Archive for the ‘music workshop’ Tag

St Mary’s College, Broome

St Mary's College BroomeAt St Mary’s College we asked the participants (all members of the primary school choir) what they’d like to write a song about. I wrote all their suggestions on the board and put it to a vote. During the voting process we realised that themes like “Broome’s multicultural mob”, “Broome culture”, “the Common Gate” [a part of Broome’s history from the time when the Aboriginal people were restricted from entering the town centre], and “Pearling industry” could all be incorporated into a song about community and history. We organised the different broad ideas into verses, chorus, and bridge, and assigned smaller groups the task of writing lyrics for one of these.

The choir divided into four lyric-writing groups – 2 groups for verses, one for the chorus, and one for the bridge. Tony and I moved from group to group, asking questions and helping them develop sentences. I asked them to start with sentences first (rather than trying to fashion their ideas into full-realised verses, and risk getting blocked or stuck too early on),and then we sculpted the sentences into verses, adding words or removing them to make each phrase scan and fit with the melodies that were evolving as we went.

Here’s what they wrote:

The Europeans came to Australia and messed with the Aboriginal law

They started big wars, families were divided

It was a very bad and awful time…

We go to the beach to see the prints

Of the dinosaurs from long ago

The landscape that it used to be is now Chinatown – busy and free!

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Japanese worked their breath away

Lifting pearl shells everyday

People came from all over the world

And now we’re stronger in every way

Broome’s become a place for people to stay.

We celebrate, we live the life

We stand as one, side by side

We look at the ocean, we see the light

We gaze at the sun with everyone.

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

Brand new faces from different places – My home, Broome

I’m Aboriginal – Spanish, Greek

I’m Aboriginal – German, Italian

I’m Aboriginal – Malaysian, Chinese,

I’m Aboriginal.

(Repeat chorus and fade out)

Lyric-writing groupsThe theme of Broome’s multicultural community arose because of the many different cultures represented in the choir population. There were several that didn’t get included in the song – Filipino, Indian, Maori, Japanese.

An interesting discussion emerged when the different lyric-writing groups came together to share what they’d written and set it to music. One or two people raised concerns about the accuracy of what had been written in the first verse, with regard to the idea of “laws”.

“You see, when the Europeans came to Australia, the Aboriginal people were just living in the bush,” explained one girl. “They didn’t have any laws.”

“Oh, they did have laws,” responded Tony. “It was a different system of laws, but they definitely had laws.”

“Laws don’t have to be rule-books,” I added. “Laws are really just about how a society organises itself so that it can live in harmony and everyone knows what’s expected of them. The Aboriginal people lived here in harmony for thousands and thousands of years. They must have had laws!”

At this point one of Aboriginal students in the group took up the argument, and spoke very emphatically. Firstly she stated, “It doesn’t matter if things are written down or not. They are still laws. You can just tell people the laws. They are still laws.” She went on to talk about the ways that the Aboriginal population suffered under the European systems and beliefs. “They judged everyone on the colours, the colours of the skin. And people whose skin was lighter were taken away. They were stolen, and they didn’t know their families or country after this.”

After this there was no more discussion about the first verse of the song. Later, the teachers expressed their interest in the conversation, and in the lyrics that were written. They said wryly that there would certainly be people in the Broome community who would take issue with the line, “it was a very bad and awful time”. Here in Australia, that is what is often called a “black arm band version of history” (ie. a version that focuses on negatives, rather than seeing the colonial era as a time of prosperity and important growth) – particularly by the previous Liberal-National Coalition government. I don’t hold with this view at all – colonial eras may have been prosperous times for some, but for the colonised, they were times of frequent brutality, force, coercion and extreme differences in power, when traditional ways of life were destroyed or hugely compromised and traditional knowledge and skills were undermined.

By the end of the day our song was ready to be recorded. In the recording we made on the portable Zoom H4n, you can hear the school bell ringing in the second-last chorus – we took it right up to the wire on this project!

