Archive for the ‘Training musicians’ Category

The Paraiyers’ drums

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Another part of the Sri Lanka Norway Music Cooperation is the ‘village level performance’ program. Village-level performances give village elders that are custodians of rare and endangered folk forms (music, dance and theatre) support to put on a performance of their traditional work. Support can include funds to purchase instruments, for artist rehearsal time, to prepare costumes and props, and travel costs. This year, one of the village-level performances was in the Eastern province near the city of Batticaloa, and involved musician elders from four different villages.

The model that was used this year was particularly interesting. The musicians were all performers of the Parai drum tradition, which has for a long time been regarded as the instrument of the low-caste Paraiyers (see here for an interesting history of the Paraiyers). Because of this, members of the Paraiyer caste often reject this musical tradition, seeing the drum and its rhythms as markers of lowly status, and indeed, a marker of membership of that caste. Yet the musicians involved in this year’s village-level festival are adamant that the traditions and instruments should be preserved, and they have continued to play for rituals (usually funerals) despite the dismissive and often hostile responses from others in their community.

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Therefore, building up the status and importance of the parai drum, and recognizing the work of the elder musicians in preserving it was one objective of the village-level festival. The next objective was to increase knowledge of the drum and its rhythms among young students of Tamil music. The Swami Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies (SVIAS) at Eastern University was a co-presenter of the village-level festival, and arranged for the elder-musicians to rehearse at the university each day in the weeks leading up to the performance. Students and lecturers of Tamil drum and dance worked with them closely, studying the artform. They worked outdoors, under big trees with a circle of benches surrounding the rehearsal space.

Bringing it into the University was a new initiative for the Music Cooperation, but it served two purposes – of helping to preserve and celebrate the knowledge of the elder musicians by training the next generation of performers, and of sidestepping the hostility towards the Parai drum within the musicians’ own communities.

I was able to observe two days of rehearsals during my research trip to Batticaloa two weeks ago, and these photos are from that visit. I saw a fascinating level of exchange taking place between the elders, the students, and the lecturers. Sometimes it was hard to see who was the authority, or the director of the project. One of the students explained it to me this way:

The elders are the experts in how to play this drum. They know all the rhythms and techniques and forms, and the students are eager to learn this from them. However, they have only performed for village rituals up until now, and they are not experienced in creating a performance for the public. So the students and the lecturers are contributing those ideas.

It reminded me that finding the balance between support and instruction, agency and collaboration, the authority of knowledge and the authority of institutions, and when to be expert and when to step back and give space for the content to emerge and evolve, is complex, messy, and somewhat infinite and imperfect pursuit. This project was tackling these challenges in what seemed to me to be courageous and thoughtful ways. I’m sure they all learned a great deal, and for me, it was an intriguing and thought-provoking process to observe.

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Wrapping up Community Music Leadership for 2015

In second semester each year I teach a 13-week Community Music Leadership course as part of Melbourne Polytechnic’s Bachelor of Music degree course. As part of their assessment for this subject, each student organizes to spend a minimum of 12 hours in a community music project, where their main goal is to observe an experienced music leader in action (rather than assuming a leadership role themselves). They are required to blog about these experiences, and the last class of the semester is run as a discussion forum, where everyone can share their reflections on what they have learned through the placement process and course content across the 13 weeks.

A student-led workshop exploring 'haptics' - a way of communicating musical ideas to deaf-blind musicians

A student-led workshop exploring ‘haptics’ – a way of communicating musical ideas to deaf-blind musicians

With 28 students in the class, there were too many people to accommodate a short presentation from each individual about their placement experiences, so instead we focus on small group sharing and reflection, followed by group presentations to the rest of the class. We had this final class on Thursday and it led to some lively discussion. Here’s a summary of some highlights:

Acceptance and non-judgment

A group of 5 students that did their placements in settings where the main participant groups had particular vulnerabilities/care requirements spoke very openly about how confronting and challenging some of their experiences had been, particularly during their first visits. They were working in settings such as juvenile justice detention, an immigration detention centre, a drop-in community centre for homeless and mentally-ill people, and a school for autistic children/youth.

