Archive for the ‘improvising’ Tag

Too many bright sparky children

Sometimes it is so hard to choose. This week I needed to make a Final List of offers for the 2014 MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, a composing and improvising ensemble for 28 children and professional musicians from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, working under my direction. We held our annual weekend of try-outs at the start of February.

MSO ArtPlay Open Workshops

Around 120 children took part in 6 free 1-hour composing workshops. The workshop process is the same each year – it gives children a taste of the strategies we use for collaborative composing in the Ensemble, and shows us who is out there to invite into the Ensemble for 2014. (Read more about the workshop process here).

Workshop group (G. Howell)At the end of each workshop, the two MSO musicians and I discuss each participant, noting how they responded and the sorts of strengths and preferences they showed. We look for “bright, sparky kids” – children who like the idea of making things up on their instrument, who are open, who feel comfortable working in a group made up of adults and other children, and who are happy to try out other people’s ideas as well their own. They need to be comfortable on their instrument, but high-level skills are not a primary criterion.

We score each child with a Yes, No, Maybe/Yes, or Maybe/No. Usually the Ensemble is made up of children on the ‘Yes’ and ‘Maybe’ lists. Other ‘Maybes’ go on the Reserve list in case someone doesn’t take up their place.

By the end of the weekend I had 41 ‘Yeses’. There are only 28 places in the group… I had to take a deep breath, and steel myself to do a Big Cull. It hurt! While it is great that we are attracting so many children who are such a good match for the program, it’s tough to know that there were children – fabulously imaginative, perceptive, inventive kids, with a deep connection to and love for their instrument – who would be awesome contributors to this Ensemble, that I couldn’t offer a place to this year.

Choosing is always difficult, especially in an education context, where the goal is one of supporting each child’s development, rather than just finding the best players. There are always children that we see who, for whatever reason – maybe shyness, or self-consciousness with the shift away from notation and right/wrong notes into this inventive and open-ended process – don’t shine as brightly on the day as others but who we believe have great potential and would benefit from participating in the Ensemble. Finding the right balance of personalities, potential, and instrumentation is important.

I think the process we use is a good one, and a fair one. There is space for children to come in and just be themselves – every ensemble benefits from a mix of extrovert leaders as well as quieter, rock-steady leaders, and section players. We get a lot of quirky children coming to us – their out-of-the-box thinking is such an asset in creative projects like this, and they often thrive in a social environment with lots of other non-conformist thinkers.

Nevertheless, there is no ‘perfect’ choice. The choices I make will create the Ensemble that we get – a different set of choices will create a different Ensemble. By choosing, I am also laying the ground for a set of experiences and relationships for those children, and for me. The first MSO ArtPlay Ensemble was formed in 2006, and that year, there was no selection process. We just accepted everyone who applied. That group is now finishing school, some are even at university. Quite a few have kept in touch over the years, letting me know what they are up to with their music. They are making choices now that will see them becoming the next generation of orchestral musicians, jazz musicians, music therapists – I’m sure. I’m not suggesting those choices are due to their experience of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble! But I believe that if you experience yourself as musical and creative in your formative playing years, this creates a strong foundation for seeking and trying out new musical ventures as you mature.

Being the one to choose is both a privilege and a responsibility, because choices open as well as close… and set new things in motion. Ah well… I’m looking forward to this year’s journey, despite the challenge of choosing!

Most productive day of the residency so far!

Lospalos, day 94

Yesterday (Saturday) was probably the most productive day of the residency! Earlier in the week, some of the students we’d befriended in the English classes dropped by our house just to hang out and chat. We showed them the kakalo that our neighbour had made for us the previous weekend. “Oh yes, we know this instrument,” they told us. “Do you know how to make it?” Tony asked them. “Yes, we do,” they replied.

So we cooked up a plan for a Saturday Working Bee, focused on making instruments.

