Archive for the ‘jamming’ Tag

Jump on the Bandwagon 2013

Recently I led this year’s Jump on the Bandwagon project at ArtPlay. Jump on the Bandwagon is a family jam – an all ages, all abilities, get-your-hands-on-an-instrument-and-play event that is about getting large groups of people playing together and sounding great.

Regular readers will know that I lead lots of jams with orchestras, and these usually take pieces of orchestral music as their starting points for improvisation and jamming. In Jump on the Bandwagon, we focus on grooves and riffs with a more contemporary edge. Often I use a melodic idea that’s emerged in an earlier workshop with young people – some of these can be very enduring and an ideal starting point for a big range of musical interests!

This year I used a short melody created by some students from Preston Girls Secondary College in a workshop with the MSO a few years ago. We started that workshop by asking them to brainstorm “what’s important?” One group wrote these words, and hooked them up to a really catchy melody:

Money does buy food

Money does not buy family, friends or love.

We always get a crowd of participants – this year we capped the registrations at 100, and most were these were under-8s, including one 7 year-old violinist, filled with ideas and no qualms at all about being the only violinist there, a little girl who opted to play the keyboard but had brought her own ceremonial trumpet along, and a 2 year old who spent the whole time struggling with his mum to have control of the drumstick and being massively overstimulated by the whole event, but ended the session by helping gather up all the instruments, hugging me good-bye, and not wanting to leave. I hope we get to see him again!

But some of the most memorable participants were the adults. I asked one dad to play the autoharp and showed him how it worked, pushing down buttons for particular chords, and strumming across the strings in time. One of the other musicians in the Bandwagon team told me later, “He loved it! He absolutely loved it and said, ‘It’s my first time EVER playing music, and I think I’ve found my instrument!'” That’s a great outcome, and just as important as any younger child having their first experience playing music.

Research shows that the music experiences children share within their families are way more powerful and potent than any music experiences they may have in school, in terms of impacts their later choices to participate in music experiences as adults. That’s why I emphasise all-ages with the jams I lead. Of course they are for the children. But they are also for the adults. And if that man goes off and buys himself an autoharp of his own then that will be one of the best outcomes of a jam that I can think of.

COmments board at the end of Jump on the Bandwagon, 2013, ArtPlay (G. Howell)

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Musicians in the community

We have been made very welcome here in Djarindjin-Lombadina, a small and remote Aboriginal community on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite remote as it is only connected to Broome by 200km of unsealed, sandy road. There are two little shops, selling a small range of groceries and fishing gear. There is lots of green grass and many handsome trees.

On Saturday evening we took part in a community jam in the school hall with a couple of musicians from the Aboriginal community, three of the teachers (a pianist, a percussionist, and a singer-guitarist), and a crowd of kids. We jammed on various popular hits (Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Michael Jackson – those universal classics). We also played around with a 12-bar blues, inventing lyrics, getting the kids to sing, taking turns with the microphone.

The jam group

Saturday night Jam, Djarindjin-Lombadina (Gillian Howell)

It was a magic evening. I gave my camera to the children and they took photo after photo of themselves, doing hip poses and pulling silly faces. Lots of photos!

Posing for the camera, Djarindjin-LombadinaLittle boy Djarindjin-Lombadina

Where's the drummer gone?I asked one little girl to take a photo of the drummer for me. She came back with this photo, showing it to me on the screen at the back of the camera. “But where’s Willie?” I asked, showing her the photo. And she looked at it again and started giggling. I think Willie must have decided to duck down when she took the photo. She would have been standing in front of him for a while, taking care to set up her photo. Such a teaser! Yep. It was a fun night.

Apparently, this is the first time that this kind of music-making has taken place between the teacher community and the indigenous community, and the teachers were so, so pleased. I don’t know that we can take credit for it happening, due to our presence or influence – I have the impression that the local elders were already planning to have a bit of a jam around now, because they have a gig coming up next week. I think we were just very lucky that it happened on our first weekend. It was a wonderful way to get to know some of the children and just hang out. Music provides the meeting ground. We build rapport and some shared experiences, and hopefully we’ll be able to extend these when our project starts in earnest next week.

In any case, being musicians in a community isn’t just about working with the kids. It’s about contributing wherever we can or wherever it is wanted. We went along to Mass this morning (the school is a Catholic school, and the mission is an old Catholic mission, so those traditions are still maintained in the community) and played music for the start of the service. Neither of us are regular mass-goers, but it is an authentic and appreciated way for us to contribute to community life. It’s a very beautiful church, by the way. It has a roof thatch made from paperbark – one of the only remaining examples of this style – and it is 100 years old.

