are sensitive to all sorts of aural and visual cues – including those that take place when something doesn’t quite go according to plan. They learn to trust the cues and the leaders, and to hear from the music where things are up to. It’s a very intuitive ensemble skill.

Learning 4: Personal challenges

The Ensemble attracts a wide range of playing abilities, because we accept members on their personalities and imaginations ahead of their playing ability. Some are therefore almost total beginners, while others are incredibly accomplished. Each Ensemble member establishes their own learning goals – we don’t ask them what these are, but the way they participate in the workshops and respond to set tasks gives some clues. In their end of year feedback, two of the young musicians shared these personal challenges:

“Looking at the audience when I played my solos felt very hard for me.  I didn’t quite overcome this but I got better at it.”

“I learned about listening to others ideas and seeing how these became music.”

“I have learnt many things – to be brave enough to put forward ideas, to trust each other, to have inner creativity, and above all to COUNT BEATS CAREFULLY.”

Learning 5: The importance of fun

This is perhaps more of a significant learning for the adults. The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops happen during school holidays and everyone who takes part does so because they want to be there. I build in as much fun and lightness as I can. Yes, we are involved in a fairly intense and fast-paced process, but it’s vitally important that everyone feels happy at the end of it, satisfied and not too tired! The social relationships that the children build over the year are incredibly important (we know from previous years that these friendships last a long time and that the children often cross paths in other musical projects later in life). ArtPlay is next door to a wonderful modern children’s playground, and many children nominate the time they spend playing outside as another highlight of the project.

Therefore, joy, laughter, playful ways into composing and ensemble music, an emphasis on abilities and what is already known with some new challenges thrown in (as are relevant to the context of the project), are crucial characteristics and components, alongside the children’s musical development. We know that the more enjoyment they experience, the greater their engagement. The greater their engagement, they more they will learn. The more they learn, the more satisfaction they feel. The more satisfaction, the greater the motivation to be part of the next creative project. Which leads to lively, dynamic creative musicians, music-makers and music-lovers. Which is good for all of us in society!

About the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble:

In this annual program, 27 children aged 9-12 work alongside Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians to create and perform their own music. I created the program in 2006 for the MSO and ArtPlay and have directed it ever since – this year’s was my 7th Ensemble! The program’s focus is on children composing, and developing their ideas by hearing the MSO perform in concert. Each workshop period lasts for an intensive 2 days. That means that the music you are listening to was created, rehearsed and performed over just nine hours.

Read here to learn more about how children are selected to be part of the program each year. Workshops for the 2013 Ensemble will take place at ArtPlay on 2-3 February 2013.

Read  here for a description of the Ensemble’s Pines of Rome project, July 2012.

Do you know a young musician aged 9-13 who would like to be part of this program? Forward them this blog post and get them to join my mailing list for workshop updates!