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Using Noteflight in creative music projects

Are you familiar with Noteflight? Noteflight is web-based notation software that lets you create scores and play them back on your computer and it has recently brought a whole new level of musical understanding and student ownership to some of my classroom composing projects.

One of the ways that I build a class composition is by asking each child in the class to create a short riff/ostinato (1, 2 or 4 bars, usually) within a given key signature or using a pentatonic scale or mode; we then decide together how to combine these to make one long piece. We might write a list of who is playing and when, and rely on each individual to remember their own part (rather than notating each child’s invention separately), or we might use a flexible paper score, putting each child’s name on a single sheet of paper or card, then moving the cards around until we find an order/combination that we like.

Noteflight brings an extra dimension to these projects. I am able to create a real score using standard notation to show how the children’s riffs have been ordered and combined. I can add their names above their line of music when it begins. Best of all, I can play the score for them on the interactive whiteboard or via a data projector so that they can see and hear their composition as it progresses. As the cursor line moves along the staves, the music plays. We can even play along with the computer. In other projects, gaining this understanding of the whole piece – and where each person’s riff or ostinato fits into the larger context – can take several music classes to really establish. Noteflight clarifies everything by making it visual, and the children can immediately experience the whole piece in one sitting.

The formal score also gives an additional authenticity and validity to their work. It formalises their creation and gives it status, in the same way that framing children’s artwork, or publishing their stories and drawing in real books gives the work status and endorsement. The first time I used a Noteflight score with a class, I observed how eagerly the children looked for their own name, and how focused they were as they watched the music progress, mallets poised and ready to play. They felt incredibly proud to think that their music work had resulted in something as impressive-looking as this score!

http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2009/03/strangest-music-scores-part-2.html

Image found at http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2009/03/strangest-music-scores-part-2.html – a great story about weird and wonderful scores.

We use Noteflight as a practise tool. It encourages them to continue playing if they make a mistake. They hear how a small hesitation before they begin to play may mean they miss the downbeat – and they then learn how to manage this so that they can find their place in the piece. And, even though most of them don’t know how to read music, the Noteflight score helps them memorise the piece. Over a series of 2-3 lessons we become less reliant on Noteflight and spend more time practising away from it than with it, until it can be performed completely independently.

Unfortunately you can’t embed Noteflight scores on WordPress.com blogs. But if you follow the link below, it will take you to my most recent Noteflight score, a piece of music created by the Upper Primary class at the Language School. They will perform this work on Tuesday afternoon. It is a complex piece for a diverse group like this, many of whom are playing music in a group for the first time in their lives, but they have learned it, and memorised it. Hover the cursor/mouse over the top of the first bar so that a small orange ‘play’ triangle appears. Click on the triangle and enjoy our music!

http://www.noteflight.com/scores/view/a1cbe3c46a89f7a23ba7576070cefd8deaea9562

‘Hidden Music’ found at ArtPlay

Back in October I created a site-specific workshop/performance event for children called ‘Hidden Music’. It was a musical hide-and-seek game in which children composed original pieces for specific sites around the venue, ArtPlay. At performance time, they hid themselves away in their chosen site, only performing when they got found. It was a pretty magical day – here’s how it panned out:


We walked around the site in small groups, deciding where we’d most like to create a piece for performance.

We wrote riddles and clues to put in a program to help the audience find our sites and performances.

We wrote music that used the environment in some way – its physical attributes and space, or ambient sounds that could become part of our composition. One group positioned themselves on the side of a hill and decided to run up the hill several times throughout each of their performances. (They were very tired by the end).

After we’d finished composing, we did a dress rehearsal, walking to each of the sites in turn and seeing the other groups’ performances.

At 4.30pm the performances began. Parents and friends came along; we also invited families who were in the playground next door to ArtPlay at the time we were about to start. The Hidden Music children spent a few minutes going up to adults and children, describing the project, and inviting them to join in the musical hide-and-seek. Quite a lot of people decided to do this. They gathered in the foyer at ArtPlay and heard an explanation of how the performances would work.

