Archive for the ‘Workshops’ 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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Commonalities across boundaries

The two young women move swiftly and gracefully to the front of the stage, arms outstretched. In the centre of the stage a young man holds a stylized pose. He is supposed to hold a deep knee bend but it is his first time in this role, and the group’s esteemed director kindly, affectionately tells him he can use a chair for this first day. (Observation journal)

I spent the weekend with students from three Sri Lankan state universities – Eastern, Jaffna, and Peradeniya – as they prepare a performance act for the forthcoming Galle Music Festival. They are working under the direction of Dr Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan, and faculty members from their respective Performing Arts departments. The focus is on traditional music and dance, but Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic population means that these traditions vary widely across the island. What’s more, with the three universities based in geographically distant and somewhat war-isolated areas (one in the North, one in the East – both areas were epicenters of the civil war that ended in 2009 – and one in the central, mountainous region), opportunities for cross-campus exchanges and collaborations are not in the usual course of student life.

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What’s been fascinating to observe this weekend are the points of commonality – social, cultural, and aesthetic – and how these are found and navigated.

The first point of commonality is the students’ shared love of music and dance, and Sri Lanka’s traditional folk forms in particular. If they weren’t interested in these, they wouldn’t be here, because the Galle Music Festival is primarily a festival of folk and traditional arts. (There’s a bit of fusion and rap going on to – but folk traditions are the foundation). The students from Jaffna and Eastern Universities are enrolled in Performing Arts degrees; the students from Peradeniya are members of the ‘Music Society’, a university-wide, student club for those with an interesting in performing music together.

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Another commonality is their age and stage in life – they are all university students, young people coming of age in a digital era with phones, photos, selfies and Facebook making up some of the artefacts and shareable commodities of their modern lives.

Finding a common language is more problematic. All of the students are being educated in Sinhala or Tamil at university. Some students can speak both Sinhala and English; some speak Tamil and English. A smaller number speak both Sinhala and Tamil (although most of this generation are across the basics of both languages, they tell me). Therefore, conversations happen in second or third languages, or with the help of mime and gesture and a lot of good-natured laughter.

Each of the groups was asked to prepare a musical number to contribute to the workshop. Some had prepared songs with instrumental accompaniment, others had songs only, others had dances.

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In the full workshop with Dr Sri Ranganathan, they each first presented the music they’d prepared. Dr Sri Ranganathan made notes, and then proposed a form that would flow from one song or dance to the next. As they worked through this proposed form, students were roped into different roles. Four girls from Eastern University who’d come along to the workshop as singers found themselves dancing alongside the dancers from Jaffna University, who instructed them in the steps. In the very vigorous and rousing ‘Kavedi’, all of the boys had to dance, with very physical choreography requiring lots of jumps and deep knee bends, and Cossack-style kicks while crouching low to the ground. Impressive – and demanding!

The students stayed in Colombo overnight, so I asked one of the Peradeniya students to keep an observation log of the interactions for me, as I’m interested in the ways that music collaborations can foster more positive intergroup group bonds and relations. She reported back to me the next day that in addition to lots of conversations in different languages, a highlight of the evening was an impromptu jam session, lasting into the wee small hours, when the instruments came out and everyone sang each other’s songs, played each other’s instruments, and generally just hung out and immersed in music the way music-loving young people do everywhere.

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The collaborations are one of the new programming strands in this year’s Galle Music Festival. Next week there will be workshops for the collaboration between two all-female drumming groups, one from the North, in the Kilinochchi area, and the other from the Academy of Music and Dance in Colombo. They will be joined by Sri Lanka’s premier women’s vocal ensemble – and possibly by me on clarinet, because the piece that is planned needs a Western melody instrument. It’s a bit of a departure from research observations, but what I love about my work is the constant interplay between music, ideas, collaborations, and intercultural learning. Whether I’m watching, writing or playing, that intersection is where the magic lies.

Return to China

I loved this return visit to Beijing. It’s always nice to be hosted, and the Chinese are wonderful hosts! My plane touched down at 3am, and when I finally emerged through the gates into the public area (that airport is enormous, it took me ages to walk through given I was still recovering from my recent surgeries), two very tired but smiling student volunteers from the China Conservatory were there to meet me.

Gillian and Chinese volunteers

My first day was free of work tasks so one of the volunteers took me to the Panjiayuan antiques market where traders from different parts of China were selling antiques (some real, some less real) and handcrafts. I bought some gifts for family, friends and friends’ children, but mostly just loved the browsing and people-watching.

