Archive for the ‘Nests’ Category

Four minutes of Nests

I made a short promotional video for the Nests music installation project on Sunday. What do you think?

 

One of the great design challenges of Nests was ensuring it remained a portable installation, with a set that could be pulled down and packed up small to fit in the back of a standard stationwagon/estate car. Ken did a masterful job realising this challenge! Our hope now is for the work to travel further afield, to other performing arts centres, theatres, and festivals wanting to offer unique interactive arts experiences for young children. If you are someone working in one of these contexts and like the look of Nests, please get in touch to talk about how we could bring this beautiful installation to your venue!

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A month of workshops

What a month it’s been! I’ve just finished what will probably be my most densely and diversely-packed 4-week stretch for the year, with about 34 workshop calls, 5 media calls and a grant application completed, all up. It’s been exhilarating – one of those times when all the projects you’ve been nurturing start to come to fruition. It can feel a bit crazy, but it’s wonderful too and the best thing to do is to stay focused, keep planning, and just enjoy all those incredibly opportunities to play music with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Firstly, of course, there was my residency with Tura New Music in the north-west of Australia. Lucky me, I was invited to go there as the lead artist for short residencies in three different schools. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite magical, and quite remote. I loved the workshops, and communities and children we met there. I also loved being in a part of my own country that felt like a different world. North-west Australia is famed for its consistently jaw-droppingly, staggeringly beautiful sunsets, and we were also there at the time of the Super Full Moon a couple of weeks ago. Here are some of my efforts to capture these:

And a couple of sunrises:

Getting ready for Gillian Howell's Jam, Fed Square, June 2013Once back in Melbourne, I went straight into a Jam with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (you can see the pre-jam set-up on the left here). These jams link to the MSO’s repertoire, so I planned this one around Copland’s Appalachian Spring. We explored some of his rhythmic ideas, created a square dance inspired by the ‘hoe-down’ section of the piece, and finished with a rendition of the Shaker melody and song ‘Simple Gifts’. It all came together well, with some lovely singing (including a solo by a young girl named Elizabeth, who had a very sweet, true voice, and sang into the microphone with great confidence), and some inspired improvising from different participants.

I spent any spare time on the weekend putting the finishing touches on my application to the Australia Endeavour Awards, to support my PhD research. No need to say too much about that – it is like any application. You put in as much work as you can, taking care, shaping and sculpting it and trying to bring the word count down… and then you submit it. Lots of work. Fingers crossed.

Monday and Tuesday were spent with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. I love this little group – every school holidays we get together to make a new piece of music over two intensive days, and every time I am blown away by how hard everyone is prepared to work, how focused they are, and how much ownership they feel over the music. This is our second project for the year and we are working towards a performance outcome in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Russian Festival’ in August, so we get a bit more time to refine our composition further when we come together for that event.

On Thursday I presented a new children’s workshop at the Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival in the City of Stonnington in Melbourne. I called the workshop Wet Watery Soundworld. It builds on two of my workshops from last year – the ‘Water’ workshop that I led for City Beats, and the Music Construction Site workshops that I led at ArtPlay. In the Wet Watery Soundworld, children were invited to explore a big range of musical sounds created in some way by water, as well as sounds that have long resonance and sustained tones (I call these ‘wet’ sounds as opposed to dry, less long-ringing sounds). I had some very captivating instruments for the children to try in this very splashy workshop. They loved the cups and the wooden bowls in particular. One of my musicians (a professional percussionist) said to me later, “That workshop reminded of just how much I love percussion!”

Also on Thursday I led a Family Jam at the Roola Boola Festival with a fabulous new children’s band called Lah-Lah’s Big Live Band. I chose one of their songs to use as the jam focus, a song with a laid-back, bluesy feel that was a great vehicle for improvised vocal lines, scat singing, percussion beats and some xylophone licks using the D minor blues scale. Lots of fun, with about 30+ kids and their parents taking part.

Nests June 2013 G. HowellToday, Friday, saw a remount of Nests, the theatrical music installation that I’ve created this year with visual theatre and design specialists Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. Tony Hicks and I are the musicians on the show, and now that we are into our tenth or more installation-performances of this work, things are really starting to settle and flourish. The music that we play throughout – freely improvised in response to, and in dialogue with, the children as well as each other – provides a very strong musical foundation and framework for the children’s experience. It has taken time for this to develop, as we become used to the shapes and events that occur in each show – even though each version is unique, as it is created anew each time by the children and the choices they make with the instruments.

