Archive for the ‘creativity’ Tag

Risking creativity

This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: STARSFoundation via Compfight cc

She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.

One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.

Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.

Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.

Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.

Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?

Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.

Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.

In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.

This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.

*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.

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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.

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.

Collaborating by distance

The three-way collaborative creation of ‘Nests’ was for the most part a long-distance relationship (Ken and Rebecca in country Victoria, me in Melbourne).  Our first intensive in-person period of discussions and exploration, when we ran an informal workshop with a group of 3-5 year-olds at the Creswick Playscape, concluded with an agreed idea of what we each saw in mind’s eye when we pictured the installation. We each had differing mental images of the nests, for example, so needed to describe and discuss and establish a shared set of intentions. We looked at pictures of actual nests, and discussed the practicalities of rendering each in a human-size form that could still be packed down to fit in to the back of a car. By the end of the December development period, we each had clear tasks ahead of us, to work on in our respective homes.

Ken's leaf coloursKen set to work designing the nests for the installation, figuring out solutions to the materials needed, the construction process and the visual effect. He explored the idea of woven leaves, taking inspiration (shapes, colours) from the local landscape.

Rebecca and I turned our minds to the soundscape. We discussed an overall ‘narrative’ structure for the 30 minute installation experience that allowed time for children’s discovery and exploration of the instruments, leading to a massed ensemble experience in which everyone would be playing the same thing at the same time. The magical focus and mood that we had witnessed at the Creswick Playscape when we brought the wooden frog guiros out at the end of the session suggested to us that a ‘frog bog’ might be a nice way to draw the experience to a quiet, peaceful close.

We wanted the soundscape to create a sense of the bush or a forest. The installation space was to be theatrically lit, and the soundscape would enhance the children’s sense of entering ‘another world’. We also wanted it to encourage musical interactions between the children, where they might start to engage in patterns, sequences, and conversations. Therefore, it needed to include sounds from the natural world and sounds from the instruments the children would be playing in the nests.

Rebecca set to work recording natural environment sounds.

Ready to record... (Rebecca Russell)These included footsteps in crunchy leaves, all sorts of bird calls, early morning crickets and early evening frogs.

My recording tasks were to source some great storm sounds (I found these at freesound.org, an amazingly comprehensive resource thanks to a dedicated and committed community of sharers), and to record samples of all the instruments we intended to use.

I did this one sunny afternoon in the bathroom and wardrobe of my apartment – these were the quietest, deadest spaces. Here are the instruments all lined up, ready to play:

Recording 'Nests' sounds (G. Howell)

These were our January tasks. We had regular Skype meetings but because we live quite far apart (and because I was away for much of January), we needed to work separately on the assigned tasks, then share outcomes as they were ready.

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

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.

Artists inviting possibility

I am often approached by young musicians who want to develop workshop skills and get some more experience working with groups of children. This year, I’ve got a formal mentoring relationship set up. Ryan, a young recorder soloist and highly creative individual (based on our conversations thus far!), approached me at the end of last year to see if I could work with him to develop a workshop program for children that he could deliver as part of a broader touring and performance program.

Good on him! So far, we’ve mapped out a plan of action that includes developing a 2-hour workshop for primary school children that gets them to create their own music and embed it within a larger, contemporary solo work for recorder. Ryan is also going to spend some time in other workshops with me throughout the year, shadowing me and developing a repertoire of approaches and strategies for developing compositions with children.

At our first meeting, we focused on WHAT  – what is Ryan’s main aim? Is it a workshop that lasts a day? A few hours? Is it a longer residency? Is it a tailored approach, or an ‘off-the-shelf’ framework that he can adapt as he goes? Is it something that can link to his performance skills and concert-giving?

Ryan emphasised the importance of ‘being able to leave something behind’. He was well-aware of the weaknesses of the ‘parachute’ model (where the glamorous, charismatic visiting artist parachutes in, does their arts project, then leaves just as swiftly, with little of substance left in their wake). At the same time, I countered, a visiting artist has to be realistic about what is possible. You are a visitor. You are only there for a short time – a matter of hours, usually. Anything sustainable is going to require the buy-in and efforts of the class teacher. You have no control over what they do or don’t do in the classroom with relation to your visit, no matter how valuable such input might be.

Perhaps therefore, the artist’s visit is about inviting possibility for individual participants, with tangible skills and tools being part of the outcomes for the participants, but also the intangibles of inspiration, example and possibility. The next steps that individuals may take after a workshop experience – such as re-producing and re-experiencing their workshop outcome with you without your guidance, or furthering their skills and concepts through independent research, or simply the motivation to seek out further opportunities – are essential to a sustained ‘legacy’ from a workshop, given that music itself doesn’t result in any kind of physical artefact. How to plant the strongest, most potent and robust seeds, then, is the next big challenge for the artist! We’ll start looking at content in our next meeting together; meanwhile, Ryan is going to get busy reading Keith Johnstone, Graeme Leak and others on inspiring creative outcomes in groups.

Thoughts about Refugee Week compositions

Every year I create work with students for performance during Refugee Week (20-26 June in Australia, with June 20 being World Refugee Day). We’ve created songs, instrumental pieces, music inspired by individual students’ stories of flight and sanctuary, recorded pieces, and live performances. Some of the songwriting has been particularly memorable and can still bring a choked-up feeling to my throat when I think of the sincerity and emotion the children perform them with.

