Archive for the ‘composing’ Tag

Too many bright sparky children

Sometimes it is so hard to choose. This week I needed to make a Final List of offers for the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a composing and improvising ensemble for 28 children and professional musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, working under my direction. We held our annual weekend of try-outs at the start of February.

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

Around 120 children took part in 6 free 1-hour composing workshops. The workshop process is the same each year – it gives children a taste of the strategies we use for collaborative composing in the Ensemble, and shows us who is out there to invite into the Ensemble for 2014. (Read more about the workshop process here).

Workshop group (G. Howell)At the end of each workshop, the two MSO musicians and I discuss each participant, noting how they responded and the sorts of strengths and preferences they showed. We look for “bright, sparky kids” – children who like the idea of making things up on their instrument, who are open, who feel comfortable working in a group made up of adults and other children, and who are happy to try out other people’s ideas as well their own. They need to be comfortable on their instrument, but high-level skills are not a primary criterion.

We score each child with a Yes, No, Maybe/Yes, or Maybe/No. Usually the Ensemble is made up of children on the ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists. Other ‘Maybes’ go on the Reserve list in case someone doesn’t take up their place.

By the end of the weekend I had 41 ‘Yeses’. There are only 28 places in the group… I had to take a deep breath, and steel myself to do a Big Cull. It hurt! While it is great that we are attracting so many children who are such a good match for the program, it’s tough to know that there were children – fabulously imaginative, perceptive, inventive kids, with a deep connection to and love for their instrument – who would be awesome contributors to this Ensemble, that I couldn’t offer a place to this year.

Choosing is always difficult, especially in an education context, where the goal is one of supporting each child’s development, rather than just finding the best players. There are always children that we see who, for whatever reason – maybe shyness, or self-consciousness with the shift away from notation and right/wrong notes into this inventive and open-ended process – don’t shine as brightly on the day as others but who we believe have great potential and would benefit from participating in the Ensemble. Finding the right balance of personalities, potential, and instrumentation is important.

I think the process we use is a good one, and a fair one. There is space for children to come in and just be themselves – every ensemble benefits from a mix of extrovert leaders as well as quieter, rock-steady leaders, and section players. We get a lot of quirky children coming to us – their out-of-the-box thinking is such an asset in creative projects like this, and they often thrive in a social environment with lots of other non-conformist thinkers.

Nevertheless, there is no ‘perfect’ choice. The choices I make will create the Ensemble that we get – a different set of choices will create a different Ensemble. By choosing, I am also laying the ground for a set of experiences and relationships for those children, and for me. The first MSO ArtPlay Ensemble was formed in 2006, and that year, there was no selection process. We just accepted everyone who applied. That group is now finishing school, some are even at university. Quite a few have kept in touch over the years, letting me know what they are up to with their music. They are making choices now that will see them becoming the next generation of orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, music therapists – I’m sure. I’m not suggesting those choices are due to their experience of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble! But I believe that if you experience yourself as musical and creative in your formative playing years, this creates a strong foundation for seeking and trying out new musical ventures as you mature.

Being the one to choose is both a privilege and a responsibility, because choices open as well as close… and set new things in motion. Ah well… I’m looking forward to this year’s journey, despite the challenge of choosing!

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Maps of the heart

Yesterday was our first day at One Arm Point Remote Community School. We met 7 of the children who are going to be our main music composers for the Tura New Music Remote Residency project here. Everyone arrived at 8am. It’s natural for people to feel a bit shy coming into a workshop for the first time, wondering if they will like it, who else will be there, and what they will be asked to do, so we started with names and ice-breaker games, getting everyone relaxed, spontaneous and playful.

Early on, we learned that everyone was keen to play djembes, so we walked over to the storeroom in another building to collect one each and bring them back to our workshop space. We played rhythms around the circle, noting the inventive approaches that students demonstrated, such as incorporating hand-claps into their patterns.

It’s important to get some of the foundations of rhythm established early on, so we spent a bit of time working with regular cycles of beats, using numbers and subdivisions to focus everyone’s attention and to build unison patterns. This generated a cool rhythm that ended with the word “No!” on the 4th beat of each cycle.

Next we introduced some of the instruments we’d brought with us to share – chime bars (adding to two sets they already have in the school), and wah-wah tubes. People took turns to play these, and we built up another rhythmic pattern, this one anchored with a simple melody on the chime bars and accompanied by guitars. I am pretty sure that this music will end up being in our final concert – it all came together very quickly and smoothly.

Our main task was to decide what kind of themes we wanted to explore in our group compositions. To do this, I asked everyone to create a “map of the heart”. This is a drawing task in which each person draws a detailed ‘map’ (it can be in a heart-shape, or any shape they choose) that depicts all of the things that are most important to them in their life. The most important things take up the most space in the heart-map.

