Archive for the ‘improvisation’ Tag

The values of improvisation

“ I don’t improvise,” the musician told me, the lightness of his tone belying the tension I sensed he was feeling. “Most of us here don’t improvise. It’s the opposite of what we do in this job.”

That’s okay, I thought. We don’t need to call it improvising. We’ll just make stuff up.

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

This interaction came on the first day of a 2-day training project I ran for a symphony orchestra recently, aimed at encouraging the musicians towards performances that moved beyond standard concert formats into more interactive, informal, and responsive models, such as those that are appropriate in many community contexts. I describe it as flexible musicianship, and it involves breaking down the intentions behind a performance, and exploring processes like workshopping, teamwork and collaborative decision-making, composing, and yes, the i-word, improvising.

Why does improvising create such tension for a lot of orchestral musicians? As this man said, and as others have pointed out in many training sessions before this one, improvising is pretty much the complete opposite of what a professional orchestral musician is asked to do musically in his or her daily job. Orchestral rehearsal and performance are about honouring the intentions of the composer whose music sits on the music stand in front of you. The group of 50+ musicians all make that commitment. They place their trust in a conductor whose interpretation of the score will determine the nuances of the performance, and their job is to perform their part accurately, honouring the vision of the conductor and the composer, ahead of their own personal preferences or choices.

By contrast, improvising is all about personal preferences and choice. Of course there are stylistic ‘rules’ or parameters that govern the choices that you may make in any particular context, but there is a trust in the moment and in the work you have done to prepare beforehand. Something that comes out slightly differently to what you’d intended is not necessarily a mistake; it can also be a new path, opening up a serendipitous set of possibilities. This is quite a different mindset to playing and performing in an orchestral context.

What the conversation about improvisation reveals is the way that our musical enculturation establishes within us a set of values and beliefs about music-making. These values and beliefs determine what makes sense and feels comfortable to us.

Orchestral music – performance, and the training that prepares musicians for this work – is underpinned by values such as precision, virtuosity, and accuracy (e.g. there are right and wrong ways of playing this music); expertise; and clear communication of hierarchies (leaders need to act with authority so that players can relax and feel they are in good hands – more a benevolent dictatorship than a collaboration). When the intention is one of honouring the music as a thing that exists autonomously, the finished ‘product’ is the focus, rather than the process or experience of getting to that end goal.

When my non-improvising musician talks about ‘not improvising’, he is revealing his musical enculturation in two ways. One is the discomfort of working musically in a more open-ended or less predictable environment. This jars with the expectation of predictability, and his perceived responsibility for accuracy and ‘correct’ realisation of the music. The other is about the way those values are loaded into a word like ‘improvisation’. In a musical world where music is presented to others, rather than a platform for participation, ‘improvising’ refers to a different musical expertise – that which is developed by a musician who has studied in depth the techniques and language of musical styles that are not dependent on notation. It takes years of dedicated, focused, painstaking work to develop that language in order to improvise with fluency. I can see why he wants to say from the outset that he doesn’t “improvise”.

Therefore, I don’t use the word ‘improvise’ in these contexts, at least, not at the start. It invokes too much immediate resistance and fear. In reality, the improvising you do in a workshopping situation or participatory performance environment, is more about creative thinking, responding spontaneously ‘in the moment’, and seeing your musicianship as a kind of arsenal of possibilities that can be applied in any number of situations, rather than only when particular parameters are in place. We can all do this – extremely specialised and detailed training cannot help but establish this kind of skill base – but we may need to learn to dismantle some of the preconditions our musical enculturation has attached to those skills.

“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.




With one voice

This year’s Melbourne International Jazz Festival took the Big Jam concept (opening the festival with a large, outdoor, audience participation music event) in a new direction with ‘With One Voice’. ‘With One Voice’ invited singers from a range of music traditions, all of whom use improvisation in their work, to teach a sample of their tradition to the audience. The Festival invited me to lead and facilitate the event, and devise a musical finale that would draw the different artists’ music together.

With One Voice took place on 2 June and opened with Lamine Sonko.