That morning, the three boys came to our house after they’d finished morning school. We went to visit our neighbour to tell him of our plan, and to see if he’d like to join us for any or part of the day. He was immediately interested. He came around to see the pieces of bamboo we’d been given from the nuns at ADM, and told us we still needed a much narrower piece if we wanted to make bamboo flutes. Then he went home and found a long piece with the right diameter for us, which we bought for $2 (it turned out it was his fishing rod, but he knew where he could get another rod-lengthed piece of bamboo so was happy to sell it to us). Before he left, he lent us some of his tools.

Tony and the boys got to work sawing the thick lengths of bamboo into shorter pieces for kakalos. I’d been called down the street to collect something from a friend. I was only gone 20 minutes, but by the time I’d returned there was a group of about 25 kids on the verandah. Some were working on the instrument making, but others were just hanging out, looking for things to play.

“Maybe go down on the grass,” Tony suggested to me. We took our set of three mats down to the recently-mown grass and got everyone to sit down. We had pieces of bamboo clapping sticks, plastic bottles pumped with air and turned into bells, upturned buckets to play as drums, chime bars (one per child) and short plastic bottles and storage containers filled with rice to use as shakers. More children kept arriving – at one point we had well over 40, many of whom I’d never seen before, and lots of girls. I taught them to sing Ah Ya Zahn, a song from Lebanon with a rhythmic response in the chorus. We spliced this with different rhythmic patterns, once for each group of instruments.

In this group it was gratifying to see that those children who’d been coming to our house regularly for verandah jams (many of them “naughty boys”, as Oswalda tended to refer to them) were the ones who helped hold the ensemble together. They knew all about looking for cues, and stopping on the stop signal, being ready for sections to change, and sticking to the pulse rather than speeding up or slowing down. I was proud of them! They were the leaders among this group of new kids.

The group itself had a chaotic feeling – often, standing in front of it, it was hard to see who was actually listening to what I said! But they must all have been listening, because they learned the rhythmic response in the chorus (which is irregular so needs to be memorised) incredibly quickly, and similarly the Arabic words of the song.

Eventually some mothers arrived to take their children home to lunch (we realised they’d stopped at our place on their way home from school), so our group numbers reduced and we eventually stopped. Some boys continued to hang around (I don’t think they had lunch to go home to, on reflection), so we brought out some bananas, then told them we needed to have a rest, and that they could come back in the afternoon to play some more music.

By the end of that afternoon we had made 8 kakalos, with a set of neatly-smoothed bamboo sticks to play them with. Tony had also started experimenting with some bamboo flute designs, finding a way to bore holds into the bamboo tunes, and to create a more user-friendly mouthpiece.

Also that afternoon we began to sing through the Fataluku version of Forever Young, one of Timor’s current summer radio anthems, and a much-loved song among the teenage population of Lospalos. Valda invited some friends over, and the three working bee boys also stayed. We tested out the multi-syllabic Fataluku words, figuring out how to make them fit with the melody of the song.

The afternoon also included an excursion to a nearby pond system, where apparently many crocodiles lived. They weren’t revealing themselves that day though.

In the evening, we welcomed the ANAM students and the Many Hands directors to our house. Valda cooked up a storm for everyone, and then we jammed into the evening. Lina and Tony did some improvised flute duets, Doug played guitar, all of us played the kakalos, working with the cele cuku rhythms, and Lina taught everyone Macedonian folk dancing.

So it was a late night for Lospalos (hitting the beds by about 11pm), but definitely the most productive day of the residence. We were well due our rest by then.

Trust, comfort zones and challenges

The day after the Sound Safari workshop, I was up in Armidale NSW, working with the Sydney Wind Collective – this year’s AYO Wind Quintet, who were in residence at the New England Conservatorium of Music. We worked with 15 young woodwind players – a group of musicians aged 10 to 19, playing flutes clarinets, saxophones, and even three French Horns – a wonderful palette of colours! We composed music inspired by Ross Edwards’ wind quintet Incantations.

