Archive for the ‘Teaching Artist pedagogy’ Category

Engaging with Quality at ArtPlay

Last weekend ArtPlay presented and hosted a wonderfully stimulating 2-day event – Engaging with Quality, a ‘learning exchange’ for Teaching Artists (artists who work with young people and communities, often in informal or non-formal contexts) that examined diverse approaches to practice.

ArtPlay and playground

One approach was through demonstration and observation. Another was through hands-on experiences of artist workshops, accompanied by explanation of the thinking behind the approach. The weekend also included group discussions and presentations, including a summary of a potential framework, called ‘The Qualities of Quality” that could inform planning, reflection, and evaluation of projects.

We were invited to present Nests as part of the two-day program. Parents booked tickets for their 3-5 year olds in the usual way, and delegates sat around the edge of the darkened Nests space, and observed the 30 minute ‘immersion experience’ that the young children and their parents have when they explore the Nests and play the instruments that they find.

Following each session there was a discussion with the delegates about what they’d noticed – noticed in the children’s responses, in the parents’ responses, in the musicians’ responses, and in the way the entire environment worked in sympathy (or not) with the participants. We were deeply gratified and moved by people’s responses – we were given so much extremely positive feedback about Nests! It has been a beautiful project to develop, and the three of us in the creative team have felt confident that we have created something very special; nevertheless, it was wonderful to get so much positive feedback, and have all those people’s experiences of Nests reflected back to us.

I also got to take part in other artists’ workshops. It was very difficult to choose which workshops I wanted to do – I opted for a stencil-making workshop with Daniel from Junkyprojects first. This was so much fun. I have long been fascinated by stencil art and print-making, as I love the idea of creating something that is reproducible, and that is accessible art, easily shared. I created my first ever stencil. What to draw? As you can (hopefully) decipher below, I created an image of an alien, peering over the top of a brick wall. I have no idea why this was the image I thought of. But there you go. Figuring out which bits to cut out (“windows”), and which bits would be the “bridges” that made sure the stencil would hold together with all of its detail, was an interestingly abstract mental process. I could feel my brain going into momentary ‘hangs’ and ‘freezes’ as it picked its way through this.

Next I took part in Briony Barr’s ‘Drawing and Undrawing’ workshop. Briony is interested in art that is created by following rules, an interest that is underpinned by her understanding of complexity and systems theories, and the importance to these systems of emergence – those properties that emerge when the rules are being followed by everyone in the space, but according to their own whims and choices.

We worked with coloured electrical tape, and created a wonderfully intricate group work on the floor of ArtPlay’s main space.

The ‘Undrawing’ part of the workshop involved us making another set of works, by ripping up (“undrawing”) the tape from the floor, and using it to create something else. I created a ball, that I then painstakingly sawed in half with a hacksaw. The interior of my ball looked like a beautifully multi-coloured cabbage. Or perhaps a large colourful crystal. It is now sitting on a shelf in my home.

Taking part in other artists’ workshops is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get to engage with their ideas and approaches to practice – which is always inspiring, and gets you thinking about your own processes and choices afresh – you become a learner yourself. You place yourself once again in the hands of someone else, trusting them to guide you, but also aware that you will gain the most from the process by making your own decisions and jumping with both feet into the process, ignoring any lingering reservations you may have. It’s good to feel those moments of vulnerability mixed with anticipation and even excitement – they are a very real part of the workshop experience for many participants.

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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?

Too many bright sparky children

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

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing sounds in the Music Construction Site 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Teaching music for well-being

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

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

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

Scotch College presentation notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best CELS photos Gillian 17 Dec 2012 290

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Evolution of a song

One of the songs created in workshops at Djarindjin-Lombadina Remote Community School evolved slowly, and was the amalgam of three different musical ideas. It took us a couple of sessions to work out how to make it all fit together.

One section was purely instrumental music created by half the group. Playing chime bars, metalophones and violins, I got them working in E minor and inventing melodies by getting rhythmic ideas from favourite songs. The violinists were total beginners (as am I on the violin) so we worked on open strings and established a simple rhythmic accompaniment.

