Archive for the ‘children’s music’ Tag

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.

 

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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A month of workshops

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

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

And a couple of sunrises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nests, June 2013, Gillian Howell

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

“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.

 

 

 

Children navigating and exploring independently

Nests at ArtPlay (Howell/Russell/Evans)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hidden Music’ found at ArtPlay

Back in October I created a site-specific workshop/performance event for children called ‘Hidden Music’. It was a musical hide-and-seek game in which children composed original pieces for specific sites around the venue, ArtPlay. At performance time, they hid themselves away in their chosen site, only performing when they got found. It was a pretty magical day – here’s how it panned out:


We walked around the site in small groups, deciding where we’d most like to create a piece for performance.

We wrote riddles and clues to put in a program to help the audience find our sites and performances.

We wrote music that used the environment in some way – its physical attributes and space, or ambient sounds that could become part of our composition. One group positioned themselves on the side of a hill and decided to run up the hill several times throughout each of their performances. (They were very tired by the end).

After we’d finished composing, we did a dress rehearsal, walking to each of the sites in turn and seeing the other groups’ performances.

At 4.30pm the performances began. Parents and friends came along; we also invited families who were in the playground next door to ArtPlay at the time we were about to start. The Hidden Music children spent a few minutes going up to adults and children, describing the project, and inviting them to join in the musical hide-and-seek. Quite a lot of people decided to do this. They gathered in the foyer at ArtPlay and heard an explanation of how the performances would work.

Then the ‘finding’ began. Younger children raced around, excited to discover the performances as quickly as possible. There were four spaces altogether – two inside (on a staircase, and inside two ‘cubby houses’) and two outside (in an empty shipping container that happened to be available, and in the small ‘forest’ behind ArtPlay).

Musically, the pieces were very varied. The piece created on the staircase used the steps up and down as a kind of physical graphic score. One child would walk while their partner would play the notes assigned to each step they touched. The cubby house pieces played with antiphonal effects and distance, and the group in the forest created a multi-section piece that used a gong to signal the start of each section (which always involved them running further up the hill in order to perform it). The piece in the shipping container included a very loud, thunderous section that required the players to bash the sides of the container with their hands, feet, elbows – while playing their instruments! Very dexterous, and the children’s suggestion.

Each group performed their music 4-6 times, and with each repeat performance, their confidence and performance poise grew. By the end, they were adding things, changing things, improvising new sections – all without discussion or planning. They were so in sync and comfortable with each other, the music began to develop new turns, with the performers hearing, responding and intuiting where it was going. This is one of the great gifts of this kind of performance project. Children don’t often get to do multiple performances of the same material in quick succession, but when they do, they can make  tremendous leaps of musical understanding and confidence.

Hidden Music was such a joyous project! At the end of one of the performances, one child turned to the musician working with him and said, beaming, “I’m just having the best time!” Later, the children talked about the things they’d learned, and what they’d particularly enjoyed. You can hear some of their comments, as well as those of members of the audience, in the video below.

In 2013 Hidden Music will move on to the Arts Centre Melbourne, and in that enormous, iconic building with its many levels and corridors and corners and staircases I know we will find even more beautiful and unusual sites for performance.

Photos in this blog post are by Melbourne photographer Charlie Sublet (www.charliesublet.com). Hidden Music was funded by the City of Melbourne.

Joyful learning and creating

Today I want to share and celebrate some of the joyful musical learning that is a hallmark of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program. Our last  workshop for 2012 took place recently, and as always, the combination of playful exploration, creative invention, links to orchestral repertoire, and carefully-chosen musical challenges revealed just how exciting it can be to be a young beginning musician with a big imagination.

Before you read any further, click ‘play’ on this Soundcloud file, so that you have last week’s creation playing in the background as you read:

(If the embedded file is not working for you, you can start the recording in a new page/tab here).

Let’s look at some of the learning that goes on:

Before the third and final workshop period for 2012, the children had attended 3 different MSO concerts, exposing them to the visual and aural intensity of a large orchestral piece being performed live. For this last project, the focus was on Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and at the concert, I asked the children to pay particular attention to the second movement, a “lopsided waltz” in 5/4.

Learning 1 – Focused, thoughtful listening to unfamiliar music

At the start of the workshop, the children reported on the 5/4 time signature (I’d asked them to work out what meter they thought it was in). They also noticed the structure (“in the middle it was a different melody, and then the first melody came back again”) – ternary form.