Today’s Nests episodes were our first for the 6-8 year old age group. We wondered if they would be expecting a more directed experience, so we took a moment to ‘prime’ them before they entered the space, suggesting that they listen and look for opportunities to engage in ‘musical conversations’ with each other and with us.

We found that this age group were eminently suited to the ambiguity and open-ended nature of musical conversations! They initiated conversations, and responded to those initiated by others. They hardly talked in the space at all, even though many of them had come in a group and knew each other.

I felt that Nests experiences at Roola Boola confirmed that we really have made something quite special here. It is incredibly free for the children – they wander and play whatever they like – yet at the same time it is a very musically and visually engaging experience, filled with interactions. The soundscape directs the action, but only implicitly. The children engage and follow the suggestions of the soundscape because they have responded to the invitation to enter into this environment fully, with their minds and imaginations ready to accept and invent. It’s a joy to be part of, each time we do it!

Nests, June 2013, Gillian Howell

Nests brought my month of workshops to a close. From here I return my focus to my PhD. Things will be ramping up a notch with that work in this half of the year, as I move towards completing an early draft of my literature review and methodology (which I need for confirmation, planned for November), an application to the Human Research Ethics board of the university, several conferences, and hopefully some fieldwork in Bosnia. The funding for the latter was confirmed just this week. I am still pinching myself, and can’t quite believe I will be travelling to that part of the world again. Which is why I use the word “hopefully”.

Nests – all about the interactions

Children with lanterns wait to enter the Nests forest (Gillian Howell)“Adults, just to let you know, everything in here is okay for the little ones.” Quite a few parents gave smiles of recognition and perhaps relief at that point. They were being reassured not to feel anxious about trying to control their child’s (possibly wrong) choices. Rebecca continued, “Okay to explore and touch and –“

Feel?”  asked (or prompted) one little girl, which made me smile.

“Yes, feel too”, Rebecca agreed. “So parents, we’ll let your little people lead the way with the explorations.”

With that, we picked up our lanterns and entered the magical musical forest at ArtPlay. There were many beautiful, child-led interactions that took place across the weekend. Here are just a few:

One very confident little man sat down next to Rebecca at the frog bog, and picking one of the stones there, told her emphatically, “Rocks are my absolute favourite thing!” He had a bit of a gleam in his eye, Rebecca said, but she suspected he must have picked up some telepathic messages from his parents, hovering nearby, because he didn’t express his love of rocks in any particularly alarming way.

child with rocks (Nests 2013, Howell, Russell, Evans)

A little girl came up to me with the instrument she had chosen to play – a pair of blue and green resonant blocks, made of a very durable, robust plastic. She banged them together and looked at me expectantly. I matched the pitch on my clarinet and repeated her rhythm back to her. She smiled in delight, and played again. We jammed awhile, sometimes taking turns and sometimes playing at the same time. We got faster, then slower, we tried sudden stops to see if our playing partner would be able to stop in time. Then she wandered away, and so did I.

Musical interactions, Nests 2013 (Russell, Evans, Howell)

One child delighted in the large autumn leaves we’d scattered throughout the installation. She approached each of us in turn – me, Rebecca, Tony, Eelin our photographer – to present us solemnly with a leaf. She didn’t speak, so nor did we. I tried to fix mine in my hair. I spotted Eelin walking around with a leaf balanced on top of her head. Later, the little girl placed the frogs in the frog bog on leaves, creating a special place for them – like lily pads.

Nests installation (Evans, Howell, Russell 2013)A little boy stood at the edge of a nest, gazing at all the activity in the room. He looked entranced, a smile on his face and his eyes wide. He whispered to his mother every now and then, their faces very close to each other. He had a juju shaker in his hands. His mother was beside him, crouching down, taking it all in with him. Sometimes they played instruments, but they also spent a lot of time just watching everything together. This was a very intimate, imaginative immersion into another world that they could share together.

One of our Nests is filled with instruments made from very organic, natural materials – an African log drum, juju shakers made from large resonant seeds, caxixi made from woven grasses. Tony described later a ‘free jazz improv’ he engaged in with the children in that nest. Again, the patterns of turn-taking and unison changes in volume and tempi emerged, but also, he said, some truly innovative rhythmic licks. These weren’t just random batterings, but expressive utterances and gestures, offered in response to the sonic environment the children found themselves in.