Lombadina paperbark church (Gillian Howell)

We have also talked with the teachers about their musical interests, and there are ways that we may be able to support the music projects that are part of their non-teaching lives here in Lombadina. At this stage, it is looking like the 12-bar blues could feature strongly in our end-of-residency concert, with solos for each teacher and a song created by the kids.

New video – jamming on gypsy music in Melbourne

New video to share this week – here are some highlights from the Gypsy Jam I led for a crowd of thousands at an outdoor concert venue called the Myer Music Bowl a few weeks back. The footage gives a sense of the fun, fast-pace and heat of the evening!

What’s coming up? I’m taking a bit of time away from my PhD reading this week; I’ve started the week by writing a couple of lectures (one on music, power, and social change, the other on informal learning and Musical Futures), which I need to present in a couple of weeks. Then, for the rest of this week I will be in at ArtPlay, one of my favourite places in Melbourne. I have two days of City Beats workshops (City Beats is a longterm project that I direct for ArtPlay and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), and then the second series of Nests workshops. More about these projects when they are finished!

 

Imagining the Manningham Community Jam

A project I will be working on over the next couple of months is the Manningham Community Jam, a large-scale music event to open the Manningham Community Square [MC2] community hub building on Doncaster Road in Melbourne. This brand new building is nearly finished and the Manningham Community Jam is part of the program of events to open it to the public. The building is light-filled, contemporary and purpose-built, it will house the public library and art gallery on the ground floor, with the top floor a dedicated community arts centre with dance studios, art studios, rehearsal spaces and a few offices. The building will also house a number of community organisations and support services.

The idea with the Manningham Community Jam is to bring together all the music groups that already exist in the area – several choirs, jazz bands, rock bands, a marimba group – and members of the public to play the building into being and warm the space with sounds. I’ll be composing the musical skeleton that the Jam will be based on, working with each of the groups to develop sections of this, and then leading a large-scale jam with members of the public and the groups. I’ll have a team of professional musicians working with me on the day. It’s going to be great!

On Friday I had a tour of the new building and heard about which groups had expressed interest in participating. Seeing the building and the possible spaces we could use always helps me begin to shape the musical ideas. Outside the front of the building is a small stage and the starting idea is for it to be an outdoor jam, with the participants facing towards the stage.

In the entrance of the building things are quite open-plan, with a stairway leading up and two further levels with balconies/bridges overlooking the foyer area.

Looking at this range of possible ‘stages’, the organisers and I couldn’t help but imagine how it could be if we had some of our groups positioned on each of these balconies, playing in turn. One of the desired outcomes of the community jam is for these local music groups to be featured in some way, so could we begin the jam with short but characteristic presentations from each of these groups, presented as a kind of music installation? We may have groups such as an Italian Women’s Choir, a senior citizen’s choir, a jazz ensemble, a brass ensemble… I like the idea of starting the jam with a short performance from a group on the highest balcony, followed by another by another group on the next balcony, and so on, cascading the sounds one by one down to the foyer where the marimba group could then perform, and have the rock band positioned outside the front of the building, as a way of drawing the general public out of the building and onto the forecourt for the big jam proper.

All the inside musicians would need to then come back downstairs (using the elevators probably) and out through the front doors in order to be featured in the jam as well.

However, moving people during an event is not ideal… It would be much more straightforward if we just kept everyone in the same place throughout. We don’t have any planned rehearsal time with the inside groups, to get them familiar with the space and where and when to move downstairs… perhaps we could schedule this in though? Maybe the day before?

I’m also not a great fan of the outdoor jam as managing sound and volume – so that everyone can hear each other, and most importantly hear me – can be a lot more problematic. No soundcheck on the day, apart from immediately before the event starts. However, the outdoor space is the largest space there is, and if all the groups that are expressing interest decide to participate, and if we get our anticipated take-up on the day, then there could easily be 600 or more people there.

The Community Jam is not a long event – we have 45 minutes in total, and following the Jam there will be a Time Capsule ceremony, which the organisers want all the general public to be part of. The Time Capsule ceremony will be the last event of the day.

I’ll continue to blog about this project over the coming weeks as it evolves and takes shape. It will culminate on Sunday 16 September.