We then used these observations in our composing, for example, asking each group to work in 5/4 or to make a “feature of 5” (interpreting that instruction however they wanted, not necessarily in the time signature), and to use ternary form. One young cellist noticed in the concert that Tchaikovsky gave the cellos the melody first, so his small group also opted to give the cellos the melody first, before re-stating it in other instruments.

Composing music makes children stronger and more focused listeners. Their experience in making musical choices gives them insights into what those choices are, and makes them listen out for decisions the composer has made. It becomes a reflexive loop – the more they listen to new music in this way, the more ideas they get for their next composition experience, which feeds into the way they listen, which feeds into the way they compose… and so on.

Learning 2: Taking responsibility for the notes

Each child works out their own part in the composing process. I remind the MSO musicians to not “problem-solve” for the children, rather, to give them parameters from which to make their own choices. The music is memorised rather than written down (yes, the music you are listening was performed by the Ensemble from memory), which means that each children needs to remember their own part – their MSO musician won’t necessarily remember what everyone in the group was playing.

This might seem a risky way of doing it but the fact that the children are actively involved in making their own choices about what to play means that the memorisation process starts immediately the choice is made. If they forget their part, they can always create a new one, I remind them. So it is no great pressure, but it is their responsibility. It means too, that the music is theirs. It is not imposed, or someone else’s idea. They become invested in the music and take ownership of it, and this is reflected in the way that they play it.

Learning 3: Acute ensemble awareness

Freed from reading their part from a score or page, the children’s eyes and ears are wide open. The musical structure progresses through various cues – musical cues and conductor cues – all of which are worked out and learned together. This is the focus of the second workshop day – while the first day of a 2-day project is spent in small groups, composing and inventing, the second day is spent as a whole ensemble, working through each of the small group creations and  drawing them together into one large composition.

The second day is intense and hard work. We go through each piece in detail, finding sections of music that would benefit from having more players join (eg. in order to enhance a dramatic crescendo), and then teach the children in the other groups the part (or get them to create their own according to given parameters). More memorisation, more choices! And lots of sitting quietly and listening.

The benefit is that the children are involved in deciding the inner workings of the music, and play an active role throughout the piece. They observe me and the MSO musicians, and individuals among the children, problem-solve as we figure out the best way to deliver the different cues that we need.

The result is an incredibly focused, tuned-in, alert group of performers who remain inside the music for the whole piece. The intensity of their focus is a characteristic of the Ensemble that is always commented on by audience members. It means that they are sensitive to all sorts of aural and visual cues – including those that take place when something doesn’t quite go according to plan. They learn to trust the cues and the leaders, and to hear from the music where things are up to. It’s a very intuitive ensemble skill.

Learning 4: Personal challenges

The Ensemble attracts a wide range of playing abilities, because we accept members on their personalities and imaginations ahead of their playing ability. Some are therefore almost total beginners, while others are incredibly accomplished. Each Ensemble member establishes their own learning goals – we don’t ask them what these are, but the way they participate in the workshops and respond to set tasks gives some clues. In their end of year feedback, two of the young musicians shared these personal challenges:

“Looking at the audience when I played my solos felt very hard for me.  I didn’t quite overcome this but I got better at it.”

“I learned about listening to others ideas and seeing how these became music.”

“I have learnt many things – to be brave enough to put forward ideas, to trust each other, to have inner creativity, and above all to COUNT BEATS CAREFULLY.”

Learning 5: The importance of fun

This is perhaps more of a significant learning for the adults. The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops happen during school holidays and everyone who takes part does so because they want to be there. I build in as much fun and lightness as I can. Yes, we are involved in a fairly intense and fast-paced process, but it’s vitally important that everyone feels happy at the end of it, satisfied and not too tired! The social relationships that the children build over the year are incredibly important (we know from previous years that these friendships last a long time and that the children often cross paths in other musical projects later in life). ArtPlay is next door to a wonderful modern children’s playground, and many children nominate the time they spend playing outside as another highlight of the project.

Therefore, joy, laughter, playful ways into composing and ensemble music, an emphasis on abilities and what is already known with some new challenges thrown in (as are relevant to the context of the project), are crucial characteristics and components, alongside the children’s musical development. We know that the more enjoyment they experience, the greater their engagement. The greater their engagement, they more they will learn. The more they learn, the more satisfaction they feel. The more satisfaction, the greater the motivation to be part of the next creative project. Which leads to lively, dynamic creative musicians, music-makers and music-lovers. Which is good for all of us in society!