Lamine is an amazing performer, a Senegalese culture-keeper who is now based in Melbourne. He got us all dancing, clapping, and singing in Wolof language.

Next came the SKIN choir, a Melbourne-based indigenous choir that sings of urban indigenous experience. Each of the choir members is a professional singer-songwriter in their own right.

They taught a song from the Torres Strait Islands; the audience kept one of the lines going while the choir broke into parts, then drew us back together again in the chorus. “They were the stars of the show,” an audience member said to me later.

I found it hard to choose the star of the show though! Next on was Katie Noonan (also MC for the event) who taught the audience to sing the South African protest song Senzenina. Katie then improvised over the top, then invited Lamine to improvise, and invited members of the audience onto the stage to sing alongside the SKIN choir.

Lisa Young took us into an entirely new world. Lisa is a specialist in South Indian vocal percussion, konakol. She deftly divided the crowd into 4 separate groups, taught a part to each group then cued us all in and out while she soloed over the top. The rhythms are spoken, but pitch (high, middle, low, bending, swooping, etc) is important and adds a lot of shape and expression to each line.

For the finale, Katie performed her song Breathe in now, a song about being in the moment, open and present. We layered in the SKIN choir chant from the Torres Strait, Lamine’s clapping movement, and Lisa’s konakol rhythms as an accompaniment to the song. The audience got to revisit everything they’d learned in the last hour and bring it all together in a new context. It was beautiful. The sun was shining, the crowd of 1000 or so was singing their hearts out, and all those different traditions were drawn together. Perhaps a favourite moment for me was hearing Lamine and Lisa trade their respective vocal rhythm traditions in rapid, virtuosic exchange as the music soared into the final chorus of Breathe in Now.


At the Language School, the Lower Primary class are showing a growing interest in conducting and leading sounds. It started last week, when they first met Ryan, a young musician and fledgling workshop leader I am mentoring this term. Ryan is a virtuosic recorder player, and we invited the Lower Primary students to “conduct” improvisations with him, showing with their hands and limbs what they’d like him to play. As you can see in the video, they started things in a fairly contained way, but ended up with some very flamboyant, whole body conducting!

In this week’s class, we wrote a song together, and as we sang it through at the conclusion of the lesson, one of the boys leapt and vigorously pointed to each word in the song, bouncing his finger along in time to the music, and indicating when we should sing. He then moved on to the other words I had written up from student suggestions that weren’t yet included in the song lyrics, indicating that I should sing them too. I improvised my way through another verse from these words, and he was delighted.

Next week we’ll explore conducting further, and give each child an instrument – perhaps a range of chime bars, different pitches – and invite one person to point to the instrument they want to hear. This could be random, or we could fix it. Today we played a warm-up game that involved the children rolling a ball from one person to the next, and remembering the order that it went from child to child. We could apply the same principle to a circle of instruments, with an individual conductor making the initial choice about who plays when, but the order would then become fixed.

This could also be a way of creating new melodic material.

Why is conducting so engaging for these children? I think they are intrigued by the power of it, the idea that they can create a series of sounds with their gestures. They also enjoy the physicality of shaping the sounds – as is evident in the last child conducting in the video above. When you are newly-arrived in a country and you can’t understand much of what is going on, you don’t have a lot of power or choice – at least, not if you are motivated to try and fit in. You spend a lot of time copying others and trying to get things right. The Lower Primary children quickly worked out that with this kind of improvisation, they didn’t need to worry about it being “right”. They instinctively understood the freedom that they had, and they revelled in it.


A number of years ago now, I developed the ‘jam’ large-scale workshop format. I wanted to create something that could take place in a public space (ie. open to the public), that could cater for all ages and all levels of playing ability, to which anyone could turn up on the day and participate. I particularly wanted it to be the kind of event that whole families – parents, teenagers and children learning to play an instrument, younger siblings who just loved banging things, grandparents – could take part in together rather than the instrument-learning child being dropped off while parents take the younger sibling(s) off for an hour.