A main learning that they described was the importance of acceptance as a central ethic and value. One described how, while he knew that some of the young people in his placement site had committed very serous crimes, he realized that he didn’t need or want to know who had done what. Instead, his role as a musician and music facilitator was to accept everyone in the group as fellow human beings, sharing a common interest in music. Another suggested that, on face value, some of the people he interacted with in his placement looked like people he might have wanted to avoid if he passed them in the street somewhere. He learned how quickly those preconceived ideas would block any genuine connection he could make with the music participants, that he needed to discard those notions of ‘knowing’ people and come to the experience in an open, warm, and accepting way.

This is the hospitality that is inherent in community music – what Community Music Victoria trainers call the “active welcome” that intends to draw people into the group, to feel welcome, valued, appreciated, and free to be themselves, without fear of judgment or not being “enough”.

Excellence

A dilemma that caused some frustration for one group revolved around ideas of “excellence”. The students in this group had all completed their placement hours with the same community orchestra – not a symphony orchestra but a very lively, informal group that plays mostly Balkan and East European music. Their frustrations revolved around a sense of passivity they perceived among the group members, and an apparent casualness about musical attainment and mastery. They felt that more effort could have been made in this group (by the leader? by the students themselves?) to achieve a higher standard of performance (they observed that the group members didn’t necessarily use the resources that were prepared for them to help in their at-home practice and learning; also that the group was working towards a very ambitious concert program that allowed little time to be spent going over musical details). Underlying their frustrations seemed to be a plaintive cry of “Why don’t they want to play better? Why isn’t that a priority for everyone here?”

Their arguments for a greater focus on mastery/attainment/excellence centred around the idea that a sense of ownership towards the group and its music could be achieved through participants being invested in their own progress and gradual mastery… they were less aware of the fact that for some members of the group, the pressure of having to ‘master’ their instrument or the music can detract from their enjoyment of the experience.

Their grappling with this highlighted the way that ‘excellence’ in community music activities often does not refer to musical excellence alone. It is also about excellence of experience, about quality of relationships, and about being able to set and influence the agenda of a group in collaborative ways.

Values

A third point of discussion was of the importance of identifying and articulating your values, so that these will form the foundation of everything that you do, and can also be used as a central point of reference in decisions about programs, directions, priorities, etc. The student that raised this as a key learning for her had spent sometime working closely with the administrative staff of Community Music Victoria, and CMVic’s values are certainly front and centre of everything they do, as their website attests.

Inclusion and exclusion

Students also debated the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy quite vigorously. They considered the paradox of “inclusive” projects where particular groups who might be typically marginalized from the mainstream are targeted for participation – does this then exclude the mainstream? They also observed the way that ‘opt-in/out’ projects (where participants decide for themselves the extent of their participation, interacting and participating according to their own interests and comfort levels) create space for people to exclude themselves – and does this therefore mean they are less inclusive than they intend? Can you be actively and deliberately inclusive without excluding some? In other words, are they essentially two sides of the same coin, and one cannot be present without the other?

We didn’t finish the student forum with any conclusions, more just a strong sense of the unresolvable nature of many of these questions. In community music there may not be any truly hard and fast rules of what to do and what not to do. Rather, the facilitator’s willingness to remember that “it depends”, and to remain alert to the subtle shifts and nuances within every group, adapting and adjusting in response to what they read and observe, is what determines their actions, choices, and leadership throughout the workshop and the project.

My hope with the Community Music Leadership course is that the students – most of whom are in the final semester of their music degrees – will recognize community music leadership as a viable and (hopefully) artistically-satisfying and inspiring part of the portfolio careers that many of them will go on to build. They were a good bunch of students (they always are), and I finished the semester reflecting on how satisfying it is to teach a subject that I feel so passionate about to a generally personable, curious and open-minded group of very versatile and talented musicians.

Participatory performance in classical music

How does the post-modern world’s culture of participation and interaction transfer to the world of orchestral music? In recent training workshops I led with one of Australia’s symphony orchestras, we examined the concept of the fourth wall in order to prepare the ground for developing more flexible, interactive, connecting performances.