It’s a task that requires gentle facilitation and patience, because often, people aren’t sure how to start drawing their map. But with Tony and I offering questions and suggestions as prompts (“What do you love to do most?”; “Who do you like spending time with?”; “Is there anyone you miss, or think about a lot?”), the maps started to emerge.

I never make anyone share their map with others, or talk about the detail they have included if they don’t want to. Maps of the heart are personal, I reassure the students, and you can choose who you want to share them with. I want them to feel safe to include whatever they want in their maps. I encourage them to draw and use symbols, as well as words. Metaphor can be a powerful way to express something that is important to you that you don’t want to put into words.

As the maps reached completion, common themes across the group were revealed. I wrote some of the main themes on the whiteboard. We then voted for our favourite ideas. People could vote more than once – why not? The aim was to find the main points of resonance for the group, and then build our compositions on these.

What this process revealed was two broad themes – Future Dreams, and Culture, Language, & Country – into which all of the main Map Themes could be incorporated. If you look at the red and green arrows in the image below, you can see how this started to happen.

Theme brainstorm, One Arm Point

Our morning workshop included one further creative task. The tubs of instruments brought over to the workshop space by the teacher in charge included several recorders – a treble and 4 descants. We also had a set of 4 guitars. In the last part of the workshop, we divided into 2 groups – a guitar-learning group and a recorder-learning group. Tony took the guitarists outside to learn a couple of good ‘beginner’ chords (we like E minor), while I stayed inside to give a beginner recorder lesson. The students chose which instrument they wanted to play.

We spent about 40 minutes developing some initial skills and knowledge in the group, then got together to see what we had. And what do you know? The descant recorder notes fitted well with the first of the guitar chords, and the treble recorder notes (a fifth below, using the same fingerings) worked beautifully with the second of the guitar chords. So we jammed together awhile, getting used to the pattern of playing four repetitions, then stopping for four while the other group played, then playing again for four, then stopping for four. And so on.

Again, we have the foundations of a group composition here already.

It was a very productive and organically-flowing morning workshop. We talked to the students about the goal of presenting our music in a community concert on Wednesday afternoon. “But Gillian, what will happen if we’re not ready by Wednesday?” asked one of the younger girls as she left. “We’ll be ready,” I reassured her. “It seems a lot – and it is – but we’ll be ready. Don’t worry about that!”

The 2013 Tura New Music Remote Residency program will be at One Arm Point Remote Community School until Wednesday 26 June, thanks to sponsorship from Healthway SmokeFree WA, and Horizon Power.

‘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.

City Beats – kids making music in the city

Yesterday and today were the last days of the 2012 City Beats program, and all the children from the four disadvantaged schools we’ve worked with this year returned to ArtPlay to compose a final work with me and three Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians. In this year’s program we’ve been using the four classical elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air) to inspire our percussion and vocal compositions.

In each project, I’ve introduced the children to a particular technique for developing original material, and particular instruments that suit the character of the element we are focusing on. We started with Earth in Term 1, and worked with very grounded grooves and riffs, using djembes and xylophones. In Term 2, we shifted the focus to Water, and the children explored very resonant instruments, such as orchestral chimes and tam-tams. We also experimented with water as a percussion instrument, pouring, slapping, splashing, and striking metal instruments like bells before submerging them slowly into water and hearing the pitch change.

For Air, we introduced the children to harmonic whirlies, and wrote songs inspired by their stories of experiencing the air around them. Here is a clip of one such song – this song is a real ear-worm! But don’t let that put you off – press ‘play’ and listen as you read the rest of this article! The melody was created by listening for any fragments of tone patterns that emerged when several children played whirlies at the same time. You can also hear their 8-beat vocal patterns in the introduction.

(Go here to hear other songs created using this process).

In this week’s Fire workshop, we created short stories about ‘fire’ and decided collaboratively what should happen in the beginning, the middle and the end of the narrative. The children then divided into 3 groups, and created a short riff, basing it on a sentence or phrase that summarised their part of the story. They then arranged these riffs into short pieces. We performed these compositions to each other, and then finished the 2-hour workshop with a spontaneous jam, bring back material from the 3 previous workshops.

The beauty of the City Beats program is that the children come back every term, and we get to develop very solid relationships with them. We observe some beautiful learning journeys through the year – such as one girl, who in the first workshop was so self-conscious and resistant that she wouldn’t even say her own name during the warm-up activities. In today’s workshop she was a different person, completely relaxed, enthusiastic, contributing ideas, playing a range of instruments, and just having a great time. All the groups display a wonderful ease with creating their own music now, and are far more aware of the others in the group, many of them locking into grooves and harmonies with little assistance.

