Archive for the ‘ensemble’ Tag

Learning to play together

I just completed a remount performance of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble’s Petrushka-inspired composition on the weekend. We created the music in the July school holidays workshops, and then reworked it and performed on Saturday night at the Hamer Hall as part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Stravinsky Festival.

MSO ArtPlay Ensemble August 2013

The focus for the Ensemble in this project became about ensemble – playing together. It occurred to me, watching the group rehearse on Friday night when everyone very tired and not very focused (it was the end of the school week, middle of the year –tiredness before we even started the rehearsal was understandable!), that some in the group only have vague understanding of what it is to play as one of a group. When the energy is in sync and entrained throughout the group, it will carry everyone along with great forward momentum. But when the energy is more scattered, we need to be able to call upon people’s learned ensemble playing skills. If they aren’t well-established across the group, then that sense of ensemble and togetherness never quite locks in.

Ensemble skills are nuanced, and subtle. They involve great alertness to small changes in other people’s playing, an ability to imitate and match, to lead clearly and to follow exactly. Good ensemble players can establish a strong ‘flow’ within the group and maintain this, through focus and attention. Ensemble skills also encompass behavioural norms – understanding the social rules and patterns that govern a particular group and how it communicates and organises itself.

These are learned skills. They are the reason why an amazing soloist does not necessarily make an amazing orchestral musician. Children can learn these skills. Typically they are skills that are often learned over time through multiple experiences of playing with a group, a tacit knowledge that individuals may not realise they already know.  But they can also be taught, and highlighted in the rehearsal process.

Building an ensemble focus with warm-up tasks

We rehearsed again on Saturday afternoon, before the Saturday evening performance. We stood in a circle and I led a warm-up that focused people on imitating – copying very slow hand gestures, aiming to have all of use appearing to move in the same way at the same time. We also built up our physical awareness – our composition required everyone to move to other places in the performance space, so we practiced walking slowly, quietly, and with awareness, to new points in the circle, and then making small adjustments so that the circle was perfectly round and evenly spaced once again.

We played/performed the Plasticine Man, a light-hearted task that links a simple narrative to story-telling hand gestures, and vocal sound effects. It is a fun vocal warm-up that encourages people to use their voices freely and unselfconsciously. Children can embellish the story, adding elements and sounds and further dramatic events. However, for our purposes on Saturday, the focus was one of performing each of the vocal sounds accurately together. To do this, they had to watch for my breath cue, and maintain their focus in the silence that preceded it.

We tested our ability to respond quickly and work as a team. Everyone held hands and sent a fast, sharp hand squeeze around the circle one by one. We timed ourselves with a stop-watch, with the goal of improving our time with each reiteration of the game. We got faster each time, so the energy created by the game itself was enhanced by the positive energy that came from achieving a goal.

With my language too, I emphasised ensemble. Some children in the group have a tendency to hear an instruction, and then start playing immediately. “Wait,” I reminded them. “We are going to do it together. Watch for the cue.” And the looking began to happen more automatically. The focus was held. Tempos were steadied. Individuals became less self-focused and more group-focused. And they were having fun.

Fun, of course, is the magic of good ensemble experiences. It can be exhilarating to play music together when each person is right inside the sound, fully present with the group! And when it is your own music that they you are playing and sharing with an audience in a high-stakes event, it only adds to the sense of satisfaction and delight.


“I loved it so much I forgot to eat my chocolate!”

Last week we had the first of this year’s 2-day workshops for the 2013 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. Twenty-seven children aged between 8 and 13 gathered at 10am on Monday morning, and by 3pm Tuesday afternoon we had created our first group composition. Have a listen to our music while you read the rest of the post:

This year’s Ensemble is full of characters (every year’s Ensemble is actually – read here to learn about our selection process), and lots of talent. We spent the first hour of the first day getting the group’s energy up and flowing. I allow quite a lot of time for warm-up games on the first day, because no-one knows anyone else and it is important to get everyone relaxed and bouncing ideas off each other. We played a few old favourites – the Chair Game, a game of strategy and forward-thinking that involves a lot of very rapid switching of chairs; Introductions, which involves memory work and listening; and Shape-Making, which gets people working collaboratively and to time limits.

A group plans their compositionOur music focus was the British composer Thomas Ades, and in particular, his Four Scenes from The Tempest. We used short extracts from the libretto to create four musical scenes of our own, depicting Ariel’s very rhythmic, fast-paced description of the shipwreck, an argument between Ariel and Prospero in which Ariel is denied his request for freedom, a very simple, beautiful interpretation of ‘Full fathom five’ (re-written as Five Fathoms Deep by Ades’ librettist) with eery, shimmering sounds from bowed crotales and submerged bells, and a sweet romantic theme, growing in intensity, depicting the love between Ferdinand and Miranda.