Jams have continued to evolve since then and these days it is one of the workshop formats that new clients often ask me to create for them. It has also developed along some different strands – such as the massed music-making scale of the Big Jams I’ve created and co-led for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival the last two years. This clip is from the 2011 Big Jam, co-presented with Rusty Rich (purple suit) and Mal Webb (orange suit). The dress code was ‘colourful’, which I think we acquitted pretty well!


Another strand is the ‘Jam on a Classic’, which can involve hundreds (rather than thousands) of participants. This video shows the Jam on The Rite of Spring that I created in 2010. It’s a good example of the way I extract a few ideas and themes from a big orchestral work and use them as the basis for a large group improvisation.


The next big jam I’ll be leading is on February 18th at the Myer Music Bowl, a large covered amphitheatre surrounded by grass-covered slopes in the heart of Melbourne. Every February the MSO presents a series of free symphony orchestra concerts at the Bowl and Melburnians pack a picnic and attend in the thousands. This year, I’ve been asked to create a pre-concert jam that will entice the picnickers – parents and children – to examine their picnic baskets for possible soundmakers (cutlery? Salad bowls? Tupperware?) and join in a jam on themes from Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico (the first piece that will be performed in that evening’s concert). A team of MSO musicians and young players from the MSO ArtPlay Graduate Ensemble will be on hand to lend support and give us a solid musical foundation to lock into!

Myer Bowl Jam

Saturday 18 February, 5-5.30pm

Followed by a free orchestral concert at 7pm

All welcome!

Learning journeys of young musicians

The first week of September always marks the last get-together of that year’s MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a group that I direct every school holidays that is made up of 28 young musicians (aged 8-13 when they start, usually 9-14 by this time of year). Each time we meet, we compose a new piece of music using collaborative strategies and improvisation, taking inspiration from a core piece of orchestral repertoire.

Then the last project for the year is over (in this case, Elgar’s Cello Concerto Re-imagined), and I can reflect on the musical and developmental journeys that I’ve seen some of the young participants take.

Sullen violin girl

One girl came to us at the start of the year flanked by her sister and a friend. The three of them took part in the Open Workshops audition with a certain amount of eye-rolling and cynicism. I took a punt on the older of the two sisters being ready to branch out on her own and offered her a place in the ensemble. In the first project, she barely moved her bow. She and another girl, similar in age, joined forces and giggled their way through the project, offering little to the creative process. The musician leading that small group was infuriated.

The next project, we put her in a different group, and her musician leader gave her a lot of musical responsibility. She jollied her along, creating a shorter name for her (in a gesture of jovial friendliness) and insisted, in an encouraging, positive way, that she be the one to play a solo in her group. Sullen Violin Girl was sullen no more after that project.

Fast forward to September and the project we have just completed, and this violinist was a different person to how she’d been at the start of the year. When I asked at one point for volunteers to play a solo – an improvised solo – she was the first to raise her hand. “Great sound!” I enthused at one point, and she happily told the whole group that this was her new instrument. (That’s a topic for a whole other post, the wonderful momentum that cam come when a young player starts to play on a decent instrument). She was obviously very proud, but also so much more confident. Her’s was a very positive journey, from insecure, shy, sullen teenager to someone who was really starting to blossom.

Hard-to-stay-focused boy

This boy was one of the younger members of the group. He’d impressed us all at the auditions with his vibrant imagination. He wasn’t a strong player, but he obviously loved inventing his own music. Once in the large group however, he floundered. He found it difficult to stay on task as long as the others in the group, needed a lot of personalised attention, and would frequently raise his hand to ask when we’d be taking a break.

In the second project it all got too much for him and there were tears. “Just because I’m the youngest doesn’t mean I always have to play the easy stuff,” he wailed. I sat with him and listened, and explained how we were happy for him to make the music harder for himself. If his part was too boring he could change it to make it more challenging. But, I told him, he has to try and do this by himself. His musician-leader would help him, but he’d need to take the initiative. He cheered up with that information, and went off to eat his lunch.