Free jazz improv, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We designed Nests to encourage exactly these kinds of musical interactions, and to immerse children in a visual and aural environment that would encourage them to listen, notice, and respond. This was an un-facilitated experience where the children created their own pathways and directed their own explorations, but there were key elements in place – in the recorded soundscape and the way we’d set up the space to allow for elements of surprise and timely ‘reveals’- that guided the children’s activities and attention. Thus, in the narrative arc of the installation, the children went from individual, self-focused explorations into some truly intense and powerful whole-ensemble experiences.

As they exited the installation, the ArtPlay staff asked children and parents for their impressions. The frogs were consistently cited as the most memorable part of the workshop.

Frog Bog, Nests 2013 (Howell, Evans, Russell)

Many children also talked about the excitement of the big drum that we gathered around, making the sounds of rain and thunder as one big group.

The gathering drum, Nests 2013 (Howell, Russell, Evans)

We learned that several people were coming to Nests for the second time (impressive, because it sells out very quickly. They must be very organised bookers!) “We haven’t stopped talking about it,” one mum confided. “And this will be all they talk about for ages now. They just love it!”

There were lots of shining eyes and excited children. Many looked like they were holding the joy of the experience tightly inside them, not necessarily wanting to talk about it yet. I don’t think they would know exactly why they had enjoyed the last half-hour so much. It is more than just the chance to play lots of different instruments. These 3-5 year olds were having a significant early experience of the tremendous sense of well-being and pleasure that playing music with other people can bring. It is a sense of being heard, of having a voice, of being part of something bigger than yourself. It’s the reason I play music, and lead music-making with other people, and it is a big motivation for continuing to seek out group music-making experiences in your life. I’m very pleased to think we may have instilled some of that motivation into these little people and their parents.

This was the third and final stage of our creative development of Nests, and we are grateful for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab funding for supporting this idea and enabling us to realise it and present it in the beautiful ArtPlay space. The next installation of Nests will be in July at Chapel off Chapel, as part of the City of Stonnington’s children’s arts festival Roola Boola.

Nests by Gillian Howell, Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans, 2013

Children navigating and exploring independently

Nests at ArtPlay (Howell/Russell/Evans)

Yesterday we presented the second stage of Nests, a theatrical music installation that I am developing over three stages at ArtPlay with collaborators Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. As an installation experience rather than a workshop, Nests is largely un-facilitated, and the children are free to explore the environment in whatever order, and whatever way, they choose. There are all sorts of things – musical instruments, lighting effects, and physical obstacles –  for them to discover, navigate and explore independently or with the help of their adult. More than just exploration though, we’ve created the whole physical and aural environment in a way that (we hope) encourages the children to engage in musical interactions with each other, and with the musicians roaming the space.

However, children aged 3-5  have an unerring and delightful tendency to not do what you are hoping they will do, and yesterday’s Nests visits were filled with examples of this! Children enter the space holding long, slender lanterns. These help illuminate their path as they enter the darkened space, but as the lighting lifts, there are places for them to leave these lanterns so that their hands are free to play the musical instruments (as you can see in the image above, where the lanterns are hovering over one of the nests). Well, some children simply loved their lanterns and wanted to hold onto them throughout. Even if they put them down momentarily when entering a nest, they made sure to pick them up again as they moved across to the next nest. The space was constantly awash with little children carrying their long, swaying lanterns.

Other children were constantly drawn to the giant ‘sun/moon’ circular screen that acts as a backdrop to the space and is lit theatrically throughout to suggest different times of day. The lighting makes it possible to create dramatic shadow play with hands and bodies, and some children returned again and again to this screen with their parents, creating all sorts of images that clearly delighted them. These interactions have prompted us to think about how we might incorporate some shadow-play into the installation for stage 3.

Observing children’s interactions with the instruments was also interesting. In one session, we seemed to have lots of children who took great pleasure in returning instruments to their eggs, and zipping the eggs up tight again, after they had had a play. It was very neat of them, but not something we’d seen in the first sessions of Nests back in February. It meant that the children got to ‘discover’ the instruments several times over, however, and perhaps this was part of the motivation.