It always interesting to see the mix of children that we meet in the Open Workshops settle into becoming an Ensemble, experimenting, being courageous, and learning from each other. Some older children start the project with a certain amount of shyness or self-consciousness but then blossom into peer leaders. In this project I saw two of the older members of the group, both violinists, take on a task of making up their own bluegrass-style melody with a certain amount of trepidation and shyness. The melody they came up with was infectious, and pretty soon, other violinists were clamoring to learn it. I saw the two older children grow in stature and confidence as they saw the group respond so positively to their music, and they became unofficial leaders of the violin section.

There is always space for children to take up the challenge of improvising a short solo. The points in the music where these solos happen are often only chosen halfway through the second day. In this project, we had two improvised solos – one from a saxophonist who did a wild, savage squawking solo, using all the side keys and trill keys on his instrument and playing as loudly as possible; and one from a flautist who traded short riffs with the MSO cellist who was working on the project. Every person who takes on a solo is modeling this role for the other players, giving them an idea of how this ‘territory’ works.

We have an incredibly strong percussion section in this year’s Ensemble. One of the three boys is particularly interesting. He is intensely musical – ideas just burst out of him constantly – but I wasn’t sure (from the Open Workshop experience) how he’d go working in a group this size, with such long stretches of waiting in silence or standing by. Well, he did just great. I could see it was hard work for him at times, but it is for all the children in different ways, and it was lovely to see how much joy he was getting from being part of the group, and how much he was contributing to the music we were creating. I am so happy to know that we have created an Ensemble where there is a lot of space for the children to simply be themselves. The focus on creating our own work means that everyone’s different skill levels, strengths, personality quirks and interests can be accommodated as the music comes together.

One of the things that the children work out in this first 2-day workshop is that I say ‘Yes’ a lot. When a child says, “Can I play that melody?” or “I’ve had an idea – can I play it like this?” I say “Yes, sure!” By asking questions like this, the children start to learn that this music really is theirs to shape. After a while, they ask less, and just play their ideas, trying them out and seeing how they sound. For some, the speed with which new ideas may be introduced can make things feel quite confusing.  As one boy said, “It’s good, but it’s also a bit weird when you are doing it [making up a piece in a group] for the first time. It takes getting used to.”

My favourite comment from the project was sent to me by one of the children’s mothers. Her daughter told her at the end of the first day, “”I loved it SO much today, that I completely forgot to eat the chocolate in my lunchbox!”

Sounds like a definite vote of confidence to me. I am really looking forward to working with this group of children this year.




What to do when you make a mistake

I think one of the hardest – but most important – things to learn when playing in an ensemble is what to do when you make a mistake. The natural response tends to be that you correct the mistake on the spot, which gets you out of time with the others in the group. Teaching people to keep going, to listen to where the others are up to, and drop back into the music is essential, but the confusion that a lot of young people feel about what it is you’re asking for, and how to do it, can bog them down with anxiousness. Trying to establish this concept at the Language School, where verbal explanations aren’t always helpful, is even more challenging.

Today one of my students had just taken on a new xylophone ostinato. It was quite a complicated riff but he was mastering it well. However, once we added it to the other ostinati being played, his focus sometimes wavered and he would miss a beat, or hesitate over a note for a moment, before playing on. I wanted to find a way to demonstrate to him, or explain to him, that he needed to forget about the note that he’d missed, and keep going with the music.

Inner hearing. Continuous pulse. These are concepts that are hard to explain in just a few words, especially when you don’t have notation to act as a visual aid. But I’ve been thinking about what took place in the class and think I have some ideas about what I could have done better.

Firstly, this riff only ever needs to be played four times in a row, but I was getting him to loop it many more times than that (as a way of locking into it). He tended to get the first four (even more) repetitions out fine, without any problems. So keep it to this. Why complicate matters?

Secondly, I tried to explain to him what I wanted him to do. This wasn’t the best solution because he probably couldn’t understand what I wanted him to do anyway, and was feeling stressed, and because my efforts were also making me feel anxious  (because I sensed how awkward and clumsy they were). It was the afternoon and no one was at their freshest for dealing with a whole lotta words.

