Archive for the ‘music-making’ Tag

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.


ISME Community Music Activity commission, Corfu Town

The location for the Community Music Activity [CMA] commission seminar was well-chosen, to say the least! Could we ask for a more beautiful backdrop to our week of inspiring, stimulating and provocative conversations than this?

This little cove was just around the corner from our conference venue, the Ionian University’s Reading Society building, a small museum with a meeting room at the top that we reached via a winding staircase (having already climbed one set of stairs to get to the front door).

We had nearly forty different presentations throughout the week, as well as a poster session and a Cafe Discussion in which new ideas for research and partnerships were explored. More on that later.

Looking back, there were a number of themes or strands that evolved through the presentations and subsequent discussions. I’ll offer very brief summaries here, taken from the notes I made in the sessions at the time. One emerging theme was about school-based music educators learning from community music practice, and vice versa. We were strongly urged towards greater awareness and commitment to ‘artistic citizenship’ within music education practice, with ‘citizenship’ referring to meaningful action for the betterment of society. While some community music models adopt this ethic (such as many of the ‘intervention’ models), perhaps others, working within pre-existing structures such as community orchestras, brass bands, perhaps choirs (though less so, as community choirs often have a social change or social response agenda and have less hierarchical structures) could consider their work through this artistic citizenship lens. Music education in schools and other formal settings could also reflect on the influence of (or lack thereof) such an ethic or commitment to social good and the betterment of society in their work. Indeed, what are the values that drive your work?

Also within this strand came the call for greater entrepreneurship, as a process of value-creation within music-learning settings in schools and communities. When teachers and community music leaders approach a new environment the way an entrepreneur might, with questions such as, “What are my values? Who or what is the market? What are the opportunities here?”,  rather than with a specific outcome in mind (such as the formation of an orchestra, or an instrumental-teaching program along familiar lines), new program models can emerge. The presenter Michelle Snow gave the example of the Sistema Fellows program running out of the New England Conservatoire that trains a small group of musicians each year to go into under-served communities and engage people in ensemble experiences. Exactly what those experiences will be evolves over time, as the Fellows approach their designated communities with this entrepreneurial spirit and develop their work in response to what they find.

Things took an interesting turn when it was proposed that, given the importance of participatory music-making to the Community Music field, and that this lies in uncomfortable contrast to the emphasis on presentational music-making that music and/or music education faculties have within higher education settings, a music faculty might not be the right place to site Community Music. Many people see participatory music-making as presentational music-making done badly – the core values of two are often at odds with each other, but it is the presentational model that occupies prestige and recognition in the professional field, with Music Education working as its wing man, often focused on preparing students for presentational outcomes (think school band curriculum) and on delivering music appreciation outcomes to ensure students become good audience members for professional musicians.

So where else could the Community Music discipline be sited? The suggestion was to look at the growing field of Leisure and Recreation (it took me a while to digest this – I struggled to think of any faculties of ‘leisure and recreation’ in Australia – but apparently it is an area of considerable growth). If education is a pursuit of the development of self, and leisure is about undertaking activities that also develop the self and bring happiness and satisfaction in life, then we can start to see where Community Music could fit. Community Music could theorise on what ought to be – a model of values of inclusion, enjoyment and self-growth, a model of “how life can and should be lived”.

That’s some thoughts from the first part of my notebook. More from the Moleskin soon.

A new approach in a challenging school

I’m trying out some new ideas in my teaching at Pelican Primary School this term, influenced by some of my current reading. The two books I have on the go at the moment are Teaching for Musical Understanding (2nd edition) by Jackie Wiggins, and Music, Informal Learning, and the School: A new classroom pedagogy by Lucy Green.

A recommendation in Teaching for Musical Understanding, concerns the proposition that all music-learning experiences need to take place in the context of authentic, whole musical works (as opposed to music that has been contrived in order to demonstrate or explain something). These musical works – songs, orchestral pieces, solo works, world music, jazz, etc – are selected by the teacher because they demonstrate a particular idea or musical dimension that will act as a ‘doorway in’ for the students’ practical learning experiences. Meanwhile, an early stage in the pedagogy described in Green’s book has students working to reproduce songs of their own choice, working with CD recordings, in small groups, and independently of teacher guidance.**

Thus, I’ve selected a piece of recorded music for all but two of the middle and upper primary classes at Pelican Primary School to use as a stimulus for a range of learning experiences. I’ve used a mix of student suggestions and my own choices to come up with songs like Fireflies (Owl City), California Dreamin’ (Mamas and the Papas), and Three Little Birds  (Bob Marley).