The ‘fourth wall’ is the invisible wall between artists and audiences, creating a sense of a separate world in which the performance exists. It is created by way the environment is organised – audience seating, the lay-out of the performance space, and presence (or not) of a stage – and the performance style – including the amount of interaction between performers and audience (such as speaking, introducing, eye contact, smiles, etc), the performance dress, and even the behaviour of performers and venue staff. In orchestral concerts, we can see how every aspect of the performance environment and style communicates that the music is the focus.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Such an intensely formal and distancing approach to performance can jar or distract when transferred to community contexts. In community performances, the music is not the only focus. It is the musicians and the music, and the people who are there, and the relationships that form when music is the medium and the reason everyone is there in that space at that time. Of course, the music is the primary attraction for the audience (they probably wouldn’t be there without it), but they are also attracted by the opportunity for proximity, or intimacy, or insights, or the chance to feed an interest and learn new things, or to access something different in their local environment.

Many musicians have told me that interactive performances and workshops feel less important for them as performers than main-stage concert hall performances. The music may be less technically or intellectually demanding. A less formal environment can imply that the qualities of musical performance matter less. Audience interest in the person behind the instrument in some way undermines the importance of the music for the performer. These are important challenges to overcome if the inherent value and quality of what you do is one of the primary ways you derive satisfaction from your work.

Thomas Turino’s distinction between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’ performance approaches is useful to consider at this point. In his book Music as Social Life, Turino suggests performances should be understood as existing on a spectrum between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’. Orchestral concerts – indeed, most concerts – typically fit into a ‘presentational’ approach to performing. ‘Participatory’ approaches are more interactive. The following table sets out some of the primary characteristics:

Presentational Participatory
Clearly-defined artist-audience distinction No distinction – all are participating or are potential participants
Highly skilled group, and assumption that audience does not share similar skills and is not supposed to join in Core group of skilled leaders, but inclusion of wide range of abilities. People participate without judgement
Artist skill and ability determines performance content Inclusion of all abilities can constrain what may take place musically
The music has a set form, which the artists know and work to. Notation and the through-composed nature of the work allows for increased musical complexity. Music is often cyclic or repeated as many times as suits the group. Reliance on memory and direction from within the group rather than notation limits musical complexity.

Turino also argues that the two approaches to performance are so different, they should be considered on their own merits and according to their own values, rather than compared to each other. Therefore, a key step in developing more interactive, or responsive performance formats is one of adjusting mindset and understanding the different values that support these different approaches to performance. Participatory performance is not ‘lesser’ than presentational performance. It is a different approach to performance entirely (even if the musical content remains the same).

There are clear trade-offs that take place when developing a participatory approach to performance. The presentational model allows for lots of predictability, little improvisation, and little risk. The participatory model is more unpredictable, more improvised (although with an overall intention and framework about how the participation will be managed), and riskier.

In other words, by increasing participation and participant-led content, you deepen audience engagement with the music and musicians; however, there will be a corresponding increase in unpredictability (in terms of musical outcomes) that you will want to manage, and an increase in constraints on what can take place musically.

A ‘participatory’ model of musical performance suggests music is more of an activity than an autonomous thing. The way that participatory music practice is enacted implies a belief that musical participation is something that everyone can do (therefore a human behaviour, rather than a special talent), and that participation is an entitlement, or a right. This suggests a belief in the importance of music participation to individual (and collective) thriving and flourishing. Translated into performance contexts, this belief necessitates a level of reflexivity, so that the performance work evolves in response to the participants as they are on that particular day. The emphasis on people and experiences means that process is often as important as the finished ‘product’, even more important sometimes.

Why is it useful to unpack and discuss the values that underpin performance traditions? It’s important for musicians to feel good about the work they do in community settings. If they don’t, they will be less inclined to initiate or take part in these performances, and our communities will be far poorer as a result! Furthermore, many orchestras and classical music organisations are under pressure from funding bodies to engage more directly and meaningfully with communities – that means being responsive to what communities would like from them. Putting on a free concert in your normal venue then shrugging and saying, “well, we’ve done our bit” doesn’t really cut it any more.

Examination of underpinning values helps performers to position the meaning of the work in a larger social context. Armed with this understanding, and of the different elements that make up a perception of a ‘fourth wall’, performers can begin considering and playing with these, making them less rigid or less distinct. In this way, performances become an invitation to connect and share in something in which everyone has a stake.

The values of improvisation

“ I don’t improvise,” the musician told me, the lightness of his tone belying the tension I sensed he was feeling. “Most of us here don’t improvise. It’s the opposite of what we do in this job.”