Nests 'conversations' (G. Howell)We had three adult musician-facilitators in the space, engaging and interacting musically with children – one person who was working with the instruments in the installation (a range of exotic percussion instruments from around the world and made from all sorts of beautiful materials), and two people playing wind instruments (me and one other). We imitated sounds that the children played, copying rhythms and pitches, and encouraged musical ‘conversations’. We also modeled interactions and imitation with each other. Children reacted to these interactions in different ways. I found that for some, it was too intrusive or perhaps made them feel self-conscious, and as soon as they noticed I was making a connection with their playing, they would stop. Sometimes, they would start again; other times, they would leave that nest and move to another part of the installation.

For example, we have a very rhythmic section in the soundscape that encourages everyone in the room to groove along on a unison rhythm. One little girl was very responsive to this rhythm and began to do a little dance, stamping her feet in time with with the rhythm. I began to copy her, and her mother noticed and pointed it out to her daughter. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to share this idea with me. She watched me dance for a moment, then moved a bit further into the nest so that she was behind her mother, and continued her dance from there.

Some children were intrigued by the idea of the musical conversations. There were some absolutely gorgeous moments where a child realised that the musician beside them was copying what they were playing! One little boy’s father was beside him, and described what was happening. “She’s copying you, isn’t she? Play it again and see what happens… play it faster! And faster again!” And so, that interaction was three-way, with the boy and his father playing a game with each other as well as with me.

Tony, the other wind player, described a funny moment he had with one of the parents. He noticed a dad pick up one of the castanets and begin playing a rhythm. Tony picked up another of the castanets and began jamming with him. But then the man’s partner noticed what was going on and took the instrument from the man’s hands and put it back down on the ground! Perhaps she felt that such interactions were only supposed to involve the children, which was not one of our rules at all!

In our discussions at the end of the day, Rebecca, Ken, Tony and I considered the role of the parents in the installation. A challenge with the ‘un-facilitated’ environment or lack of explicit instructions is that the adults might not be sure what is expected of them and their children. Nor do they know what is coming up next (all the cues throughout the installation are given in the recorded soundscape). In the third session of the day, Rebecca made a point of saying to the parents before entering the space that “everything here is fine for the children to explore and touch and interact with”. This statement helped the parents relax and allow the children to create their own experience.

Another of our discussions has been about audience, and the importance of creating the work with both children and adults in mind. Early on in Nests, Rebecca approaches each of the adults one by one and gives them a wah-wah tube. “This is for you,” she tells them, and many parents seem delighted to be given their own instrument to play. We have also observed parents having their own moments of musical exploration, particularly with things like the little Meinl thumb piano, with its plaintive and nostalgic A-minor tuning. Many parents describe their Nests experience at the end as being “beautiful” and “peaceful”, and it seems to me that this is as much a description of their experience as that of their children.

With some groups, the three of us found it challenging to make any connection with children at all, as they were so engaged with sharing the experience with their adults. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem – if Nests is a beautiful experience that parents and children can share together, then that is a wonderful outcome.

Nests is developing further each time we present it; for this second stage, we had made some adjustments to the soundscape and the timings of the different ‘events’ or stimuli that take place within the installation experience for the children. We added a ‘good-bye’ song at the end, slowing down the energy as a way of containing and ‘holding’ the children in the experience and allowing them the space to process it. I also added a slow ‘bell toll’ in the middle of the soundscape designed for the parents to hear and join in with their wah-wah tubes. However, this didn’t really work – the parents didn’t notice it! I think I might take it out of the soundscape for stage 3. I also added a bass guitar line to the Jam & Groove section, which made it rock along a bit more, and invited a big whole-ensemble energy surge for children and adults to share at a key moment in the installation. These musical cues help guide the children’s attention towards different parts of the installation and give them different musical experiences beyond their own self-directed explorations.

Stage 3 will be a weekend’s worth of Nests, on 11 and 12 May. Bookings open this coming Wednesday 20 March.

Completing the first stage of Nests

Nests 8 February 2013 (G.Howell)I was really satisfied with the outcome of our first Nests workshops. (Hmmm… Nests is a theatrical music installation with minimal facilitation or instruction. Are they workshops? Experiences? Sessions?) We offered 2 x 30 minute Nests experiences, both of which were booked out. Nine children per session attended with their parent (sometimes with a younger sibling in tow as well) and explored the space we had created for them. Some were shy, some were boisterous, but they all took their explorations quite seriously, grasping their long bendy-pole-torches in their hands, making patterns on the floor as they made their way into the darkened space, and choosing what to spend their time doing.