Interestingly, opening a new building with community music making is a popular idea in current times – Melbourne’s main concert hall the Hamer Hall is opening this weekend after a major 2-year refurbishment. There are several months of activities coming up to mark the re-opening and one of them is an event called Raising the Roof, involving community ensembles from all across the state, which is going to be fabulous, I think. But that’s not until September 30th – we at Manningham will be setting the trend! And it is wonderful to think that bringing amateur musicians and music-making novices into prominent public spaces is a feature of the contemporary zeitgeist.

Mexican Sunday

In preparation for next Saturday’s Jam on El Salon Mexico at the Myer Music Bowl (see the last paragraph of this post to read all about it), I’ve spent today working up a flexible arrangement of El Palo Verde, inspired by this fantastic version:

It’s wild! It reminds me a bit of brass bands from the Balkans – same kind of anarchic, high-velocity playing. I had fun transcribing the tuba part this afternoon. I don’t think we’ll be doing it quite this fast. Still developing ideas of how the crowd’s picnic utensils will come into it…

UPDATE:

Ole! The Jam was indeed a wild Mexican Saturday. I got the audience involved in all sorts of ways and a small number of children came down the front with their picnic paraphernalia in order to play solos. Here is some footage from the event:

Music in immigration detention, part 2

I made my second visit out to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] recently, leading music workshops with the young men there. Once again it was a session with lots of music and energy, that demonstrated  the way that music offers these young men a way to explore their skills and their sense of identity through music. It also generated some interesting questions about ways of working with structure and form (in terms of music, and in terms of workshop content) in this challenging environment.

My first visit was 3 weeks ago, with the following two sessions postponed due to illness (mine) and a lock-down (at MITA, due to a public protest). I was joined for this second visit by a volunteer, John. John is a guitarist and mandolin player (though an economist by trade). The MITA Activities Officer also took part in the session.

During the week I’d been thinking about establishing a bit more structure in the workshops. Would the group benefit from, and respond well to, a warm-up activity of some kind? I planned a simple task that would teach us all each other’s names and kept this in mind as a starting point. However, the first guys to arrive began playing instruments as soon as they entered the space and once they’d started, it wasn’t easy to stop them. The level of English is generally very low, and without an interpreter, it is more effective to go with the flow of their energy than to try and impose a different activity to what they have started themselves.

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Music in immigration detention

Yesterday I led my first workshop with the young men at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation [MITA] – a secure facility for people being held in immigration detention. The Melbourne site is accommodating a large number of young men only, many of them unaccompanied minors. They are in their mid- to late teens, I would say.

I’ve been invited to lead a series of 4 workshops with them. For this first session, I kept things pretty open. I knew very little about the group, or about the space, so wanted to be able to respond as we went along, rather than have a firm and highly structured plan. I also didn’t know what to expect from the cohort. The little I have read about MITA describes a highly stressful place, with young men who are potentially depressed, highly anxious, disengaged, maybe angry…. so I was working with a lot of unknowns.

MITA is situated in an outer suburb – about 45 minutes drive from my home. It is in an Army Barracks – a huge site with lots of different buildings and lots of cyclone fencing. You can drive straight into the site, but need to park and sign in at reception when you get to the Immigration Accommodation centre. After signing in, I was directed to drive further into the site, so that I could unload all my instruments as close to the workshop venue as possible.

I brought a big range of instruments with me – a djembe, a darabukkah, a conga, a big tub of mixed percussion, a glockenspiel, an autoharp, some temple blocks – probably three trips to and from the car! We worked in the Recreation Room, a large, carpeted space with table–tennis tables at one end. Young guys were hanging around, and as we brought instruments in, one or two began to play, tapping randomly.

The Activities Program officer (who’d set up the music workshops) brought some chairs into the space and we arranged these in a semi-circle, facing the collection of instruments and with our backs to the table-tennis tables. About eight guys wandered over to take part.

At first I took my lead from them. They picked up different instruments, tried them out, swapped with another person, watched my demonstrations, pulled more instruments out of the tub, and generally explored. One guy picked up the guitar, and focused hard on his fingers on the strings, as if trying to remember patterns learned long ago.

From these very loose beginnings, some structure emerged. One guy began to play a rhythm and I played along with him, copying his rhythm. Others joined in, playing drums and other instruments, and we were jamming. I tried a few cues – “One, two, three, four, STOP!” – and we’d all stop, and then on the next cue – “One, two, three, GO” – we’d start up again. A Vietnamese man on the glockenspiel was picking out melodies, using the rhythm from the drums but creating sequences. During the next STOP I introduced the idea of a SOLO to them. When we stopped, I’d point to one person to play a solo. The glockenspiel player did the first of these solos, but many others took their moment in the spotlight too.