That’s okay, I thought. We don’t need to call it improvising. We’ll just make stuff up.

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

This interaction came on the first day of a 2-day training project I ran for a symphony orchestra recently, aimed at encouraging the musicians towards performances that moved beyond standard concert formats into more interactive, informal, and responsive models, such as those that are appropriate in many community contexts. I describe it as flexible musicianship, and it involves breaking down the intentions behind a performance, and exploring processes like workshopping, teamwork and collaborative decision-making, composing, and yes, the i-word, improvising.

Why does improvising create such tension for a lot of orchestral musicians? As this man said, and as others have pointed out in many training sessions before this one, improvising is pretty much the complete opposite of what a professional orchestral musician is asked to do musically in his or her daily job. Orchestral rehearsal and performance are about honouring the intentions of the composer whose music sits on the music stand in front of you. The group of 50+ musicians all make that commitment. They place their trust in a conductor whose interpretation of the score will determine the nuances of the performance, and their job is to perform their part accurately, honouring the vision of the conductor and the composer, ahead of their own personal preferences or choices.

By contrast, improvising is all about personal preferences and choice. Of course there are stylistic ‘rules’ or parameters that govern the choices that you may make in any particular context, but there is a trust in the moment and in the work you have done to prepare beforehand. Something that comes out slightly differently to what you’d intended is not necessarily a mistake; it can also be a new path, opening up a serendipitous set of possibilities. This is quite a different mindset to playing and performing in an orchestral context.

What the conversation about improvisation reveals is the way that our musical enculturation establishes within us a set of values and beliefs about music-making. These values and beliefs determine what makes sense and feels comfortable to us.

Orchestral music – performance, and the training that prepares musicians for this work – is underpinned by values such as precision, virtuosity, and accuracy (e.g. there are right and wrong ways of playing this music); expertise; and clear communication of hierarchies (leaders need to act with authority so that players can relax and feel they are in good hands – more a benevolent dictatorship than a collaboration). When the intention is one of honouring the music as a thing that exists autonomously, the finished ‘product’ is the focus, rather than the process or experience of getting to that end goal.

When my non-improvising musician talks about ‘not improvising’, he is revealing his musical enculturation in two ways. One is the discomfort of working musically in a more open-ended or less predictable environment. This jars with the expectation of predictability, and his perceived responsibility for accuracy and ‘correct’ realisation of the music. The other is about the way those values are loaded into a word like ‘improvisation’. In a musical world where music is presented to others, rather than a platform for participation, ‘improvising’ refers to a different musical expertise – that which is developed by a musician who has studied in depth the techniques and language of musical styles that are not dependent on notation. It takes years of dedicated, focused, painstaking work to develop that language in order to improvise with fluency. I can see why he wants to say from the outset that he doesn’t “improvise”.

Therefore, I don’t use the word ‘improvise’ in these contexts, at least, not at the start. It invokes too much immediate resistance and fear. In reality, the improvising you do in a workshopping situation or participatory performance environment, is more about creative thinking, responding spontaneously ‘in the moment’, and seeing your musicianship as a kind of arsenal of possibilities that can be applied in any number of situations, rather than only when particular parameters are in place. We can all do this – extremely specialised and detailed training cannot help but establish this kind of skill base – but we may need to learn to dismantle some of the preconditions our musical enculturation has attached to those skills.

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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Being “not very good”

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

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

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

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

“In April,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning, scoping, sequencing

Last week I presented a Teaching Artist professional learning seminar on planning, scoping and sequencing a new music project. Teaching artists frequently work in partnership with a classroom or specialist teacher, so planning tends to be collaborative. However, teachers and artists often approach project planning in different ways. I drew upon my own experiences and talked about:

The importance of learning as much as you can about the class

This includes what are they working on in class, but also some of the additional goals of the classroom. At the Melbourne English Language School (where I’ve worked as a teaching artist since 2005), these goals often include things like social skills, rules of personal hygiene or some of the cultural practices of school in Australia (like being able to line up before entering the classroom). These non-arts, non-music goals and themes can often provide fertile ground for a music or creative arts project.

