Archive for the ‘creative process’ Tag

First thought, best thought! In praise of the fast and messy workshop

Gypsy Jam at Myer Music BowlThere is a joyful immediacy and momentum in workshops that are fast-paced and focused on making and doing, and getting the creations out there. Real, tangible outcomes, ready for presentation or sharing, but not necessarily highly polished.

Two weeks ago I led the ‘Gypsy Jam’ (so-called because we were playing music inspired by Hungarian gypsy music) at the Myer Music Bowl for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. There were about 6000 people in the crowd when the jam took place, along with 50 young musicians providing the musical backbone, and around 100 young children and families who came down to the stage area to join in on percussion. It was definitely a jam for hundreds and thousands, as I predicted on this blog beforehand.

Creating a music experience for that many people was a complex task – complex, and kind of messy! There were many different needs and agendas to consider:

  • The needs of the young musicians from the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, experienced in fast-paced music creation and who were there to have fun, perform, and be challenged;
  • The needs of the young children and their parents who responded to the invitation to bring an instrument and join in;
  • The needs of the larger MSO outdoor concert audience, including lots of elderly people who arrived at the gates long before they opened in order to get one of the few, much-coveted, undercover seats (rather than listen to the concert sitting on a picnic blanket on the grass)
  • The needs of the MSO, to be offering a fun and engaging participatory experience that wouldn’t prove too annoying for those in its audience that weren’t looking for participation and unorthodox pre-concert entertainment (remember, audiences for classical music are not always the most open-minded – they can be quite risk-averse and particular about what they want from the experience).

All to be catered for in a jam lasting just 20 minutes!

Conducting the Gypsy Jam (G. Howell)The Gypsy Jam wasn’t a particularly polished outcome – how could it be? We rehearsed the music with the young musicians for just 75 minutes beforehand. They also created some sections of music themselves, and spent some of their rehearsal getting used to the outdoor setting and doing soundchecks. There was a wide range of experiences and abilities in the group too – some were very strong players but others were still quite new to their instruments.

Fast and messy workshops like these (‘messy’ is not be taken literally – I am using it in the sense of ‘not quite orderly, somewhat unpredictable’) make up for what they lack in finesse and refinement with an abundance of shared creative energy that is instinctive, responsive, ‘in-the-moment’, and, probably, risky. They are intensely focused and driven, but short in timeframe. (And a sidenote, the emphasis on quick responses and spontaneity does not equate with being unplanned. As a music leader, I find the planning for these kinds of events needs to be incredibly exacting, because it is crucial to make effective use of the limited time available).

Fast, messy workshops can be exhilarating, because they have tremendous forward momentum. They can also be frustrating because there isn’t time to deliberate, reconsider, trial the options, dig into the detail, or even erase and start again. They push everyone in the group to trust their instincts, and trust in the process.

It is not the most ‘composerly’ way, perhaps. But it is a good way nonetheless, with a powerful creative energy. It reminds me of poet Allan Ginsberg’s dictum of “first thought, best thought”, compelling his fellow writers to be fearless and spontaneous, to let go of the inner critic and express themselves with unfettered honesty and immediacy.

Like Ginsberg’s spontaneous writing, the fast and messy music workshop also brings to the fore the amazing, strange, surprising, unexpected ideas that individuals may have floating around in their heads. Such ideas are not always easy to access if you are constantly conditioned to trust other people’s material more than your own. Processes that give you the opportunity to engage with your own ideas make you practised at accessing them in the future.

The young musicians who took part in the Gypsy Jam had all been members of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, an annual, year-long composing and performing program I’ve been directing since 2005. Recently, one of the first graduates of the program sent me a card. She enclosed a DVD and CD recording of her end-of-year recital – she is now a full-time music student at a university. In her card she wrote:

I have spoken to a few past members of the 2006 Ensemble. They want to say thank you for giving them confidence in performing originals and using different ideas to turn it into one. There are a lot of us still playing our own music thanks to our experiences with you.

I am sure that for this young player, her current compositions evolve through far more detailed and exacting processes than those we employed in the fast-paced, 2-day MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops. The important point is that through her fast and messy experiences, she had faced any fear, reluctance, or self-consciousness, and was practised at accessing her creative ideas. Even more importantly, she had confidence in them, so the ideas could flow.

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Arts partnerships in contemporary education

I’ve been thinking this week about arts partnerships in schools, and the current state/status of this work in Melbourne. It was inspired by my conversations with Arnie Aprill from CAPE [Chicago Arts Partnership in Education) on Sunday and Monday. Arnie has been in town this week, talking ideas and possibilities and being generally inspiring. He held a forum at ArtPlay on Monday night for artists, arts organisations, teachers and school leaders, and a group of about 30 of us gathered to discuss the territory in which we work.

Monday’s discussion began with questions, including:

“How do we talk to people about the work that we do, and communicate its importance, without getting angry and pushing people away when we come up against resistance – because there is often resistance and misunderstanding?”