City Beats is a program for disadvantaged and under-served schools where the children are unlikely to be able to access any extra-curricular music opportunities. We hope that it serves as a starting point or a pathway for those children who want to do more music – bringing them into the city (for many this is a rarity in itself), introducing them to ArtPlay, to me, and to the MSO, and giving them confidence in their musical skills. We tell them about other workshop opportunities or scholarships that are coming up, and hope that the City Beats experience encourages them to take the next step.

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!

Three strategies for songwriting

Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song –  – that I have used in some recent projects. Continue reading

Preparing to Culture Jam again

This Friday I return to Elsternwick Primary School for the second stage in our Culture Jamming project, part of this year’s Artists in Schools program. Culture Jamming is all about using music to develop skills in another language and to explore different cultures – at Elsternwick the language of choice is Mandarin. During the four-week first stage last term, we prepared a performance of a Chinese folk song that I’d learned in 2010 in Hangzhou (see video footage below of this lesson in singing the Love Song of Kangding), learned to use Audacity‘s recording features, and made a field trip to the ‘Melbourne English Language School’ (where I teach on a different day) to do a music workshop with the students there and record interviews and conversations with the Chinese students.

It felt like a rather rushed beginning as we had a number of challenges to contend with, but the 15 grade 4 students who are working with me are bright, fun, curious and thoughtful, and we’ll have more time this term to stretch out into our project.

Our overarching question is, how can music help us and other students improve our Mandarin language skills? We are going to use our field recordings (from the language school interviews and another planned field trip to a restaurant in China Town) in compositions. The plan is for each child to make at least 2 individual projects and for us to collaborate on a third project that will use classroom instruments rather than computers.The children have access to NetBooks and iPads at school, though some also own iPod Touches, iPhones and other technology at home.

Project 1: Introductions

Our first task this term is to go through all the Chinese interviews from the language school and make short clips of phrases like, “what is your name?”, “my name is…”, “how old are you?”, “I am ten years old”, etc. We’ll then create tracks (using loop-based software) that repeat one of these phrases, with as many different speakers as we have recordings of, setting the phrases to a beat. That’s one project – each child can make one (or more) Introduction pieces. Continue reading

Wet and dry sounds

With the preps and grade 1s in my current ‘Composer in the Classroom’ project (for Musica Viva at St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill), we created a composition of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ sounds. I suggested that for me, a ‘wet’ sound was one that rang on for a long time after being struck (similar to the way a pebble dropped in a pond creates ripples that last a long time). A dry sound was shorter and more… well, dry.

The children selected percussion instruments, listened to each one by one and decided whether the sound was wet or dry.

“Wet!” chorused in response to the magical tones of a wind chime.

“Dry!” they all agreed after hearing the rasp of a guiro.

I explained that the label was a subjective one – they could have their own opinion about what was ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. Some instruments provoked interesting debate – the resonant tones of the djembe for example. They could hear that it had resonance, but not for as long as some of the metal instruments. And as a metal instrument, the cabasa was proof that ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ categories didn’t necessarily align with what the instrument was made of.

Next we played the instruments one by one around the circle, but this time, they needed to wait until the ring of the previous instrument had completely ended. This demanded careful listening and concentration – always a risky endeavour with this age group, but they were thoroughly engaged and intrigued by the range of sounds in their midst and were pedantic about waiting until the previous sound had entirely finished (and if they weren’t, one of their classmates would be sure to point it out).

We then moved onto graphic scores. I asked each child to draw a symbol to represent their sound. Some found this a challenging task, but others were impressively painstaking in their approach and their teacher and I marveled at all that they could hear in their instrument’s sound. One girl’s symbol for her glockenspiel note appeared like a huge blue jagged scribble; however, her teacher told me it was actually a very layered image. She’d started with a simple wave form, then added additional layers to it, representing all the complexity of her sound. A girl playing a pair of claves carefully placed a small green dot in the centre of her page (see the second image, bottom right).


We stuck the symbols on the wall in a line. The children sat on the floor facing the wall, their instruments in hand, and on my cue, performed their piece. They read their way across their score, each person playing when their symbol appeared, and engaged and focused from beginning to end.

Learning journeys of young musicians

The first week of September always marks the last get-together of that year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a group that I direct every school holidays that is made up of 28 young musicians (aged 8-13 when they start, usually 9-14 by this time of year). Each time we meet, we compose a new piece of music using collaborative strategies and improvisation, taking inspiration from a core piece of orchestral repertoire.

Then the last project for the year is over (in this case, Elgar’s Cello Concerto Re-imagined), and I can reflect on the musical and developmental journeys that I’ve seen some of the young participants take.