In the September project, he was still energetic and twitchy, but I got the sense that he’d settled into our routine now. When we did body percussion in our warm-ups he didn’t – as in previous warm-ups – start to jitter his feet and legs like an out-of-control Irish dancer, but managed to stay more or less in one place. At one point he came and showed me his bag of rice crackers. “I don’t want to get hungry! I’m always hungry here!” he told me. He still raised his hand and asked for breaks at inopportune moments, but I too had learned how to respond to this, and would tell him he should take a break if he needed one, but that I needed to keep the rehearsal going a bit longer. “Oh… alright then. I’ll stay too,” he said, sighing.

He played a solo, in a section where I had asked each of the soloists to play very slowly. “You could change notes just at the start of each bar,” I suggested. His eyes never left me during that section, waiting for his cue. He played his improvisation just as I’d asked, one note, changing at the start of each bar. Slow and solid. I think he knew how good it sounded.

I didn’t get to catch up with his parents at the end of the project. After the tears in the middle of the year his dad had said, “This is so good for him! Being part of a group, having to work with others… he isn’t good at these things, and he is just getting so much out of it.”

The quiet ones

After the project had ended in September and I was back home, I found myself thinking about the quieter members of the group. They were among the less confident players. One was a cellist, one of the oldest in the group, and quite a beginner. Initially we’d had two older beginner cellist girls in the group (I try to ensure the older kids have someone else their own age in the Ensemble – I can well remember the self-consciousness I felt as a teenager taking part in activities where I seemed to be the oldest and the tallest) but the other girl never came back after the first project. This girl didn’t get to blossom the way the Sullen Violin Girl did. She never put her hand up to play a solo and would shake her head in horror if asked to do so directly. I don’t think she liked playing alongside the other two cellists who were both younger than she.

Two other girls who didn’t ever want to play a solo were sisters. They had learned to play their instruments (piano and violin) in a very stern, traditional, schooled fashion, and the creativity of the Ensemble was a very new experience for them. I think the younger sister got a lot out of it – as a violinist she was often a section player and so not necessarily being asked to invent things for her instrument. The older sister was the main pianist/percussionist in the group, and by September I realised she was not offering her musician-leaders anything. Everything she played was suggested to her by someone else.

In a fast-paced 2-day project like the ArtPlay Ensemble projects, there isn’t a lot of time to coax individuals. You can make suggestions and encourage them to try, but if they don’t respond, time demands that you move on. In this way, I think the project wasn’t as good for some as it was for others. Was it the wrong project for them? Were we wrong to offer a place? Or was there a small sense of hope inside them that something in this project would unlock the kernel of potential that they know is there, but that they cannot voice due to the greater fear of sounding ‘wrong’?

Playing by ear

I’ve led two composition projects recently that worked with just a limited range of pitches, and it’s interesting to see how this restriction helps the participants hone in their aural skills and pitch awareness.

The first project was with teenagers at Signal. Linked to the Australian Art Orchestra’s ongoing collaboration with musicians from South India, we developed an original composition that took inspiration from one of the AAO’s movements of the work Into The Fire, borrowing a mode, a tala (like a time signature), some melodic phrases, and some structural ideas and rhythmic patterns.

The mode had 6 pitches ascending and 5 pitches descending. We learned it aurally, slowly, and got the participants to improvise on it and invent short patterns and phrases. Later, when we began to teach melodic material that was taken directly from the original (again, aurally), I was impressed by how quickly the group found the pitches and memorised the phrases. They were already becoming sensitive to the ‘taste’ of the different pitches within the mode, and their relationships with each other. Or if they weren’t, they were getting better at making more accurate educated guesses as to which note in the 5-6-note mode was being played.

That group was a jazz and improvisation group so perhaps their ears were more ready to be put to use. The following week, with a group of classically-trained younger musicians at ArtPlay (aged 9-14 years), we were creating short sections of music using only the notes of the Aeolian mode (A to A on the white notes of the piano, A natural minor). The group was tired, and uncertain how to proceed. I reminded them, “We’re only using these 7 notes! You don’t need to guess, just notice if it is going up or down from where you already are, and if it moves by step or by leap. Then find the note. And listen for its flavour!”