Some children were content to sit with one instrument and play it for a long time, sharing the experience with their parent. Others were keen to try lots of different instruments. I moved through the space with my clarinet, squatting down to sit alongside children and imitate the sounds they were making, encouraging interactions, patterns and musical conversations. Some realised this was what I was doing and played along, offering up ‘tests’ to see what I would do (such as playing faster, or stopping suddenly).

Rebecca was also moving through the space, handing out wah-wah tubes to each of the parents and showing them how to play them. Some parents later told how pleased they were to have their own instrument to play, especially one like this that was completely new to them! As the children and the parents explored, Rebecca and I responded to their playing with our own musical sounds. Nests has a musical aim of encouraging children towards interactive play with their instruments (rather than only independent play, more typical of children of this age group in an installation environment), where they would be listening and responding to other people’s sounds, as well as initiating their own, and the musical responses offered by Rebecca and I modeled how this could work to the children.

Gradually the birds and crickets of the forest soundscape that had greeted the children when they entered the installation changed into more dramatic sounds of nature. A huge storm began to build on the recorded soundscape, inciting more vigorous and frenzied playing from the children. And emerging out of the intensity of the storm, some rhythmic unisons on the recorded soundscape encouraged all the children and their parents to play together and enjoy the experience of a shared groove.

The frog bog (G. Howell - Nests)As the session drew to a close, I went to sit beside the frog bog, beckoning to the children and parents to join me. As the sounds of dusk entered into the soundscape, accompanied by the crk-crk-crk of the frog guiros, a peaceful stillness settled over the group. It was time to say good-bye to the instruments, and to the forest. Children returned to the nests to put the instruments back in their nests, picked up their torches and returned to the outside world, where they lingered awhile, keen to soak up the experience I think. One little girl said to me emphatically, “Do you know what I liked doing the very best?? When we all played this -” and demonstrated the rhythm we’d played in the groove after the storm. “That was my favourite thing!”

I’m going to end this post with a photograph taken by Rebecca. She emailed it to me, saying, “This is my favourite photo. Zoom in and look very carefully at the back. Can you see a wonderful moment one little boy thought no-one saw? I wonder if there will be one in every session?”

Boy with egg on his head

Can you see him? Look at the slightly eery glowing light in the background of this image. Most of us are sitting around the frog bog, playing the frog-guiros. But the strange glowing light is a little boy with an egg on his head, enjoying his own private exploration of the space.

Nests has been funded by ArtPlay and the City of Melbourne, through ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab process. The New Ideas Lab invites artists to pitch a concept or a vision for a children’s arts experience, and supports a selected number of these to be developed and realised at ArtPlay the following year. The second stage of Nests is on March 16th and is already booked out, but the third stage will be held on Saturday 11 May and is not yet on sale. If you are in Melbourne and would like to bring your 3-5 year old along, be sure to to ‘like’ ArtPlay on Facebook and to sign up for their mailing list so that you will receive updates about when the next workshop season goes on sale.

The first Nests experience

With Nests, my collaborators Ken and Rebecca and I have been given the creative space (and funding) to develop the work in three stages. We knew that there were some aspects to the concept that needed trialling, in order to fine-tune the details of the installation experience. The three stages allow us to try our ideas and observe the children responding to the space and the instruments, enabling us to create by the third stage the richest possible experience of exploration and interaction for our chosen age group (3-5 year olds).

Putting the Nests together, 8 Feb 2013 (G.Howell)Stage 1 of Nests took place at the start of February, with two sessions open to the public. We spent a day bumping in the show the day before, constructing the three Nests under Ken’s instructions, setting the lights and placing the instruments in the respective eggs and nests. Each nest is made of individual leaves (crafted from the light-weight foam that is used for camping mats and yoga mats), water-cut to their specific shapes by a specialised cutter, and hand-painted by Ken. The detail is beautiful.

Detail of leaf by Ken Evans

I’d organised the instruments into groups, matched according to pitch and tone-colour so that each of the three nests would have its own particular musical ‘flavour’. Each instrument had a large-scale egg to live in; the eggs had big zippers in them, so that the children’s first task in the installation would be to open an egg and find the instrument inside. I’d chosen instruments for their physical beauty and exotic qualities as well as for their sound. We had things like bass tone bars (a rich, deep, caramel sound), an extremely resonant, energy chime, a 2-row thumb piano, juju shakers, some strange sprung clackers that I bought when I was travelling in Vietnam a few years ago, a log drum from Africa, hewn from a length of tree trunk, and some small castanets. We also had 2 sets of wah-wah tubes.