Sullen violin girl

One girl came to us at the start of the year flanked by her sister and a friend. The three of them took part in the Open Workshops audition with a certain amount of eye-rolling and cynicism. I took a punt on the older of the two sisters being ready to branch out on her own and offered her a place in the ensemble. In the first project, she barely moved her bow. She and another girl, similar in age, joined forces and giggled their way through the project, offering little to the creative process. The musician leading that small group was infuriated.

The next project, we put her in a different group, and her musician leader gave her a lot of musical responsibility. She jollied her along, creating a shorter name for her (in a gesture of jovial friendliness) and insisted, in an encouraging, positive way, that she be the one to play a solo in her group. Sullen Violin Girl was sullen no more after that project.

Fast forward to September and the project we have just completed, and this violinist was a different person to how she’d been at the start of the year. When I asked at one point for volunteers to play a solo – an improvised solo – she was the first to raise her hand. “Great sound!” I enthused at one point, and she happily told the whole group that this was her new instrument. (That’s a topic for a whole other post, the wonderful momentum that cam come when a young player starts to play on a decent instrument). She was obviously very proud, but also so much more confident. Her’s was a very positive journey, from insecure, shy, sullen teenager to someone who was really starting to blossom.

Hard-to-stay-focused boy

This boy was one of the younger members of the group. He’d impressed us all at the auditions with his vibrant imagination. He wasn’t a strong player, but he obviously loved inventing his own music. Once in the large group however, he floundered. He found it difficult to stay on task as long as the others in the group, needed a lot of personalised attention, and would frequently raise his hand to ask when we’d be taking a break.

In the second project it all got too much for him and there were tears. “Just because I’m the youngest doesn’t mean I always have to play the easy stuff,” he wailed. I sat with him and listened, and explained how we were happy for him to make the music harder for himself. If his part was too boring he could change it to make it more challenging. But, I told him, he has to try and do this by himself. His musician-leader would help him, but he’d need to take the initiative. He cheered up with that information, and went off to eat his lunch.

In the September project, he was still energetic and twitchy, but I got the sense that he’d settled into our routine now. When we did body percussion in our warm-ups he didn’t – as in previous warm-ups – start to jitter his feet and legs like an out-of-control Irish dancer, but managed to stay more or less in one place. At one point he came and showed me his bag of rice crackers. “I don’t want to get hungry! I’m always hungry here!” he told me. He still raised his hand and asked for breaks at inopportune moments, but I too had learned how to respond to this, and would tell him he should take a break if he needed one, but that I needed to keep the rehearsal going a bit longer. “Oh… alright then. I’ll stay too,” he said, sighing.

He played a solo, in a section where I had asked each of the soloists to play very slowly. “You could change notes just at the start of each bar,” I suggested. His eyes never left me during that section, waiting for his cue. He played his improvisation just as I’d asked, one note, changing at the start of each bar. Slow and solid. I think he knew how good it sounded.

I didn’t get to catch up with his parents at the end of the project. After the tears in the middle of the year his dad had said, “This is so good for him! Being part of a group, having to work with others… he isn’t good at these things, and he is just getting so much out of it.”

The quiet ones

After the project had ended in September and I was back home, I found myself thinking about the quieter members of the group. They were among the less confident players. One was a cellist, one of the oldest in the group, and quite a beginner. Initially we’d had two older beginner cellist girls in the group (I try to ensure the older kids have someone else their own age in the Ensemble – I can well remember the self-consciousness I felt as a teenager taking part in activities where I seemed to be the oldest and the tallest) but the other girl never came back after the first project. This girl didn’t get to blossom the way the Sullen Violin Girl did. She never put her hand up to play a solo and would shake her head in horror if asked to do so directly. I don’t think she liked playing alongside the other two cellists who were both younger than she.

Two other girls who didn’t ever want to play a solo were sisters. They had learned to play their instruments (piano and violin) in a very stern, traditional, schooled fashion, and the creativity of the Ensemble was a very new experience for them. I think the younger sister got a lot out of it – as a violinist she was often a section player and so not necessarily being asked to invent things for her instrument. The older sister was the main pianist/percussionist in the group, and by September I realised she was not offering her musician-leaders anything. Everything she played was suggested to her by someone else.

In a fast-paced 2-day project like the ArtPlay Ensemble projects, there isn’t a lot of time to coax individuals. You can make suggestions and encourage them to try, but if they don’t respond, time demands that you move on. In this way, I think the project wasn’t as good for some as it was for others. Was it the wrong project for them? Were we wrong to offer a place? Or was there a small sense of hope inside them that something in this project would unlock the kernel of potential that they know is there, but that they cannot voice due to the greater fear of sounding ‘wrong’?

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!