One thing I’ve loved observing is how eagerly the students take hold of the song sheets and sing along. This is a high-level ESL [English as a Second Language] school with a large refugee  and new immigrant intake, and it is not unusual for some students to have a much lower reading level than is standard for their age group. However, following the words on the song sheet and singing along with the recording is a huge motivation for reading. They were completely engaged and inspired, this first week, keen to sing along with the words they could recognise, and keen to have their own copy of the words to take home.

With a song like California Dreamin’, I’ve asked them to notice the 2 groups of singers in the recording – the main group (or soloist) and the backing singers, who sing the ‘echo’ of each line. I get them to sing along with one part or the other, and suddenly they are having their first experience of part-singing, something that they have not been able to manage yet, when it is just them on their own with me and the guitar.

Pelican Primary School is not a straight-forward school environment – it is probably the most challenging school I teach in, and have ever taught in! It is challenging for all sorts of reasons – to do with behavioural issues and the way that the students engage with learning, and with each other. Their capacity to listen, to stay on task, and not seek distraction is incredibly limited, something that still can take me by surprise even now, after two years at the school.

Music is sometimes just too ‘invisible’ and abstract for them. They actually work best with very structured, formal, directed teaching with only a small amount of creative thinking or applying knowledge in a variety of contexts. By contrast, my approach as a teaching artist is to facilitate rich, multi-layered experiences, through a process of collaborative inquiry and exploration. I use a lot of informal learning approaches – building skills and understanding through a range of games, tasks, and creative projects that run across many weeks. This doesn’t really work at Pelican!

Therefore, perhaps the biggest challenge for me is in figuring out the most effective way to create meaningful music learning experiences for these students that work to their learning strengths. I’m always open to trying out new things, and always trying to deepen my understanding of this cohort and what they need from me. I’m cautiously optimistic about this new approach with CDs providing the musical context for our creative work and understanding of concepts and theory. I’ll describe more of what we do, and how it goes, further into the term.

**Of course both books have far more to say than this, and are inspiring, thought-provoking reading – highly recommended! However, I’ve limited myself to these points for the purposes of this blog post.

The nakedness of music-making

On Friday I taught a Professional Learning seminar on classroom composition to a small group of primary school teachers from around Victoria. One of the topics that came up was the fear that many people have in music-making.

It’s not necessarily a fear of the music-making itself, but the vulnerability that comes with it – that sense of revealing yourself, of not being good enough, of leaving yourself open to criticism.  Of being stripped bare, in some way. There is perhaps an inherent risk in music-making.

“Coming here today, I was worried I wouldn’t know enough,” one teacher confided. She added, “But it’s been good to find that wasn’t the case, and that there is lots I can do without having to be a music specialist first.”

Other teachers commented on the fear of the new – of having to step out of their comfort zones and be a beginner again in order to learn a new skill. “It’s a good reminder, though, of how our students must often feel,” one teacher suggested.

Music has a strange status in our culture – an artform that nearly everyone has a relationship with (in terms of favourite music and musicians to listen to, and in the way we build personal soundtracks to our lives) but that we are taught to distance ourselves from from an early age, as being something that is really only for the talented. Those that do get involved might be constantly challenging the little voices in their heads that compare them with others, tell them they don’t know enough, or chide them for trying to do this in the first place.

It’s a strange and uncomfortable thing, this insecurity. I wonder, does it ever truly end? I think about some of the professional musicians I’ve led training workshops with, and how so much of their discomfort about learning workshop skills and improvisation comes from a fear of ‘showing themselves up’, somehow (especially in front of their colleagues) – despite the tremendous expertise they have with their instruments, and musicianship in general.

