Archive for the ‘musicians’ Tag

Learning to play together

I just completed a remount performance of the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble’s Petrushka-inspired composition on the weekend. We created the music in the July school holidays workshops, and then reworked it and performed on Saturday night at the Hamer Hall as part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Stravinsky Festival.

MSO ArtPlay Ensemble August 2013

The focus for the Ensemble in this project became about ensemble – playing together. It occurred to me, watching the group rehearse on Friday night when everyone very tired and not very focused (it was the end of the school week, middle of the year –tiredness before we even started the rehearsal was understandable!), that some in the group only have vague understanding of what it is to play as one of a group. When the energy is in sync and entrained throughout the group, it will carry everyone along with great forward momentum. But when the energy is more scattered, we need to be able to call upon people’s learned ensemble playing skills. If they aren’t well-established across the group, then that sense of ensemble and togetherness never quite locks in.

Ensemble skills are nuanced, and subtle. They involve great alertness to small changes in other people’s playing, an ability to imitate and match, to lead clearly and to follow exactly. Good ensemble players can establish a strong ‘flow’ within the group and maintain this, through focus and attention. Ensemble skills also encompass behavioural norms – understanding the social rules and patterns that govern a particular group and how it communicates and organises itself.

These are learned skills. They are the reason why an amazing soloist does not necessarily make an amazing orchestral musician. Children can learn these skills. Typically they are skills that are often learned over time through multiple experiences of playing with a group, a tacit knowledge that individuals may not realise they already know.  But they can also be taught, and highlighted in the rehearsal process.

Building an ensemble focus with warm-up tasks

We rehearsed again on Saturday afternoon, before the Saturday evening performance. We stood in a circle and I led a warm-up that focused people on imitating – copying very slow hand gestures, aiming to have all of use appearing to move in the same way at the same time. We also built up our physical awareness – our composition required everyone to move to other places in the performance space, so we practiced walking slowly, quietly, and with awareness, to new points in the circle, and then making small adjustments so that the circle was perfectly round and evenly spaced once again.

We played/performed the Plasticine Man, a light-hearted task that links a simple narrative to story-telling hand gestures, and vocal sound effects. It is a fun vocal warm-up that encourages people to use their voices freely and unselfconsciously. Children can embellish the story, adding elements and sounds and further dramatic events. However, for our purposes on Saturday, the focus was one of performing each of the vocal sounds accurately together. To do this, they had to watch for my breath cue, and maintain their focus in the silence that preceded it.

We tested our ability to respond quickly and work as a team. Everyone held hands and sent a fast, sharp hand squeeze around the circle one by one. We timed ourselves with a stop-watch, with the goal of improving our time with each reiteration of the game. We got faster each time, so the energy created by the game itself was enhanced by the positive energy that came from achieving a goal.

With my language too, I emphasised ensemble. Some children in the group have a tendency to hear an instruction, and then start playing immediately. “Wait,” I reminded them. “We are going to do it together. Watch for the cue.” And the looking began to happen more automatically. The focus was held. Tempos were steadied. Individuals became less self-focused and more group-focused. And they were having fun.

Fun, of course, is the magic of good ensemble experiences. It can be exhilarating to play music together when each person is right inside the sound, fully present with the group! And when it is your own music that they you are playing and sharing with an audience in a high-stakes event, it only adds to the sense of satisfaction and delight.


Hiding the music at the Arts Centre

On Friday I met with the Arts Centre production staff to make plans for the forthcoming Hidden Music workshops and performance at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

In Hidden Music children aged 9-13 compose music for specific locations, then perform their compositions for members of the public. However, there is a twist – the performances are hidden and the members of the public have to follow clues in order to find the performances. The children have to perform every time someone finds them.

ArtPlay - Gillian Howell Hidden Music WorkshopThe first Hidden Music project was at ArtPlay in 2012 (thanks City of Melbourne, for funding the project!). Children hid their performances on a stairway, in a book cubby, in an old shipping container, and in a clump of trees on the side of a hill (just behind the ArtPlay building). See some video footage here.

The Arts Centre Melbourne is presenting Hidden Music in the September school holidays. We will be in the Hamer Hall building, and have six glorious levels of formal rooms, stairways, escalators, cupboards, storage rooms, nooks and crannies from which to select our performances spaces.

Here are some of the options on Levels 5, 6 and 7 (Level 6 is street level):

Some of these spaces will take audience members into parts of the Hamer Hall that they don’t normally get to access. If we choose some of these stairwells, however, we’ll need to make sure the performers actually get found – there will be no chance of audible clues, as these are sound-locked spaces. I don’t want anyone languishing in cupboards, waiting to to get found so that they can play…

Here are some of the options on the lower levels:

I get pretty excited when I see rows of escalators and think of the ways these could be used in a site-specific composition – all that gliding and slow, gradual progression! I also love the thought of what a group of 9-13 year old musicians might make of the space-age green room with the gilt edges and white leather couches. To me it is very Barbarella. What clues will they give people to help them find the performance? And what music will they make to depict this fabulous space?