Then the ‘finding’ began. Younger children raced around, excited to discover the performances as quickly as possible. There were four spaces altogether – two inside (on a staircase, and inside two ‘cubby houses’) and two outside (in an empty shipping container that happened to be available, and in the small ‘forest’ behind ArtPlay).

Musically, the pieces were very varied. The piece created on the staircase used the steps up and down as a kind of physical graphic score. One child would walk while their partner would play the notes assigned to each step they touched. The cubby house pieces played with antiphonal effects and distance, and the group in the forest created a multi-section piece that used a gong to signal the start of each section (which always involved them running further up the hill in order to perform it). The piece in the shipping container included a very loud, thunderous section that required the players to bash the sides of the container with their hands, feet, elbows – while playing their instruments! Very dexterous, and the children’s suggestion.

Each group performed their music 4-6 times, and with each repeat performance, their confidence and performance poise grew. By the end, they were adding things, changing things, improvising new sections – all without discussion or planning. They were so in sync and comfortable with each other, the music began to develop new turns, with the performers hearing, responding and intuiting where it was going. This is one of the great gifts of this kind of performance project. Children don’t often get to do multiple performances of the same material in quick succession, but when they do, they can make  tremendous leaps of musical understanding and confidence.

Hidden Music was such a joyous project! At the end of one of the performances, one child turned to the musician working with him and said, beaming, “I’m just having the best time!” Later, the children talked about the things they’d learned, and what they’d particularly enjoyed. You can hear some of their comments, as well as those of members of the audience, in the video below.

In 2013 Hidden Music will move on to the Arts Centre Melbourne, and in that enormous, iconic building with its many levels and corridors and corners and staircases I know we will find even more beautiful and unusual sites for performance.

Photos in this blog post are by Melbourne photographer Charlie Sublet (www.charliesublet.com). Hidden Music was funded by the City of Melbourne.

City Beats – kids making music in the city

Yesterday and today were the last days of the 2012 City Beats program, and all the children from the four disadvantaged schools we’ve worked with this year returned to ArtPlay to compose a final work with me and three Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians. In this year’s program we’ve been using the four classical elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air) to inspire our percussion and vocal compositions.

In each project, I’ve introduced the children to a particular technique for developing original material, and particular instruments that suit the character of the element we are focusing on. We started with Earth in Term 1, and worked with very grounded grooves and riffs, using djembes and xylophones. In Term 2, we shifted the focus to Water, and the children explored very resonant instruments, such as orchestral chimes and tam-tams. We also experimented with water as a percussion instrument, pouring, slapping, splashing, and striking metal instruments like bells before submerging them slowly into water and hearing the pitch change.

For Air, we introduced the children to harmonic whirlies, and wrote songs inspired by their stories of experiencing the air around them. Here is a clip of one such song – this song is a real ear-worm! But don’t let that put you off – press ‘play’ and listen as you read the rest of this article! The melody was created by listening for any fragments of tone patterns that emerged when several children played whirlies at the same time. You can also hear their 8-beat vocal patterns in the introduction.

(Go here to hear other songs created using this process).

In this week’s Fire workshop, we created short stories about ‘fire’ and decided collaboratively what should happen in the beginning, the middle and the end of the narrative. The children then divided into 3 groups, and created a short riff, basing it on a sentence or phrase that summarised their part of the story. They then arranged these riffs into short pieces. We performed these compositions to each other, and then finished the 2-hour workshop with a spontaneous jam, bring back material from the 3 previous workshops.

The beauty of the City Beats program is that the children come back every term, and we get to develop very solid relationships with them. We observe some beautiful learning journeys through the year – such as one girl, who in the first workshop was so self-conscious and resistant that she wouldn’t even say her own name during the warm-up activities. In today’s workshop she was a different person, completely relaxed, enthusiastic, contributing ideas, playing a range of instruments, and just having a great time. All the groups display a wonderful ease with creating their own music now, and are far more aware of the others in the group, many of them locking into grooves and harmonies with little assistance.