I had an interesting experience on this project that led me to reflect on how much project facilitators should push or challenge individual participants. When you are working with young people that you are meeting for the first time in the project, you need to assess this on the spot.

In this project, we had a young flautist who was studying music as a second-year at the local university. A pretty serious player. In the same group, we had some fairly inexperienced musicians. “We need to ensure that we offer these more experienced players suitable challenges,” I reminded the AYO players who were leading that particular group of participants.

Later that day, I was observing where they were up to with their piece. “I think it needs a solo,” I suggested to the group. “Annabel” – I turned to the flautist from the university – “would you like to do a solo in this section?”

Annabel agreed – not with any particular enthusiasm or delight, it must be said. But she is a quiet girl, and not easy to read. Was she happy to be asked and offered this role but reacting in a reluctant way because she was not the type to push herself forward? Or was she horrified by the suggestion and hiding her reaction out of politeness?

Annabel’s solo became a focus for the group in that next working session. It was an opportunity to model to the AYO players as well as the other participants in the group some ways that you can set about inventing your own melody. However, Annabel found it a truly challenging experience, I think. It was an experience she did not withdraw from exactly, but perhaps it highlighted lots of insecurities she had about her own musical ideas, or about her ability to work away from the printed notes that someone else had written for her.

“I just hate improvising,” she told us at one point, half-smiling in a slightly self-deprecating way as she said it. We had discussed that this was improvising in order to help us – her – come up with a unique solo to include in her group’s piece. She wouldn’t be improvising in the concert, we assured her. But despite her reluctance, whenever I, or one of the AYO players, suggested another possible tactic or inventing strategy, she went along with it. Again I wondered, was this out of politeness, or a deeply-felt hope that we would stick with her while she crossed a big emotional hurdle?

Improvising and inventing can feel an enormous emotional hurdle to many young classically-trained musicians. You spend you whole playing life learning to play the notes right, to accurate reproduce the music that is printed on the page. You read, and you memorise, but you rarely get asked to create your own part. Your musical success (and therefore confidence) is nearly always tied up in your ability to play the right notes.

It was a slow process, inventing melodic ideas that could take Annabel from bar 1 to 16, following the shape of the accompanying harmonic progression and keeping a given rhythmic figure as her central anchoring idea. We included a repeating figure that she’d experimented with in an earlier improvisation and some tension-building long notes, and after quite an intense, focused, but also somewhat cajoled process we created a very satisfying solo melody together.

I couldn’t really tell how she felt about the work we had just done. It wasn’t clear to me if she was unhappy, excruciated, relieved, or even secretly pleased with herself. She’d told us she hated improvising, but I’d kept her at it regardless, as it was only through trying out some ideas that she would be able to invent a melody of her own to play. I hoped she felt it was worth it.

This all happened at the end of the first day. That evening, I wrote Annabel’s solo out for her on manuscript paper. I gave it to her the next morning, and hoped that it clarified for her the process we had been through – improvising yes, but as a means to an end.

She was genuinely pleased the next day when she saw her solo written out in notation. It made her ideas concrete, I think, and substantial. It took the pressure off her to remember everything she’d come up with, and she played it beautifully. At first she started it with it on a music stand, but later moved it to the floor. By that stage she was only glancing at it occasionally – I think she had almost memorised it by the time of the performance in the afternoon of the second day.

At the end of the performance Annabel came and thanked me, and said how much she’d enjoyed the project. She seemed genuinely happy and appreciative. It seemed to me that despite (or because of) the challenges I had put her through, she trusted me. I felt that she should feel particularly proud of herself and told her so. It’s not easy to step into new things in music where you are completely out of your comfort zone, I told her. I know it! So she had been courageous, and that makes her success in performance even sweeter.