I noticed the guitarist picking out a meek little riff in A minor. “Play it again!” I urged him. I don’t think he understood what I was saying. “Repeat!” I tried. “Again!” “Yes!” “More!”. The other guys understood and soon the guitarist did too. I wanted to see if we could start to add some melodic riffs to our playing.

Then the man on maracas started to sing along with the guitar. I turned my attention to him. “A song! Sing! Is it a Vietnamese song?”

He laughed. “Yes, yes, Vietnamese song!” and began singing again. However, he only seemed to sing a fragment of a phrase, and then stopped.

I got my clarinet out. For me, the fastest way to learn a melody is to figure it out on the clarinet. They all watched as I took the instrument out. I found the starting pitch of the song. “Sing it again,” I urged him. He sang, and I followed, and then I realised why they were laughing. Vietnamese song indeed! This was Lambada!

“Okay, great!” I said. “Let’s jam on Lambada!” I played, and the drummers drummed, the man on the maracas sang and the man on the glockenspiel played the melody too. Lambada must surely count as a truly international song these days.

That was our first jam. Next, I led them in a rendition of This Old Hammer, a great bluesy song that can be sung as an echo song and has very few lyrics to learn. Again, my man on the glock had the melody almost immediately. Even when I changed the key so that the autoharp could accompany it.

As time progressed, different people wandered away from the group, and others wandered up to join us. The demographic changed from majority Vietnamese to majority Afghani and Iranian (speaking Farsi). A new guy picked up the guitar and began to play each of the open strings one by one, very slowly. I went to show him a chord but he brushed me away, content to continue as he was.

There was a poignancy to the notes as he played them. I joined in on the clarinet, matching each of the pitches but holding the notes longer, and tapering the sound away at the end of each. I felt the energy in the room drop, as people began to stop what they were doing and listen to our improvised duet. Sometimes I matched the guitarist’s notes, other times I harmonised them. All the while, it remained a quiet, spacious, intimate improvisation. Watching the guitarist, I couldn’t tell if he had registered my involvement or not. He didn’t look up at me, or respond in any particular way to what I was doing, but he continued to play, up until the moment that he looked up, smiled and laughed at nothing in particular, moved onto something else and released his music (and listeners) into the air.

These guys knew each other’s language and knew many of the same songs. They sang in full voices, sometimes playing random accompaniments on the different instruments, but often content to just sing. I also played for them. “Your instrument is a sad instrument,” one solemn-faced young man told me. “It gives us a sad feeling.” I thought I knew what he meant. “I think the clarinet has a sound of remembering,” I told him. It was my way of saying nostalgic. He nodded. “Yes, it reminds us.” I played them Krunk, the song from Armenia about a bird being sent out into the world to call all the Armenians of the diaspora to return to their homeland. It’s a song about the pain of displacement. They fell quiet as they listened.

At the end of the song, the solemn-faced boy said, “It is like a song we have, a song from Iran.” He began to sing in an expressive, soulful voice, and the melodic phrases did indeed bear many similarities to Krunk.

I asked them to teach me some of the songs. One man was appointed scribe and wrote the words out, using English letters but Farsi sounds. I proposed an idea for the following week:

“Let’s choose 2 or 3 songs to work on – maybe songs from your country, songs from Australia” (“Yes, yes, songs from Australia,” they all agreed), “and we can present them to people in the Visitor Centre on my last day, in 4 weeks time.”

They liked this idea very much, so we now have a plan. I will bring my portable recorder next week (I’ll need to get special authorisation for this, but hopefully that will be granted) and record them singing their songs. Then I can learn them properly at home. (They tend to interrupt themselves and each other too frequently for me to be able to learn the songs properly during the workshops). My scribe also wrote down the names and artists of two songs, so that I can try and find them on the internet. I haven’t done this yet – it is a task for this week.

As for the Australian song, “Something about the Aboriginal people,” was the request from the group. I’ll have a think about what that could be during the week too.

It was a lovely afternoon. It followed a very organic pattern of playing, then chatting, then playing or singing some more. At one point, around 4pm, I asked if they were tired. “No!” they said, but one added, “Are you tired?”