City Beats is a program for disadvantaged and under-served schools where the children are unlikely to be able to access any extra-curricular music opportunities. We hope that it serves as a starting point or a pathway for those children who want to do more music – bringing them into the city (for many this is a rarity in itself), introducing them to ArtPlay, to me, and to the MSO, and giving them confidence in their musical skills. We tell them about other workshop opportunities or scholarships that are coming up, and hope that the City Beats experience encourages them to take the next step.

Joyful learning and creating

Today I want to share and celebrate some of the joyful musical learning that is a hallmark of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble program. Our last  workshop for 2012 took place recently, and as always, the combination of playful exploration, creative invention, links to orchestral repertoire, and carefully-chosen musical challenges revealed just how exciting it can be to be a young beginning musician with a big imagination.

Before you read any further, click ‘play’ on this Soundcloud file, so that you have last week’s creation playing in the background as you read:

(If the embedded file is not working for you, you can start the recording in a new page/tab here).

Let’s look at some of the learning that goes on:

Before the third and final workshop period for 2012, the children had attended 3 different MSO concerts, exposing them to the visual and aural intensity of a large orchestral piece being performed live. For this last project, the focus was on Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and at the concert, I asked the children to pay particular attention to the second movement, a “lopsided waltz” in 5/4.

Learning 1 – Focused, thoughtful listening to unfamiliar music

At the start of the workshop, the children reported on the 5/4 time signature (I’d asked them to work out what meter they thought it was in). They also noticed the structure (“in the middle it was a different melody, and then the first melody came back again”) – ternary form.

We then used these observations in our composing, for example, asking each group to work in 5/4 or to make a “feature of 5” (interpreting that instruction however they wanted, not necessarily in the time signature), and to use ternary form. One young cellist noticed in the concert that Tchaikovsky gave the cellos the melody first, so his small group also opted to give the cellos the melody first, before re-stating it in other instruments.

Composing music makes children stronger and more focused listeners. Their experience in making musical choices gives them insights into what those choices are, and makes them listen out for decisions the composer has made. It becomes a reflexive loop – the more they listen to new music in this way, the more ideas they get for their next composition experience, which feeds into the way they listen, which feeds into the way they compose… and so on.

Learning 2: Taking responsibility for the notes

Each child works out their own part in the composing process. I remind the MSO musicians to not “problem-solve” for the children, rather, to give them parameters from which to make their own choices. The music is memorised rather than written down (yes, the music you are listening was performed by the Ensemble from memory), which means that each children needs to remember their own part – their MSO musician won’t necessarily remember what everyone in the group was playing.

This might seem a risky way of doing it but the fact that the children are actively involved in making their own choices about what to play means that the memorisation process starts immediately the choice is made. If they forget their part, they can always create a new one, I remind them. So it is no great pressure, but it is their responsibility. It means too, that the music is theirs. It is not imposed, or someone else’s idea. They become invested in the music and take ownership of it, and this is reflected in the way that they play it.

Learning 3: Acute ensemble awareness

Freed from reading their part from a score or page, the children’s eyes and ears are wide open. The musical structure progresses through various cues – musical cues and conductor cues – all of which are worked out and learned together. This is the focus of the second workshop day – while the first day of a 2-day project is spent in small groups, composing and inventing, the second day is spent as a whole ensemble, working through each of the small group creations and  drawing them together into one large composition.

The second day is intense and hard work. We go through each piece in detail, finding sections of music that would benefit from having more players join (eg. in order to enhance a dramatic crescendo), and then teach the children in the other groups the part (or get them to create their own according to given parameters). More memorisation, more choices! And lots of sitting quietly and listening.

The benefit is that the children are involved in deciding the inner workings of the music, and play an active role throughout the piece. They observe me and the MSO musicians, and individuals among the children, problem-solve as we figure out the best way to deliver the different cues that we need.

The result is an incredibly focused, tuned-in, alert group of performers who remain inside the music for the whole piece. The intensity of their focus is a characteristic of the Ensemble that is always commented on by audience members. It means that they are sensitive to all sorts of aural and visual cues – including those that take place when something doesn’t quite go according to plan. They learn to trust the cues and the leaders, and to hear from the music where things are up to. It’s a very intuitive ensemble skill.