“How do we communicate in this way internally, within arts organisations, where engagement with education sites and communities is not the main focus of the organisation’s existence?”

“And what is the impact on the artist of working in a resistant, or non-receptive environment?”

“How can I ignite my fellow teachers’ creativity?”

AA: In partnerships, we need to remember that the delivery model (where an individual or organisation comes in to deliver you something – a product or package or experience that they have already determined that you need, that is not necessarily tailored to your specific environment) doesn’t work. CAPE projects are in fact in partnership with teachers. The visiting artist is not just there to liberate the students, they are there to liberate themselves and the teachers and to build respectful relationships with each other.

Arts partnerships in education are not so much about “access to the arts” (which positions the artist or arts organisation as somewhat power-endowed and benevolent in sharing their arts-knowledge-power), as much as they are about Active Democratic Participation through longterm partnerships and relationships.

“How will I know what the kids have learned through the project?”

Arnie talked at length about the importance of documenting projects, of documenting the process and seeing this as an important product or outcome of the project (along with the ‘official’ outcome itself). In other words, rather than thinking about process vs. product, lets re-frame the issue by recognising that process IS product! Interview the children on camera, he suggested. Ask them to tell you what they’ve learned. It is a powerful confirmation of the growth and development that takes place in their minds through a creative, arts-based engagement with a subject, any subject. Continue reading

Who really wrote the Bach cello suites?

I spent this weekend down at ArtPlay, leading the MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops, which take place at the start of every year. These are fast-paced, one-hour composing workshops for children aged 8-13, and we promise parents that when they return to pick up their kids in an hour, we will have a new piece of music to perform for them.

We build the compositions around stories which the children create at the start of the workshop. The stories tend to be larger-than-life and go on remarkable flights of fancy and imagination. This year, aliens and outer space featured prominently. Here are a couple of that ilk:

Bach is sitting at his pianoforte, composing. Suddenly, aliens take over his piano. He realises that it is playing by itself, and he understands the code that the notes are spelling out. The code says, “We come in peace”. However, Bach is not convinced by this declaration of peace; rather, he is freaked out by his piano being taken over by aliens so he burns his piano. His (many) children help him remove the keys and throw them on the fire. Then, the aliens arrive in his house, and explain that they really mean him no harm. What happens next? Do they take over his body? Or do they work side-by-side and co-compose all of Bach’s celebrated works? Just WHO really wrote the cello suites in the end?

We are a band. We are the first band to be invited to play in outer space. We’re going to perform a concert for some NASA astronauts who are sitting in their space station, bored of all their CDs. We’re nervous as the rocket blasts off. We decide to rehearse. But while our clarinettist is putting their instrument together, the bell flies off (zero gravity) and lands in the engine of the rocket. Things get out of control and we crash land on Mars. Some Martians greet us. At first they are not particularly nice, but we play for them and they are so impressed they help us out by zapping us over the NASA space station with their zapping tool.

This particular workshop process has been in place for some time now and is well-honed and very effective. The creative twists of the stories the children invent (and the subsequent music they inspire) are a result of the group creative process, I believe. One idea sparks another, and the stories take on a life of their own, bouyed along by the energy of the group. The questions I ask are deliberately open-ended, aiming to provoke unexpected possibilities. You can read more about the Open Workshop process here (the “Workshop plan for finding bright, sparky kids” – one of my most popular posts), and about some of the stories from last year here. The Open Workshops double as a try-out for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program, which brings 28 young players (ages 8-13) and 4 MSO musicians together every school holidays to compose a new piece of music under my direction.

trust me…

In a collaborative project, there are trust relationships on all levels, in all directions. I spend my Saturdays working with the fabulous, creative, generous artistic souls of rawcus and a small team of musicians from the Orchestra. We are working on a show called Hunger for this year’s Melbourne Festival, and this rehearsal period (Aug-Sept) has us in the home stretch of creating and locking in material.

Thinking about the creative journey of taking a show from the seed of an idea to a fully-realised production, and some of the issues we have faced in the Ensemble in recent weeks, got me on the idea of trust, and the web of trust relationships that are an essential part of the creative process:

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In praise of struggle…

I’m thinking today about struggle and good art. The collaboration with the theatre company that the Orchestra’s outreach program is working with is one of the most challenging things I have done, artistically. It has hit a couple of snags recently. That’s mild language – in fact, in the last 8 days we have had two major dramas and each time, I feel myself sigh a bit more heavily inside.

The director and I spoke today and vented some frustrations – not towards each other, but towards these snags (as I shall call them). Her more than me – I had the advantage of a couple of days’ stewing time, and a visit to the Japanese Bath House yesterday evening to help me calm down and take my mind off it all. We both agree it could well be an amazing show that we are in the middle of creating, and we both feel that in a way, these challenges that keep arising are part of that amazing-ness. They are the grit that is forcing us to keep digging away at the material that we devise, to be demanding of it, and challenge it.

We need the musicians to feel this too though, and to keep trusting us.

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