You’ll have to come along to the Hidden Music performances to find out. The performances are free and open to everyone, but places in the composition workshop are filling up fast, so please book your child in, and/or share this post with any one you think the project would interest!

Another group ‘graduates’

Every year, since 2006, I have directed a one-year composing ensemble program for the MSO and ArtPlay. It’s called the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble and I have written about it in numerous posts – it is a project that I feel enormously proud of. I love that the group of children we invite to take part go through a rigorous 2-day composing process not once, but three times throughout the year, and complement this with visits to orchestral concerts and rehearsals. They get incredibly confident in group-devising processes. They explore the music and compositional strategies of great composers, and take inspiration from this for their own pieces. They are aged just 8 to 13 years. They are fun, bright, open, curious and passionate about their music.

Today was the performance day for the last project for 2010. We performed music inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, one of history’s great story-tellers. We focused on the same four stories that Rimsky-Korsakov depicted in his symphonic work, and incorporated the two principal themes that occur throughout that work into each of our compositions.

As I did last year, I’ll reflect here on some of the musical journeys that I’ve seen different individuals in the group take over the course of this year:

  • Our young pianist, who is quirky, a bit serious, and very playful (she reminded all of us of Hermione Granger when we first met her), who had loads of creative ideas but often ‘choked’ in performance, getting nervous and stumbling over her part. Today, she had moved past that stage. She had a number of solos and exposed moments to play and she did this with confidence and calm. We saw her rise to the performance challenge this year, and develop sophisticated ensemble skills in the process.
  • The clarinetist, battling all sorts of life challenges, who just grew and grew in confidence with her playing each time we saw her. She always put her hand up to play a solo or improvise a line. In the first project she clamoured for additional support, but by the third project today she was a leader, never faltering in her focus, covering any memory slips with musically-informed improvisations, and holding herself proudly throughout the project. What a transition she has been through with her playing this year!
  • The young percussionist who wears two hearing aids, but has such a strong internal sense of rhythm and is well-disciplined in watching like a hawk for cues. Normally when a young percussionist turns up with a snare drum I start to feel nervous about what havoc they could wreak. But not our boy. He’s very young. And very keen – someone to watch. I hope they stay in touch with us.
  • The cellist who flew down from NSW to take part in the project every holidays. She is such a bright, talented girl – but my goodness, her sudden bursts of tears would take me by surprise! “Oh, she cries at everything,” her mother reassured me. “Reading – all the time. Listening to music. TV. Talking. Playing. All the time. Don’t worry about it.” But for all her occasionally highly-strung emotions, she would head home after each project and start writing her next composition on the back of her boarding pass. One of these won a prize in her local eisteddfod. There’s no program like this in their local area. Dad works for Qantas so they can fly at discounted rates, so they decided to prioritise her participation in this program.
  • In fact we had quite a few non-city participants in the Ensemble this year. Two were travelling from the Geelong/Western Victoria coastal region, and four or five were travelling from Kyneton/Bendigo in regional Victoria. Others were coming from outer suburban Melbourne, beyond Mount Dandenong. It’s a big travel-time commitment to make on the part of both the participants and the parents who get them to us.
  • The three flautists – each with different talents and skills, who all started strongly and have continued to shine. The shy 13-year-old who played his solos so fluidly and eloquently today. The gregarious boy who favours his piccolo over his flute and invents with so little self-consciousness – I would say he prefers improvising to reading from scores, such is his faith in his ability to respond in the moment. The red-haired girl with the beautiful tone and legato who performed her Sheherazade solos with enormous self-assuredness, accompanied by the whole ensemble.
  • The young violinist who put her hand up for every single improvised solo on offer, even though she had only been playing her violin a short time. Such confidence! and willingness to learn by participating and experimenting.

You can’t repeat a year in this one-year ensemble – the intake is too small and demand too high for us to offer a place to someone who has already taken part. Therefore we invite them all to be part of ‘Graduate Ensemble’ projects. The Graduate Ensemble can include anyone who has taken part in a one-year program, so there are well over 100 potential members at this stage, the oldest of whom are in their last year of school.

The program starts again next year. We offer a series of free, one-hour workshops at ArtPlay on a weekend at the start of Term 1. While these workshops are designed to be fun, engaging, and complete within themselves, they also act as a way of ‘auditioning’ possible candidates for the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble (read about this process here). In 2011 they will be on 5-6 February, just after I get back from Timor Leste. So if you are reading this and think the program would suit someone you know, please be sure to sign up for one of these workshops via ArtPlay.

Another Academy community project

My, I have a had a busy couple of weeks! The week before I went to Armidale, I led a composition project for a small group of Academy musicians with the orchestra at Elwood Primary School, one of the primary schools that is in the Academy’s local area, and a school with a very interesting instrumental music program. The school orchestra includes drum kit, electric bass and saxophones, recorders, flutes, clarinets, and some truly gun trumpeters. Quite an eclectic mix of instruments for a primary school. Lots of the initial comments among the Academy students was, “what a fantastic music program they have here! What cool stuff they are getting to do!” Etc.