Gillian and violinists at Djarindjin-Lombadina school

Another section of the music was a guitar-driven section that used G major and C major 7 chords. Tony had taught the students how to play E minor and A minor the day before and they were keen to expand on this.

Guitarists, Djarindjin-Lombadina school (G. Howell, Tura New Music 2013)

Together, we added lyrics to this progression and it sounded like a chorus. The lyrics were in the local Bardi-Jaawi language and listed the names of different family members.

Nyami, mimi, goli, garlu,  [grandmother(mother’s side), grandfather (mother’s side), grandmother (father’s side), grandmother (father’s side)]

Budda, tidda, jaji [brother, sister, cousin]

Birigul, gulamor (mother, father]

My lian feels good when I belong in my buru [my heart feels good when I belong in my country]

Lian burr, lian burr [heart place, heart place]

A third section was created by one of the students working with one of the Aboriginal Teaching Assistants. Together they wrote lyrics about belonging to country, feeling the presence of the ancestor spirits, and the sense of strength and belonging that comes when you are in your own land.

Solo singer, Djarindjin-Lombadina school (Gillian Howell, Tura New Music 2013)

Have a listen! One of the short melodies was inspired by Macklemore’s Thrift shop. See if you can spot the connection.

 

Drawing a bit of space into music workshops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating cross-cultural worlds in songwriting

Working creatively within a different cultural environment to your own can be many things – intriguing, inspiring, surprising, and provoking are just a few words that come to mind. As a project leader, you can’t predict all the responses, or the challenges that might arise. I think that’s why I am attracted to these kinds of projects. I like the creative immediacy of thinking on your feet, and being surprised by unexpected turns. This story is about a song that provoked such turns.

In the community school of One Arm Point, the  ‘maps of the heart’ drawn by students on the first day suggested that culture and cultural learning were important parts of the children’s lives. Their maps included particular skills (such as spearing fish, or knowing the local language of the Bardi Jaawi), as well as the lore and laws of the traditional society, which, they explained, were often taught through stories.

Songwriting moments, One Arm Point school (G. Howell)

We loved the song we wrote! It was dramatic, it had flair and punch, and it described a situation that the children spoke about with great eagerness. It felt like it had strong currency for them and therefore for the community. We completed it the day before our concert, and sang through it several times to start committing the lyrics to memory.

When we arrived at the school the next morning, the day of the concert, several concerned faces greeted us. “I sang the song to my mum yesterday, and she said it wasn’t appropriate,” said one of the girls.

“We’re not allowed to sing that song,” others confirmed, looking anxious. “I don’t want to sing it,” another stated emphatically. I got the sense that their song had caused quite a bit of discussion in their homes. “Maybe we can change some of the words,” I suggested, looking at the lyrics on the whiteboard. But the children still looked uncomfortable, so I went to seek further advice.

In remote community schools, there are Aboriginal Teaching Assistants employed as well as teachers. Some of the teachers are also Aboriginal. I asked the principal if there was a community elder among the staff who could advise us on the best thing to do. He directed me towards two women on the teaching staff who came to the music room to see the lyrics of the song. I watched as they read the words, exchanging glances with each other but not saying anything until they had read everything and had time to think.

“Yes… I can see why there are concerns,” said one of the teachers.

“It’s a good song,” said the other. “But it wouldn’t be okay for the children to sing it.”

“Is it possible just to change some words?” I asked.

“No, it would be better to find a new story,” the teacher replied. “Maybe you could use one of the stories from the ‘Our World’ book, because they are already published, so have approval.”
Our World‘Our World’ is a beautiful book, created by the children and Cultural Program teaching staff at One Arm Point. It describes community life at One Arm Point – called Ardiyooloon in the local language – and all the traditional cultural skills and knowledge that the children develop in the Culture Program. Fortunately, I’d bought myself a copy of this book in the local shop the day before. Even more fortunately, it was in the car! I ran to get it, and the teacher-elders looked through it, and suggested one of the stories that we could use as an alternative.

