Archive for the ‘arts’ Tag

Barriers to arts participation

ArtPlay music workshop (Gillian Howell)This weekend I am leading a series of free workshops at ArtPlay on behalf of ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra [MSO] for children aged 8-13. The workshops are held at the start of every school year and we always get a pretty strong showing of participants – with 5 workshops across the weekend fully booked, or close to full. Children come with their instruments and take part in a fast-paced 1-hour composing workshop. At the end of the hour we perform the newly composed pieces of music to an audience of their parents and siblings.

The workshops are a fun experience in themselves but they also function as a ‘taster’ session of what is on offer in the year-long MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, and we use them as a kind of audition, enabling us to identify which children most strongly responded to the open-ended, creative and collaborative way that we work. 25 of these children are then offered a place in the year-long program.

Fully-booked workshops means no obvious barriers to participation, presumably? Not necessarily. Every year, we approach this program strongly aware that simply by virtue of it being a music program, it is going to attract the attention of a certain demographic – those whose children are learning to play an instrument, and to a lesser extent, those who regularly participate in creative arts workshops in centers like ArtPlay and who prioritise those experiences, but who may not been involved in learning to play an instrument. In Australia, learning to play an instrument is an expensive undertaking, rarely offered at primary schools without passing the cost of the lessons and instruments on to the parents.

Every year therefore, I consider the projects I have led in disadvantaged schools and try and identify particular children that I know would thrive in a program like this – children who demonstrate musical talent and vibrant creative imaginations. There are a small number of scholarships (ie. fully-subsidised places in the year-long program) available for children who might not be able to accept an offered place due to financial constraints.

But there are many reasons children may not take part in programs like this and they are not all financial. Children of this age-group generally need a parent or adult to accompany them to the workshop venue and to pick them up, but in some households this is a huge barrier because parents are working, or caring for younger children, or don’t have transport options, or can’t afford public transport… or they may not assume that kind of involvement in their children’s lives and rarely take them anywhere. Similarly, they might make a plan for their child’s travel to and from the venue, but when the workshop day comes, decide they need that child to stay at home that day – there are other things that take priority over the workshop in their family.

There may also be psychological barriers about going to a new, unfamiliar place (for the child and the parent). The venues for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble are all in the city centre – but many families (especially those who are new to Australia, or from refugee backgrounds as are many of the children I work with) may find the idea of going into the city centre quite intimidating and even frightening, as it is unfamiliar, busy, and perhaps unpredictable. Similarly, buildings can be psychologically intimidating places to enter, even if they are ‘public’ spaces. People may instinctively sense that they are “not welcome”, or that this place is “not for their type”, and therefore reluctant to cross the threshold.

As an artist or arts worker in participatory projects like workshops, these barriers can be very tricky to overcome. With the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, we have tried a number of ways to encourage a more diverse group of participants into the program. One year, I identified a talented young Vietnamese girl, recently arrived in Australia, as someone who would benefit from and contribute lots to the Ensemble. She lived quite far from the city so we arranged for her to travel in a taxi to and from the workshop venue each day, in addition to offering the fully-subsidised place. Sometimes an older cousin travelled with her, and by about the 3rd workshop in the year, they had decided that May would travel home on the train by herself. Her cousin had shown her how to get to the station. She also asked me if I could accompany May to the station at the end of the workshop, but I had a meeting with the orchestral management team immediately after the workshop, so they decided that May could go by herself rather than wait.

About 40 minutes into my meeting that afternoon, the receptionist came to find me, to ask me to go to the front desk. May was there, sobbing and sobbing, in quite a state. She had tried to go to the station but had got lost. She’d come back to the workshop venue to find me (the only person she knew) but I couldn’t be located by the security staff because I was in this meeting. May felt overwhelmed by the entire situation (and perhaps by the effort of trying to make herself understood in English) and began to cry. Of course at that point I stayed with her, and travelled home with her, but after that day, she didn’t return to the program. I spoke to her cousin on the phone who told me she didn’t want to come back.