The many ways to your intended goal

The more input students have in a creative project, the more ownership they will feel towards it and the more engaged they will be by the process. I encouraged my colleagues to listen out for offers and suggestions that could take the project off into a new or unexpected direction. Sometimes these offers are made in jest, or with great sarcasm – this is often a protection on the part of the child and it’s important to look beyond it to the idea being expressed. Sometimes, suggestions will be unconscious, occurring when the child is daydreaming, or retreating into their own head for a moment, but with an instrument in their hands. Tapping fingers can provide insights into a child’s previous musical experiences, knowledge and culture. It’s important to leave space in the classroom environment for these offers to slip into, as well as space in the evolving creative work.

Communicating with your teaching partner

There are often points in a creative project where work is emerging but you, the artist, are not clear exactly where it is going to go, or how it will all fit together. This happens to me in many projects and I’ve learned that it is part of my process, so it doesn’t worry me. However, teachers have very different planning and reporting obligations to teaching artists, and work that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere specific can create concern for teachers who want to know there is a sequence and plan underpinning everything.

I think that each one of us – teachers and teaching artists alike – has a different tolerance of ‘risk’ or unknowns in a creative project. It’s therefore important to keep lines of communication open. Teaching artists may need to talk through those parts of their process that are more open-ended, or where you have simply opened up an experience to the students in order to see what material emerges in their response, but you are confident that it will yield something important for the project outcome.

What does this look like in practice?

In tandem with my consideration of these different points in the planning and sequencing process, I described a 10-week project that I’d led in 2008 (I chose it because I’d documented it particularly thoroughly). I shared my notebook from that project with my teaching artist colleagues (complete with all my random musings, sketches, shorthand music notations, and margin doodles) pointing out those days where material had been developed and locked in, those days where things went off in a different direction, and when I’d developed material without knowing how it would ultimately be used in the performance. We ended by watching a video of the project’s final performance, so that we could see what had resulted from the lessons that were detailed in the notebook.

When I was first asked to lead this session, I was a bit hesitant. I often think my approach is quite freeform, and trying to anticipate exactly what will happen throughout the term feels very counter-intuitive. But once I started to dig into it, I could see there were key steps that I take in developing each project, and a number of golden, guiding values that inform all the choices I make. When you start to write these down, a plan and a sequence definitely emerges!

Artists inviting possibility

I am often approached by young musicians who want to develop workshop skills and get some more experience working with groups of children. This year, I’ve got a formal mentoring relationship set up. Ryan, a young recorder soloist and highly creative individual (based on our conversations thus far!), approached me at the end of last year to see if I could work with him to develop a workshop program for children that he could deliver as part of a broader touring and performance program.

Good on him! So far, we’ve mapped out a plan of action that includes developing a 2-hour workshop for primary school children that gets them to create their own music and embed it within a larger, contemporary solo work for recorder. Ryan is also going to spend some time in other workshops with me throughout the year, shadowing me and developing a repertoire of approaches and strategies for developing compositions with children.

At our first meeting, we focused on WHAT  – what is Ryan’s main aim? Is it a workshop that lasts a day? A few hours? Is it a longer residency? Is it a tailored approach, or an ‘off-the-shelf’ framework that he can adapt as he goes? Is it something that can link to his performance skills and concert-giving?

Ryan emphasised the importance of ‘being able to leave something behind’. He was well-aware of the weaknesses of the ‘parachute’ model (where the glamorous, charismatic visiting artist parachutes in, does their arts project, then leaves just as swiftly, with little of substance left in their wake). At the same time, I countered, a visiting artist has to be realistic about what is possible. You are a visitor. You are only there for a short time – a matter of hours, usually. Anything sustainable is going to require the buy-in and efforts of the class teacher. You have no control over what they do or don’t do in the classroom with relation to your visit, no matter how valuable such input might be.

Perhaps therefore, the artist’s visit is about inviting possibility for individual participants, with tangible skills and tools being part of the outcomes for the participants, but also the intangibles of inspiration, example and possibility. The next steps that individuals may take after a workshop experience – such as re-producing and re-experiencing their workshop outcome with you without your guidance, or furthering their skills and concepts through independent research, or simply the motivation to seek out further opportunities – are essential to a sustained ‘legacy’ from a workshop, given that music itself doesn’t result in any kind of physical artefact. How to plant the strongest, most potent and robust seeds, then, is the next big challenge for the artist! We’ll start looking at content in our next meeting together; meanwhile, Ryan is going to get busy reading Keith Johnstone, Graeme Leak and others on inspiring creative outcomes in groups.