A little while later, I felt a shift in the group. We’d reached a section in the music where I wanted everyone to create a short riff, working in instrument sections. I wanted them to do this quickly, there and then, as we were short on time. What I felt was a shift in energy, where enough of the participants suddenly understood that every one of those 7 notes would sound “good” and “right” and that all they had to do was arrange some of them in a rhythm. Suddenly, we had riffs bursting out all over the group. One player would invent something, and the others in that section would learn it from them, on the spot.

“That’s the idea!” I thought to myself. There is something really liberating about the discovery that you can figure out how to play something by listening to it. Some young players instinctively understand this, but others are filled with trepidation. It takes courage to blow or bow those first tentative notes, trying to match pitches or play by ear – but how thrilling the energy rush is that you get when you realise it worked!

Random Round

I’ve been exploring Percy Grainger’s Random Round this week. The Random Round is a piece of very tonal, attractive but quite experimental music, way ahead of its time. Grainger was a truly original thinker, radical and visionary who explores ways of bringing performer-choice and invention into a composed chamber music piece. He wrote it in 1912-1913, for an unspecified range and number of “tone-tools” [instruments].

The score consists of a range of melodies, accompaniment figures and short ostinati, organised into six specific sections. There are some fixed rules about how players must go from one section to the next, and some recommendations that can be followed at the discretion of the “band-boss” [conductor]. The material isn’t interchangeable between sections.

When the Random Round gets put together it can have a very ‘composed’ feel – the sections of music and their specific material and the free order with which you can play them, give a finished version of the piece a strong sense of thematic exposition, development and recapitulation. It can be difficult to achieve this kind of structure using workshop processes; the riff-based group-devised workshop processes that I (and other exponents of the ‘Guildhall School system’) often use can sometimes be harmonically or thematically ‘static’ (unless you have a lot of time to develop and memorise other material that can link to earlier thematic material). The challenge of creating music that has a sense of development and return in a group context using workshop processes is one I have been exploring on and off for the last few years. Grainger’s Random Round offers a possible structural model, I think.

The sad news is I was supposed to be building a project around the Random Round this week, but we couldn’t get hold of an appropriate score or set of parts for the musicians to work from. I wonder if there isn’t one available in Australia? I have been working from a manuscript of the work, written in Grainger’s cursive hand, complete with crossings-out and excited afterthoughts. His ideas literally jump off the page and you get a wonderful sense of his creative energy… but it is hard to read and work from in an ensemble. I am thinking that before I return it to the library I will write out some simple parts of the various ostinati and melodies, so that I can use it with groups in the future.


Making human connections through music – day 3 at the refugee centre

My third visit to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] was different yet again. When John and I arrived we were struck by how quiet the place seemed. “Yeah, it’s pretty dead around here,” the activities officer agreed, and went to see who he could round up. The MITA residents are nocturnal creatures – our music session starts at 2.30pm on a Saturday, which is around the time many of them are just getting up for the day. When you don’t get to bed before 6.30am, 2.30pm is an early start!

We started with a small group, and the numbers stayed small for the rest of the afternoon. First to arrive were Hussein, the Iranian singer from the previous two visits, his friend Ashraf who had written out all the Farsi lyrics in English spellings for me on my first visit, and another young man from Afghanistan that I hadn’t met before named Mohamad. Another Afghani man, Ali, a regular member of the group, also wandered over. The three of them grabbed drums and we started with ‘Soltane Ghalba’, the soulful, lyrical love song in 3/4 that I’d found on iTunes and downloaded for these sessions. John played along with the CD, learning the chords on the guitar, and I worked with our newest recruit, Mohamad, teaching him how to play the melody on the glockenspiel. It’s quite a long melody but as it is a sequence of four phrases, it’s not hard to memorise and is very satisfying to play.

