Archive for the ‘Jams’ 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)



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!

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.


Building “family capital” through music

I enjoyed reading this article from the Creativity Culture and Education website recently. It discusses the importance of families participating in arts and culture activities together and the benefits of inter-generational arts activity, but also describes some of the barriers that exist (unwittingly or not, on the part of the presenters) for families in getting involved in projects and events. I remember reading some Australia Council research sometime ago that described the way experiences in music-making that were shared with family members were more influential and powerful (in predicting involvement/engagement in the arts in the future) than those that were experienced in schools.

It was this statement that led me to develop the Jam project model that I present for the MSO each year in Federation Square. I wanted to create a music event that would be attractive and appropriate for people of all ages and all levels of experience, all playing together. This meant there needed to be entry points for all people – the wee ones who take part with a parent sitting beside them, those who are slightly older and able to work more independently but not yet learning an instrument, young kids of primary and secondary school ages who are pretty competent on their instrument (whether it be an orchestral instrument or band instrument, or rock band instrument…), adult musicians, adult non-musicians… We needed to offer them music that allowed for all these different levels of experience and skill, and present the workshop in such a way that all those different age groups would be engaged and hopefully challenged.

It’s quite a tall order, but I think we acquit it well! The Jams I lead for the MSO last an hour (the right amount of time for the youngest group of participants), and I bring in with me musical material that is accessible and highly engaging. I prepare a short score or part for each instrument so that they have something to look at when they first arrive and are warming up, and that they can take home with them afterward. There is always a team of MSO musicians on hand to play alongside the participants and make sure they feel comfortable with what we’re doing. The Jams with MSO are free, and held throughout the year.There is one coming up on Wednesday 30 June so if you are in Melbourne, grab your family and whatever instruments are to hand (pots and pans are welcome!) and come along and check it out.