Archive for the ‘classical music’ Tag


A number of years ago now, I developed the ‘jam’ large-scale workshop format. I wanted to create something that could take place in a public space (ie. open to the public), that could cater for all ages and all levels of playing ability, to which anyone could turn up on the day and participate. I particularly wanted it to be the kind of event that whole families – parents, teenagers and children learning to play an instrument, younger siblings who just loved banging things, grandparents – could take part in together rather than the instrument-learning child being dropped off while parents take the younger sibling(s) off for an hour.

Jams have continued to evolve since then and these days it is one of the workshop formats that new clients often ask me to create for them. It has also developed along some different strands – such as the massed music-making scale of the Big Jams I’ve created and co-led for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival the last two years. This clip is from the 2011 Big Jam, co-presented with Rusty Rich (purple suit) and Mal Webb (orange suit). The dress code was ‘colourful’, which I think we acquitted pretty well!


Another strand is the ‘Jam on a Classic’, which can involve hundreds (rather than thousands) of participants. This video shows the Jam on The Rite of Spring that I created in 2010. It’s a good example of the way I extract a few ideas and themes from a big orchestral work and use them as the basis for a large group improvisation.


The next big jam I’ll be leading is on February 18th at the Myer Music Bowl, a large covered amphitheatre surrounded by grass-covered slopes in the heart of Melbourne. Every February the MSO presents a series of free symphony orchestra concerts at the Bowl and Melburnians pack a picnic and attend in the thousands. This year, I’ve been asked to create a pre-concert jam that will entice the picnickers – parents and children – to examine their picnic baskets for possible soundmakers (cutlery? Salad bowls? Tupperware?) and join in a jam on themes from Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico (the first piece that will be performed in that evening’s concert). A team of MSO musicians and young players from the MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble will be on hand to lend support and give us a solid musical foundation to lock into!

Myer Bowl Jam

Saturday 18 February, 5-5.30pm

Followed by a free orchestral concert at 7pm

All welcome!

Jam on the great classics

This week I’m hunting for Great Classical Riffs.

What are the pieces of classical music you’ve always wanted to jam along with? What are the riffs, melodies, rhythms and chord progressions that you’ve always wanted to pull out of an orchestral piece to turn into loops for improvising over?

I’m creating a Jam on three great classics for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on the 19th April. I’m still choosing the ‘moments’ of music to use. One definite is the Romance from Lietenant Kije, by Prokofiev. You probably know the tune – Sting borrowed it for the song ‘Russians’. It’s a lovely, solemn Russian melody in Aeloian mode.

Other ‘moments’ I’m thinking of including is the driving, rhythmic opening of the Dances of the Young Girls from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… but I’ve done a whole jam on The Rite of Spring before, so it’s not a new idea. There are some funky syncopated rhythms from The Soldier’s Tale (also by Stravinsky) that could work well…

A friend suggested the 6-8/3-4 rhythm of ‘America’ from West Side Story. I like the idea of this very much. A quote that is purely rhythmic could be teamed with a harmonic or melodic idea from another piece.

Music for jamming needs to be in a key that can be played on open strings by beginner string players… and also be in a key signature that doesn’t transpose into a tricky multiple-sharps key signature for the Bb instruments! It needs to be simple enough to be memorised quickly, and have sufficient interest to be looped so that people can solo and riff over the top of it.

What favourite musical ‘moments’ do other people have, from the classical music world?


Last week’s concert project

I posted earlier last week about the schools concert project that I have been working on with the Academy musicians. The project was completed last week and was a great success. We tried to create an experience for the young people that would be memorable and highly engaging, and that invited them to participate in some way in the concert event. But equally importantly, I wanted this to be a project that the Academy musicians would benefit from, that they would find inspiring and enjoyable, and not a burden that felt far removed from their usual performance work at the Academy.

Here are some of the things that we got right, that I feel are significant. If we were to put together a template for successful children’s concerts, these would be included:

1. The Academy students felt a strong sense of ownership over the concert.

The whole idea for this concert was developed in consultation with three elected student body representatives, with decisions about repertoire and programming themes involving all the participating musicians. We considered how the timeframe for the project would best work (keeping it all in one week, and allowing individual practice time on each of the days where there would be project contact time required); preferred audience size; and ways of creating strong engagement with the music. They were involved in selecting repertoire, and were responsible for choosing the extracts of the pieces that they would perform in the concert. We had a meeting/rehearsal prior to undertaking the classroom visits to all the students attending the concert, and after discussing some general ideas, the students divided into teams of 2 or 3 and developed their own plans of what they’d like to include in their visits to the classrooms.

As part of their overall brief, I asked them to include points of reference about what the children could expect in the concert – what they would be invited to do as part of their participation. The Academy students included this in their plans, and through their descriptions also enhanced their own commitment to these ideals and the format we had devised.