Learning 4: Personal challenges

The Ensemble attracts a wide range of playing abilities, because we accept members on their personalities and imaginations ahead of their playing ability. Some are therefore almost total beginners, while others are incredibly accomplished. Each Ensemble member establishes their own learning goals – we don’t ask them what these are, but the way they participate in the workshops and respond to set tasks gives some clues. In their end of year feedback, two of the young musicians shared these personal challenges:

“Looking at the audience when I played my solos felt very hard for me.  I didn’t quite overcome this but I got better at it.”

“I learned about listening to others ideas and seeing how these became music.”

“I have learnt many things – to be brave enough to put forward ideas, to trust each other, to have inner creativity, and above all to COUNT BEATS CAREFULLY.”

Learning 5: The importance of fun

This is perhaps more of a significant learning for the adults. The MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops happen during school holidays and everyone who takes part does so because they want to be there. I build in as much fun and lightness as I can. Yes, we are involved in a fairly intense and fast-paced process, but it’s vitally important that everyone feels happy at the end of it, satisfied and not too tired! The social relationships that the children build over the year are incredibly important (we know from previous years that these friendships last a long time and that the children often cross paths in other musical projects later in life). ArtPlay is next door to a wonderful modern children’s playground, and many children nominate the time they spend playing outside as another highlight of the project.

Therefore, joy, laughter, playful ways into composing and ensemble music, an emphasis on abilities and what is already known with some new challenges thrown in (as are relevant to the context of the project), are crucial characteristics and components, alongside the children’s musical development. We know that the more enjoyment they experience, the greater their engagement. The greater their engagement, they more they will learn. The more they learn, the more satisfaction they feel. The more satisfaction, the greater the motivation to be part of the next creative project. Which leads to lively, dynamic creative musicians, music-makers and music-lovers. Which is good for all of us in society!

About the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble:

In this annual program, 27 children aged 9-12 work alongside Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians to create and perform their own music. I created the program in 2006 for the MSO and ArtPlay and have directed it ever since – this year’s was my 7th Ensemble! The program’s focus is on children composing, and developing their ideas by hearing the MSO perform in concert. Each workshop period lasts for an intensive 2 days. That means that the music you are listening to was created, rehearsed and performed over just nine hours.

Read here to learn more about how children are selected to be part of the program each year. Workshops for the 2013 Ensemble will take place at ArtPlay on 2-3 February 2013.

Read  here for a description of the Ensemble’s Pines of Rome project, July 2012.

Do you know a young musician aged 9-13 who would like to be part of this program? Forward them this blog post and get them to join my mailing list for workshop updates!

Being “not very good”

It’s interesting – and perturbing – to be reminded how early the self-criticism and judgement can set in when you are learning to play an instrument.”Can I play my saxophone today Gillian?” asked one grade 5 girl during this week’s City Beats workshops at ArtPlay. Of course the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”, and she put her instrument together and set off with her small group to compose a short piece about leaves being whipped up by the wind (Melbourne has been very windy this week).

When I came to see how they were going a short time later, she’d created a 5-note phrase, but she wasn’t looking all that happy about it. I asked her to teach it to me so that we could play it together (me on clarinet).

She played it to me, but stopped abruptly and said apologetically, “I’m not very good you know.”

“It sounds pretty good,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re a beginner right now. When did you start playing?”

“In April,” she said.

“That’s only a couple of months ago!” I pointed out to her. “Here you are making up a melody and playing away from notation – you are doing just fine!”

Somewhere along the line, musical skills seem to have acquired a concerning status – that music is something you are supposed to be ‘good’ at, even when you are just starting. And if we think we are not ‘good’ at it, we ought to warn people, and apologise for our feeble efforts in advance. Does this judgement come from music teachers, or from other people in our orbit, people who are perhaps less tolerant of the sounds of a beginner? Or are we equally critical of our own efforts in all sorts of endeavours, as beginners or otherwise? Do we apologise in advance for our poor cooking (before we present a meal to someone), our poor driving (as we give someone a lift somewhere), our dreadful handwriting or poor drawing, our inability to tell a good joke?

