Archive for the ‘children’ Tag

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)

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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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Hiding the music at the Arts Centre

On Friday I met with the Arts Centre production staff to make plans for the forthcoming Hidden Music workshops and performance at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

In Hidden Music children aged 9-13 compose music for specific locations, then perform their compositions for members of the public. However, there is a twist – the performances are hidden and the members of the public have to follow clues in order to find the performances. The children have to perform every time someone finds them.

ArtPlay - Gillian Howell Hidden Music WorkshopThe first Hidden Music project was at ArtPlay in 2012 (thanks City of Melbourne, for funding the project!). Children hid their performances on a stairway, in a book cubby, in an old shipping container, and in a clump of trees on the side of a hill (just behind the ArtPlay building). See some video footage here.

The Arts Centre Melbourne is presenting Hidden Music in the September school holidays. We will be in the Hamer Hall building, and have six glorious levels of formal rooms, stairways, escalators, cupboards, storage rooms, nooks and crannies from which to select our performances spaces.

Here are some of the options on Levels 5, 6 and 7 (Level 6 is street level):

Some of these spaces will take audience members into parts of the Hamer Hall that they don’t normally get to access. If we choose some of these stairwells, however, we’ll need to make sure the performers actually get found – there will be no chance of audible clues, as these are sound-locked spaces. I don’t want anyone languishing in cupboards, waiting to to get found so that they can play…

Here are some of the options on the lower levels:

I get pretty excited when I see rows of escalators and think of the ways these could be used in a site-specific composition – all that gliding and slow, gradual progression! I also love the thought of what a group of 9-13 year old musicians might make of the space-age green room with the gilt edges and white leather couches. To me it is very Barbarella. What clues will they give people to help them find the performance? And what music will they make to depict this fabulous space?

You’ll have to come along to the Hidden Music performances to find out. The performances are free and open to everyone, but places in the composition workshop are filling up fast, so please book your child in, and/or share this post with any one you think the project would interest!

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

“I loved it so much I forgot to eat my chocolate!”

Last week we had the first of this year’s 2-day workshops for the 2013 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. Twenty-seven children aged between 8 and 13 gathered at 10am on Monday morning, and by 3pm Tuesday afternoon we had created our first group composition. Have a listen to our music while you read the rest of the post:

This year’s Ensemble is full of characters (every year’s Ensemble is actually – read here to learn about our selection process), and lots of talent. We spent the first hour of the first day getting the group’s energy up and flowing. I allow quite a lot of time for warm-up games on the first day, because no-one knows anyone else and it is important to get everyone relaxed and bouncing ideas off each other. We played a few old favourites – the Chair Game, a game of strategy and forward-thinking that involves a lot of very rapid switching of chairs; Introductions, which involves memory work and listening; and Shape-Making, which gets people working collaboratively and to time limits.

A group plans their compositionOur music focus was the British composer Thomas Ades, and in particular, his Four Scenes from The Tempest. We used short extracts from the libretto to create four musical scenes of our own, depicting Ariel’s very rhythmic, fast-paced description of the shipwreck, an argument between Ariel and Prospero in which Ariel is denied his request for freedom, a very simple, beautiful interpretation of ‘Full fathom five’ (re-written as Five Fathoms Deep by Ades’ librettist) with eery, shimmering sounds from bowed crotales and submerged bells, and a sweet romantic theme, growing in intensity, depicting the love between Ferdinand and Miranda.

It always interesting to see the mix of children that we meet in the Open Workshops settle into becoming an Ensemble, experimenting, being courageous, and learning from each other. Some older children start the project with a certain amount of shyness or self-consciousness but then blossom into peer leaders. In this project I saw two of the older members of the group, both violinists, take on a task of making up their own bluegrass-style melody with a certain amount of trepidation and shyness. The melody they came up with was infectious, and pretty soon, other violinists were clamoring to learn it. I saw the two older children grow in stature and confidence as they saw the group respond so positively to their music, and they became unofficial leaders of the violin section.

There is always space for children to take up the challenge of improvising a short solo. The points in the music where these solos happen are often only chosen halfway through the second day. In this project, we had two improvised solos – one from a saxophonist who did a wild, savage squawking solo, using all the side keys and trill keys on his instrument and playing as loudly as possible; and one from a flautist who traded short riffs with the MSO cellist who was working on the project. Every person who takes on a solo is modeling this role for the other players, giving them an idea of how this ‘territory’ works.