As in previous weeks, we moved quickly from song to song, usually before each one had finished. The pace at the beginning was very much set by Hussein. Our second song was Saghi emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete. We sang this one through several times, stopping every now and then to remind our singer to keep an ear out for the accompaniment and not rush ahead. The structure of ‘chorus–instrumental–verse–chorus’ became more consistent. Ashraf and Hussein proved to be a strong drumming team. Ali, working with the side drum and tambour as a makeshift drumkit, maintained a steady pulse throughout, and seemed much more comfortable within the ensemble than he had in previous weeks. He smiled constantly – he was happy to play simple rhythms and just participate, varying mainly the volume and strength with which he hit the drums, rather than the rhythm.

However, I was unsure how long the rest of us would be able to cope with the extreme volume coming from Hussein’s playing, which was particularly vigorous and intense that afternoon. There can be lots of reasons why people play excessively loudly – they may have hearing damage, for example (not uncommon among refugees or people who may have had ear infections remain untreated for long periods), but it can also be a kind of blocking mechanism that resists connections with other people. I wanted to see if we could introduce some dynamic variation.

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Observing musical leadership

As the person who is usually the project leader, I’ve loved just being a member of the full ensemble for last week’s Beethoven project, leading a small group, playing my instrument (bass clarinet that week) and watching another person lead the overall process. It has been an opportunity to observe someone with a very similar process to my own (which means I have some insights into where he is taking the group with the different tasks he sets) shape and guide the musical content as it evolves.

Firstly, it’s been interesting to be on the receiving end.  I’ve needed to receive and interpret instructions, to respond to tasks without knowing how the material would be used in the overall composition – all the things that participants in my projects experience and respond to. I’ve noticed different things about the group energy and about the leader’s energy that I can use in my own projects, through participating in someone else’s project.

I’ve loved observing the way that Fraser asks questions and sets tasks for the group. I think that the skill of asking questions (or setting tasks) in a creative project is one of the most important skills, and it is a subtle art in itself. The way that tasks are given – the words that are used, the clarity of the starting point, the restrictions or essential criteria that inform how all the different groups’ creations will fit together in the larger piece – makes a huge difference to what each of the groups come up with in response. Some of Fraser’s questions or tasks are similar to ones I like to use, but others are different, and it’s been valuable to be able to hear these, and observe the ways groups have responded.

On warm-ups

We started each day with a warm-up. I know that for me, a good warm-up has always been a cornerstone of a project, a powerful way to assert the spirit of a project and build a cohesive sense of the group. However, sometimes of late, I’ve begun to question the efficacy of warm-up activities with some groups. For example, at Pelican PS I’ve learned that warm-ups really throw the older students off. They find them too confusing, too unrelated. Lessons at Pelican work better if we jump straight into the day’s work with no preamble or easing-in. Similarly, I find that the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble children often arrive on the second day of a project ready to work. They need very little group warm-up at all, and I’ve wondered if the workshop really benefits from the process.

There was one day this week where I arrived feeling incredibly tired and lacklustre. As Fraser got the workshop started I decided to observe myself in the warm-up, and compare how I felt at the end of it to how I felt at the beginning. I wanted to monitor its effectiveness on me.

That morning, Fraser taught us the Chair game. (The children loved this game. They wanted to present it to their parents at the end of the week. One of the MSO players said he wanted to play it all day. Fraser expressed amazement at the oddly frenzied way our group played it – unlike any other group he’d ever played it with, he said). By the end of the game, I realised that I did indeed feel more relaxed, awake, alive, and definitely ready to work. So, I shall persevere with my warm-up investigation for my projects.

It was also interesting to see Fraser teach another warm-up game that I often teach here. It is one I learned in England during my studies there, and I always loved it, always found it incredibly fun, energy-building, focus-generating, playful… However, it has never really worked here. It involves people using their voices and physical gestures. I’ve never been able to get a group in Australia to generate the kind of energy that the game needs to work its magic. It wasn’t all that different for Fraser either, and we talked about this later – the game was fun, but it never quite worked. Perhaps it is just a game that doesn’t suit the Australian psyche or energy, or the way we use our voices… or our relationship with our voices. Interesting.