Archive for the ‘City Beats’ Tag

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.

Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.

City Beats, part three

Last week saw the third instalment of the MSO/ArtPlay ‘City Beats’ program – two days of workshops with students from four different schools. Working with them over the course of the year is giving us lovely insights into the way they are getting comfortable with the musical processes we’re using, and with the MSO musicians (me in particular, as I am the common link between each of their visits to ArtPlay).

In their first visit, we created three-part stories and devised three musical narratives (movements) to depict these stories. In their second visit, we expanded one of the movements into a whole-ensemble piece.

In this third visit, we needed to create whole-ensemble arrangements for the other two movements they’d created back in April. Our first group arrived on Tuesday morning, bounding into the light-filled ArtPlay space. Several came up and hugged me to say hello (in fact, I got hugs from people in each group across the two days – nice!).

With each of the groups we started with a brief warm-up and then watched video footage from the first workshops, focusing on the musical material we needed to arrange that day. I reminded them of the stories they’d created. Then we arranged our chairs in a circle and got started.

These were very directed workshops – the musical material had already been composed, and so our focus was on arranging and perhaps embellishing. This direction notwithstanding, we still came up with some unexpected new material.

For example, these song lyrics (from the group whose story was about going into the city and getting caught in a terrible storm):

Happy to be together

After the storm

Everyone’s safe, let’s celebrate

Good grief it’s excellent! (Ow!)

The ‘Ow’ is Michael Jackson-style. ‘Good Grief’ was an unexpected offer – I don’t think I’ve ever written a song with that expression in it before!

I loved seeing how much the group from the bushfire-affected school has blossomed over the year. They were careful and thoughtful in their first couple of visits, but this time there was a delightful sense of confidence and playfulness in their approach to the workshop. Also a sense of the possibility of mastery – one boy, for example, asked if he could play the thumb piano (kalimba) again, and added, “Last time, one of the others had a different one that had a card that told you what all the notes were.”

“That’s right – I think we’ve got that one here,” I said, and found it for him. He sat down with the xylophone group and was from then on completely absorbed by his new instrument, working out all the melodies note by note, and finding substitutes for the pitches that were missing on his instrument.

One of the groups comes from the outer western suburbs, and each time they come along, I am struck by two things – how tall they all are(!) and how naturally they groove together. There is a lot of innate musicality in this group – the music tends to sit together really well, without a great deal of ‘containing’ from me. We created two new sections of music with them. I particularly enjoyed our musical depiction of the words Flat. Gravel. Slower travel, with lots of dry, scratching, scraping sounds from a range of percussion instruments.

Our fourth group comes from the outer southern suburbs, and created the story about the Beatbusters. For this visit, they brought along three guitars, and we created a delightful little piece to open the narrative with, that placed one simple riff on the xylophones and accompanied it with a progression of four chords on the guitars. It was one of the charmed pieces of music – so simple, and yet so poignant and effective. Could’ve played it all day. Ah!

From small groups and stories to large-scale ensemble

This week saw the second instalment of the City Beats project, a music program from students from schools with high levels of ESL and financial disadvantage. I’ve been working with four different groups of students aged 8 to 12, from four different schools. In their first visit, they wrote a short, three-part story and composed music to depict those stories, organised into three sections (you can read about that first set of projects here). This week’s visit was their second to the City Beats project, and the focus was now on building up their compositions for percussion instruments, section by section, into whole-ensemble pieces, with strong structural coherence and a student-composed part for each child.

It was an intense and noisy couple of days! I realised at the end of the first day that we were asking them to do something far more challenging than we had the first time round.  No more break-out groups. Fewer opportunities for lots of individual attention. Instead, the focus was on arranging, and working together as a large ensemble of players, learning your part,  only playing when you need to, and so on. Sure, there was still room for surprises and further creative additions to the music, and some new ideas and developments definitely came forward. But mostly, this second workshop was about being part of a group, and playing your part.

Some of the groups found this pretty challenging. This is an exciting project for them, and they come in ready to PLAY! The process sounded confusing to them when I first explained it, I suspect. They needed to experience just how we would put the pieces together in order to understand the process. And the process works. By the end of each session, we had completed a five-minute arrangement of one of their compositions, some with quite complex structures and section transitions, in which everyone had an instrument and a part to play.