We have an incredibly strong percussion section in this year’s Ensemble. One of the three boys is particularly interesting. He is intensely musical – ideas just burst out of him constantly – but I wasn’t sure (from the Open Workshop experience) how he’d go working in a group this size, with such long stretches of waiting in silence or standing by. Well, he did just great. I could see it was hard work for him at times, but it is for all the children in different ways, and it was lovely to see how much joy he was getting from being part of the group, and how much he was contributing to the music we were creating. I am so happy to know that we have created an Ensemble where there is a lot of space for the children to simply be themselves. The focus on creating our own work means that everyone’s different skill levels, strengths, personality quirks and interests can be accommodated as the music comes together.

One of the things that the children work out in this first 2-day workshop is that I say ‘Yes’ a lot. When a child says, “Can I play that melody?” or “I’ve had an idea – can I play it like this?” I say “Yes, sure!” By asking questions like this, the children start to learn that this music really is theirs to shape. After a while, they ask less, and just play their ideas, trying them out and seeing how they sound. For some, the speed with which new ideas may be introduced can make things feel quite confusing.  As one boy said, “It’s good, but it’s also a bit weird when you are doing it [making up a piece in a group] for the first time. It takes getting used to.”

My favourite comment from the project was sent to me by one of the children’s mothers. Her daughter told her at the end of the first day, “”I loved it SO much today, that I completely forgot to eat the chocolate in my lunchbox!”

Sounds like a definite vote of confidence to me. I am really looking forward to working with this group of children this year.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Getting ready to leave

We are at the end of term, and at the Language School where I lead music workshops each week, students are preparing to leave. Some will return again in Term 4, but others will be moving on to new schools, scattered across all parts of Melbourne.

You see, the Language School is a transitional school – students enrol for between 6 months and a year (generally children from refugee backgrounds are eligible to stay for a year) before moving on to mainstream school. For some children, Language School is the only school they have ever known, and they thrive in this environment that is geared towards bringing out the best in them. For many, it represents a place of kindness, encouragement and stability when the rest of their world is in a state of flux and stress. In addition to teaching English, Language Schools in Victoria are also helping students learn how school in Australia works, and aim to give them a positive and successful experience of school-based learning.

It’s a time of mixed emotions. There is much to celebrate in their achievements – these students have learned so much and have made great headway during their months at this school. They are ready to move on. However, it is a sad or anxious time for some of the students, reluctant to leave a place where they have been happy and have thrived.

I can see this playing out in some of my students at the moment. Two girls in Middle Primary have, in the last few weeks, regressed. They need more assistance and reassurance, and sometimes get things wrong that we know they know very well.

“They don’t want to leave,” their class teacher told me. “So they are starting to do some things badly, or to make mistakes, as a way to prove they need to stay.”

Years ago, in my first project in a Language School, I remember a student in secondary school explaining her anxiety this way:

“Here, I have friends, I am confident, I am a leader. But when I go to the new school I won’t know anyone, and I will feel shy and scared again. I’m going to lose everything all over again, and be right back at the bottom of the pile.”

Our songs this term are about houses and homes. The children are singing about their previous homes, and their lives there, and also about their new homes in Australia. Resettlement is an enormous, stressful undertaking for a child, in which they get very little say. They spend years in this state of transition.

“You are wonderful,” I tell the students in music class each week. “You’ve done so well. You’ve worked so hard and learned so much, and you are strong and brave. It’s hard to change schools again, but I know you’re going to be okay.”

And they look down at their laps, or away, and consider this.

Big fish, small fish

I’ve discovered a new workshop warm-up game recently, a circle game called Big Fish, Small Fish. It’s very quick, and quite silly, but I’ve found that it lightens everyone’s moods and at the same time creates a good focus among the group.

To teach it, get everyone to copy these two moves – they can say “Big Fish!” and hold their two hands together very close (about 10cm apart), or “Small Fish!” and hold their hands wide apart (about 60cm). Each person says one of these two (with the correct gesture) one by one around the circle. If someone makes a mistake (eg. says “Big Fish!” and holds their hands wide apart), they need to perform some kind of forfeit. The last few groups have suggested doing push-ups or star jumps in the centre of the circle.

Big Fish, Small Fish appears simple enough, but it’s a little more complex than it seems. It usually takes the first person after me a couple of attempts to get it right.

But it also produces lots of smiles and relaxed faces. I played it with all three classes at the Language School today. With Lower Primary, where there are quite a few new students, I wondered if it was a bit too tricky – did these children even know what the words ‘big’ and ‘small’ meant? Was I confusing them for the next few weeks? I am not sure how exactly they made sense of the game; however, judging from the cheeky smiles of delight on their faces when they pronounced the words and held their hands in the opposite shape, I think they may well have understood the joke.