City Beats is part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s outreach program, so perhaps the student suddenly felt self-conscious that she might not be ‘good enough’ for the MSO. Being ‘good enough’ to participate in something is another common fear or self-applied assessment, and it is one that I am constantly trying to respond to in the Community Jams that I lead. For example, I make sure that the music we play is in a key that will suit beginners on any instrument – open strings, first notes on woodwind and brass instruments, etc. Otherwise, it can be a long time into a person’s musical life before they are considered ‘good enough’ to play in a large ensemble, and so they miss out on all the additional benefits and motivating factors of music as social life.

In his excellent book Performance making: A manual for music workshops, Graeme Leak offers a succinct reminder:

  • Skills improve with experience
  • Experience breeds confidence
  • Lack of experience is not equal to a lack of ability

For my young saxophone-playing friend, the most important thing is that she is enjoying playing, and that this enjoyment motivates her to continue playing so that she builds up her experience, knowing that skills and ability will be constantly growing. By the end of our 2 hour session on Monday she had mastered her melody and was playing it with great confidence. We’d added a dramatic trill at the end, and she played this with appropriate gusto. I caught her eye. “That’s a great sound you are making – look at how much improvement you’ve made in just this one session!” I told her. She beamed at me. She already knew.

What’s in a name?

When a child first arrives in a new school, one of the first questions they will be asked is, “What is your name?” If the child is a recently-arrived immigrant or refugee from a non-English-speaking background, that question is one they will quickly learn to recognise and answer.

Names can help enormously in the settling-in process for a recently-arrived child. In Language School, I do a lot of games and warm-up activities using names. It’s a way for me to establish that in this environment, each person is important, each person is noticed, each person has something to contribute. Frequently, new students take their time to use their voice in the strange new environment they find themselves in at Language School. But names are words they know how to say, especially when motivated by the fun of taking part in a game (it’s also a way for new students to learn and practice saying the names of other students in the class). In this way, the name games become a way to build up new children’s oral language confidence. Continue reading

Wah-wah tubes

At the end of 2011 the Language School acquired a bit of extra funding for new instruments and invited my input as to what they should buy. I felt we were well supplied with hand-drums and wooden sounds (xylophones, wood blocks, etc), so suggested a number of metal instruments with very resonant, beautiful tones.

They bought an alto metalaphone (Optimum Percussion brand, with a very well-designed dampening bar), a set of 8 alto chime bars (same as the ones I used in Timor-Leste), and a set of 5 wah-wah tubes.

Last Tuesday was my first day back at the Language School, and we got to unwrap the wah-wah tubes from their packaging and try them out, as you can see in this short clip.

They are very effective, aren’t they? I love the fact that the mallets are quite small – no matter how strenuously the children try to whack the tubes, the sound remains gentle, and the rubber head of the mallet just bounces gently off the metal, no stress, no strain. After a while, they stop trying to beat it so hard and just get absorbed in the warm, shimmering sounds.

New York Jazz Club 2

Back in October, I led the second KEY composition workshop, with Australian Art Orchestra musicians Jordan Murray and Philip Rex. We were taking inspiration from the music of New York jazz trombonist Josh Roseman (who owns his own jazz club), so I called the project New York Jazz Club, and people signed up the moment bookings opened.

We created two pieces – a laid-back A-minor groove, and a frantic, schizophrenic contemporary piece that jumped between genres, styles and pastiche with a randomness that would be right at home in any downtown New York club.

Take a look:

Music in immigration detention, day 4

I’ve now given my fourth and final workshop at the immigration detention centre. John (guitarist and music volunteer) and I returned to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation on Saturday afternoon equipped with a range of  guitar, drums and other percussion, and together with the young men there we worked our way through our repertoire of music from Iran and Afghanistan, with some spontaneous improvisations along the way.