I decided not to get started on writing a new song straight away. This was our concert day, and we’d started it with a very unsettling problem to solve that had distracted the children and disrupted the positive, excited momentum that is an important part of working towards a performance in a short project like this. We began our workshop with one of our familiar warm-up games, aiming to shift the slightly gloomy, deflated cloud that was hanging over lots of people’s heads, then we rehearsed one of our other performance pieces and recorded it.

The elders then returned, with the one of the community’s most senior decision-makers and elders. He too read the song lyrics, then without making comment, looked at the ‘Our World’ book. He turned some pages, discussed with the two teachers, and they then turned to me and said, “This is a good story to base the song on.”

The story they suggested was a different one again, about Kangaroo and Hermit Crab having a race, which Kangaroo is confident he will win. It is very like the Aesop Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, but with a small twist, because Hermit Crab plays a trick on Kangaroo in order to win the race.

This was clearly a safe option! We thanked the elders for their help in solving this challenge, and set about creating the new song. We split into two groups. One group went off with Tony to play guitar (writing lyrics can be a slow and painstaking process and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea), and a small group stayed with me to figure out how to retell this new story in the structure and melody of the original song.

Here’s what we came up with (red words are verse 1, black/blue words are verse 2, and the audio of the song is on the Soundcloud player below):

New song lyrics, conert day, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

I am not going to share the lyrics of the original song. It is not my story to share. This is something that became very clear in our discussions with the children, the elders, and others in the community later on. Stories may be heard, but hearing a story does not mean you are the right person to re-tell that story. The story in our original song was one that the children knew a lot about, but it wasn’t a story for children. It wasn’t appropriate that they should sing about this story, nor was it acceptable for them to sing it in a public concert. Moreover, children are given stories. The stories are passed on to them according to traditions or decisions or community/adult choices that are underpinned by thinking that we, as outsiders to the community, are not party to, and should not make assumptions about.

We performed our new song at the concert that afternoon. It was received extremely well. The children listening recognised the story (and I introduced it as coming from the ‘Our World’ book). We taught the audience our two-part chorus and invited them to sing with us.

Walking back to school after the concert with the music group, I asked one of them if she was happy with the concert. “Yes,” she said. “I liked all of it. And I liked the new song. I think it’s better than the first one we wrote.”

That’s an ideal outcome. I think all the children felt safer with the new lyrics. No-one had seemed uncomfortable with the original song the previous day when we’d composed it. But they were happier to sing the new song. For Tony and I, it was the opposite – we liked the original song better!

We were fortunate to have people in the school who were able to help us solve the problem quickly. It was also significant that we – Tony and I – are attuned to the challenges of working in cross-cultural situations. Like the experience of the burglary in East Timor, we instinctively handed the problem over to the community leaders to solve for us. We knew that we needed their advice and endorsement, and that they had the knowledge and authority to solve this quickly and calmly. There was no anger towards us – people knew we had not tried to provoke discussion about controversial things or inappropriate topics, that these had simply emerged through the openness and trust we had engendered in the workshops. Rather, it was approached as something that needed to be solved, and people stopped what they were doing that morning in order to help us solve it.

Culture is so much more than artefacts or tangible products. It is also about the way things are done. Our original song strayed into the wrong territory, and the community leaders were the right people to guide it back and ensure a positive, welcome outcome for everyone. Had it gone the other way, had we stood our ground and cajoled the children into singing the song that we thought was musically stronger, it would have undermined all sorts of trusts and authority. Firstly, we would have been putting the children in an uncomfortable, even untenable position. They had told us with their voices and their faces that the original song was no longer okay for them. We needed to respect this. And had we gone ahead with a performance of the original song, we would have been undermining, and positioning ourselves beyond or above, the authority of the community and its elders. This could have had far bigger repercussions for ourselves and Tura New Music who run these Remote Residencies each year. We might never have been allowed back!

Intangible culture, like the ways to solve problems, or the knowledge of where a boundary has been crossed, is part of the glue that keeps communities strong. Interestingly, this was a line that came up in our original song! When the structures that support the way that things are done get weakened, many other parts of that culture will also be weakened.

So the most imperative advice for an artist working in these kinds of settings is always “Ask. Don’t assume. And accept the advice and decisions of the elders”.