We also went to Beijing Glasses City. This is a mall filled with spectacle-sellers, lens-grinders, and optical accessories stalls. My student guide, Wang (although I later suggested an English name for him – Max – which he loved and immediately adopted) is from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, up in the north-west, sharing the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, so Beijing Glasses City was a new discovery for him. I chose frames and got my eyes tested and had new glasses made within 30 minutes.

Beijing Glasses City

The next day I led a music workshop for community music and dance teachers from around China, who were in town for the Community Music Education Summit Forum (I love that the event was both a summit and a forum). We did a range of collaborative composition tasks, using voices and body percussion. They were a great group. Though, I was reminded how tricky it can be to work with an interpreter in composition tasks. Sometimes, the pace of the work moves very quickly and I want to be able to give a key direction or piece of information in a very specific moment. It’s tricky to remember that if I just speak when I want to speak, the group won’t understand what I’m saying, and the energy behind it can translate as stressful urgency, rather than just in-the-moment encouragement that progresses the composition along in a critical point in time. A couple of times I really had to bite my tongue to give the interpreter a chance to move across the room to me and translate my instruction for the group.

That evening, Max and I found a Xin Jiang restaurant where we ordered too much and had a fantastic meal of very Central Asian food. Max took the leftovers back to the dormitory for his room-mates. I was pretty excited to discover this new cuisine, although I also realized it was similar to I had had at the Uyghur restaurants in Kazakhstan. I fell in love with the sturdy wooden kebab sticks they served our meat on, and the wooden spoons that they served our yoghurt with. Max asked the waitress if I could buy them. She said no.

My last day in Beijing was the day of my keynote presentation. We travelled together to the conference venue (a community college). There were a number of formalities at the start of the day, and I joined the group of presenters on the stage for many of these. My presentation was well-received by the group and afterwards I had the chance to speak with a number of community music educators. One told me she was delighted that I had spoken about the importance of acknowledging happiness and joy in community music. “That’s what it is all about,” she stated emphatically.

In the afternoon, the student volunteers took me to see the China Conservatory. They walked me through the grounds, showing the impressive practice annex, and the student dormitories where they both lived. We had tea together in a small Xinjiang café in their basement student food hall. I fell in love with the beautiful teapot they served our green tea in and wanted to buy it. This time I didn’t ask though. It isn’t quite right to offer to buy the serving paraphernalia in every restaurant you go to, is it? Max had brought me some Xinjiang snacks, which consisted of extremely hard round crispy breads, which he called naan. They were so hard I wondered if I might break a tooth. It felt a bit like trying to eat an enormous rusk.

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Then the time came for me to head to the airport, and both Max and Heidi (the second student volunteer) accompanied me there. They helped me with the check-in, organizing for me to have some assistance getting to the gate so that I wouldn’t have to carry my bag too far in my post-surgery state. Heidi had been the main person I’d communicated with prior to my departure and she knew I’d been ill, so was particularly concerned to take care of me.

They both sent me text messages wishing me well in the couple of hours between our farewell and my take-off. They were the sweetest volunteer helpers ever! Thank you Max and Heidi for making this visit to China so delightful!

Evolving a new work – Beethoven’s Big Day Out

I’ve just got home from leading family workshops for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival. I led two projects – Beethoven’s Big Day Out, and a Jam on the Ode to Joy.

Jams for families on big orchestral works are a core part of my creative work and musical direction, but I was particularly thrilled to get to present Beethoven’s Big Day Out for WASO. It’s a project that has developed through a number of other projects, and it’s interesting to reflect how it evolved through these influences.

Preparing the participants for Beethoven's Big Day Out

Preparing the participants for Beethoven’s Big Day Out

Beethoven’s Big Day Out has its origins in a Jam for Juniors I led for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2011, but that project employed ideas that I’d begun exploring in response to the very beautiful, detailed, and insightful work for pre-school children by Pocketfool Productions, and in particular a project that Jennifer Anderson from Pocketfool and I developed together for ArtPlay earlier in 2011 – the Camel Caravan (read about it here).

Working with Jen really changed my thinking about approaches to creative music work with under-5s. When we were developing our workshop, Jen talked about how she wanted to try and create language and opportunities around listening, and deliberate choices about sounds. We discussed how transformative that shift from a very self-focused, blocking-out-others way of playing to a more alert, aware, connected experience could be, even for very young players.

It was a beautiful project, with a big range of musical experiences for the children. In one lovely activity, children could “buy” sounds in a musical market place. They had to think about what kind of sound (a big sound, a shiny sound, etc) that they wanted, and then, after paying their money, they would play an instrument that made that sound.

