Archive for the ‘creative space’ Tag

Planning, scoping, sequencing

Last week I presented a Teaching Artist professional learning seminar on planning, scoping and sequencing a new music project. Teaching artists frequently work in partnership with a classroom or specialist teacher, so planning tends to be collaborative. However, teachers and artists often approach project planning in different ways. I drew upon my own experiences and talked about:

The importance of learning as much as you can about the class

This includes what are they working on in class, but also some of the additional goals of the classroom. At the Melbourne English Language School (where I’ve worked as a teaching artist since 2005), these goals often include things like social skills, rules of personal hygiene or some of the cultural practices of school in Australia (like being able to line up before entering the classroom). These non-arts, non-music goals and themes can often provide fertile ground for a music or creative arts project.

The many ways to your intended goal

The more input students have in a creative project, the more ownership they will feel towards it and the more engaged they will be by the process. I encouraged my colleagues to listen out for offers and suggestions that could take the project off into a new or unexpected direction. Sometimes these offers are made in jest, or with great sarcasm – this is often a protection on the part of the child and it’s important to look beyond it to the idea being expressed. Sometimes, suggestions will be unconscious, occurring when the child is daydreaming, or retreating into their own head for a moment, but with an instrument in their hands. Tapping fingers can provide insights into a child’s previous musical experiences, knowledge and culture. It’s important to leave space in the classroom environment for these offers to slip into, as well as space in the evolving creative work.

Communicating with your teaching partner

There are often points in a creative project where work is emerging but you, the artist, are not clear exactly where it is going to go, or how it will all fit together. This happens to me in many projects and I’ve learned that it is part of my process, so it doesn’t worry me. However, teachers have very different planning and reporting obligations to teaching artists, and work that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere specific can create concern for teachers who want to know there is a sequence and plan underpinning everything.

I think that each one of us – teachers and teaching artists alike – has a different tolerance of ‘risk’ or unknowns in a creative project. It’s therefore important to keep lines of communication open. Teaching artists may need to talk through those parts of their process that are more open-ended, or where you have simply opened up an experience to the students in order to see what material emerges in their response, but you are confident that it will yield something important for the project outcome.

What does this look like in practice?

In tandem with my consideration of these different points in the planning and sequencing process, I described a 10-week project that I’d led in 2008 (I chose it because I’d documented it particularly thoroughly). I shared my notebook from that project with my teaching artist colleagues (complete with all my random musings, sketches, shorthand music notations, and margin doodles) pointing out those days where material had been developed and locked in, those days where things went off in a different direction, and when I’d developed material without knowing how it would ultimately be used in the performance. We ended by watching a video of the project’s final performance, so that we could see what had resulted from the lessons that were detailed in the notebook.

When I was first asked to lead this session, I was a bit hesitant. I often think my approach is quite freeform, and trying to anticipate exactly what will happen throughout the term feels very counter-intuitive. But once I started to dig into it, I could see there were key steps that I take in developing each project, and a number of golden, guiding values that inform all the choices I make. When you start to write these down, a plan and a sequence definitely emerges!


Time and Space

I’ve spent the last 5 days working on a single project. That’s right – five full days on a composition project (the sort of project I normally do in two days) with a group of 24 young musicians, five music students from the conservatorium, 4 professional musicians, the project leader and myself. And the project isn’t even finished yet – there is another full day, then a final rehearsal call, and then the actual performance.

It’s been wonderful to enjoy the space that so much time brings to the creative process. There is time to get to know each other and build rapport in an easy, unpressured way; time to laugh, have fun, and be playful without each of those tasks needing to link to a specific creative outcome; time to explore ideas – including some we might not end up using, but that capture our imaginations at the time; time to refine our ideas and learn to play them well; time to hone, to memorise and to develop performance finesse. We were in the hands of Fraser Trainer, a highly skilled and inspiring musical leader from the UK.

Most of the projects I lead for orchestras run for only two days. While we certainly fit a lot into those two days, and create very detailed, original music, I’ve often felt that the pace that we set means that the young participants barely have time to process all the new things they are doing, before the project has ended. They have an intense, immersed experience, but only one night’s sleep before it is all over. How – and when – do they begin to digest the experience, reflect on what they have learned, and how the experience has added to their perception of their musical selves?

It is a common curse in both arts and education (maybe elsewhere too) that there is a far greater capacity to ‘pull out all the stops’ for a visitor, in terms of resources and time. For example, I know that when I go into a school as a visiting artist, I am given more space in the timetable – a full day, for example, with the students missing other classes in order to do the music project – as well as the support of a teacher in the room with me. These are luxuries that the regular music teacher does not enjoy in their week-to-week practice.  But these efforts can hopefully bring changes to the local environment after the visitor has gone.

This 5-day project offered a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when more time is allowed. “How’s it going?” a senior manager of the orchestra asked me at lunchtime on Tuesday (day 2). “I mean, usually, by this time on the second day, you are getting ready to perform, aren’t you?” So, that significant difference is noted. I think it was an eye-opener for everyone. Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to conceive of projects that have more expansive timeframes, or a range of timeframes. Hopefully too, this project will mean that there will already be an understanding of how much difference the length of a project can make to the young people’s experience, and to the overall depth of the work.