I know that my students at this school learn musical concepts most effectively in context, through an implicit environment. How can I create this implicit learning environment? By keeping the number of repetitions of ostinati down to an amount that the students can manage successfully, they will build confidence and security in their own part first, and after that they will start to absorb what is going on in other parts, and instinctively start to anchor themselves to certain points in these. There are always one or two students in the class who understand and do this already. The others just need more time.

Explanations make me tense, as well as the children, because I become so aware of the limitations of them. We are all much happier, and much more relaxed – and therefore more likely to play to our best – when we let the music be our focus, and put our energy into playing, rather than talking.

Playing in time

With our focus on jamming and improvisation this term, I’ve been looking for ways to help the children play more in time with each other. This is tricky enough to teach in English, let alone with students with a very minimal command of English!

Firstly, I want to state my own position: I believe that we all have an innate understanding of music, that gets built on everyday, when we listen to music (of our own choice, or as background music). I want to tap into this innate knowledge somehow, in building ensemble-playing skills. I think that one of the main things that gets in the way is trying, when we become so focused on effort and on getting it right, that we tense up and become more awkward (and less natural or easy) in our efforts. (This earlier post talks in more detail about the way I like to teach, for those who would like to know more).

Therefore, I don’t like to bring to much attention to the issue of ensemble when it arises, because I don’t want anyone to get tense or worry about it, or think of themselves as failing somehow. But I do want them to be aware, and to develop more sophisticated understanding of how to play together. There were a few things that happened this term at the Language School that seemed to work, so I’ll list them here.

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Improvising, composing and jamming

It’s end of term, so time for a bit of a wrap-up of where this term’s projects got to at the Language School.

I started the term with an interest in developing some improvisation skills among the Upper and Middle Primary students, and developing music on Identity, that would respond in part to music the students would teach to the class from their own countries and cultures.

Lower Primary on the other hand were so crazy and unsettled that the focus was to get them to be able to play together, to follow some simple conducting signals so that they might experience the pleasure of playing in an ensemble. I’ll write about them in a separate post.


This proved tricky to introduce in some ways, and some of this was to do with language, some of it was cultural, and some of it was to do with the way that student learning develops in Language School (ie. the systems that support the students to learn when they have very little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we were doing began to settle, musically.

In the end, what improvisation do we have? In the Upper Primary piece, we have a drum part (played by seven drummers, so pretty loud! They are sh0wing considerable restraint, I have to say) which came from the young Sudanese girl at the start of November. I am guessing that this was a rhythm she knew from somewhere else. She has left the school now, by the way.

We have 3 xylophone parts, and here the origins of the parts are more varied. One part came from me – I taught it, and the student plays it exactly the way I showed her, and she seems to love it. Her friend, playing next to her, is envious, and has tried through various sneaky means to swap parts (to no avail). The friend, May, has an improvised part to play. I originally asked her to invent her own melodies, always ending on either C or G. The first week, she did this well. She was reluctant, but with a lot of encouragement, she gave it a go, and executed the task well. The following week however, she mutineed. She wouldn’t say a word (not in English, not in Chinese), and I wondered if perhaps she needed to withdraw from the piece altogether, so pained she seemed. This week, I spontaneously came up with a new strategy.

“May,” I said, “I think that today we should choose music for you to play, that you can remember. We will all help you make this. I think that will be easier for you than always making something up.”

May looked a little unconvinced at first (something of her usual facial expression in music, it has to be said), but a couple of other students surprised me by saying, “Yes, it is easier, I think. It is better.” So May agreed.

I asked her to play me (improvise – though I didn’t use that word) one of her melodies. “Start on G,” I suggested. She played a string of notes, I asked if she liked them, I sang them back to her, she thought they sounded okay, and I wrote them down on the blackboard. We did the same with a second melody. Of course, she referred back to ideas she had already worked with in the previous weeks when she was improvising. And her third melody was her most ambitious, with jumps and triads and a definite ‘hook’.It seemed like she was gaining confidence in the process, and her own contributions.

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Ensemble and democracy

A couple of weeks ago now – the day I returned from my week of leave in Byron Bay and Brisbane, actually – I heard Professor Jonathan Neelands (Warwick University) speak at the University of Melbourne on Acting together: ensemble as a democratic process in art and life.

Who wouldn’t be immediately intrigued by a concept like that? Such a sublime marrying of political theory and art-making. As ever, I love finding parallels between art-making and other, more established, articulated agreed-upon theories, disciplines and methodologies.