“A little bit,” I admitted. So he made me a cup of tea, taking care to ask what kind of tea I would like, and if I wanted milk or sugar. So I felt welcomed in many ways that afternoon, and hope that the opportunity to play music together and sing was something that gave them lots of pleasure and comfort too. Music lets us connect to the whole parts of ourselves – not the outsider, not the refugee, not person waiting to find out his fate, not the teacher, not the student… just to whoever it is we are at our core. When life is filled with uncertainty, stress and fear, this is an important connection to maintain.

 

Video of the Toka Bo’ot event, East Timor

I’ve just uploaded another video from my East TImor residency. You can view it here:

This one was a true labour of love to edit – you’ll have to forgive a few odd transitions, and please admire all the segues that line up the musical phrases without skipping a beat, as I was working with very fragmented raw footage for this project!

Inclusive and participatory

How often are the hurdles to playing music in a group – like having a full chromatic scale under your fingers, or being able to read music – removed so that ensemble music experiences are truly inclusive and participatory?

“The aim of the jams,” I told my new orchestral musician recruits, “is to get everyone playing, with as little delay as possible.”

Yesterday’s Jams on Prokofiev, held at Federation Square, were a wonderful success. We had over 150 people take part across the two sessions, including lots of parents, and several adults taking part without children in tow, and the music was received with great delight.

I had two first-timers among the team of MSO musicians taking part, so I talked them through the process and in doing so, reminded myself of some of the things we have learned about these workshops that make them such a positive, affirming experience of ensemble playing for all the participants.

  • Be in the space fifteen minutes before start time, when the first people arrive. Say hello, gather a section of like instruments around you. Find out their names, encourage them to get out their instrument and start playing.
  • Give out a page of music at the registration table. This can be very simple (see my Noteflight score for an example of the pared-back music I give out). This gives the participants something to get busy doing as soon as they arrive – they can start checking out the part, and you (the group leader) will get a sense of their strengths and confidence as a player. Find out what they know, and what they might be able to learn from you in the session.
  • Watch the key signatures. Stick to keys that allow beginner string players to play on open strings only, and that transpose into simple keys for the transposing instruments. D major may be wonderful for strings, but it is awkward for beginner clarinets!
  • Some kids come along feeling very unsure that they will know enough to ‘jam with the MSO’. It’s often better to assess their playing by playing with them, rather than by asking them what grades they have done in their music exams!
  • I like to start with a groove – something rhythmically strong that encourages full commitment from everyone and hooks the youngest participants into a catchy rhythm.
  • Each time the group leader sets up an ‘inventing task’, turn to your group and ask for their input. Some groups will have participants who make lots of offers. Others will work more slowly. You can encourage input by asking very specific questions (“Which of these notes do you think we should start on?”) but also make your own offers, in order to keep the group energy flowing and engaged.
  • Get everyone playing as much as possible. Move through different sections of music so as to engage with the imagination and different skill bases, but aim to have as little ‘talk time’ as possible.
  • Finish with a final performance. It gives the participants a sense of how far they have come in just an hour.

Jam on the great classics

This week I’m hunting for Great Classical Riffs.

What are the pieces of classical music you’ve always wanted to jam along with? What are the riffs, melodies, rhythms and chord progressions that you’ve always wanted to pull out of an orchestral piece to turn into loops for improvising over?

I’m creating a Jam on three great classics for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on the 19th April. I’m still choosing the ‘moments’ of music to use. One definite is the Romance from Lietenant Kije, by Prokofiev. You probably know the tune – Sting borrowed it for the song ‘Russians’. It’s a lovely, solemn Russian melody in Aeloian mode.

Other ‘moments’ I’m thinking of including is the driving, rhythmic opening of the Dances of the Young Girls from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… but I’ve done a whole jam on The Rite of Spring before, so it’s not a new idea. There are some funky syncopated rhythms from The Soldier’s Tale (also by Stravinsky) that could work well…

A friend suggested the 6-8/3-4 rhythm of ‘America’ from West Side Story. I like the idea of this very much. A quote that is purely rhythmic could be teamed with a harmonic or melodic idea from another piece.

Music for jamming needs to be in a key that can be played on open strings by beginner string players… and also be in a key signature that doesn’t transpose into a tricky multiple-sharps key signature for the Bb instruments! It needs to be simple enough to be memorised quickly, and have sufficient interest to be looped so that people can solo and riff over the top of it.

What favourite musical ‘moments’ do other people have, from the classical music world?