One of the pieces the primary students already knew was Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, so I proposed to the Academy students that we use this piece as our compositional starting, and as a ‘way in’ to establish some playing alongside the kids.

We had 1 and a half days at the school. First we jammed on Chameleon, and got the kids working in sections and inventing new riffs to add to their arrangement. Then we split off into small groups, mixing all the instruments, and each group created a short piece that included a ‘chameleon-like transformation’ of some kind in the music. This was a deliberately ambiguous task. I choose these in order to set a task that is as open-ended as possible, so that we reduce the likelihood of students trying to ‘get it right’ and come up with the ‘right’ or ‘desired’ musical response. What does a chameleon-like transformation in a piece of music sound like? There are loads of possible answers.

Towards the end of the first day all the small groups came back together and played their pieces to each other. As we listened, we found various points in the pieces where we could include other instruments and players from other small groups. We developed each small-group piece in this way, and created a structure so that we could segue from one piece to the next without a gap, and arranged the pieces so that the whole ensemble played at critical points in each piece, adding tension, drama or complexity.

On our second morning, we focused again on Hancock’s Chameleon. We used my ‘paper-score’ method to arrange all the ideas we had explored in our jamming the previous day, and created a unique arrangement of the piece that included Hancock ideas, the music teacher’s ideas from his classroom arrangement, and the students’ riffs that they had invented the previous day. We laid the paper score out on the floor in front of the players and they read from this for the performance.

I only got one photo from the event as my camera ran out of battery. But if you look closely you can see pages from the paper score at my feet.

Happy Elwood students, happy Academy students. Lots of comments from the musicians I travelled with about the benefits to young players that come from inventing their own music and getting to participate in such a creative, open process.

Teaching artists, teaching artistry

One of my current gigs (new this year) is as Program Director for a new program of outreach and community projects at an academy for “exceptional young musicians”. I’m going to avoid naming the place – let’s call it The Academy.

It’s been an interesting year so far there. Interesting, because I’ve had to completely revise the training and project plans I had made (which I’d made according to the brief I was given by the Academy senior staff), in response to a quite extraordinary display of resistance from the students I was to work with.

To set the context, this Academy offers a highly specialised, individually-tailored professional performance program for just a handful (~50) of extremely talented music students. The audition process is very competitive, and Academy alumni have a pretty good track record of success in orchestral auditions, overseas competitions, and so on. The outreach and community program that I direct is a new program this year, and is joined by other ‘non-playing’ professional development programs that seek to ensure Academy musicians are suitably skilled in a broader area of musical work than just orchestral, chamber and solo performance.

It became apparent soon after I started work there that there was a lot of resistance/resentment to involvement in the outreach and community program, from a significant number of students. Discussion with some of the more articulate members of the cohort shed further light on this – anxiety among the players that such studies took them away from their practice; frustration that it was a compulsory program, that the sessions were awkwardly timed within an already-busy schedule; that it made no allowance for the range of skills that students might already be bringing with them to the Academy, such as teaching qualifications or experience, or involvement in performance programs directed towards young audiences. Continue reading

Does it get better than this?

Last night I went to hear the Schoenberg Ensemble perform, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Man, it was good! The sound from this band was extraordinary, their virtuosity had us enthralled. Andriesson’s Zilver, John Adams Chamber Symphony, Kagel’s Divertimento? Farce fur Ensemble, and then Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony op.9, taken at a cracking pace. It was a small audience, but incredibly appreciative. Long extended clapping ensued at the end of each half.

I think the thing that bowled me over the most was the sheer joy of their playing. They were just having such a great old time up there, playing this incredibly technically demanding music, but smiling away, exalting in their own and others’ lines.

Why can’t we see joyous performances like this more often? A colleague I bumped into at lunch today said, “We should remember that this is repertoire for them. They’ve played these incredibly demanding works loads of times, so there is a familiarity there that makes it more possible for one to relax into the performance…”

Ah, true. But then, I am not sure I see other orchestras smiling away as they play the gorgeous melodies and harmonies of Beethoven 6, for example. Which is repertoire performed pretty frequently.I don’t know. Perhaps for a lot of orchestras, playing concerts is just what they do, and it ceases to be special after awhile. Or the audience ceases to be of any great significance. Or they just get tired. Or bored. I don’t know. It’s a privilege, really…. to do that kind of work. Maybe if your life is contemporary music, you have to love it so much to begin with…. and then you just feel compelled to communicate that love.

Maybe it comes down to personalities. I don’t think there could have been a soul in the audience who did not fall a little bit in love with the violist in the Schoenberg Ensemble. Right from the moment she walked on stage she invited us to participate wholly in the music she was playing. She beamed at everyone – the conductor, her fellow musicians on the stage, people in the audience. We couldn’t take our eyes away from her for long. She was bringing out the best in everyone.

I think everyone could do with a shot of that kind of engaging, warm, joyfulness in their lives! Certainly we in the audience were all the better for it. So much so, I am planning to go and hear them again tonight.