This idea of careful, considered listening and choices then became central to the planning for the first Jam for Juniors with the MSO. I was a bit skeptical about the whole Jams for Juniors concept at first. There would be 50 little children, with their parents, in a large open space, with instruments. How could we get them all creating as well as playing, while ensuring musical integrity and variety, and not have everyone leave at the end of the 30 minute jam feeling assaulted by the cacophony?

The idea of a “journey”, which we’d used in the Camel Caravan, was a useful frame, so I utilised it here. Journeys require us to undertake different tasks. There is a sense of adventure and imperative about the different stages of the journey too. A journey through an imaginary environment gets the children’s creativity firing from the outset.

That first Jam for Juniors was strong. It involved way too many props to be practical (we changed multiple instruments and props five times in the half-hour workshop), but it offered a big variety of ways of engaging with music and instruments, all while introducing the music of Beethoven to the children and their parents, using themes from Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral Symphony.

Two further projects grew out of that Jam for Juniors experience, and both have become ‘flagship” projects for me in my stable of projects to offer to orchestras and arts centres around Australia and internationally. One is Nests (which I’ve written about here) and the other is Beethoven’s Big Day Out.

So what has changed in this most recent evolutionary phase? The bones of the original Jam for Juniors are still there. It is still a jam for under-5s, although we’ve narrowed it to an age range of 2-5 years. I’ve incorporated more opportunities for the children to get “up close” to the musicians from the orchestra and their instruments, so that they can feel the physicality and voice of the instruments, and the air vibrating in response. I’ve adjusted the language I use to introduce the different stages of the journey (adjusting and refining language is an ongoing process. It’s an aspect of workshop leading and facilitating that constantly fascinates me). And I removed quite a lot of the props! (Now we only have three changeovers).

The next thing I’d like to create is a ‘travelling’ version of Beethoven’s Big Day Out, where the participant group moves through different sites (such as a series of foyer spaces in a large performing arts centre) as part of the journey. If that sounds like something you’d like to present, let me know! But regardless of the site, Beethoven’s Big Day Out is a very imaginative, movement-filled, multi-sensory experience of a symphony orchestra, its music, and its sounds, that involves all of the children as participants in the music-making in many different, creative, and exhilarating ways. The singing, chattering voices, and bouncing little bodies in the foyer afterwards, and the smiles on parents’ and musicians’ faces, were testament to that.

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.

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?

Finding yourself (and the bathrooms) in a new environment

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

Workshop in Iwaki Auditorium (Gillian Howell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

 

Jump on the Bandwagon 2013

Recently I led this year’s Jump on the Bandwagon project at ArtPlay. Jump on the Bandwagon is a family jam – an all ages, all abilities, get-your-hands-on-an-instrument-and-play event that is about getting large groups of people playing together and sounding great.

Regular readers will know that I lead lots of jams with orchestras, and these usually take pieces of orchestral music as their starting points for improvisation and jamming. In Jump on the Bandwagon, we focus on grooves and riffs with a more contemporary edge. Often I use a melodic idea that’s emerged in an earlier workshop with young people – some of these can be very enduring and an ideal starting point for a big range of musical interests!

This year I used a short melody created by some students from Preston Girls Secondary College in a workshop with the MSO a few years ago. We started that workshop by asking them to brainstorm “what’s important?” One group wrote these words, and hooked them up to a really catchy melody:

Money does buy food

Money does not buy family, friends or love.

We always get a crowd of participants – this year we capped the registrations at 100, and most were these were under-8s, including one 7 year-old violinist, filled with ideas and no qualms at all about being the only violinist there, a little girl who opted to play the keyboard but had brought her own ceremonial trumpet along, and a 2 year old who spent the whole time struggling with his mum to have control of the drumstick and being massively overstimulated by the whole event, but ended the session by helping gather up all the instruments, hugging me good-bye, and not wanting to leave. I hope we get to see him again!

But some of the most memorable participants were the adults. I asked one dad to play the autoharp and showed him how it worked, pushing down buttons for particular chords, and strumming across the strings in time. One of the other musicians in the Bandwagon team told me later, “He loved it! He absolutely loved it and said, ‘It’s my first time EVER playing music, and I think I’ve found my instrument!'” That’s a great outcome, and just as important as any younger child having their first experience playing music.

Research shows that the music experiences children share within their families are way more powerful and potent than any music experiences they may have in school, in terms of impacts their later choices to participate in music experiences as adults. That’s why I emphasise all-ages with the jams I lead. Of course they are for the children. But they are also for the adults. And if that man goes off and buys himself an autoharp of his own then that will be one of the best outcomes of a jam that I can think of.

COmments board at the end of Jump on the Bandwagon, 2013, ArtPlay (G. Howell)