Do other artforms engender as much fear? Do they feel as exposing? Do they bring forth the same kind of personal protective mechanisms? It is a reminder to those of us that teach and facilitate of the massive importance of the safety of the working space, by which I mean the way we establish an environment in which people feel able to let go of some of their personal protections in order to have some new musical experiences. And we need to ensure that every ‘event’ – every workshop, every class, every performance – brings with it a positive sense of success for the participants, some kind of feeling of exhilaration and wellness that will outweigh any fear they may have felt at the beginning or during the process, and bring them back again.

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.

Heartbeats and other useful musical motifs

I was teaching a class of MTeach students last week, who were working on group compositions inspired the old Selkie legends of Scotland and Ireland. I’d asked them to explore ways of depicting and utilising stillness and silence in their music.

As I listened to the work of one of the groups, I found myself wanting to suggest they add a ‘heartbeat’ rhythm on a low-pitched drum. We discussed this later, and I realised that for me, the heartbeat rhythm is an incredibly useful ‘wildcard’ in compositions. It can suggest:

  • stillness and quiet
  • increasing adrenaline
  • fear
  • thoughtfulness
  • drama and tension

and lots of other atmospheres.

Which led my to compose this post, where I will start listing some of the useful composing strategies I often suggest to groups, as effective and versatile musical content. Cliches? – maybe. Fillers? – sometimes they probably play this role. But they also have the capacity to hold an audience’s attention, to create atmosphere and a sense of tension or anticipation. Learning to play a heartbeat rhythm can teach a young player a lot about creating drama and tension through very simple repetition.

What other musical motifs can you think of, that can play a similarly versatile role, and that are within reach of even very young, beginning musicians? I have also thought about:

  • Drones
  • the interval of a perfect 5th (or a 4th, when played downwards. Think of Mahler 1…)
  • Tremolos

I’ll add more as I think of them. Please contribute any that you know are an important part of your own toolkit – we can compile a comprehensive list.

Lots going on!

These last few weeks have been soooo full. School holidays means school holiday projects with the orchestra. Plus a visit to Brisbane to see family up there. Plus other nice distractions in town… here is a summary:

ArtPlay Ensemble

Last week, in the second week of the holidays, the 2008 ArtPlay Ensemble convened for its first project of the year. We spent two days composing pieces inspired by Debussy’s Three Nocturnes. Here’s some of the compositional starting points we used:

  • I chose two very similar 4-note chords from the Debussy score for Nuages (the first of the three Nocturnes) and asked each child to choose two notes from each chord. They then played an oscillating pattern that moved from one note to the next. This created a similar effect to Debussy’s aural images of clouds floating across the sky.
  • Debussy’s Nuages seems to set up cloud images that are then have a shaft of light superimposed on them (my interpretation) – a musical interjection or motif that contrasts in colour and temperament to the cloud movement. Debussy’s often feature tritones. I divided the Ensemble up into 4 small groups. Each group took 2 tritone intervals and developed 2 possible shards of light that featured one of the tritones.
  • The groups then created their own arrangements of Nuages that used their cloud mode music and their shards of light.
  • Individuals from the Ensemble also improvised solos using the notes of the pentatonic scale featured by Debussy in the B-section of Nuages. For many it was their first experience of improvisation in performance.
  • We moved onto Fetes, the second of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Here the Ensemble created a rocking bass line in 9/8, and a series of vibrant melodies, all using notes from the Mixolydian scale on g. (Fetes often has a mixolydian colour to it). As a B-section, we took inspiration from Debussy’s passing procession and created our own processional music that started off quietly, suggestive of being far away in the distance, and gradually increased in volume, as it got closer.

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Listening and making

Last week I presented a talk at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), attended by students and staff of the Academy and members of the public. I spoke on The role of an elite musician in the community. It went pretty well, I felt, with some good discussion at the end that various members of the audience weighed into.

I’ll post my paper here very soon, but in the meantime some interesting points were raised that I felt required further discussion, in which two questioners made a distinction between music-making and music-listening. The first questioner suggested that these were two separate things (in particular when thinking about music education and the kinds of community-based roles elite musicians might play) . The second person, a student, made the comment that, while she loves to play, she doesn’t really like listening to music, and doesn’t enjoy going to concerts.

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