But I’m telling this story because, despite her success, I’m not sure I’d play it the same way next time. I wouldn’t want such a situation to end up as some kind of power struggle, with me suggesting ideas and the young person just blocking and refusing them (I don’t think I’d let that happen… but it’s important to consider it as an unintended possible consequence). It’s true that as an outsider, a visitor to a group, you have to work with your instincts and trust in the responses you have to the environment and people. Instincts in workshops are informed by all your past experiences and the way you have processed and reflected on these. But is it the role of an outsider to offer these kinds of challenges when they are not going to be able to sustain their support and interest, simply because they won’t be around for long? It may be that the visitor is the ideal person to assert these kinds of challenges. Fresh ideas, a different energy, a special context for the ideas – visiting artists can invite new responses from participants than they normally feel able to give, and can inspire freedom from habitual response patterns. It’s an intense responsibility at times!

Playing informally

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about those opportunities that arise from time to time to play informally with others and how we respond to them. I went through a classical music training. Improvisation and composing came later to me, after I had finished my undergrad studies. I tend to think of myself as someone who was “classically-trained” and know that I have worked at letting go of a lot of rigidity and baggage that can go along with that training.

Recently there was another gathering of the ArtPlay Senior Artists (you can read the blog and forum that is responding to those sessions here) at which we discussed the pedagogy and thinking that underpins the MSO ArtPlay Ensembles that I direct. After the session one of the other artists began to tell me about her own music performance experiences, and how unable she had always felt to just pick up her instrument and play whatever… she felt she had to have something prepared, or time to rehearse, before every playing in front of anyone. “Then I went to art college, in the 1980s,” she told me. “And of course everyone was joining and forming bands. They ‘d ask me to play too, but I couldn’t, I just didn’t feel I could play in that way, and I wished that I could.”

The funny thing is, I told her, despite all the work I do with improvisation, and in encouraging people to play, I too still can feel crippled by exactly the same feelings. I was at a party recently where there were many musicians (quite a contemporary, avant-garde experimental crowd) and after dinner the music started. Tony (my boyfriend) played (brilliantly, as always), the host and his son performed, some other guests (each of whom were electronic music people) performed using various bits of equipment. I had brought my clarinet with me, but when the time came, I shrank away from playing. I surprised myself, but I knew I didn’t want to play. I felt like I needed to have prepared something. I didn’t feel comfortable to just get up and improvise, for some reason, even though I know I could have done that.

By contrast, there was another party recently, when Nico and Martin were here from Ireland, and when the music started there you just couldn’t stop me. Someone lent me a saxophone (I hadn’t brought an instrument with me) and I played all night. I passed it to Tony, seeing as he is the resident expert saxophonist, but the mouthpiece/reed set-up was wrong for him and he was happier just jamming on the guitar. We sang, we played, we rolled out as many songs as we all could think of. No shyness or reluctance on my part at all.

It was a very different crowd at the second party – people I know very well, whereas at the first party I was a bit of a newcomer to that group – they are Tony’s friends who I am only just getting to know. When he and I discussed this barrier to playing informally he didn’t agree that it was a legacy of a “classical music training”. He had felt similarly reluctant at the second party, he said, as I had at the first, where he knew fewer people and where the music environment was one based around familiar songs. I know heaps of songs – I’ve always sung and been around people who sing – but he doesn’t, and hasn’t.  So he felt less comfortable playing, despite being a seasoned, veteran improviser!

Therefore, perhaps the ‘barriers’ are set up more in response to the environment or people present, than they are to our training or abilities. However, I do think the “classical music” training does little to prepare musicians to engage informally and spontaneously with their instruments (I am thinking about a comment an MSO player made to me years ago, when I first started running training projects there, that even to play Happy Birthday at a celebratory gathering felt stressful). And it is crazy, in a way, to think there are any barriers for people playing music who already know how to play. There are enough for those who’ve had little experience or exposure!

All of these questions are going to be put in a completely new context when I go to East Timor, I suspect. More on that later.