It was particularly satisfying seeing the students start to ‘get it’. One grade 5 boy caught my attention in the final workshop of the two days. He hadn’t seemed that engaged, and, along with his group of friends, had to be reminded to stay on task. However, by the end of the workshop, as we started to put all the layers of music together, his demeanour completely changed. Suddenly, he could make sense of what we were planning to do with all this music, all these riffs. He understood how it all fitted together now. From then on, he was the first to respond when I raised my hand for quiet. He gestured sternly to people in his section when they started playing their part at the wrong time. He kept his eyes glued to me – absolutely glued. A transformation of understanding and meaning had taken place for him in the two hours we worked together.

There were others like him, in each group. And at the end of their two hours, despite having worked incredibly hard, and with considerable focus required of them, the buzz from the groups was that they didn’t want to leave! I imagine that, when we see them again in Term 3, ready to arrange another section of music from their Term 1 compositions, they will have a much clearer understanding of the creative and collaborative process that we’re using.

City beats, different drums

This week I led the first two days of a bi-monthly project for primary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s a music composing and performing project for primary school students, and four schools are taking part in 2011.

The aim is to give the students a rich, intensive music-making experience. They will play percussion instruments, invent their own music, and develop performance and ensemble skills in an inclusive, encouraging, collaborative environment. The program acts as a pathway to bring new young people from diverse backgrounds toward other programs for young musicians at ArtPlay and with the MSO. In general, the MSO/ArtPlay programs attract a fairly middle-class, educated cohort of participants (a generalisation I know, but not an unreasonable claim). We wanted to ensure that talented and enthusiastic young musicians from less well-resourced backgrounds could also access the program and so the City Beats program was developed.

This week’s projects were focused on musical story-telling. We asked each of the groups to invent a story, which was then retold in music. I found it fascinating the way that the stories they created were so reflective of their environments.

School A is a school from a bushfire-affected area – survivors of the devastating firestorms that swept through parts of Victoria in February 2009. Lots of post-trauma responses are playing out in the school at the moment. These children were a serious, subdued group, and very gentle with each other and with themselves. They were careful in the warm-up games, only gradually letting down their guards and increasing their eye contact, or offering more extrovert gestures into the circle games. They invented a story characterised by tentative expectations. A group of children were heading to a city venue to perform in a competition, but they got lost. Passers-by offered a series of convoluted directions ut there were no lucky breaks –  the group of students had to construct their own ‘map’ that combined all these directions, and they found the venue just in time. They went on stage to perform, reminding themselves not to get their hopes up, that “winning isn’t everything”. However,  it turned out that they “ended up winning a great big prize!”

School B is from the outer south-eastern suburbs, with high level ESL student numbers. The school is noted for its bold approach to curriculum, and its architecturally-designed open-plan school. Apparently the prep classroom has a giant dinasaur in it. These children wrote an extraordinarily imaginative story, taking musical notions like ‘beats’ and turning them into characters. There were the BeatBusters, the Fun Police, and at the heart of it a young musician who just wanted to play a solo. At every turn in the story, they made something unexpected happen. I loved their unfettered, confident approach to imaginative story-telling.

Another school arrived at the workshop with a detailed list of all the different sounds they had heard on their bus journey into town. We teased these out to make a rhythmic, driving depiction of their trip from the outer western suburbs, over the Westgate Bridge and into the city. This group was perhaps the most innately musical of the 2 days (or perhaps by then we adults were remembering to get out of their way and just let them play!) – they grooved together with confidence and great listening. One boy in my group wanted to count everyone in at the start of our piece, and he took on board every piece of advice that was offered – ‘make sure everyone is looking at you and is ready, before you count in.’ ‘Count in at the speed you want us to play.’ When our group performed I saw the other MSO musicians smile in delight at the self-assured way he performed this role.

Four stories, four groups, and lots of musical ideas – we will meet the groups again in two months time and develop their pieces further.

Happy Train – City Beats

The second project I led last week was the City Beats project, an ensemble of children from grades 3 and 4 who have had very little exposure to music-making prior to this project. It’s the second time we’ve all worked together this year – the first time was in April. The City Beats program is targeted towards kids from ‘disadvantaged’ communities. I hate using labels like that – they’re so broad and sweeping, and can conjure up all sorts of inaccurate images… but the project is targeted towards them in recognition of the fact that nearly 100% of the participants in most MSO/ArtPlay projects are kids who have access – through school/parents/community – to be part of music events, to learn an instrument, and to hear different performances. And the children/families who don’t have access to these things also don’t tend to be supported by the kind of community infrastructure/communication networks that lets them know about free or low-cost opportunities.