Maps of the heart

Yesterday was our first day at One Arm Point Remote Community School. We met 7 of the children who are going to be our main music composers for the Tura New Music Remote Residency project here. Everyone arrived at 8am. It’s natural for people to feel a bit shy coming into a workshop for the first time, wondering if they will like it, who else will be there, and what they will be asked to do, so we started with names and ice-breaker games, getting everyone relaxed, spontaneous and playful.

Early on, we learned that everyone was keen to play djembes, so we walked over to the storeroom in another building to collect one each and bring them back to our workshop space. We played rhythms around the circle, noting the inventive approaches that students demonstrated, such as incorporating hand-claps into their patterns.

It’s important to get some of the foundations of rhythm established early on, so we spent a bit of time working with regular cycles of beats, using numbers and subdivisions to focus everyone’s attention and to build unison patterns. This generated a cool rhythm that ended with the word “No!” on the 4th beat of each cycle.

Next we introduced some of the instruments we’d brought with us to share – chime bars (adding to two sets they already have in the school), and wah-wah tubes. People took turns to play these, and we built up another rhythmic pattern, this one anchored with a simple melody on the chime bars and accompanied by guitars. I am pretty sure that this music will end up being in our final concert – it all came together very quickly and smoothly.

Our main task was to decide what kind of themes we wanted to explore in our group compositions. To do this, I asked everyone to create a “map of the heart”. This is a drawing task in which each person draws a detailed ‘map’ (it can be in a heart-shape, or any shape they choose) that depicts all of the things that are most important to them in their life. The most important things take up the most space in the heart-map.

It’s a task that requires gentle facilitation and patience, because often, people aren’t sure how to start drawing their map. But with Tony and I offering questions and suggestions as prompts (“What do you love to do most?”; “Who do you like spending time with?”; “Is there anyone you miss, or think about a lot?”), the maps started to emerge.

I never make anyone share their map with others, or talk about the detail they have included if they don’t want to. Maps of the heart are personal, I reassure the students, and you can choose who you want to share them with. I want them to feel safe to include whatever they want in their maps. I encourage them to draw and use symbols, as well as words. Metaphor can be a powerful way to express something that is important to you that you don’t want to put into words.

As the maps reached completion, common themes across the group were revealed. I wrote some of the main themes on the whiteboard. We then voted for our favourite ideas. People could vote more than once – why not? The aim was to find the main points of resonance for the group, and then build our compositions on these.

What this process revealed was two broad themes – Future Dreams, and Culture, Language, & Country – into which all of the main Map Themes could be incorporated. If you look at the red and green arrows in the image below, you can see how this started to happen.

Theme brainstorm, One Arm Point

Our morning workshop included one further creative task. The tubs of instruments brought over to the workshop space by the teacher in charge included several recorders – a treble and 4 descants. We also had a set of 4 guitars. In the last part of the workshop, we divided into 2 groups – a guitar-learning group and a recorder-learning group. Tony took the guitarists outside to learn a couple of good ‘beginner’ chords (we like E minor), while I stayed inside to give a beginner recorder lesson. The students chose which instrument they wanted to play.

We spent about 40 minutes developing some initial skills and knowledge in the group, then got together to see what we had. And what do you know? The descant recorder notes fitted well with the first of the guitar chords, and the treble recorder notes (a fifth below, using the same fingerings) worked beautifully with the second of the guitar chords. So we jammed together awhile, getting used to the pattern of playing four repetitions, then stopping for four while the other group played, then playing again for four, then stopping for four. And so on.

Again, we have the foundations of a group composition here already.

It was a very productive and organically-flowing morning workshop. We talked to the students about the goal of presenting our music in a community concert on Wednesday afternoon. “But Gillian, what will happen if we’re not ready by Wednesday?” asked one of the younger girls as she left. “We’ll be ready,” I reassured her. “It seems a lot – and it is – but we’ll be ready. Don’t worry about that!”

The 2013 Tura New Music Remote Residency program will be at One Arm Point Remote Community School until Wednesday 26 June, thanks to sponsorship from Healthway SmokeFree WA, and Horizon Power.