An ongoing area of discussion in Nests (and probably in most installations) has been about how the young audience will enter the space, and the pathways they will choose as they move about the installation. We wanted it to be a magical ‘other world’ would encourage the children to explore with care and attention, so we were a little thrown when we trialled the instruments at the Creswick Playscape in December and the children began running around, boisterously bouncing from place to place, nothing really holding their attention (apart from the sand in the sandpit). Of course, the environment you create determines many things about how people will interact with the space and each other, and an outdoor space, familiar to the children as a place for energetic play, was quite different to the theatrical installation we were imagining. Nonetheless, Rebecca, a visual theatre and reverse pedagogy specialist, gave a lot of thought to the question of how the children would enter the space, and her genius solution came about through watching her son at play.

At some stage, while walking in the bush near their home, her 4-year-old picked up a bendy stick and began to carry it with him. Rebecca noticed how carrying the stick changed the way he moved about. His feet moved more slowly, and he carried his little body differently, with a kind of alertness. Building on this observation, and her boy’s obvious delight in the bendy stick, Rebecca and Ken devised light-poles for each of the children to carry when they entered the installation. The light-poles were made of thin, flexible dowel and had a small LED torch [flashlight] fixed to the end. The children could carry these in front of them or behind.

At the end of the bump-in day we had our first visitor. Rebecca and Ken’s son entered the space. Rebecca told me later that, “He walked in and then just stopped, and said, ‘Ooohhh!’. He walked around slowly, taking his time. And he only spoke in whispers.”

Later, he told Rebecca and Ken, “I really like what you guys have done with this space!” Here he is, unzipping his first egg.

Opening an egg in a nest

Collaborating by distance

The three-way collaborative creation of ‘Nests’ was for the most part a long-distance relationship (Ken and Rebecca in country Victoria, me in Melbourne).  Our first intensive in-person period of discussions and exploration, when we ran an informal workshop with a group of 3-5 year-olds at the Creswick Playscape, concluded with an agreed idea of what we each saw in mind’s eye when we pictured the installation. We each had differing mental images of the nests, for example, so needed to describe and discuss and establish a shared set of intentions. We looked at pictures of actual nests, and discussed the practicalities of rendering each in a human-size form that could still be packed down to fit in to the back of a car. By the end of the December development period, we each had clear tasks ahead of us, to work on in our respective homes.

Ken's leaf coloursKen set to work designing the nests for the installation, figuring out solutions to the materials needed, the construction process and the visual effect. He explored the idea of woven leaves, taking inspiration (shapes, colours) from the local landscape.

Rebecca and I turned our minds to the soundscape. We discussed an overall ‘narrative’ structure for the 30 minute installation experience that allowed time for children’s discovery and exploration of the instruments, leading to a massed ensemble experience in which everyone would be playing the same thing at the same time. The magical focus and mood that we had witnessed at the Creswick Playscape when we brought the wooden frog guiros out at the end of the session suggested to us that a ‘frog bog’ might be a nice way to draw the experience to a quiet, peaceful close.

We wanted the soundscape to create a sense of the bush or a forest. The installation space was to be theatrically lit, and the soundscape would enhance the children’s sense of entering ‘another world’. We also wanted it to encourage musical interactions between the children, where they might start to engage in patterns, sequences, and conversations. Therefore, it needed to include sounds from the natural world and sounds from the instruments the children would be playing in the nests.

Rebecca set to work recording natural environment sounds.

Ready to record... (Rebecca Russell)These included footsteps in crunchy leaves, all sorts of bird calls, early morning crickets and early evening frogs.

My recording tasks were to source some great storm sounds (I found these at freesound.org, an amazingly comprehensive resource thanks to a dedicated and committed community of sharers), and to record samples of all the instruments we intended to use.

I did this one sunny afternoon in the bathroom and wardrobe of my apartment – these were the quietest, deadest spaces. Here are the instruments all lined up, ready to play:

Recording 'Nests' sounds (G. Howell)

These were our January tasks. We had regular Skype meetings but because we live quite far apart (and because I was away for much of January), we needed to work separately on the assigned tasks, then share outcomes as they were ready.