2. The children attending all had a personal relationship with many of the musicians performing in the concert.

They knew their names, and had learned about the different instruments. They had had the opportunity to ask questions, and learn unusual bits of information from the Academy musicians. As different performers appeared in the performance space you could hear the children whispering their names to each other: “It’s Anna! It’s Chris!” and smiling at them in recognition.

3. The concert reflected the performance values that are characteristic of all ANAM’s concerts.

We configured the space in innovative ways that kept the children intrigued by where the music might come from next. The music we presented was diverse and often challenging, ranging from Haydn and Brahms, to contemporary works by Mary Finsterer and Andrew Ford. This was not a typical concert program for young children, but then, I am certain that children can be engaged by far more unflinching repertoire than is often offered to them. We had faith in this in the concert program we developed. Lastly, we invited the children to experience something of the life at ANAM, ushering them through working spaces on their way into and out of the concert venue, and drawing them into this world.

4. The children were active participants

In between the different numbers, the children were led by one of the musicians to make soundscapes using body percussion and other sounds. These were chosen to create a musical link to the next piece of repertoire. Some were particular effective, such as getting all the children to make incredibly quiet whistle sounds, over which the solo flute piece (Ether by Mary Finsterer, which starts with whistle tones on amplified flute) – and flautist – gradually emerged.

Here are some photos from the classroom visits, that give an idea of the different ways the Academy musicians built engagement and rapport with their young audience.

Establishing a dialogue

Classroom performance

One of the players invited a child from the class to assemble her clarinet. The volunteer assembler approached it with great care and thought, as though it were a kind of jigsaw puzzle.

Changing dynamics according to the height of the clarinet

Playing informally

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about those opportunities that arise from time to time to play informally with others and how we respond to them. I went through a classical music training. Improvisation and composing came later to me, after I had finished my undergrad studies. I tend to think of myself as someone who was “classically-trained” and know that I have worked at letting go of a lot of rigidity and baggage that can go along with that training.

Recently there was another gathering of the ArtPlay Senior Artists (you can read the blog and forum that is responding to those sessions here) at which we discussed the pedagogy and thinking that underpins the MSO ArtPlay Ensembles that I direct. After the session one of the other artists began to tell me about her own music performance experiences, and how unable she had always felt to just pick up her instrument and play whatever… she felt she had to have something prepared, or time to rehearse, before every playing in front of anyone. “Then I went to art college, in the 1980s,” she told me. “And of course everyone was joining and forming bands. They ‘d ask me to play too, but I couldn’t, I just didn’t feel I could play in that way, and I wished that I could.”

The funny thing is, I told her, despite all the work I do with improvisation, and in encouraging people to play, I too still can feel crippled by exactly the same feelings. I was at a party recently where there were many musicians (quite a contemporary, avant-garde experimental crowd) and after dinner the music started. Tony (my boyfriend) played (brilliantly, as always), the host and his son performed, some other guests (each of whom were electronic music people) performed using various bits of equipment. I had brought my clarinet with me, but when the time came, I shrank away from playing. I surprised myself, but I knew I didn’t want to play. I felt like I needed to have prepared something. I didn’t feel comfortable to just get up and improvise, for some reason, even though I know I could have done that.

By contrast, there was another party recently, when Nico and Martin were here from Ireland, and when the music started there you just couldn’t stop me. Someone lent me a saxophone (I hadn’t brought an instrument with me) and I played all night. I passed it to Tony, seeing as he is the resident expert saxophonist, but the mouthpiece/reed set-up was wrong for him and he was happier just jamming on the guitar. We sang, we played, we rolled out as many songs as we all could think of. No shyness or reluctance on my part at all.

It was a very different crowd at the second party – people I know very well, whereas at the first party I was a bit of a newcomer to that group – they are Tony’s friends who I am only just getting to know. When he and I discussed this barrier to playing informally he didn’t agree that it was a legacy of a “classical music training”. He had felt similarly reluctant at the second party, he said, as I had at the first, where he knew fewer people and where the music environment was one based around familiar songs. I know heaps of songs – I’ve always sung and been around people who sing – but he doesn’t, and hasn’t.  So he felt less comfortable playing, despite being a seasoned, veteran improviser!

Therefore, perhaps the ‘barriers’ are set up more in response to the environment or people present, than they are to our training or abilities. However, I do think the “classical music” training does little to prepare musicians to engage informally and spontaneously with their instruments (I am thinking about a comment an MSO player made to me years ago, when I first started running training projects there, that even to play Happy Birthday at a celebratory gathering felt stressful). And it is crazy, in a way, to think there are any barriers for people playing music who already know how to play. There are enough for those who’ve had little experience or exposure!

All of these questions are going to be put in a completely new context when I go to East Timor, I suspect. More on that later.