About the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble:

In this annual program, 27 children aged 9-12 work alongside Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians to create and perform their own music. I created the program in 2006 for the MSO and ArtPlay and have directed it ever since – this year’s was my 7th Ensemble! The program’s focus is on children composing, and developing their ideas by hearing the MSO perform in concert. Each workshop period lasts for an intensive 2 days. That means that the music you are listening to was created, rehearsed and performed over just nine hours.

Read here to learn more about how children are selected to be part of the program each year. Workshops for the 2013 Ensemble will take place at ArtPlay on 2-3 February 2013.

Read  here for a description of the Ensemble’s Pines of Rome project, July 2012.

Do you know a young musician aged 9-13 who would like to be part of this program? Forward them this blog post and get them to join my mailing list for workshop updates!

Survival skills in music class

There are a number of common traits that I’ve observed among new-arrival and ESL students over the past years that I’ve been working in this field, particularly among those of refugee backgrounds, or whose parents are from refugee/war-torn backgrounds.

One is to do with gripping and grabbing – they often take such a firm and intense physical hold of instruments or mallets or bows that it is almost impossible to help them adjust their hold in order to successfully make a sound on the instrument.

Another is to do with listening – the children are often ready and accurate mimics, and they are quick to join in with a rhythm, song or melody once they have heard it. However, if I add another instrument or contrasting/complementary voice to the mix however, they get confused and falter on the initial line. A common response is to start playing louder and faster – effectively blocking the new sound(s) from earshot but making ensemble playing very difficult.

Then there is the ‘high-speed chase’ – the tendency to play things as fast as possible. The speed means that the child has less control over their hands, and a small number of sounds in relatively quick succession – two fast claps in a longer rhythm, for example – will become 4 or 5 very fast claps. A rhythmic pattern involving left and right hands ‘patsching’ the thighs in turn becomes a waggle of left then right hands, in quick succession, too fast to keep track of or monitor in order to stop in time.

(This determination to be speedy is not just in music – it tends to apply to all ‘transitions’ throughout the day – choosing equipment, putting things away, making lines, changing spaces, etc).

I know that many of these traits and tendencies are common across many cohorts, and are certainly not outside any mainstream music teachers’ experiences. However, in mainstream settings, the tendencies get balanced out across a class, and while there might a few ‘grippers’ in the class, they won’t be in the majority. The traits I’m describing are common to nearly all the refugee-background children I’ve taught who arrived Australia with very little prior schooling, and generally no literacy skills in their mother tongue.

I think there are strong parallels between many of these characteristic traits in music and the survival skills a child quickly learns in a volatile, unsafe environment like a refugee camp or conflict zone:

  • You learn to hold things with all your strength.
  • You learn to take what you want as quickly as you can, especially if you are in competition with others around you.
  • You learn to respond extremely quickly to new things going on around you, turning your head to look at all movement, or to follow all sounds. However, multiple sounds or movements create a sense of chaos, so you start to lock onto just one at this point, taking refuge in as small and predictable an environment as possible.
  • You learn to do things quickly because you might not get much time before someone grabs the toy or equipment from you. You don’t give too much attention to taking care for the same reason. You operate with a sense of urgency all the time.

From the music teacher’s point of view, here in the safer environment of a classroom where there is time for everyone to have a turn, and opportunities are not determined by survival of the fittest, which of these tendencies is it safe (in terms of the child’s sense of emotional safety) to challenge? And for the child, what does it feel like to experience music with the different set of sensations to those that are familiar? Continue reading

Music Construction Site

During the first week of the school holidays, I led the first workshops of my 2012 project series at ArtPlay. We set up the Music Construction Site – a busy place of work and activity where the tools of the trade were percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes (as well as any instruments the construction workers chose to bring along with them), and the construction took the form of a large graphic score, made up of images and symbols denoting the children’s sounds and musical inventions.

There were two workshops – one for 5-8 year olds and their parents, and the other for 9-12 year olds. Here are some images from the day:

We started the 5-8 year olds with a bit of free exploration of the different instruments, letting them get a feel for the tools:

Once everyone had invented a sound or musical fragment, they needed to create its blueprint (graphic score):

We used symbols and images to make decisions about the best way to order and structure all our sounds. Here, I’m talking about the role of “the element of surprise” in a piece of music:

ArtPlay is situated in Birrarung Marr. If the weather is fine we can send some groups to work outside.

At the end of the workshop, we put all the sounds in order and play through the score.

The next workshops at ArtPlay will be on Sunday 17th June. This time, we’ll be boarding the New Music Express – transforming stories into music!