Making ‘Nests’

I am working on a very beautiful collaborative project at the moment. Called ‘Nests’, it’s a theatrical music installation that invites children aged 3-5 years of age to discover and explore a big range of very unusual, exotic percussion instruments from around the world, and draws them into musical interactions with each other and the adults around them. These explorations take place in gigantic nests that the children can enter and sit in.

Image for NESTS by Ken Evans, GIllian Howell, Rebecca RussellNests is special to me for a number of reasons. One is because it is the first time I am getting to work with two artists I’ve admired for a long time, theatre designer Ken Evans and visual theatre director Rebecca Russell. We’ve been friends for a long time, and have always had many wonderful and inspiring conversations about making work with and for children, but this is the first time we have developed a project together.

Another reason it is special is because the idea has grown quite slowly and organically for me over a period of time. I first put musical instruments in nests in the  jam for 0-5 year olds that I created for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival in 2011 (I didn’t blog about that project at the time, sadly – had too many projects going on!). The idea of getting to sit in a nest really seemed to resonate with children and parents alike, and I kept it in the back of my mind, waiting for the right time to take it further. I knew Rebecca and Ken were the perfect artists to develop it with, and we developed the concept for ArtPlay’s New Ideas Lab pitching process back in July 2012 and were invited to develop and present Nests as an installation in 2013.

We gave ourselves two specific challenges to explore with the project. One was that it be an installation, rather than a facilitated or led workshop experience. I love seeing children in this age group choosing their own ‘pathways’ through new experiences and learning through their own creative play, but this doesn’t often happen in music workshops, because children of this age often explore things quite independently and with instruments in hand this leads to very chaotic, noisy environments! Music experiences are therefore usually facilitated or led, and everyone is usually engaged in doing the same thing at the same time. For Nests, we wanted to create an environment (aural and physical) that would foster and draw on the children’s natural love of self-guided exploration, but that would also encourage them to listen and respond to each other’s musical sounds.

The other challenge was to create an installation that could be packed up and used again. We’ve designed Nests to be portable, because we want to be able to tour it to other settings in Australia and beyond. So right from the start, Ken had the complex design challenge of working out how to build something that looked like a nest, was robust and sturdy enough to be climbed on and sat in by children, and that could be put together and packed up relatively quickly, and easily transported in the back of a standard car, and light-weight enough to take on a plane.

Music in the Playscape cubby (Gillian Howell)We’re developing Nests in stages. The first stage was a 3-day creative development in December 2012. We spent a lot of time talking in the studio, but also ran an informal music exploration session at the Playscape in Creswick (in regional Victoria, Rebecca and Ken’s neck of the woods). This session with local children gave us the opportunity to see how they responded to the different instruments I’d started to gather, to see what most appealed to them, what didn’t hold their interest, and whether 3-5 year old fingers would be dextrous enough for some of the instruments I’d chosen.

We learned that the more resonant instruments, such as the energy chime, thumb piano and gas bottle instrument you can see in the image above, really held the children’s attention. They played together for quite extended periods of time on these instruments and were very absorbed. And I was very happy to see that all of them could play the wah-wah tubes (which involves moving the thumb on and off a small hole in the metal tube) without difficulty. Instruments like the caxixi or the ‘waterfall’ (a bundle of tiny wooden bells that make a sweet, gurgling – but quite piercing for young ears – rattling sound) held very little interest. Short clacking sounds like the set of sprung castanet-like clackers that I bought in Vietnam were attractive but often put down quite quickly in order to play something else.

'Frog Bog' at Creswick Playscape (Gillian Howell & Rebecca Russell)At the end of the session we drew everyone together to sit in a circle and I brought out my collection of frog guiros. (I have 11 of them – I bought them in Thailand, one each day. I couldn’t resist them. Tony would say, “Gillian, I think you have enough frogs now” whenever the roving salesmen would approach us in the restaurant or on the beach, but I am very glad now that I ignored his comments and bought the frogs). We created a magical, almost meditative ‘frog bog’, listening to each of the frogs in turn and having frog conversations with each other. (They are all different sizes. I call the biggest frog ‘Big Nana’ because I didn’t want the biggest frog to be male, but I wanted it to be the frog that all the other frogs listened to. Nanas often have an important, loving authority in little people’s lives, and the children love expressing this authority with the Big Nana frog).

We took the learning from that early exploration session into the next Nests phase, deciding on the sets of instruments to place in each nest, designing the environment and building a kind of narrative structure for the 30 minute installation experiences at ArtPlay. More on that in the next post.