We came up with the City Beats project as a way of offering an entry point to children who are keen to do more music. They get their travel provided (a bus in and out of the city for the group) and lunch on each of the workshop days. And they spend two days working with me and a small group of MSO musicians to create and perform their own music.

Last week’s project was focused on trains. ArtPlay used to be a train engine workshop, in its former life, in the days when the railways lines in Melbourne crisscrossed the area that is now Federation Square. Also, ‘trains’ in music offer rich composition starting points. There are the sound effects you can make to sound like trains running on the tracks (vocal sounds, body percussion, different whistles); the rhythmic motion of the train (can be played on all manner of instruments); the emotion attached to travel (can be translated in song lyrics as well as melodies); and there are lots of great examples of music you can listen to to get ideas. I like to play:

  • Nowhere Train by the wonderful Melbourne-based vocal ensemble Coco’s Lunch
  • Indian Pacific by Australian composerJames Ledger, an orchestral piece that depicts the epic train line between Perth and Sydney, connecting the two oceans; and
  • Pacific 231 by Honnegar, which has some fabulous rhythmic and harmonic writing in it.

This year’s City Beats Ensemble is a group of wonderful live wires – really open, happy bright sparks with loads of ideas. I said to the musicians at the end of the first day, “We haven’t asked one question yet that has been met with silence. There have been lots of ideas in response to every question I’ve asked. So keep asking them questions, keep handing the responsibility over to them!”

With this project, I want to give the children strong experiences with the instruments we provide (big range of percussion), where they can develop techniques and get a sense of their expressive range, and creative problem-solving tasks, in the form of composition tasks in small groups. We brainstormed some of the parts of a train journey that could be depicted musically, then divided into the three groups (4 in each group) and chose one of those ideas for each group.

We also had some whole-ensemble elements – a body percussion dance that started off the piece (accompanied by the MSO musicians), and a song that we all wrote together.

My favourite part of the project was on the second day when we were preparing to perform the music we’d composed. I suggested the children go outside (ArtPlay is next to a very popular children’s playground) to approach the adults and children there, and ask if they would like to come into ArtPlay to hear their performance. The children did this so beautifully – I think their friendliness and genuine offer quite endeared them to many of the adults they approached!  One group of four adults came in quite bemused – they felt the tiniest bit railroaded, they confessed (excuse the pun) but also genuinely keen to see the performance, to show their support and interest in the children who had approached them.

Within just a few minutes we had gathered an audience of about thirty people – maybe more! – most of whom had never even been inside ArtPlay and had no idea what it was. They were incredibly appreciative – several said on the way out that they felt they had been “incredibly lucky – we were in the right place at the right time!”

What happens next for the City Beats children? They have another performance opportunity coming up this year, but for next year, I hope that some will put up their hands to be part of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble in 2010. We would continue to sponsor their involvement, and provide instruments for them to play if they don’t have their own… so that little by little we can also start to expand the pool from which membership of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble is drawn. I think you need to approach these kinds of cultural change/shift projects with long timelines and a lot of patience. There are lots of barriers (financial, practical, cultural) that make it difficult for many children to access projects, even when the projects are free. One of these is about being made to feel welcome and legitimate, or belonging, and a confidence that your contributions will be welcomed and accepted. Hopefully the City Beats project in 2009 has established that sense for some of these children.

Back in the (blogging) saddle

It’s been a long time since I posted – I’m sorry, dear readers, I have been thoroughly entrenched in thesis-land, writing up, then writing some more… I am making steady progress, but it is not finished yet. Not yet. I am still to set the date for the post-submission party.

Meanwhile, work continues. It’s been busy. Back in the April school holidays, I had four great days at ArtPlay. The first two were working with this year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, and the second two were with a group of primary school students who were coming to music for the first time. That was with a program called City Beats.

Here’s what we did:

The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble composed music inspired by Rachmaninov’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini. We looked at the idea of composing variations on a theme, likening variations to musical disguises. I was particularly happy with my warm-up sequence for this project, which introduced a number of composition techniques that Rach makes use of in the Rhapsodie, but which explored them in game form. It was also interesting for me to observe my own role as the project leader, particularly on the first day, when the children spend a lot of time working with their adult musician (from the MSO) in break-out groups. (I’m paying particular attention to my role and pedagogy in this year’s project, as part of the large funded research project happening at ArtPlay). In the break-out groups, when I move from group to group, keeping an eye on how things are progressing, I was also able to spend time with individuals, sometimes because they needed a bit of extra support or direct encouragement, and sometimes because they needed challenging, and could be taken aside for a short time to develop solos or more demanding material of their own.

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