This year, I approached the mother of two very bright children I had been working with at Pelican Primary School. They were siblings, both sang in the choir, and had very natural, instinctive skills on the marimba and other percussion instruments in the school. I described the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program to their mother, who I have chatted to before and know to be very friendly, warm, approachable and keen to support her children in different learning opportunities. The family comes from a refugee background, but has been in Australia for some time and seem pretty well-settled, organised and functional :-). She was very excited to hear about the program and scholarship opportunity and said several times, “Yes, I would support them to do this.”

That was at the end of last year, December 2012. I no longer teach at that school, and so when the school term resumed this week, I got in touch with the school to see if I could get a message to the family to remind them about the workshops this weekend. I had given the mother my phone number and all the information about the program the previous year, but I hoped to give an additional reminder. The school is not legally allowed to give me the family’s contact details, but they first mentioned the music opportunity to the children’s father one day and suggested he or his wife should contact me. He apparently looked at the message-giver rather blankly! So the next day, the principal approached the older of the two children with a note for their mum, asking her to call me about the music opportunity and giving her my number. That was on Thursday. She didn’t call.

My other idea had been to try and get to the school at either drop-off or pick-up time to see if I could catch up with the mum there, but my work schedule didn’t allow that on Friday. In any case, I began to wonder if I was pushing something at them that they didn’t want to do. I thought about all the barriers that that might be stopping mum from calling me (such as no phone credit, or feeling unconfident speaking to me on the phone in English, or not wanting to say ‘No’ outright to me). But I also thought about how I would love for those two children to have the experience of going into ArtPlay, being greeted so warmly by the staff there, meeting the MSO musicians, playing music with me in this different context, feeling the thrill of being in such a beautiful space, purpose-built for art-making and young imaginations… and then after the workshop playing in the playground and feeling excited by what they had achieved and experienced.

Who knows, perhaps she has already registered the children for the workshops this weekend! I’ll find out when I get there I suppose. And if not this year, maybe I will be able to encourage them to come along next year. And if not them, someone else.

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Ideas for Term One, ELS

Tomorrow is my first day back at the Language School (ELS). I will have three classes again – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary. The age ranges roughly correspond to years P-2, 3-4, 5-6 respectively.

My plan this term is work again with books and text, and to develop music composition activities that support some of the oral language and literacy goals for the classes. We will try chants drawn from the text, song-writing, composed music that expresses the emotion or dramatic journey of the story, and other ideas.

But it is hard to find the ideal books for this kind of work. It is good if there is an element of repetition in the text; fairly simple vocabulary, as lots of new words will make it too challenging for the newest arrivals; but it is also important to find age-appropriate books if possible, that fit with these vocabulary restrictions. It is good too, if the books introduce useful new vocabulary – such as clothes, colours, foods, transport, and so on.

The books I have chosen for this term, in consultation with one of the teachers, are:

  • Shoes from Grandpa by Mem Fox (Lower Primary)
  • What’s that noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie (Middle Primary)
  • ARANEA – A story about a spider by Jenny Wagner (Upper Primary)

Shoes from Grandpa is very light-hearted, and lists lots of different kinds of clothes, it has a rhyming scheme that is fairly regular, and is repetitive, adding a line to the repetition at a time. I first came across this book reading it to my 2-year-old nephew in Brisbane.

What’s that Noise? What’s that sound? has an excellent ‘chorus’ that rhymes and is repeated throughout the book. It starts with a feeling of scary noises in the night, and ends in fantasy world, so musically there are lots of jumping-off points for composing.

Aranea is in fact quite a wordy book, but the story, very simply, poignantly told, and the illustrations, are beautiful. This is a book I had as a child and I loved it, and loved my parents reading it to me. It has simple refrain that is repeated 3 or 4 times through the story, but more significantly for this age group, it has a level of emotional content that I think they will connect with. The story has parallels with a refugee or immigrant’s experience, of arriving in a new place and feeling unsafe and conspicuous.