Regular readers will note how very behind I am in my blogging (due to a couple of pretty busy weeks), so forgive me if I just add some (potentially disconnected) notes here on this most interesting presentation – copied into this post pretty much word for word from the notebook I had with me on the night, into which I was frantically scratching away with my pen, throughout the talk.

Drama… ensemble… activism (as in, being active, as much as anything else). Process is more important than outcome. The struggle, rather than the end result. This, Prof. Neelands stated, is true in activism as well as in art. A sense perhaps of subjugating yourself to the greater good.

Hmmm… in principal I like this value, however, I don’t think it is so easily summed up. At the end of the talk I raised the question about orchestras, where everything that happens in arguably for the greater good, but leaves individual players stifled, frustrated, without any genuine creative outlet or sense of one’s own contribution. Prof. Neelands countered this by saying that it is not ‘the greater good’, but the absence of any true democracy, that causes this numbing of the spirit in orchestras.

In drama, individuals are asked to put the ‘common good’ ahead of their own private interests.

In democracy too.

Neelands was open and unapologetic that, in all that he discussed, there was strong idealism. Idealism, and proceses that depend on idealism, he said, are probably not realistic in society. But in a classroom, or in an ensemble, it is (or should be) realistic.

I liked this statement too. I have long hated the argument often raised again perceived injustices or inconsistencies (or double standards, or unnecessary/avoidable harshness), in schools, of “Well, that’s life.” No, I counter. It isn’t life. It is school. There is plenty of time for life (and all its attendant cruelties and injustices and harshness) when these students have left school. But when else in their lives might they discover who they could be in an environment designed to support them and bring out their best? Since when did we need to toughen people up, exactly? Resilience isn’t learned by facing life’s toughest battles as soon as possible. Resilience is far more likely to prosper and grow in a loving, encouraging, positive environment.

Right. Off my soapbox, back to Dr Neelands.

Here is a quote from Michael Boyed, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, talking about the company’s commitment to engaging young people in creative, integrity-filled ensemble work:

[It is] a chance to create a better version of the real world on an achievable scale that celebrates the virtues of collaboration.

Another scribble from my notebook:

Democracy is an unfinishable process, it’s constantly re-defining itself… you can’t just claim something as democratic and then assume it is, and will remain ever-thus. You have to keep working at it, checking it, supporting it, not taking it for granted.

We live in societies that discourage active participation, that encourage passivity. Do direct, participatory forms of theatre lead to direct, participatory forms of living? ie. democratic principals of living in society?

Rather, Prof. Neelands pointed out, we tend to have ‘representative’ versions of democracy, and therefore also of theatre – people who act on our behalf, as our representatives.

What are the reasons people – young people, but also people of any age – may be reluctant to participate actively in a class or in an ensemble? Fear of ridicule, being looked at or the subject of uncomfortable attention, of being judged, of wanting a quiet life, of a reluctance to lead or demonstrate an opinion…. these are parallel with the reasons for why people don’t actively engage in their communities.


Drama teachers teach as if their students have a choice of whether to be there or not. Imagine if every teacher, or every subject, taught like this!

More improvisation ideas

In my last post on my new explorations into developing the improvisaiton skills and understanding of the Middle and Upper primary students, I described how I had been getting them to start and finish on particular notes, keep track of a ten-count time length, and play a series of notes in-between.

I have been wondering what the next step should be.

Two weeks ago we tried out a kind of ‘jam session’ with the Upper Primary students. I asked different students for rhythmic ideas, and asked them teach me and other students. For many, as I have found frequently in the past, they may know a rhythm or phrase to play, but they can’t repeat it consistently, nor with a sense of regularity, so it is hard to use in a group jam session.

However, in that session, one of the Sudanese girls came up with something that she was able to repeat consistently, over and over again, upon which we built up a number of other layers.

The students’ first response, when all have an instrument and they are to play together without a great deal of explicit instruction, is to play as loudly as possible, speeding up as if it is a contest or a race. They get a big buzz out of doing this, usually laughing a lot and generally acting like it is just a mad game. That week, however, after letting them do this, I asked them what was going on. What was important in this kind of music? They were to be playing the same rhythm as the Sudanese girl on the lead drum (who was a lot quieter than them). How could they make sure they stayed together?

This was a really interesting discussion. Of course they worked out that they could listen to her, but that they could also watch her, and let her be the leader. The ensemble improved enormously, immediately, and everyone began playing with greater awareness and sensitivity.

Therefore, the following week (last week) I decided to work on this skill a bit further. I brought out my trusty metronome (which I have written about in most glowing terms in the past on this blog).

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