Once again, the workshop set its own pace in a very organic way. It had a sense of ease and familiarity to it, I felt, perhaps as a result of the warm relationships that we’ve been building over these last few weeks. We were greeted by Hussein, the singer, and Arun, the young man who’d started learning some guitar chords in the previous workshop. For the first time, no-one moved to take the drums, or pull percussion out of the crates. Today, the mood was more reflective, and when the music began in its usual emergent, un-led way, it was with everyone playing guitar. We showed Hussein the two chords (E minor and A sus 2) that we’d worked with the previous week, and the four of us strummed in rhythm together, getting a rich full sound from the guitars.

A new person wandered in – Mustafa, another young man from Afghanistan. He left again almost immediately but returned minutes later with his own guitar. It had a broken string but John found a way to fix that, and then got him started on the chords.

I think it was Hussein breaking into song that might have moved us away from the chords and onto some percussion. I think he might have started with a song that we didn’t already know but that invited some energetic drumming. From that first casual improvisation we began to move through the material we already knew from previous weeks.

Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete

Soltane Ghalbhe?” I suggested to Hussein. He looked back at me, and countered with “Saghe”.

Soltane,” I said again, thinking that perhaps my pronunciation was wrong and he hadn’t understood me. “Saghe,” he repeated, with a persuasive smile and perhaps some steely determination. Who was I to argue with such enthusiasm? So we launched into Saghe emshab mesle harshab ektiaram dastete.

We needed to change the key this week – we’d been playing it in the same key as the CD but it was too high for Hussein. Easy for John on guitar to adjust of course! But it moved it into an awkward key signature for me and when we got to the instrumental break I realised that I hadn’t quite assimilated the new key properly. I broke off and Hussein looked at me in bemusement. “What, what?” he asked, gesturing at me and at his friends in mock dismay.

This halt in proceedings meant another song got started, and I worried we wouldn’t get to do Saghe with everyone (I confess, it is a favourite of mine as it took quite a bit of learning). Still, this new song sounded fun. When I sat back down again I asked Hussein, “Can we sing the new song again?”, hoping I could learn it.  He gave me the quizzical look that I now know he always gives me when I suggest doing something again. “What would we want to do that for?” it seems to ask. Every now and then he humours me with these strange requests but that day wasn’t one of those times. Never mind. I tried out the clarinet solo for Saghe in the new key, the new song got discarded, and we were ready to get going.

John started the song with a short rhythmic intro, and then Hussein began singing, with the clarinet also playing the tune. The rest of the guys (including John) joined in on the chorus ‘response’ and we sounded pretty good, pretty tight! It still moves at a fantastic pace and it’s tricky to keep the 6/8 feeling going, but overall we were a much more aware ensemble this week.

Soltane Galbhe

From there, we moved to Soltane Ghalbhe (King of Hearts).

I didn’t really like this song when I first hunted it down on YouTube. On my first couple of listens it sounded like one of the overblown, full-orchestra, grandiose versions of folk songs that were so popular in Bosnia at the time I worked there. However, since we started singing it each week at MITA, I’ve developed a great fondness for it. The melody has a sense of yearning or heartache in its phrases, and it feels like it has a powerful emotional resonance for the guys, who always sing it in full voice. John played the guitar, Arun provided an additional E minor chord drone, and I played the melody on the glockenspiel, accompanying the singers.

There was a point where I think the singers felt the song had ended, but I kept it going on the clarinet, playing the melody once more. As I experienced in my first week at MITA, in very expressive, emotion-filled musical moments such as this, the clarinet has a way of pulling the focus of the group inwards in quite an intense way. The room becomes stiller, and they give their attention to the instrument and the sound.

Soltane Ghalbha has a verse (played 2 times) followed by a chorus, higher in pitch and with a sense of emotion and yearning. The singers joined in again when I reached this point and together we played/sang through to the end of the song. I caught Hussein’s eye at one point, his face was serious as he sang, and it was clear to me that this song, at this moment, had a huge sense of poignancy for them. There was silence after it ended, and then they all breathed out, or slightly nodded or shook their heads, making connection with each other in response to the song, no words exchanged.