However, despite liking things about each of these books, I also have some doubts. I will continue to search for books for ESL kids, that do not require the vocab of a native English speaker, that have ‘pathways’ into them via repetition, refrains and ‘choruses’ in the text, that have engaging, age-appropriate story lines, and musical properties! A tall order, I know, but probably someone out there has already written such books.

If you have any recommendations, please leave them as comments – thanks!

And now, because I am in a reflective mood, here are some photos of reflections on the River Arno, in Pisa, from my recent trip.

clouds on Arno, enhanced

cloudy water

Gothic sunset

Melbourne Festival – reviews (3)

This was probably an ambitious thread to start. From now on my comments on the shows I’ve seen will be brief.

Daniel Kitson – C90

This was a show I liked a lot. Kitson is an engaging performer, weaving stories and characters and setting the scene with skill in this one-man show about a man’s last day working in an archive of compilation tapes. The set was gorgeous – a tall set of shelves piled high with tapes, and a ladder on railings that could slide along the width of the shelving – which Kitson did with much grace.

It was a heart-warming story too. At the close of the show Kitson reappeared to invite us to come to the stage in order to inspect the set more closely. The labels on all the tapes were intriguing and beguiling – suggesting love lost, hopes for rekindling, requests for forgiveness, tributes and revenge. Apparently the show tours no more after this Melbourne season, and the set will stay here.

Jerome Bel – The Show Must Go On

My favourite show in the Festival so far! The whole night had a touch of surreality about it, and this framed the show perfectly. The audience and their reactions to this piece (which starts with a darkened stage and a guy sitting at a sound desk down the front playing individual tracks from CDs, one after the other, with gaps in between while he took out one CD and put in the next) were part of the show. Very John Cage in that respect.

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Opening night of ‘Hunger’

We opened last night to a full house. After such a long creative journey together it is very, very satisfying to finally be able to share the work. The audience last night was a mix of colleagues, friends, family – also reviewers! Today we have a matinee and an evening performance, same again on Wednesday.

Kate, (Rawcus director)  has arranged for the whole company to eat together before the show, so yesterday afternoon around 5pm we all sat down together at long trestle tables and tucked into a delicious lunch of hot food and salads. It’s a tradition that Kate brings with her from her work in theatre in France, she said, and feels like it will be a very affirming way for the Company to bond and experience together the performance season.

Yesterday The Age printed an interview with Kate, Paul (one  of the Rawcus performers) and me. You can read it here.

I’ll post reviews when we get them. If you are reading this and have seen the show – please leave comments!

Final countdown

And today we had our dress rehearsal. We started the day by going through a couple of scenes where there were some new lighting cues to be noted, then we started our run.

Like yesterday, but even more so, the who has a strong shape and momentum now. It feels like lots of the hesitancy and slowness of yesterday’s scene transitions has gone, replaced by swiftness and no slackening of tempo. The cast is growing in confidence. “I feel like we are in a good place now,” the director told me happily, as we walked to the production meeting at the end of rehearsal.

Today we also made up, which also helps people to get in character and respond authentically to others’ characters in the space. Cupid had wings added to his costume today, and he is delighted!

We are still having difficulty with one of our pieces. Ensemble-wise, it can easily feel shaky – a bit of a house of cards. It is driven very much by the cello, but our cellist is  playing from a balcony behind us at that point in the show. We have great foldback, but somehow it is still tricky to keep together. Also, most of our cues for section changes in the piece come from the stage action, so when we practise out of context we have to contrive the timings of these changes ourselves. We finished our rehearsal today working on it again, finding musical solutions to the main issues, and happily resolving our concerns somewhat. Our next chance to run it will be in Monday’s dress rehearsal, which is open to a small audience.

Hunger has been such a rich experience for me. There are so many aspects of the show and the production that have been new for me, and indeed, I am usually only one step (or half-step) ahead of the musicians at any one time – and it has been that way through the whole year! I often encourage the MSO musicians to feel brave about stepping out of comfort zones, reminding them of the great and exciting things that can happen when take risks, and have to trust our instincts and responses. In most of my MSO projects I am working in a context that is familiar for me, and while I deliberately set about challenging myself in all of the projects, I am still somewhat in a comfort zone. In Hunger I am constantly having to put myself out there, be courageous, trust my instincts, watch and learn and absorb all the information that I can. It is a very, very good thing for me.

