Archive for the ‘ArtPlay’ Tag

Engaging with Quality at ArtPlay

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

ArtPlay and playground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

Growing a musical community – Ten years on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many bright sparky children

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

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

Responding and adapting with Beethoven

In the September school holidays, the 2013 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble got together for its final composition project for 2013. This time our focus was Beethoven’s 1st symphony, and we explored some of its rhythmic language, orchestrating this in a very 21st century way, given our Ensemble included electric guitar, drum kit and djembe, along with more usual orchestral instruments.

(Press play and listen while you read!)

This year’s group has been an interesting one. For the first year ever, we have an ensemble dominated by boys – 18 boys to 10 girls. They were bright, smart, very creative boys, mostly aged 11 and 12 (there were a few 9-10 year olds as well). We found that the male majority brought quite a different energy and dynamic to the group than we’d had in previous years. They engaged differently in the group. I think that this took me slightly by surprise each time we re-convened in each school holiday period – I’d start the warm-up using my usual approach and within five minutes be thinking, “Oh that’s right! This group needs something different from me.”

MSO ArtPlay Ensemble 2013

This is part of the facilitator’s art – to think on one’s feet, and be ready to adapt and respond. Lately I’ve been reading about “complex adaptive systems”, and realising that the creative workshop process is a micro complex system of human interaction, response and constant adaptation. The alternative to this responsive adaptation is imposing a system – and this can work effectively too, of course! But it also entails an assertion of power, and therefore the potential for power struggle. It offers less room for creativity and shared ownership, which are foundational values in my work.

That’s not to say I didn’t use some coercive tactics of my own, especially to get us through the rehearsing stage. Wandering attention needed to be brought back to task if we were going to be ready for the performance of our newly-composed piece by 3pm on the 2nd workshop day.

I loved the final piece – it has a confidence and upfront quality that felt very characteristic of this group. In the recording above you will hear some of Beethoven’s rhythmic motifs woven into a rock groove (opening movement), a minuet and trio in ternary form (and in miniature), and an extended rondo form. Sadly we were missing a couple of key members of the group for this final workshop, due to illness, but I think they were with us in spirit!

MSO artPlay Ensemble 2013

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)

When the beat in the street makes you feel complete

City Beats 2013 workshops drew to a close last week. We finished off this year’s Landscapes theme by creating music inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the city – City Beats. (It was only after I’d planned the project that I realised this third workshop would have the same name as the whole program).

Can you feel the heat rising up from the street?

It’s the City Beat – Aha, Aha

It’s the City Beat.

For this city-focused workshop, the whole-group composition consisted of a short rap linked to a vocal soundscape depicting all sorts of sounds of the city.  I asked the groups to think about words that rhyme – like ‘street’ and ‘beat’ and ‘feet’ – and that would fit well with our theme. The children brainstormed rhyming words, putting them into sentences, and these came together pretty quickly to form the rap. You can see some of their words in the images below.

We created the soundscape using a Grid Score, setting it up over a cycle of ten beats. Why ten? At first I thought I’d do twelve, but then thought that might be too long. So I thought about doing an eight-beat cycle – but eight seemed too square, too solid and grounded. Ten was the perfect cycle length – uneven enough to give the sounds a sense of never quite landing, and short enough to be achievable (and to fit across the width of the white board).

Grid Score, City Beats G. Howell 2013

I brought along a few bells and whistles to get the soundscape started – we had a bicycle bell, a honky horn, a train whistle, and a strange siren-like whoopee whistle (I don’t know what it is called, it is the kind of thing that might accompany a clown act. The children loved it). We chose numbers in the cycle for these sounds to land on and practiced that first.

Bells and Whistles, City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, working in small groups, the children decided on other sounds that they would hear in the city that they could depict with their voices or body percussion, and decided where they should appear in the cycle of ten beats, and how many numbers they should cover. Once all the decisions had been made and the relevant squares on the grid had been filled with appropriate symbols (you can see below why I am a musician and not a visual artist), we rehearsed it until it was memorised and ready to record.

Grid score and Gillian, City Beats 2013 G. Howell

The choices of city sounds varied somewhat between the groups, but it was the children from the English Language School who really created something unique. Their city soundscape was influenced by the cities they knew well – like Quetta, and Kabul, and Bangkok. They included the sounds of goats and sheep bleating, of the loudspeakers on the minarets of city mosques calling the faithful to prayers, and a traditional song/chant that street sellers from Afghanistan sing. All the children from Afghanistan knew this chant (perhaps it embeds itself into the vernacular the way “Mind the Gap” does in London). The child who sang the ‘call to prayer’ sang it into a loudhailer, in imitation of the thin, slightly tinny sound that the minaret speakers can have. Yes indeed, the city soundscape from the Language School children was an evocative and energetic affair!

With the whole-group chorus finished, we divided into groups of 6, each accompanied by a musician from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, to create additional sections of music. One group took xylophones and created melodic material based on the rhythms in our rap chorus. Another group extended the chorus with further verses and some drumming.

Drums City Beats ArtPlay 2013

The third group worked with a fabulous array of orchestral percussion and ‘found sounds’ – bass drum, pitched tom-toms, a tam-tam, a suspended cymbal and two suspended brake drums) – to create a rhythmic city groove, working with interlocking patterns, dynamics, and cues.

Brake Drums City Beats G. Howell 2013

Then, in the last ten minutes of the workshop, we gathered together again, performed our music to each other, recorded the performances, and said good-bye.

City Beats days are probably some of my favourite days in the year! There is so much to love. The children come along to ArtPlay thinking they will get to learn a bit of music, and they leave at the end of each 2-hour workshop just buzzing with excitement and energy at all the music that they have created with us. Their teachers are constantly amazed at how much they achieve, and how quickly. And the MSO musicians, ArtPlay staff and I get to spend two glorious days a term hanging out with fabulously creative children, composing and playing original music. Everyone leaves at the end of each day with all sorts of infectious earworms buzzing in our heads.

The schools that take part in City Beats each year are ‘disadvantaged’ schools – schools without music specialist teachers, or that have student cohorts from less advantaged circumstances. They may have high numbers of families in receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or who are from refugee backgrounds, or who, because of financial circumstances, never get to take part in any ‘extras’. The program is fully-funded, including travel subsidies, thanks to the generousity of wonderfully supportive and visionary funders, who know that for young people to recognise their talents, they have to have the chance to explore and discover them first.

City Beats was part of the ArtPlay/University of Melbourne’s Mapping Engagement 4-year research project at ArtPlay. You can read/download a report of the City Beats program here.

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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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