“But I want it to be good!”

I was talking ‘community participation’ project design with one of my young music performance students recently, and brainstorming the possibility of his community project having a performance outcome as part of one of his own gigs. I was enthusing about the benefits of this kind of model – the boost to audience numbers and increased support for his music, the impact that a larger-scale number can have in a smaller band’s gig, and so on – but I could see he was wrestling with the idea. Eventually he raised his hands, shrugged, and said,

“Yeah, but I want it to be good!”

I was surprised – it hadn’t occurred to me that the outcome wouldn’t be good. “Surely that is up to you,” I countered. “You will have the musical challenge of working out what it is that this group will be able to do so that it does sound good – just as you would do for any group that you lead.”

So much of what takes place in a community music project (or a creative music project) is built upon the musicianship and communication skills of the musical leader. But you also have to believe in the group, and what is possible for them to achieve, why they might want to achieve it, and how to help them get there so that it is an enjoyable and satisfying experience.

One of the skills that comes with experience is knowing the right questions to ask, or what to give your attention to. Even very young children are capable of playing a sound all together, in perfect unison. It isn’t easy – it requires all of them to be giving the task all of their focus at the same time… but they can do it. The musical leader has to work out what will motivate them to do it – what questions, or what kind of environment you need to create for them to inspire that response.

Sometimes it comes down to time and space. If you have enough time you can give attention to everything that you want! It can be frustrating, as a project leader, to have to focus on some musical elements and not others, due to restrictions of time and space. However, this frustration is not exclusive to community settings – it is also the case with professional ensembles. They just get better at working quickly – there is a base level of competence that can be assumed so that attention can go straight to other areas.

I hope my student will just try it out. Perhaps a performance outcome is too risky an idea for him to take on at this time, but I hope he will gather a group of amateurs and start to lead them in some ensemble work. I have a feeling he will be pleasantly surprised by what they are capable of, and what he can facilitate with them.

Playing by ear

I’ve led two composition projects recently that worked with just a limited range of pitches, and it’s interesting to see how this restriction helps the participants hone in their aural skills and pitch awareness.

The first project was with teenagers at Signal. Linked to the Australian Art Orchestra’s ongoing collaboration with musicians from South India, we developed an original composition that took inspiration from one of the AAO’s movements of the work Into The Fire, borrowing a mode, a tala (like a time signature), some melodic phrases, and some structural ideas and rhythmic patterns.

The mode had 6 pitches ascending and 5 pitches descending. We learned it aurally, slowly, and got the participants to improvise on it and invent short patterns and phrases. Later, when we began to teach melodic material that was taken directly from the original (again, aurally), I was impressed by how quickly the group found the pitches and memorised the phrases. They were already becoming sensitive to the ‘taste’ of the different pitches within the mode, and their relationships with each other. Or if they weren’t, they were getting better at making more accurate educated guesses as to which note in the 5-6-note mode was being played.

That group was a jazz and improvisation group so perhaps their ears were more ready to be put to use. The following week, with a group of classically-trained younger musicians at ArtPlay (aged 9-14 years), we were creating short sections of music using only the notes of the Aeolian mode (A to A on the white notes of the piano, A natural minor). The group was tired, and uncertain how to proceed. I reminded them, “We’re only using these 7 notes! You don’t need to guess, just notice if it is going up or down from where you already are, and if it moves by step or by leap. Then find the note. And listen for its flavour!”

A little while later, I felt a shift in the group. We’d reached a section in the music where I wanted everyone to create a short riff, working in instrument sections. I wanted them to do this quickly, there and then, as we were short on time. What I felt was a shift in energy, where enough of the participants suddenly understood that every one of those 7 notes would sound “good” and “right” and that all they had to do was arrange some of them in a rhythm. Suddenly, we had riffs bursting out all over the group. One player would invent something, and the others in that section would learn it from them, on the spot.

“That’s the idea!” I thought to myself. There is something really liberating about the discovery that you can figure out how to play something by listening to it. Some young players instinctively understand this, but others are filled with trepidation. It takes courage to blow or bow those first tentative notes, trying to match pitches or play by ear – but how thrilling the energy rush is that you get when you realise it worked!