Archive for the ‘group dynamics’ Tag

From small groups and stories to large-scale ensemble

This week saw the second instalment of the City Beats project, a music program from students from schools with high levels of ESL and financial disadvantage. I’ve been working with four different groups of students aged 8 to 12, from four different schools. In their first visit, they wrote a short, three-part story and composed music to depict those stories, organised into three sections (you can read about that first set of projects here). This week’s visit was their second to the City Beats project, and the focus was now on building up their compositions for percussion instruments, section by section, into whole-ensemble pieces, with strong structural coherence and a student-composed part for each child.

It was an intense and noisy couple of days! I realised at the end of the first day that we were asking them to do something far more challenging than we had the first time round.  No more break-out groups. Fewer opportunities for lots of individual attention. Instead, the focus was on arranging, and working together as a large ensemble of players, learning your part,  only playing when you need to, and so on. Sure, there was still room for surprises and further creative additions to the music, and some new ideas and developments definitely came forward. But mostly, this second workshop was about being part of a group, and playing your part.

Some of the groups found this pretty challenging. This is an exciting project for them, and they come in ready to PLAY! The process sounded confusing to them when I first explained it, I suspect. They needed to experience just how we would put the pieces together in order to understand the process. And the process works. By the end of each session, we had completed a five-minute arrangement of one of their compositions, some with quite complex structures and section transitions, in which everyone had an instrument and a part to play.

It was particularly satisfying seeing the students start to ‘get it’. One grade 5 boy caught my attention in the final workshop of the two days. He hadn’t seemed that engaged, and, along with his group of friends, had to be reminded to stay on task. However, by the end of the workshop, as we started to put all the layers of music together, his demeanour completely changed. Suddenly, he could make sense of what we were planning to do with all this music, all these riffs. He understood how it all fitted together now. From then on, he was the first to respond when I raised my hand for quiet. He gestured sternly to people in his section when they started playing their part at the wrong time. He kept his eyes glued to me – absolutely glued. A transformation of understanding and meaning had taken place for him in the two hours we worked together.

There were others like him, in each group. And at the end of their two hours, despite having worked incredibly hard, and with considerable focus required of them, the buzz from the groups was that they didn’t want to leave! I imagine that, when we see them again in Term 3, ready to arrange another section of music from their Term 1 compositions, they will have a much clearer understanding of the creative and collaborative process that we’re using.

Big fish, small fish

I’ve discovered a new workshop warm-up game recently, a circle game called Big Fish, Small Fish. It’s very quick, and quite silly, but I’ve found that it lightens everyone’s moods and at the same time creates a good focus among the group.

To teach it, get everyone to copy these two moves – they can say “Big Fish!” and hold their two hands together very close (about 10cm apart), or “Small Fish!” and hold their hands wide apart (about 60cm). Each person says one of these two (with the correct gesture) one by one around the circle. If someone makes a mistake (eg. says “Big Fish!” and holds their hands wide apart), they need to perform some kind of forfeit. The last few groups have suggested doing push-ups or star jumps in the centre of the circle.

Big Fish, Small Fish appears simple enough, but it’s a little more complex than it seems. It usually takes the first person after me a couple of attempts to get it right.

But it also produces lots of smiles and relaxed faces. I played it with all three classes at the Language School today. With Lower Primary, where there are quite a few new students, I wondered if it was a bit too tricky – did these children even know what the words ‘big’ and ‘small’ meant? Was I confusing them for the next few weeks? I am not sure how exactly they made sense of the game; however, judging from the cheeky smiles of delight on their faces when they pronounced the words and held their hands in the opposite shape, I think they may well have understood the joke.

Being a dominant force

Tonight I had dinner with some of the musicians from AYO (Australian Youth Orchestra) and the Cat Empire who have been working together this week on a collaborative improvisation and performance project. I worked with the AYO musicians on Sunday, and they will give a concert tomorrow night.

I mentioned to one young cellist what a great contributor he was in a group situation. I had observed him being very generous in his offers, as well as good at responding to the ideas of others. He was dynamic and full of energy and fun – a good ‘engager’ – and he was often a catalyst for getting things moving in his composition groups. He thanked me, but went on to say that he knew that he needed to be careful not to dominate other people in these settings, that there were others who might not be putting forward ideas, because he was so immediately forthcoming.

I think about this situation a lot. Sometimes it seems wrong that those who are the bright, happy, uninhibited ones – who have so much to offer a group situation, especially when working in a new area or outside comfort zones – should need to tone themselves down in order to not overshadow other quieter people. It is as if they must somehow take responsibility for others being shyer or less forthcoming. This certainly can happen in schools (I have very clear memories of teachers telling me that I should offer fewer suggestions in group tasks, so that others could ‘have a turn’ – even though those others never seemed to offer anything anyway! The indignation I felt!). But is it right? At what point should people expect others to keep making space for them, in a creative situation?

Group dynamics are never straightforward, but good collaborations contain input from all sources present, I think. Everyone is changed in some way by the contributions of the others. There is richness in ensuring a breadth of contributions from which everyone benefits, and this is an argument for creating an environment in which all voices can be heard. However, some responsibility must also lie with individuals, to be brave about piping up, making offers, recognising when they are holding themselves back out of habit, or long-held behavior patterns. In an educational setting it is right to make allowance for people to some extent, but what is that extent in reality? Is it right that a bright young thing should be holding back his incredible stream of creative ideas, simply to not make others feel bad?

I don’t think so. I told him to be as bright and brilliant as he wanted to be. The world has far less to gain from his mediocrity than it has from his brilliance. He should see himself as an inspiration and a guide for others, rather than a dominant presence. He can offer an energy that is infectious, that will give confidence to others, and momentum to the group process – sometimes intangible to those taking part, but always invaluable.