Tomorrow (Sunday) is a day of rest. Much anticipated, and much needed by the whole ensemble, I think. Come Monday, we will be refreshed and geared up, ,reading to share our beautiful heart-felt, heart-filled work with a wide audience.

Final rehearsals

Hunger is in the homestretch now. Today we had our Tech Run. There have been a few unforeseen delays leading up to today (when I arrived I got the impression something a bit unexpected/alarming had been narrowly averted the night before… it may have been narrowly done so, but averted nonetheless!) But what is amazing is the number of things that need to be in place – the many technical requirements, people, final designs for lights and sound, the gear in place for these, staging assistants, and their assistants… for a show of this size, with this many performers, and complex staging. One delay, in one area, can place all sorts of pressure on other aspects of the show. Similarly, the content of Hunger is also filled with intricate connections. The run-through today was somewhat clunky – as you would expect, given it was our first Tech Run and there was a lot to adjust to. But also exciting, because with sound, lights and costumes all in, we are getting a strong sense of the show, and of the beautiful material that we have created.

Gillian's stage position at the start of the show - it begins with the musicians asleep, slowly woken up by a dancer.

Gillian’s stage position at the start of the show – it begins with the musicians asleep, slowly woken up by a dancer.

I have a gorgeous dress to wear. I can’t help but swish my way through the space, in my long circular skirt, with its black flower motif and rustling taffeta. The fabric is frail and threatens to give way, as this dress is an original from the 1930s (they tell me), with a pin-tucked bodice, black velvet buttons, and leg-o-mutton sleeves to my elbows. I drape the skirt about me as I sit on the side of the musicians’ stage, and ensure it falls elegantly to the floor when I sit on the piano stool. I feel like a girl in her first ballet frock. I’m a dag, I know.

It’s an exciting process to be part of – kind of thrilling and terrifying at the same time. At this stage I realise I am starting to feel nerves set in. Will my hands shake? That is the one thing I feel I can’t control so easily. And if they shake, will I make mistakes in my piano part, or my vibraphone part? These are the instruments I feel less secure in.

The musicians from MSO seem happy with the work, and proud of the show. Costumes, make-up and lights are all pretty special for orchestral musicians, who usually keep themselves more in the background in order to bring the music they play to the fore. I think that like me, they are particularly enjoying seeing the show come to life, from its typewritten structure, set out under headings, with short descriptions of the action that takes place. As it comes to life, it starts to flow, and build a momentum of its own.

Tomorrow we have our first dress rehearsal. A small group of supportive people will come to our final dress rehearsal on Monday. After that, we open our season!

Collaboration with ESL teachers

Last term one of my readers suggested I could set about building projects around work that my colleague teachers might already have underway in the classroom, as a way of encouraging further follow-through and reinforcement of some of the music-literacy tasks I have been developing.

It came as a timely reminder. I feel this is an approach I have tried before, and found frustrating in the lack of time there was available to properly plan with teachers, or communicate effectively about current work and goals for the class. We try, and have tried, but despite loads of good will and efforts, a true collaboration often proved elusive.

This term at the Language School I cannot teach up until the end of term (because I am going overseas – yee ha!). This means I won’t be around to lead the end-of-term performances that are such a significant and much-loved part of the term’s work.

Therefore, the teachers and I have concocted a plan – I will set about creating performance projects with the students that the teachers can continue when I am gone, that they will take through to the end of term. I need to plan composition tasks that take the teachers’ current skills into consideration, build in some in-class opportunities for teachers to lead and develop their musical skills, and work with material that is suitable for visiting in class by the teachers, during the week.

I have asked each teacher to select a book for their class to focus on for their music composition work – a book that was interesting enough to be read over and over again, and that contained useful literacy goals and vocabulary for the students. In the first week of term the books were chosen, and yesterday I started working with text from the books.

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