Bia ke borem ba Mazar

The remainder of the workshop was focused on Bia ke borem ba Mazar, that I now know is about a well-known pilgrimage city in Afghanistan, home to a very beautiful mosque.You can see it in this video:

With four guitars at our disposal (two of John’s, one of mine, and one belonging to Mustafa) we decided to teach the guys how to play the chords for this song.

We taught the chords one at a time, and labelled each as ‘chord 1’, ‘chord 2’, ‘chord 3, and ‘chord 4’. Arun was a quick learner, as was Hussein. They got used to watching our fingers to check the chord shape, and then checking in on each other’s fingers in order to stay together. They picked up on the way I was numbering the strings of the guitar as a way of explaining each of the chords (eg. A minor, our ‘chord 1’, uses strings 2, 4 and 3) and began to repeat these strings of numbers to themselves as a way of remembering the different fingerings. One of the MITA staff members lent us a marker and we drew up some big chord diagrams and labelled these too.

Meanwhile, Mustafa was keen to learn the glockenspiel part. We worked through the first three phrases (which are a melodic sequence) slowly. Once he’d got these memorised we added the fourth phrase. This took more than an hour of work on his part, I’d say, and it was extraordinary to see how focused he was. He gave himself barely a break, and played it over and over again, phrase by phrase.

Once the guitarists had the four chords ready, we started to put the two lines together. We would pause on the penultimate note of each phrase to give the guitarists time to change to the next chord, and gradually these pauses became shorter until the chord changes were happening more or less in time.

I played the clarinet along with Mustafa, providing a guide. By now too, we’d been joined by a number of other guys (the ones we usually see towards the end of the session – I think of them as the ‘late-risers’), and they were happy to sing along. Our group garnered quite a bit of attention from people wandering through the building, including interpreters and other MITA staff – I think we sounded pretty impressive by that stage.

Numbers began to dwindle in the last half-hour. Hussein and Arun stood up, shook our hands and wandered off – they had computer time booked, I think, and didn’t want to lose it. Some more guys came to join us.

One was the authoritative young man who’d informed us of the price of keyboards in Pakistani marketplaces, back in week 2. He is an interesting person, with such a hunger for intellectual stimulation, I think. He picked up the descant recorder that I’d brought along (hoping to see Javid, the recorder player from the previous week) and began to play. He clearly had experience with wind instruments as he played with a strong tone, and moved his fingers in intricate repetitive patterns, sliding his fingers to create quarter-tones and fluttering them on and off the holes to create a kind of vibrato effect. I improvised along with him for a while, mimicking his phrases, and adding echo-lines.

After a while, he stopped, took the recorder from his mouth and said sadly, “But, this instrument is no good. It’s not a good sound.” I agreed with him – this was a plastic recorder, and definitely had its limitations! Still, he did more with it than many. I could imagine him playing a wooden instrument.

Later he went to the kitchen to make tea – “Pakistani-style tea!” he told me proudly. I watched as he filled two cups 2/3 full of milk, and put it in the microwave to boil, then put three tea-bags in a third cup, filled it with boiling water in the urn and added this to the microwave too. When everything was boiled and brewing, he poured the tea into the cups of milk, which was now frothy and thoroughly boiled, added sugar, gave one to me and carried the second one out to give to John.

Our session ended on time today, because everyone left! As I said, it had its own organic shape to it, from start to finish. We never suggested doing the concert in the Visitor Centre. There was no activity officer working with us today to facilitate it, but in any case, it didn’t feel necessary. I loved the focused, studious learning energy that we tapped into in this session. The frantic, almost competitive noise and energy of earlier sessions was transformed into something calmer, more focused and collaborative.

This was the last of my booked workshops at MITA. Hopefully they will decide to continue them – it feels to me like it is too early to stop. The guys are only just getting used to the fact that we come along every Saturday afternoon, and what they can expect from, and ask of, the workshops. Maybe in time, the range of what we do will broaden, to include more improvisation, perhaps some songwriting, as well as the performances of music from their countries. I think it has been a good experience for everyone so far. It certainly has been for me and John.