Some of the students I teach have been through unimaginably awful experiences. At the Language School they are learning alongside other newly-arrived students, who may be immigrants or in Australia on temporary visas, relocated here due to their parents’ work. Not everyone is a refugee, but everyone has come from somewhere else and shares the experience of being in a new country, and of leaving another home behind.

One of my first Refugee Week projects was Lingua Franca, in 2001. The range of prior experiences that the students had was summarised beautifully by one Chilean girl, who wrote:

Some people leave their homes and it’s as if it is just light rain. Some other people though, HAVE to leave! As if it is a big and terrible storm.

This poetic comparison, using the weather as a metaphor for human experiences, became a song, Some People:

Some people leave their home in light rain.

Some people leave in a storm

Some people choose when to come or to go.

And some people have no choice at all.

One year, the class teachers and I decided to focus on people’s homes in their countries of origin. First we asked all the students to draw pictures of their homes. This yielded some very vivid images – from skyscrapers and technological advancement (China) to planes dropping bombs on houses and people (Afghanistan). Then we interviewed them about their picture, pointing to different details and asking what they represented. We wrote down every word the students said, and used these words and sentences to create songs.

One five-year-old boy from Sudan drew a picture of a lion and described the way a lion tried to come inside their hut one day! His classmate, a young girl from Denmark, drew a picture of a house with a large love-heart taking up most of the ground floor, and flowers in pots on the window sill. These images, and others from the class, became the following song:

There’s a heart inside my house, with a ribbon that I lost.

There are flowers in the window at the top.

There’s a swing on a branch on a tree,

And good friends live next door.

Lions want to come inside, but the heart will protect me.

This is a song that still brings a lump to my throat – the last line in particular, with “the heart” a metaphor for the protection that adults and family provide for children.

Maps of the heart

In this year’s project, I started by brainstorming “the most important things” with students. I asked them to draw a “map of their heart”, showing all the things they cared about, and giving greater portions of the heart to the most important things, and correspondingly less space to less important things.  I introduced the idea that hearts sometimes get broken, or cracked. If you have lost something important you might have a hole or a gap in your heart, a piece that you have left somewhere else, or with somewhere else. The students (all upper primary students) found this a compelling thing to think about representing.

I found that their responses could be divided into categories about friends, family, small cracks and holes, and the future. Many of them included future plans, hopes and dreams in their hearts. In response to what these “heart maps” revealed, we’ve developed three pieces of music – one about cracks in the heart (the pain of leaving a country, and saying good-bye to people you care about), the importance of your family and friends when you change countries, and the future – all the things they hope to be and become.

Risk and fragility

But this focus on what for many may be quite raw and traumatic experiences is risky. I don’t know what it will reveal, and I need to move the projects forward very gently, and very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if I am too careful, and if my efforts to avoid too much examination of danger and terrifying experiences is ignoring a reality for some students. For example, our song about friends and family is in the relatively peaceful key of G-mixolydian (G major with a flattened 7th), and declares:

I miss my country, it’s far away from here.

But I’m lucky, because my family’s with me,

And I have good friends.

Friends and family

Taking care of me.

We wrote it in one lesson, using the words that had come up in their brainstorm in response to their heart-maps. As we sang it through at the end of the class, one of the Somali students said to his class teacher (who was sitting beside him),

“But I don’t miss my country. It was a bad place, very danger, very sad…” and he mimed shooting a machine gun across the heads of the other children in the class.

“That’s true,” said his teacher immediately. “The things that happened there were very bad, and you don’t miss them. Maybe though, you can think about the place, and the things that happened there, as different. The place itself was not bad, but many bad things happened and you couldn’t stay.”

At this point I asked them what they were talking about, and we discussed this issue with the whole class. Not many students contributed – perhaps because they didn’t have the language, perhaps because we were at the end of the lesson. I wanted to find a way to include that student’s comments and concerns in our song. We wondered if he could perhaps speak at the end of the song (prior to the next piece in the cycle – this project had become a 3-part song cycle). But he didn’t really respond to the suggestion. He was happy to play the instruments in the song, and perhaps didn’t want further scrutiny over his prior experiences. Or perhaps he did. It’s difficult for me to know for sure, and I only see the students once a week.

Ultimately, I believe these creative process are important for the students on several levels. The ownership they feel when they help to create music that they later perform to others is incredibly important to them, and they feel very proud of their efforts. Every step in the composition process takes place in class, so they know exactly how each piece came into being. It is also significant that through writing songs, they get to tell their stories to a larger audience. The challenge for me is making sure the stories we tell are indeed their stories, including the uncomfortable ones… or not.

Workshop notes for teachers

It’s the end of a very enjoyable day and I am sitting down with my cup of tea to write up the notes from today’s workshop. I presented a session entitled “Musical Creativity in the Classroom” to a group of very delightful, responsive teachers from schools all over Melbourne, and even one from Portland in the far west of the state. My overall aim was to look at some strategies for getting students started with composing and inventing their own musical ideas, and to then work through some ways of organising and structuring the material they create. I promised everyone I’d provide a record of what we did today – hopefully it will be of interest to others out there who weren’t at the session today. Let me know how you go!

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